The EA movement’s values are drifting. You’re allowed to stay put.

Context: A slew of slightly disorganized thoughts I’ve had in mind for some time, but I’m not sure how obvious the ideas are to others. Relatively unpolished but posting anyway.

Years ago, I did a research project on value drift in EA. One of the things I asked participants is what would make them leave the movement. A couple of them mentioned the possibility of the EA movement’s values drifting.

At the time, this seemed kind of weird to me. Where could EA values drift to anyway? The only two values I could think of that define EA are effectiveness and altruism, and it seemed weird that we wouldn’t notice if one or both fell through.

As I’ve watched the movement change and grow over the past six years, I’ve realized it’s a little more complicated than that. There are lots of different ways people’s values affect how they pursue Effective Altruism. And I can’t help but notice that the values of the core of the EA movement are shifting. I’m hardly the first person to point out that things are changing, but most of what I’ve seen focuses on the increased funding. I see a few more differences:

  • Longtermism — and perhaps implicitly, x-risk avoidance — as a dominant value, if not the only value. (This one’s been elaborated on at length already.)

  • Less risk aversion. EA’s drastically increased involvement in policy and politics seems like the most obvious example, but the poor optics of highly-paid junior roles at “altruistic” nonprofits is an underrated risk, in my opinion, too.

  • Similarly, less proportion of funding towards evidence-backed ideas, and more funding for long-shot projects, of which much or most of the expected value comes from a small chance of big success.

  • Less impartiality. This is the one that concerns me the most. As more funding goes to community-building, a lot of money seems to be going to luxuries EAs don’t need, which feels very far from EA’s origins.

I’m not saying these changes are all bad, but they certainly do not reflect the values of the movement as a whole, and I want things to stay that way. But I worry that as the movement moves more and more firmly toward these values, others might be ostracized for staying where the movement was ten years, five years, or even one year ago.

My main point is: I think EAs think that leaving EA is value drift, and value drift is bad, and therefore leaving EA is a bad thing. But with the changes we’re seeing, people might be leaving EA as a means of staying within their values. And that’s okay.

By no means do I think that old EA values are superior to new ones. I’m grateful for the people challenging the status quo in EA and leading to progress. But I also want to make sure we still value the community members who don’t change their minds because of what’s trending in EA, and who still hold the values that we thought were good values 10 years ago and are likely still good values today.