The Outside Critics of Effective Altruism

Note: if you’ve come here be­cause you would like to give your first im­pres­sion of effec­tive al­tru­ism, then in­tro­duc­tions are here and here.

Note2: Robin Han­son has out­lined some prob­lems with ex­pos­ing mis­al­ign­ment be­tween oth­ers’ ac­tions and pro­fessed be­liefs about char­ity.


To­day, Robin Han­son wrote a blog post that ex­plains the im­por­tance of out­side crit­i­cism.

Friendly lo­cal crit­i­cism isn’t usu­ally di­rected at try­ing to show a wider au­di­ence flaws in your ar­gu­ments. If your au­di­ence won’t no­tice a flaw, your friendly lo­cal crit­ics have lit­tle in­cen­tive to point it out. If your au­di­ence cared about flaws in your ar­gu­ments, they’d pre­fer to hear you in a con­text where they can ex­pect to hear mo­ti­vated ca­pa­ble out­side crit­ics point out flaws


If you are the one pre­sent­ing ar­gu­ments, and if you didn’t try to en­sure available crit­ics, then oth­ers can rea­son­ably con­clude that you don’t care much about per­suad­ing your au­di­ence that your ar­gu­ment lacks hid­den flaws.

This raises the ques­tion: who are the best crit­ics of effec­tive al­tru­ism?

Ben Kuhn has given some crit­i­cism but he’s an in­sider. (Since coun­tered by Katja.) Geuss has writ­ten some helpful crit­i­cism but he’s also in­volved with effec­tive giv­ing. Giles has passed on some thoughts from a friend. Th­ese crit­ics have been heroic but they are few in num­ber. It figures, as most of us aren’t in­cen­tived to say bad things about a move­ment with which we af­fili­ate, and if we were forced to, we might still pull some punches.

So what about out­siders? Well, 80,000 Hours have re­ceived some crit­i­cism on earn­ing to give. They also de­bated some so­cial­ists. But these dis­cus­sions were brief and nar­rowly fo­cussed clashes be­tween en­trenched poli­ti­cal ide­olo­gies. Others have tar­geted us for crit­i­cism that was so vit­ri­olic that it was hard to find the con­struc­tive parts, such as William Scham­bra, Ken Berger and Robert Penna and the always sar­cas­tic Ra­tion­alWiki. Edit: also some crit­i­cism by Scott Walter.

So sev­eral years into our move­ment, that’s all we have to show for crit­i­cism. A few in­sid­ers and a few fa­nat­ics? It’s not to say we can’t har­vest some in­sights from there—by god we should try. But one would hope we have more.

If we cast the net wider, War­ren’s son Peter Buffett has de­bated William MacAskill on the effec­tive­ness of char­ity, which is kind-of cool. There are more gen­eral aid crit­ics: William Easterly, who is a fairly thought­ful economist and Dam­bisa Moyo, who I know less about. But these they don’t re­ally get to the heart of what we care about—if most aid is in­effec­tive, then it would just be im­por­tant to re­search it even harder.

Alter­na­tively, we can look at more nar­rowly fo­cused crit­ics. LessWrong is of­ten men­tioned as a use­ful source for crit­i­cism, and it has use­fully challenged philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tions held by some effec­tive al­tru­ists. Its founder, Eliezer Yud­kowsky has challenged he­do­nis­tic util­i­tar­i­anism and some forms of moral re­al­ism in the Fun The­ory se­quence, the enig­matic (or merely mi­s­un­der­stood) Me­taethics se­quence and the fic­tion­al­ised dilemma Three Wor­lds Col­lide. But these mostly ad­dress util­i­tar­i­ans and spare other effec­tive al­tru­ists. Of course, Eliezer no out­sider to effec­tive al­tru­ism—he played some part in found­ing it. The most up­voted post on LessWrong of all time was in fact feed­back from Holden Karnofsky about its spon­sor-or­gani­sa­tion MIRI. Again, the rele­vance of this to most EAs is a stretch.

In turn, Holden Karnofsky has re­cieved sug­ges­tions for GiveWell might re­act to philo­soph­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions by LessWrong vet­er­ans like Paul Chris­ti­ano, Carl Shul­man, Eliezer and Nick Beck­stead. Again, all in­sid­ers.

So here’s how I sum up our prob­lem. Al­most all of our crit­ics are in­sid­ers. Bar­ring a cou­ple of heroic at­tempts at self-crit­i­cism, we’ve pri­mar­ily at­tracted crit­i­cism about donat­ing and earn­ing to give. We’ve also offended a cou­ple of fa­nat­ics, and I don’t have a strong view on whether we’ve learned from those. This is un­sur­pris­ing. Tak­ing self-crit­i­cism is hard and en­dors­ing it or writ­ing it is harder. Eliezer would say it feels like shoot­ing one of your own men. Scott Siskind says, “Crit­i­ciz­ing the in-group is a re­ally difficult pro­ject I’ve barely be­gun to build the men­tal skills nec­es­sary to even con­sider. I can think of crit­i­cisms of my own tribe. Im­por­tant crit­i­cisms, true ones. But the thought of writ­ing them makes my blood boil.”

But crit­i­cism seems es­pe­cially im­por­tant now as effec­tive al­tru­ism is grow­ing fast, our cul­ture is start­ing to con­soli­date on the Face­book group and here and as we model it in the pop­u­lar talks and in­tro­duc­tory ma­te­ri­als that we give to new com­mu­nity mem­bers.

To de­velop the effec­tive al­tru­ist move­ment, it’s es­sen­tial that we ask peo­ple how we’ve failed, or how our ideas are in­ad­e­quate.

So an im­por­tant challenge for all of us is to find bet­ter crit­ics.

Let me know if there’s any big crit­icm that I’ve missed, or if you know some­one who can en­gage with and poke holes in our ideas.

Re­lated: The per­spec­tives on Effec­tive Altru­ism we Don’t Hear by Jess Whit­tle­stone. The Eva­po­ra­tive Cool­ing of Group Beliefs