Effective Altruism is a Question (not an ideology)

What is the definition of Effective Altruism? What claims does it make? What do you have to believe or do, to be an Effective Altruist?

I don’t think that any of these questions make sense.

It’s not surprising that we ask them: if you asked those questions about feminism or secularism, Islamism or libertarianism, the answers you would get would be relevant and illuminating. Different proponents of the same movement might give you slightly different answers, but synthesising the answers of several people would give you a pretty good feeling for the core of the movement.

But each of these movements is answering a question. Should men and women be equal? (Yes.) What role should the church play in governance? (None.) What kind of government should we have? (One based on Islamic law.) How big a role should government play in people’s private lives? (A small one.)

Effective Altruism isn’t like this. Effective Altruism is asking a question, something like:

“How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?”

There are some excellent introductions to Effective Altruism out there. They often outline common conclusions that Effective-Altruism-style thinking leads to: things like earning to give, or favouring interventions in poorer countries over those in richer countries. This makes sense—Effective Altruism does seem to imply that those things are a good idea—but it doesn’t make the conclusions part of the core of the movement.

What does this mean for how we think and talk about Effective Altruism?

Reframing Effective Altruism as a question has some pretty significant implications. These aren’t necessarily new – some people already act on the points below. But I think they are worth thinking about explicitly.

1. We should try to avoid calling ourselves “effective altruists”

Feminist, secularist, Islamist, environmentalist… it’s not surprising that people who think Effective Altruism is interesting and important want to switch the “-ism” into an “-ist”, and use it to refer to themselves. The linguistic part of our brain does it automatically.

But there’s a big problem with this. “Effective Altruism” is a carefully and cleverly chosen name, and it describes its own core question succinctly. But it does this by combining a common adjective with a common noun, which means that changing the last syllable gives you not an identifier, but a truth claim.

“I am an effective altruist” may sound to the speaker like “I think Effective Altruism is really important”, but to the listener, it sounds like “I perform selfless acts in a manner that is successful, efficient, fruitful or efficacious.” (Thesauruses are fun!)

Effective Altruism is already a slightly impudent name, since its claim to be a ground-breaking idea rests on the premise that other altruism is ineffective.

Calling oneself an effective altruist is much worse. As well as provoking scepticism or hostility, it automatically leads into questions like “Can I [x] and still be an effective altruist?” “How much do I have to donate to be an effective altruist?” “How does an effective altruist justify spending money on anything beyond bare survival?” These questions feel like they should have meaningful answers, but trying to answer them probably won’t get us very far.

Alternative descriptors include “aspiring effective altruist”, “interested in Effective Altruism”, “member of the Effective Altruism movement”… What do you think of those options? Do you have others? When could it still be appropriate to use “effective altruist”?

2. Our suggested actions and causes are best guesses, not core ideas

It’s extremely important that Effective Altruism does get translated into actions in the real world. To date, the most concrete of concrete suggestions come from GiveWell, in the form of charity recommendations. GiveWell itself is extremely good at revising its recommendations in line with the best information and analysis available to them. They never claim that cash transfers or deworming are part of their key agenda.

Effective Altruism enthusiasts who support common EA causes like animal rights, extreme poverty reduction or the welfare of future generations need to keep this in the back of their minds. It is not coincidental that these causes are prominent within Effective Altruism – each does seem to offer significant opportunities to do good.

But they can only be so prominent while they appear to be areas where a great positive impact can be made. As soon as our understanding of what can best make the world a better place changes, our actions and priorities must also change.

This also means that...

3. We can honestly tell others that we want to be persuaded that their cause is better

It’s very tempting, having found the Effective Altruism movement, to think that you have discovered the Way To Fix The World and need only share it with others to make everything better. But this just isn’t the case.

We don’t know how to think about political change. We can’t measure the long term effects of increased education for poor children. We have no good way to compare the potential gains from researching cures with the immediate gains of treatment.

So when someone new to Effective Altruism starts talking about the cause they find most important – especially if it’s someone you think is thoughtful and intelligent – don’t brush it off, or tell them that the Best Thing To Do has already been found and their thing is obviously worse. Ask them about it!

It’s really unusual for someone who supports a movement to actively want to change their mind. But that’s the position that every aspiring Effective Altruist is in.

Anyone who can help us answer the question we care most about is a valuable ally. We can and should tell anyone who disagrees with our object-level beliefs that we really, truly want to be persuaded to think otherwise. This will not only make it easier for them to take us seriously—it will also increase the chances that we direct our efforts well.

In short: thinking of Effective Altruism as a question rather than a particular set of beliefs or policies has some interesting and useful implications. It makes questions of what “counts” as an Effective Altruist or an Effective Altruism organisation moot – if you’re honestly trying to figure out how to do the most good, that’s that. It shows that Effective Altruism isn’t all about donating to health interventions in Africa. It reminds us that we still don’t really know how to be effective altruists.

I can imagine a hypothetical future in which I don’t agree with the set of people that identify with the “EA movement”. But I can’t imagine a future where I’m not trying to figure out how to answer the question “How can I do the most good?”