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?”