Thanks, Max, this is interesting.
Donating 10% of one’s income to GiveWell charities, prioritizing to reduce chicken consumption over reducing beef consumption, and similar ‘individual’ actions by EAs that at first glance seem optimized for effectiveness are valuable almost entirely for their ‘symbolic’ and indirect benefits such as signalling and maintaining community norms.
Suppose that it is true that the value of those actions comes almost entirely from their symbolic benefits. If so, then a further question is whether those symbolic benefits are dependent on the belief that that is not the case; i.e. the belief that the value of those actions, on the contrary, largely comes from their direct and non-symbolic effects. (Analogously to how indirect benefits of a religion on well-being or community cohesion may be dependent on the false belief that the religion’s metaphysical claims are true.) It could be that making it widely known that the value of those actions comes almost entirely from their symbolic benefits would undermine those benefits (maybe even turn them to harms; e.g. because knowingly doing something with low direct benefits for symbolic reasons would be seen as hypocritical). Whether that’s the case depends on the social context and doesn’t seem straightforward to determine.
I agree this is a non-obvious question. There is a good reason why consequentialists at least since Sidgwick have asked to what extent the correct moral theory might imply to keep its own principles secret.
Yes, though it seems to me that EAs largely think one shouldn’t (cf. that Integrity is one of “the guiding principles of effective altruism” as understood by a number of organisations). (Not that you would suggest otherwise.)
A tangentially related comment. What symbolic benefits or harms our actions have will be dependent on our norms, and these norms will to at least some extent be malleable. Jason Brennan has argued that we should judge such symbolic norms by their consequences.
If you’ve read Markets without Limits or “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” you’ve seen one of the moves I end up making here. We imbue the right to vote with all sorts of symbolic value–we treat it is a metaphorical badge of equality and full membership. But we don’t have to do that. The rest of you could and should think of political power the way I do, that having the right to vote has no more inherent special status than a plumbing license. Further, I argue that we can judge semiotic/symbolic norms by their consequences. In this case, if it turns out that epistocracy produces more substantively just results than democracy, this would mean we’re obligated to change the semiotics we attach to the right to vote, not that we’re obligated to stick with democracy because the right to vote has special meaning. I push hard on the claim that it’s probably just a contingent social construction that we imbue the right to vote with symbolic value. At least, no one has successfully shown otherwise.
So, we shouldn’t just take symbolic benefits into account when we prioritise what action to take, but we should also consider whether to change our symbolic norms, so that the symbolic benefits (which are a consequence of those norms) change. Brennan argues that if epistocracy produces greater direct benefits than democracy, then we should change our symbolic norms so that democracy doesn’t yield greater symbolic benefits than epistocracy. Similarly, one could argue that if some effective altruist intervention produces greater direct benefits than some other effective altruist intervention (say diet change), then we should change our symbolic norms so that the latter doesn’t yield greater symbolic benefits than the former.
[Edit: I realise now that the last paragraph in your above comment touches on these issues.]