Why not to rush to translate effective altruism into other languages

Over the last year, I’ve been do­ing re­search into the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween effec­tive al­tru­ism in China (see our re­cent ar­ti­cle on the topic). I par­ti­ci­pated in a re­treat in Hong Kong on this topic, and over­saw the fund­ing and men­tor­ing of some­one to work full-time on re­search and ad­vis­ing to help Western or­gani­sa­tions learn about the coun­try. I also speak ba­sic con­ver­sa­tional Chi­nese, have lived for al­most a year in the coun­try, and was heav­ily in­volved in our first efforts to pro­mote effec­tive al­tru­ism in the West.

All this has made me very cau­tious about try­ing to trans­late effec­tive al­tru­ism ma­te­ri­als into Chi­nese, or do broad based out­reach in the coun­try.

I think many of the ar­gu­ments be­hind this po­si­tion also ap­ply to trans­lat­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism ma­te­ri­als into other lan­guages. So, I think most efforts to do this trans­la­tion work should prob­a­bly be de­layed. The more differ­ent the lan­guage, cul­ture and poli­tics, the longer we should wait.

In­stead, I think that efforts to ex­pand effec­tive al­tru­ism into other lan­guages should ini­tially fo­cus on per­son-to-per­son out­reach to a small num­ber of peo­ple with key ex­per­tise.

In the rest of this post, I out­line four rea­sons why, and sketch an al­ter­na­tive ap­proach.

1) Do­ing mass out­reach in an­other lan­guage cre­ates ir­re­versible “lock in”

We made many mis­takes do­ing out­reach in the UK and USA, which have been difficult to un­wind. For in­stance, even to­day many peo­ple think 80,000 Hours is pri­mar­ily about earn­ing to give, de­spite us say­ing many times we don’t think earn­ing to give is typ­i­cally the high­est-im­pact op­tion.

In this way, any kind of broad based out­reach is risky be­cause it’s hard to re­verse. Once your mes­sage is out there, it tends to stick around for years, so if you get the mes­sage wrong, you’ve harmed years of fu­ture efforts. We call this the risk of “lock in”.

Lock in is partly caused be­cause once there are web­sites and me­dia ar­ti­cles about you, they stick around. But it’s also be­cause first im­pres­sions are difficult to shift.

The ex­is­tence of lock in means it’s worth de­lay­ing broad based out­reach to in­crease the chance of get­ting the mes­sages right first time.

China faces es­pe­cially high risk of lock in, be­cause you also face the risk of gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship, but the con­sid­er­a­tion ap­plies in any lan­guage.

2) It’s very difficult to trans­late effec­tive altruism

There’s a huge amount we still don’t un­der­stand about how to ex­plain effec­tive al­tru­ism in English, and trans­lat­ing it into a differ­ent lan­guage cre­ates a whole host of other prob­lems.

Mak­ing trans­la­tions with the right nu­ance is difficult. For in­stance, the di­rect Chi­nese trans­la­tion of “effec­tive al­tru­ism” that was ini­tially used (有效利他主义) had the fol­low­ing prob­lems:

1. Used a term for “al­tru­ism” that im­plied a great deal of self-sac­ri­fice.

2. Sounds ob­vi­ously for­eign, which we ex­pect would make it less ap­peal­ing.

3. Sounds like a poli­ti­cal ide­ol­ogy, which may not be viewed pos­i­tively by the gov­ern­ment.

Like­wise, one of the pos­si­ble trans­la­tions of “ex­is­ten­tial risk” (生存危机) is very close to the the name of a com­puter game (生化危机), so doesn’t have the cred­i­bil­ity one might want.

What’s more, each cul­ture is differ­ent, and ideas of­ten need to be pre­sented in differ­ent ways de­pend­ing on the con­text. For in­stance, Chi­nese writ­ing makes a much greater use of his­tor­i­cal analo­gies and an­cient quotes than similar English writ­ing. Rather than quote Peter Singer, we might con­sider quot­ing Mozi—ar­guably the ear­liest con­se­quen­tial­ist philoso­pher in his­tory who in wrote around 400 BC of the im­por­tance of “uni­ver­sal con­cern” () to­wards all peo­ple.

Like­wise, many ma­te­ri­als in the West fo­cus on the value of donat­ing to char­i­ties in Africa, but in­ter­na­tion­ally fo­cused philan­thropy is much rarer in China, and the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has pro­hibited for­eign non­profit or­gani­sa­tions fundrais­ing in the coun­try, so this doesn’t seem like a promis­ing route.

The ideas can also com­bine in un­ex­pected ways with the lo­cal cul­ture, lead­ing to sur­pris­ing re­sults. For in­stance, effec­tive al­tru­ism cul­ture is fairly differ­ent in Oxford, the Bay Area and the Ger­man-speak­ing world.

It’s un­likely we’ll suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate these kinds of prob­lems un­less we have peo­ple who are both ex­cel­lent writ­ers and mar­keters in the new lan­guage and have an in-depth un­der­stand­ing of effec­tive al­tru­ism as it cur­rently ex­ists. But these kinds of peo­ple are of­ten in short sup­ply, and it would be bet­ter to wait un­til we find some.

This prob­lem is greater the more cul­turally differ­ent the coun­try of the new lan­guage is, so the greater the differ­ence the longer we should wait to trans­late. My guess is that French is rel­a­tively safe (though likely still worth de­lay­ing), while we should wait longest to trans­late and pro­mote ma­te­ri­als in Chi­nese, Ja­panese, Rus­sian and Ara­bic.

3) Ex­ist­ing English lan­guage ma­te­ri­als are of­ten out of date

Our views have changed sig­nifi­cantly in just the last cou­ple of years, so many ex­ist­ing ma­te­ri­als don’t re­flect our cur­rent views.

For in­stance, per­son­ally, I think Do­ing Good Bet­ter is too fo­cused on donat­ing to char­ity, con­tribut­ing to the widely re­peated as­ser­tion that effec­tive al­tru­ism is “about how to donate to effec­tive char­i­ties,” when ac­tu­ally it’s about all ways to do good, and where we think de­ci­sions about your ca­reer or policy change are of­ten more im­por­tant than de­ci­sions about where to donate.

Like­wise, Do­ing Good Bet­ter is fo­cused on global health and short-term is­sues, when to­day we think global catas­trophic risks, emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and long-term is­sues are more ur­gent.

Trans­lat­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism into a new lan­guage gives us a chance to cor­rect out­dated views and avoid lock in with those old views, and it’s a shame to waste that op­por­tu­nity by di­rectly trans­lat­ing old ma­te­ri­als.

4) Mass out­reach is not a good way to pro­mote effec­tive al­tru­ism in general

The ideas of effec­tive al­tru­ism are un­usu­ally com­plex, and mass out­reach tends to over­sim­plify them, lead­ing to mi­s­un­der­stand­ings get­ting locked in. We still have a lot of work to do work­ing out how best to frame the ideas in English, and this favours small-scale out­reach where you can get rapid feed­back on how well you’re be­ing un­der­stood.

What’s more, it’s usu­ally higher-im­pact to have a small num­ber of highly in­volved peo­ple than hun­dreds of are merely aware of the ideas, or only par­ti­ci­pat­ing in a su­perfi­cial way. This is be­cause im­pact is a product of how much effort some­one in­vests and how effec­tive their efforts are. A highly en­gaged per­son might ex­ert 10-times the effort (e.g. donate 20% rather than 2%) and work 10-times more effec­tively, mak­ing for 100-times the im­pact.

More con­cretely, if you’re run­ning a lo­cal group, then find­ing one other ded­i­cated vol­un­teer can mean the differ­ence be­tween the group sur­viv­ing and failing, which is more im­por­tant than hav­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple who at­tend events but don’t help out. Like­wise, find­ing one per­son who speaks the lan­guage and re­ally gets the ideas, or has knowl­edge rele­vant to a top prob­lem area, is more use­ful than hav­ing thou­sands of peo­ple know about the ideas in a su­perfi­cial way.

For both rea­sons, we think it’s usu­ally bet­ter to fo­cus on in-depth out­reach to a small num­ber of peo­ple, ideally through per­son-to-per­son dis­cus­sions, rather than widely pro­moted short-form con­tent or other mass mar­ket­ing.

This can feel a bit coun­ter­in­tu­itive. We find that peo­ple new to build­ing the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity of­ten think they should fo­cus on get­ting me­dia at­ten­tion, invit­ing fa­mous speak­ers to events, and “part­ner­ships” with pres­ti­gious groups. But these ap­proaches don’t nor­mally yield as many re­sults as build­ing strong per­son-to-per­son re­la­tion­ships with gen­uinely en­thu­si­as­tic peo­ple, and they also pose greater risks.

If writ­ten ma­te­ri­als are used, then it’s bet­ter to fo­cus on books, aca­demic ar­ti­cles and pod­casts aimed at a niche au­di­ence. Read more about the “fidelity model, and “how valuable is move­ment growth, which ar­gues that we should fo­cus on how at­trac­tive the ideas are be­fore spread­ing them widely. The ap­proach we ad­vo­cate here also has similar­i­ties with Y Com­bi­na­tor’sdo things that don’t scale ad­vice.

What should we do in­stead?

Rather than “trans­lat­ing” effec­tive al­tru­ism into new lan­guages, it seems bet­ter to think in terms of cre­at­ing a lo­cal move­ment from scratch that’s in­spired by the ideas of effec­tive al­tru­ism, but is highly adapted to the lo­cal con­text. Imag­ine that Will MacAskill was Chi­nese: then what would he have writ­ten?

To do this well, we’ll need peo­ple who are both ex­perts in the lo­cal cul­ture and effec­tive al­tru­ism in the West. We’ll also need peo­ple who are ex­cel­lent writer and com­mu­ni­ca­tors in the new lan­guage.

Ini­tial efforts to ex­pand effec­tive al­tru­ism into new lan­guages should fo­cus on mak­ing strong con­nec­tions with a small num­ber of peo­ple who have rele­vant ex­per­tise, via per­son-to-per­son out­reach in­stead of mass me­dia.

In­stead of cre­at­ing ir­re­versible risks, this strat­egy has two benefits.

First, it has a sig­nifi­cant short-term im­pact, be­cause find­ing even a small num­ber of re­ally en­gaged com­mu­nity mem­bers is valuable.

Se­cond, it puts us in a bet­ter po­si­tion to do out­reach in the fu­ture, be­cause these ini­tial con­nec­tions will bet­ter un­der­stand the new lan­guage and cul­ture, en­abling bet­ter trans­la­tions and out­reach in the fu­ture.

One coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is that you face a chicken and egg prob­lem. Without mass out­reach, you could ar­gue that it’s hard to find any­one in­ter­ested in the ideas, or gain cred­i­bil­ity. How­ever, I don’t think this ar­gu­ment holds up.

The re­cent sur­vey of the com­mu­nity, showed that the me­dia has played a com­par­a­tively small role in get­ting peo­ple in­volved. Rather, the biggest sin­gle en­try route was per­sonal refer­ral. Some of these en­trances into the com­mu­nity might have been aided by the ex­is­tence of me­dia, but I sus­pect many could have hap­pened with­out.

For this rea­son, I ex­pect that it’s pos­si­ble to start get­ting peo­ple in­volved in new coun­tries with more per­son-to-per­son out­reach. This would mean speak­ing to and ar­rang­ing smalls events with (i) friends (ii) ex­ist­ing com­mu­nity mem­bers who speak the new lan­guage, and (iii) con­nec­tions of con­nec­tions from the pre­vi­ous two groups.

Beyond this, you could find more peo­ple by tar­get­ing lec­tures and dis­cus­sion groups at es­pe­cially promis­ing groups. With these, it’s bet­ter to have a small event where the ideas are ac­cu­rately ex­pressed than one with a well-known speaker who doesn’t quite get what effec­tive al­tru­ism is about.

Once you have an ini­tial com­mu­nity of around 100 peo­ple, you could start cre­at­ing writ­ten ma­te­ri­als to sup­port these efforts. But these ma­te­ri­als would ini­tially be tested on peo­ple you already know rather than pro­moted widely. If you need more cred­i­bil­ity to sup­port these efforts, rather than seek new press cov­er­age, you could men­tion the achieve­ments of effec­tive al­tru­ism in other coun­tries.

Only af­ter sig­nifi­cant test­ing would you re­lease pub­lic writ­ten ma­te­ri­als. Even then, it would be bet­ter to fo­cus on in-depth ma­te­ri­als like books and pod­casts, rather than short-form me­dia ar­ti­cles.

Trans­lat­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism into new lan­guages has the po­ten­tial to have a tremen­dous im­pact, but could also spoil fu­ture efforts if done badly, slow­ing efforts by many years. If we start with in-depth, tar­geted, in-per­son out­reach, we can make sig­nifi­cant progress while re­duc­ing these risks.