A socialist’s view on liberal progressive criticisms of EA

As someone who identifies as a socialist, politically to the left of many progressive critics of EA, I wanted to outline where I disagree with some liberal progressives criticisms of EA.

Obviously, I am just one socialist and my views probably differ a fair amount from the average socialist.

My view of “liberal progressive criticisms of EA” is mostly based on tweets, but I think this article is a good example of what I categorise as a liberal progressive criticism of EA: https://​​www.technologyreview.com/​​2022/​​10/​​17/​​1060967/​​effective-altruism-growth/​​.

Explicit and Implicit Prioritisation

Some liberal progressive criticisms of EA treat opportunity costs and prioritisation as things that EA has created which unfairly pit good causes against one another.

All political movements have limited resources and must prioritise certain issues. Often, individuals aligned with political movements do not realise that they are prioritising certain issues over others, or do not want to recognise this reality, because deeming some good causes less worthy than other good causes is deeply emotionally uncomfortable for most people.

EAs are less uncomfortable with this because they are used to prioritisation, and prioritise between causes explicitly rather than implicitly.

I think many liberal progressives focused on issues like student loan in Western countries do not recognise, or do not want to recognise, that they are prioritising this issue over vaccinating the world’s poorest children against disease. However, EAs prioritising existential risks generally explicitly recognise and state that they are prioritising this over global health.

This leads some critics to a double standard of criticising those who explicitly prioritise issues over global health in favour of those who implicitly prioritise other issues over global health, despite the impacts on global health being the same.

Scope Insensitivity

EAs are generally aware of scope insensitivity.

If asked to compare issues, it is likely that liberal progressives would at least agree that global health should in theory be prioritised over issues such as student loans or better healthcare for poorer Westerners. However, liberal progressives will likely still not prioritise pandemic preparedness and global health sufficiently even in theory, because of scope insensitivity and failures to understand the gulf in impact between initiatives focused on poorer Westerners vs the global poor.

Differences in Priorities and Neglectedness

Liberal progressivism is a much more successful ideology /​ movement than EA, in terms of reach and influence. EA claims to do the most good, but adherents of many ideologies and movements expect that they are doing the most good too, and are likely surprised when EA’s cause priorities do not reflect their own. They may also simply critique EA out of disagreement between their priorities and EA’s priorities.

But EA priorities differing from the priorities of mainstream political movements is a systematic feature of EA, because EA focuses on neglected issues. If liberal progressivism or conservatism sufficiently prioritised AI safety, pandemic preparedness, global health or factory farming, there is a good chance that EA would switch to new priorities.

EA does not focus on the “most important” issues—it focuses on the issues where additional time or money will have the largest social impact.

Localism, Internationalism and Xenophobia

My view of liberal progressivism is that it largely embraces localism with a preference for local resources being used to solve local problems by local actors.

However, the world is very unequal. The areas with the best resources and the most skilled actors to deploy them are also the areas with the least severe problems. The areas with the most severe problems have the fewest resources and the least skilled actors to deploy them. A preference for localism over internationalism would likely exacerbate international inequalities.

This contrasts with the internationalist view in EA, with distant resources being used to solve local problems via collaboration between distant actors and local actors, but usually with the distant resource-holders setting priorities based on what they believe will benefit locals the most using evidence and reasoning.

Localist views also implicitly devalue the lives of foreigners. I find that localist liberal progressives draw vivid, human images of beneficiaries of charity in western countries, while relegating foreign beneficiaries of charities to faceless statistics.

Cause priorities in Western liberal progressivism also implicitly place much lower value on the lives of foreigners than EA does—overseas development funding seems to be much lower down the list of priorities than student debt relief!

(As someone who spent their childhood in a middle income country, this deeply upsets me because it reminds me that some people on “my side” of the political spectrum would implicitly value my life a lot less had I not immigrated to the West.)

Binary View of Conservatism vs Liberal Progressivism

Some views on EA see it as a branch of political conservatism, since EA does not fit in neatly with liberal progressivism. I think this stems from viewing the world through a binary lens of liberal progressivism vs conservatism. Since EA doesn’t seem like liberal progressivism, some people think it must be conservatism, and for people who dislike conservatism, EA must therefore be bad. This is despite EA significantly contributing to Biden’s win in 2020.

Guilt by Association and Double Standards

Effective altruism is associated with a lot of people. Under whatever definition of “morally bad” you have, some of those people are morally bad. Liberal progressives use EA’s associations with Peter Thiel and Elon Musk to categorise EA as conservative. But of course, any influential ideology is associated with some morally bad people, including ideologies like socialism (the examples for socialism are obviously way worse than many other ideologies) and liberal progressivism. I think guilt by association is *generally* an unfair way to criticise a movement or ideology.

EDIT at 122 upvotes:

White Saviourism

I also think a poorly thought out view on white saviourism feeds into liberal progressivism’s liking for localism.

I think this view is derived from concerns I share—that some white Westerners have done harm abroad while claiming to be doing good or aiming to do good, some white Westerners have used opportunities to do good abroad as a way to feel good about themselves rather than to benefit others and some white Westerners have cariacatured poor Africans and South Asians as lacking agency, which feeds into racism against black and brown people in Western countries.

I think some see localism as a solution to this problem, but because I think localism exacerbates international inequality and doesn’t really tackle extreme poverty (which I think is a worse problem than white saviourism), I think EA style evidence-based development is a better solution.

Knowledge about International Inequality

I think many liberal progressives are simply unaware of the extent of international wealth inequality, and may be surprised if they used Giving What We Can’s “How Rich am I?” calculator or used the Dollar Street tool on gapminder.com. I think EAs are much more aware of international inequality, so are more internationalist and less localist than liberal progressives.

Better criticisms of EA from further to the political left coming soon!