Some quick notes on “effective altruism”


  • I have some concerns about the “effective altruism” branding of the community.

  • I recently posted them as a comment, and some people encouraged me to share them as a full post instead, which I’m now doing.

  • I think this conversation is most likely not particularly useful or important to have right now, but there’s some small chance it could be pretty valuable.

  • This post is based on my personal intuition and anecdotal evidence. I would put more trust in well-run surveys of the right kinds of people or other more reliable sources of evidence.

“Effective Altruism” sounds self-congratulatory and arrogant to some people:

  • Calling yourself an “altruist” is basically claiming moral superiority, and anecdotally, my parents and some of my friends didn’t like it for that reason. People tend to dislike it if others are very public with their altruism, perhaps because they perceive them as a threat to their own status (see this article, or do-gooder derogation against vegetarians). Other communities and philosophies, e.g., environmentalism, feminism, consequentialism, atheism, neoliberalism, longtermism don’t sound as arrogant in this way to me.

  • Similarly, calling yourself “effective” also has an arrogant vibe, perhaps especially among professionals in relevant areas. E.g., during the Zurich ballot initiative, officials at the city of Zurich unpromptedly asked me why I consider them “ineffective”, indicating that the EA label basically implied to them that they were doing a bad job. I’ve also heard other professionals in different contexts react similarly. Sometimes I also get sarcastic “aaaah, you’re the effective ones, you figured it all out, I see” reactions.

“Effective altruism” sounds like a strong identity:

  • Many people want to keep their identity small, but EA sounds like a particularly strong identity: It’s usually perceived as both a moral commitment, a set of ideas, and a community. By contrast, terms like “longtermism” are somewhat weaker and more about the ideas per se.

  • Perhaps partly because of this, at the Leaders Forum 2019, around half of the participants (including key figures in EA) said that they don’t self-identify as “effective altruists”, despite self-identifying, e.g., as feminists, utilitarians, or atheists. I don’t think the terminology was the primary concern for everyone, but it may play a role for several individuals.

  • In general, it feels weirdly difficult to separate agreement with EA ideas from the EA identity. The way we use the term, being an EA or not is often framed as a binary choice, and it’s often unclear whether one identifies as part of the community or agrees with its ideas.

Some further, less important points:

  • “Effective altruism” sounds more like a social movement and less like a research/​policy project. The community has changed a lot over the past decade, from “a few nerds discussing philosophy on the internet” with a focus on individual action to larger and respected institutions focusing on large-scale policy change, but the name still feels reminiscent of the former.

  • A lot of people don’t know what “altruism” means.

  • “Effective altruism” often sounds pretty awkward when translated to other languages. That said, this issue also affects a lot of the alternatives.

  • We actually care about cost-effectiveness or efficiency (i.e., impact per unit of resource input), not just about effectiveness (i.e., whether impact is non-zero). This sometimes leads to confusion among people who first hear about the term.

  • Taking action on EA issues doesn’t strictly require altruism. While I think it’s important that key decisions in EA are made by people with a strong moral motivation, involvement in EA should be open to a lot of people, even if they don’t strongly self-identify as altruists. Some may be mostly interested in contributing to the intellectual aspects without making large personal sacrifices.

  • There was a careful process where the name of CEA was determined. However, the adoption of the EA label for the entire community happened organically and wasn’t really a deliberate decision.

Some thoughts on potential implications:

  • The longer-term goal is for the EA community to attract highly skilled students, academics, professionals, policy-makers, etc., and the EA brand might plausibly be unattractive for some of these people. If that’s true, the EA brand might act as a cap on EA’s long-term growth potential, so we should perhaps aim to de-emphasize it. Or at least do some marketing research on whether this is indeed an issue.

  • EA organizations that have “effective altruism” in their name or make it a key part of their messaging might want to consider de-emphasizing the EA brand, and instead emphasize the specific ideas and causes more. I personally feel interested in rebranding “EA Funds” (which I run) to some other name partly for these reasons.

  • I personally would feel excited about rebranding “effective altruism” to a less ideological and more ideas-oriented brand (e.g., “global priorities community”, or simply “priorities community”), but I realize that others probably wouldn’t agree with me on this, it would be a costly change, and it may not even be feasible anymore to make the change at this point. OTOH, given that the community might grow much bigger than it currently is, it’s perhaps worth making the change now? I’d love to be proven wrong, of course.

Thanks to Stefan Torges and Tobias Pulver for prompting some of the above thoughts and helping me think about them in more detail.