Why I prefer “Effective Altruism” to “Global Priorities”

Edit: Jonas responds in comments that he was not intending to argue for a name change, but more a change of emphasis. I respond explaining why I took “name change” as a reasonable interpretation, but you should read his OP and decide for yourself.

In comments to Jonas Vollner’s post, Ryan Carey makes a good argument that we should change the name of our movement from EA to Global Priorities, or at least change the emphasis. Among other options, “global priorities” was suggested. Tractability concerns aside, I have six key arguments for why this specific name change would not be the right move.

These are my personal intuitions on the implications of names. I don’t consider this a strong form of evidence. So I will keep this brief.

“Global Priorities” sounds more arrogant than “Effective Altruism.”

Yes, EA can sound arrogant to some people. But many people wrestle with the question of how to make real positive change, and it makes sense to build a community to support that. Saying you’re part of a Global Priorities movement sounds like you’re wanting to impose your views on what those priorities should be.

Don’t trust me, though. Run a poll, maybe on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Give a one-paragraph description of the EA movement’s mission and principles, but randomly title it the “Global Priorities” or “Effective Altruism” movement. Randomly show one or the other to respondents. Ask them which sounds more arrogant, and which they’d be more likely to support or join.

“Global Priorities” doesn’t convey the moral or political basis for that prioritization.

Whose priorities? The national interests of the most powerful nations? Are we advocating for world government? For a command economy? To give a voice to less powerful groups? What makes something a priority? Are those priorities supposed to be good? The meaning of the name is more open to interpretation.

“Global Priorities” implies a focus on institutions.

Altruism is clearly something that individuals can do. But most individuals don’t have a say in what our global priorities should be. I can be an effective altruist while working in a purely technical role. But it’s not clear to me that I can be involved in a movement for global priorities doing that sort of work. GP sounds like it’s all about governance.

“Global Priorities” doesn’t necessarily imply a need for change.

GP could easily just be about gathering inputs from a bunch of powerful interests about what they consider their priorities to be, and then coordinating to achieve them. Those priorities don’t necessarily have to be transcendently important or good from a consequentialist standpoint.

If I had to guess, many major powers would currently consider the free flow of oil to be a greater global priority than minimizing animal cruelty, and that sounds like a very different sort of movement from the one we’ve got.

“Global Priorities” doesn’t necessarily imply an emphasis on neglected issues.

Some of our causes may only need to comprise a tiny fraction of global spending or work hours to be sufficient. Perhaps the world only needs to sink a total of $20 billion/​year into biosecurity to do a good job. That would be about half of one percent of the US government’s 2019 tax revenue.

But if you asked somebody to look at a budget and rank causes by the importance they are assigned, it would be reasonable to rank them by the amount of budget that’s been allocated. And also to spend the most time arguing over the biggest budget allocations. Spend 1/​200th of your time arguing over 1/​200th of the budget.

We’re trying to create a movement that inverts this. We deliberately try to spend the majority of our time arguing over the issues that get a very small fraction of the budget, specifically because they are so neglected. And the reason why is that this is the realm where the wins come cheap. It flows from the concern for “effectiveness.”

A global approach is not necessarily the best approach to doing good better.

The idea of prioritizing global causes, then sticking our resources into them according to that, is one way to approach EA. It’s probably our common-sense default within the movement. But EA doesn’t inherently have to be about that, it might not be the best approach for individuals within the movement, and it might not be the right approach to EA in 20 or 50 years’ time. Heck, what if we have a Martian colony by then? Do we change the name to “Interplanetary Priorities?”


I see “Global Priorities” as a cause within EA, but I don’t think we should let that cause become the movement. It’s not even the only approach to governance, let alone altruism. Spinoffs within or associated with the EA movement that specifically tackle global priorities should consider using that in their name. But I came for the guidance for what I should be doing with my life in order to do the most good, and I think that mission is best described by the name Effective Altruism.