How Effective Altruists Can Be Welcoming To Conservatives

Most effec­tive al­tru­ists are on the left; only a small num­ber of effec­tive al­tru­ists are on the right (as op­posed to iden­ti­fy­ing as cen­trist, liber­tar­ian, or some­thing else). For this rea­son, effec­tive al­tru­ists of­ten as­sume that ev­ery­one in­ter­ested in effec­tive al­tru­ism is a liberal. How­ever, many con­ser­va­tives are in­ter­ested in do­ing good bet­ter, and it seems to me that there’s low-hang­ing fruit in mak­ing the EA com­mu­nity a com­mu­nity in which con­ser­va­tives feel com­fortable.

(To be clear, I my­self am a liberal. I’m bas­ing this post par­tially on my own ex­pe­riences as a per­son with minor­ity poli­ti­cal be­liefs in var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties, and par­tially on talk­ing with con­ser­va­tive friends. I en­courage con­ser­va­tive com­menters to offer their ad­vice and opinions.)

There are some com­pro­mises we don’t want to make in or­der to make con­ser­va­tives feel more wel­come. Most ob­vi­ously, we don’t want to com­pro­mise hon­esty. In cer­tain cause ar­eas such as crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, many top char­i­ties will have a liberal lean. (Of course, it’s perfectly pos­si­ble that in other cause ar­eas the top char­i­ties will have a con­ser­va­tive lean– and part of the ad­van­tage of be­ing in­clu­sive of con­ser­va­tives is that they might alert us to those char­i­ties.) As effec­tive al­tru­ists, we must re­port hon­estly what we be­lieve the best place to donate is, and not cen­sor our­selves based on poli­ti­cal con­ve­nience.

There are some ways that effec­tive al­tru­ist norms have evolved that may make con­ser­va­tives un­com­fortable but that we wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily want to change. For ex­am­ple, effec­tive al­tru­ist com­mu­ni­ties typ­i­cally re­quest that peo­ple use trans peo­ple’s preferred pro­nouns. Many con­ser­va­tives (and some liber­als) are un­com­fortable us­ing trans peo­ple’s preferred pro­nouns, and this norm may make them feel un­wel­come. How­ever, I think that us­ing trans peo­ple’s preferred pro­nouns is in fact a rel­a­tively low-cost way to make trans peo­ple much hap­pier and I do not think the effec­tive al­tru­ist com­mu­nity should shift to a differ­ent set of norms in or­der to wel­come con­ser­va­tives.

Nev­er­the­less, there are cer­tain pieces of low-hang­ing fruit that I think many effec­tive al­tru­ists may want to con­sider pick­ing up.

Much of the low-hang­ing fruit ac­tu­ally over­laps with other kinds of low-hang­ing in­clu­sive­ness-re­lated fruit we might want to pick. For ex­am­ple, while effec­tive al­tru­ism as a move­ment is con­se­quen­tial­ist, many con­ser­va­tives (and, for that mat­ter, non-effec­tive-al­tru­ist liber­als) are not strict con­se­quen­tial­ists. Re­mem­ber that most peo­ple have some non-con­se­quen­tial­ist be­liefs and that it is not a com­pletely baf­fling and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble situ­a­tion if some­one ob­jects to a course of ac­tion for non-con­se­quen­tial­ist rea­sons.

The key thing is to always con­sider that a con­ser­va­tive may be in your au­di­ence. Many effec­tive al­tru­ist speeches and es­says as­sume the en­tire au­di­ence votes Demo­cratic, even when the sub­ject is en­tirely un­re­lated to poli­tics. It’s easy to make an off-handed re­mark about vote-trad­ing to get Clin­ton to win be­ing a plau­si­ble EA cause or the pres­i­dent be­ing the world’s num­ber one Cheeto-re­lated ex­is­ten­tial risk, but these re­marks can hurt con­ser­va­tive listen­ers or read­ers. It is of­ten worth reread­ing your speech or es­say, imag­in­ing that you are a con­ser­va­tive and flag­ging pas­sages that would make you feel un­wel­come.

Pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to your jokes. Many jokes hinge on the idea that a group of peo­ple (none of whom, ob­vi­ously, are in the au­di­ence) is stupid, not worth listen­ing to, or evil, or on mis­rep­re­sent­ing a group’s opinions so that they look dumb. Th­ese jokes feel awful if you’re a mem­ber of that group, and they’re not good from a truth-seek­ing per­spec­tive ei­ther– if you want to claim that a group of peo­ple is gen­er­ally stupid and evil, you should defend it prop­erly and not hide be­hind hu­mor.

In par­tic­u­lar, watch what you say about cre­ation­ists. I have seen many ra­tio­nal­ists and effec­tive al­tru­ists say “we should en­gage with the ar­gu­ments of peo­ple who dis­agree with us, as long as they’re not in­cred­ibly dumb like young-earth cre­ation­ists.” It’s true that there are likely to be few young-earth cre­ation­ists in EA. How­ever, since poli­ti­cal views run in fam­i­lies, many con­ser­va­tives have young-earth cre­ation­ist friends and fam­ily, and many used to be young-earth cre­ation­ists them­selves. Hav­ing their loved ones or past selves dis­missed as in­cred­ibly dumb can make many peo­ple feel like you’re call­ing them dumb.

Similarly, think twice be­fore mak­ing broad gen­er­al­iza­tions about Trump sup­port­ers. Many con­ser­va­tives voted for Trump (of­ten very un­en­thu­si­as­ti­cally), and even those who stayed home, voted third-party, or held their noses and voted for Clin­ton may have loved ones who voted for Trump. Cal­ling all Trump sup­port­ers Nazis or racists can make even Never Trump Repub­li­cans feel like you’re call­ing all con­ser­va­tives Nazis or racists. When it is nec­es­sary to talk about Trump sup­port­ers, try spec­i­fy­ing ex­actly what you mean: say “Trump’s base in the pri­maries has above-av­er­age lev­els of eth­no­cen­tri­cism ac­cord­ing to polls”, not “Trump sup­port­ers are racist.”

Take par­tic­u­lar care to avoid char­ac­ter­iz­ing all con­ser­va­tives as sex­ist, racist, xeno­pho­bic, or ho­mo­pho­bic. Again, speak­ing in speci­fics can help: “many con­ser­va­tives sup­port re­duced im­mi­gra­tion, which I be­lieve is harm­ful to the global poor,” not “con­ser­va­tives hate im­mi­grants.” Try en­gag­ing with con­ser­va­tives’ ar­gu­ments: for ex­am­ple, you might ex­plain that the ev­i­dence sug­gests that im­mi­grants do not ac­tu­ally take our jobs.

Scru­ti­nize ev­ery men­tion of Don­ald Trump with great care. It is per­haps un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect that we should never men­tion the pres­i­dent, but I think it is best to avoid men­tion­ing him in effec­tive al­tru­ist writ­ing un­less he is ob­vi­ously rele­vant to the topic.

“If you’re re­li­gious, then the most effec­tively al­tru­ist thing is to con­vert ev­ery­one be­cause of the in­finite util­ity of Heaven” is not nearly as clever as you think it is. Every re­li­gious effec­tive al­tru­ist has heard this ar­gu­ment from a hun­dred differ­ent athe­ists, in­clud­ing ones whose re­li­gion does not ac­tu­ally in­clude a con­cept of Heaven. No re­li­gious effec­tive al­tru­ist is do­ing this. Stop bring­ing it up.

Don’t sched­ule all your events on Sun­day morn­ings.

When it is nec­es­sary to give poli­ti­cal ex­am­ples, try to give an equal num­ber from both sides of the aisle. I find pro-life causes to be a par­tic­u­larly fer­tile source of ex­am­ples. Pro-life ad­vo­cacy is similar to effec­tive al­tru­ism in many ways: its ad­vo­cates be­lieve that they’re fight­ing against an on­go­ing moral atroc­ity and it in­volves ex­pand­ing the cir­cle of con­cern. There’s a lot of op­por­tu­nity to pri­ori­tize pro-life char­i­ties or start new char­i­ties based on rea­son and ev­i­dence. For ex­am­ple, as far as I’m aware, few pro-life ad­vo­cates are ex­plor­ing pro­vi­sion of long-act­ing re­versible con­tra­cep­tion, uter­ine repli­ca­tors, or early mis­car­riage pre­ven­tion.

When it is rele­vant, make a point of high­light­ing the al­tru­is­tic achieve­ments of con­ser­va­tive poli­ti­ci­ans. For ex­am­ple, Se­na­tor Mike Lee, a Repub­li­can, has been one of the strongest voices in fa­vor of al­low­ing an­i­mal-product-free al­ter­na­tives to be la­beled “may­on­naise,” “soy milk,” and so on. Not only is un­der­stand­able la­bel­ing im­por­tant in the short run, it es­tab­lishes a good prece­dent for clean meat be­ing la­beled as meat, which could help cus­tomers ac­cept it as an al­ter­na­tive to an­i­mal-grown meat. Similarly, PEPFAR– a pro­gram cham­pi­oned by Ge­orge W. Bush– has saved the lives of at least a mil­lion peo­ple for only $2,500 a life, com­pet­i­tive with GiveWell top char­i­ties.