Effective Altruism: Not as bad as you think

Link post

Note: Linking this from my personal blog. Written fairly quickly and informally, for a largely non-EA audience. I felt pretty annoyed by misleading opinion pieces slamming EA, and this was the result.

It’s been a pretty hectic few weeks if you follow Effective Altruism, crypto, tech firms or basically any news. FTX, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the world, recently lost all of its value, went bankrupt, and lost about $1 billion in customer funds. News has emerged that the CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried, might have been mishandling customer funds and that the mismanagement of money was far worse than in the collapse of energy giant Enron. This is pretty awful for a lot of people, whether it’s the approximately one million people who lost their crypto investments that were stored in FTX, or all the charities that are worried they will have to pay back any donations made by FTX-related entities (of which there was over $160 million).

Sam Bankman-Fried has openly spoken about Effective Altruism a fair bit in the past, and committed to giving away almost all of his wealth to charitable causes. For those who don’t know, Effective Altruism (or EA) is a research project and community that uses evidence and reason to do the most good. Tangibly, it’s a burgeoning intellectual movement with close to 10,000 engaged folks globally, across 70 countries (although mostly in the EU and US). People in the effective altruism community focus primarily on alleviating global poverty and diseases, reducing the suffering of animals used for food, and preventing existential risks from worst-case pandemics or misaligned artificial intelligence.

Due to the close association between Sam Bankman-Fried and Effective Altruism, EA has gotten a fair bit of criticism recently about potentially not being the ideal do-gooder project it set out to be. But I think some of these critiques miss the mark. Often, they criticise issues that don’t actually exist in the community, but sound good. They also seem to glance over evidence that disputes their claims, such as the huge amount of effort that Effective Altruists have put towards improving the lives of some of the most poor people globally. For example, via GiveWell, an EA-aligned charity evaluator, over 110,000 donors have moved over $1 billion to charities helping people in extreme poverty, by providing malaria bed nets, direct cash transfers, or more. This is amazing. GiveWell thinks these actions will have saved over 150,000 lives, as well as providing $175 million in direct cash to the global poor. See below for a breakdown of EA funding to date, as of August 2022.

So what are the issues that critics of EA point out? I’ll discuss a few from this recent critique in the Guardian, which, in my opinion, offers a somewhat canonical and oft-heard angle. I’ll paraphrase what I believe some of these common critiques are, but it may not be perfect:

  1. Philanthropy concentrates power in the hands of a few wealthy donors. If organisations decide to pursue projects outside the scope of donor interests, then funders can easily pull their giving.

  2. EA donors give money to projects they find the most interesting, rather than what actually does the most good. This is partly down to donors defining effectiveness in their own terms, and funding projects that meet their criteria.

  3. Effective Altruism doesn’t tackle root issues, such as systems of oppression. Instead, it tinkers around the edge by proposing small reforms to our current capitalist, racist, patriarchal (etc.) system, without attempting to change the status quo.

  4. Longtermism, the view that we should be doing much more to protect future generations, is morally dubious, ignores the suffering of people in the present day, and is a pet project for billionaires to spend money on.

I’ll mainly address the top two critiques today, and save the last two for another post, for the sake of brevity. Beyond these points above, I, and most people within the EA community, also agree there’s a long list of ways EA could be improved. I mean, there was a whole competition to crowd-source the best critiques of EA, and the tag on the EA Forum discussing EA critiques is fairly well-populated!

Despite this, I feel compelled to defend EA from at least some of these critiques, as I often think they make assumptions about the community that aren’t true. I wouldn’t say I’m your stereotypical effective altruist either, if such a thing existed. If anything, I was on the side of the critics above, working on “system change” and trying to change dominant institutions, such as our government, in radical ways. I’ve been involved in grassroots animal rights and climate movements for around four years, such as Extinction Rebellion & Animal Rebellion, and have been arrested a number of times for fairly radical direct action. It was also my full-time job for two years doing grassroots movement building at Animal Rebellion & Extinction Rebellion. Most of my friends are hardcore anti-capitalists (I definitely have some anarchist leanings too) and my current work is all about understanding how mass social movements can be used as a tool for good. Necessary disclaimer: I have received EA funds for this, but if anything, that shows that EAs are open to funding more “system change” approaches! But we’ll get back to this another time.

So what about these critiques feel off to me? First of all, it’s statements like this:

Effective altruism organizations donate hills of cash to research that excites their donors, rather than focus on proven, efficient solutions to imminent needs.

What don’t I like about this critique that EA donors just give to their pet projects? To start with, it’s just plainly not true. Effective Altruism is all about doing things that lead to the most good and putting consequences above your initial gut reaction. I think the author would struggle to find any serious amount of EA money that was given to a project due to a donor’s arbitrary or emotional preference. I mean, let’s look at what Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook and the largest EA donor to date (via Open Philanthropy, or OP for short), says about this:

Let’s just unpack this a little bit. The guy who has already given over $1 billion to charitable causes (and pledged to give almost all of his wealth) has never had one of his personal referrals actually receive a grant through his very own foundation. This does not scream huge donor influence to me. Other tweets by Dustin, in his extremely worthwhile Twitter thread about EA, clarify this even more:

For one of the big controlling philanthropists who is pulling all the strings, it seems odd that Dustin only meets with his team once every quarter and is more than happy to defer to the judgement of experts about grant decisions! Cari, Dustin’s partner, is much more involved than he is, yet it still doesn’t seem like she’s making on-the-ground decisions about who gets money and who doesn’t.

Not only that, Open Philanthropy has become one of the largest donors trying to end the suffering of farmed animals. You would think Dustin has some deep emotional connection to animals that encourages him to do so? Hardly, it was down to the influence of those around him, and compelling, rational and evidence-based arguments for helping animals.

I mean, the guy isn’t even vegetarian and he’s donated over $200 million to help farmed animals!1 Maybe Dustin is unusually open-minded, reasonable and power-sharing amongst major EA donors, but I haven’t seen anyone make this argument. Given he is EA largest donor to date, I think this data point carries some influence. Additionally, lots of EA funding comes via Effective Altruism Funds, where donors give money, but the funding decisions are ultimately decided by appointed fund managers who are (meant to be) subject matter experts. This is yet another example of the actual philanthropists with money relinquishing any influence over the donations – and letting more qualified people deal with it.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Now the grantmakers who work at organisations like Open Philanthropy and EA Funds have all the power. Sure, this could be a problem and one that (ironically) was trying to be addressed by the FTX Future Fund’s regranting program. This is definitely an ongoing topic of discussion within the community, with some concrete reform ideas being presented (albeit none yet actually implemented).

Addressing another pillar of this critique leads us to talk about the claim that philanthropists are just using their money to improve their reputations, or for other personal motivations. The following quote from the New York Times sums it up nicely:

They gain legitimation from their status as philanthropists, and there’s a huge amount of incentive to allow them to call the shots and gain prominence as long as the money is flowing.

Worse yet, some criticisms go as far as to say:

EA provides actors like Bankman-Fried cover by using philanthropy to launder their reputations, while leaving ‘reason and evidence’ at the door

I find this line of reasoning a bit odd, and have two questions for these critics:

Would you rather these rare philanthropically-minded wealthy folks hoard their wealth, or spend it on personal luxuries like the other 3,000 odd billionaires in the world?

Do people really think that giving away over 90% of your wealth is the best thing to do for your wellbeing (via improving your reputation)?

For both of the questions, the answer seems to be an obvious no. I doubt that giving away all of your money is actually the optimal way for these people to lead a good life. Much more likely, they genuinely want to make the world a better place, and are extremely committed to doing so.2 In my opinion, this is a clear distinction between those who get painted as EA to delegitimise the movement, such as Elon Musk, versus those who actually uphold EA values, like Dustin. And what alternative do these people have, once someone has accumulated all this wealth? Surely giving it to charity is the best thing to do once you’re in this situation, so I just don’t understand what else they could do that would make these critics happy.

Dustin even said that he supports higher taxes on the wealthy (via being one of the largest Democratic Party funders, see below) so it’s not clear what else they could do. There’s also millionaires calling on worldwide governments to increase taxes for the wealthy, so clearly some of these wealthy folks are trying!

People might argue here that “They shouldn’t have so much wealth in the first place”. I agree, and I think most EAs also agree that severe income inequality is a bad thing. However, it doesn’t change the fact that they currently do have all this wealth! Rather than just complaining about the injustices of the world, EA offers a practical avenue to redistribute resources in a more equal way. Rather than spending it on frivolous luxuries, EA asks wealthy folks to give it to poor people, suffering animals and risks that could end humanity—how could anyone think that was a bad thing?

(To be clear, I’m talking mainly about Dustin and other wealthy EA donors here, rather than Sam Bankman-Fried, whose intentions do seem extremely worrying. I have no intention of defending SBF—his actions seem reprehensible on many accounts.)

Most salient through the various critiques of Effective Altruism is the lack of tangible alternatives to doing good that’s actually better than what we have. It’s very easy to point out mistakes, but building a better alternative—that’s hard work. We don’t need more arm-chair critics who write opinion pieces about why EA is lacking in X or Y ways. We need people to go out, get stuck in, and make the world a better place.

And who is doing this? Effective Altruists. My friends in the EA community are some of the most dedicated, passionate and inspirational people I know. I have friends who:

  • Started a charity focused on eliminating lead in paint, to help kids in often Global South countries who suffer from lifelong damage to their brain and nervous systems. They got the government of Malawi, along with paint manufacturers, to remove lead within paint. They estimate that 215,000 fewer children will be exposed to lead as a result of this. This is fucking incredible. This wouldn’t have happened without three extremely dedicated, selfless, and amazing people. The world would have been a worse place. Even more children would have been suffering from preventable and debilitating lifelong conditions. But thanks to the folks at Lead Exposure Elimination Project, they won’t be.

  • Moved across the world to reduce the suffering of farmed fish. These are people with no particular affinity for fish who became convinced of the plight that 100 billion farmed fish suffer. They didn’t just feel sad about this and keep living their lives—they moved to India to start the world’s first dedicated fish welfare charity, Fish Welfare Initiative. To date, Fish Welfare Initiative estimates they’ve helped over 730,000 fish, and 1.3 million shrimp. Again, this is fucking awesome. FWI is on the ground, day in and day out, talking to fish farmers in India and trying to figure out the best ways to help fish.

  • Launched a charity focusing on empowering women in Nigeria with access to sexual and reproductive health information. Over 90,000 women die each year for complications from unintended pregnancies, and Family Empowerment Media has already reached 5.6 million people in Nigeria with vital contraceptive information. Because of their amazing and tireless work, girls and women are staying in school longer, earning more, and not suffering from unintended pregnancy complications.

  • Left a lucrative and comfortable job in real estate to start the world’s first charity advocating for shrimp welfare. He didn’t always love shrimp, but when he found out that there are around 400 billion farmed shrimp every year, with almost no welfare standards, he had to do something. Now Shrimp Welfare Project is talking to shrimp producers in India, Vietnam and Ecuador, as well as large retailers in the UK, to improve the lives of billions of farmed shrimp. This is totally badass and necessary. And did I mention he now has a shrimp tattoo on his arm?

Okay, I’ll stop there. I could go on, as there are countless more examples that spring to mind, but this would get rather long. I feel truly lucky to be surrounded by such driven, altruistic and irrepressible people. Importantly, I’m fairly sure that none of the projects would have happened without Effective Altruism, at least not in their current format. How do I know this? For one, all of these projects were incubated by an EA charity incubator, Charity Entrepreneurship, who might not have existed without Effective Altruism as an idea or community.

Obviously, other people are doing amazing things too, but they’re not the ones under attack in this case. There are plenty of ways to do good in the world, and sadly, many things we need to improve upon or change. Because of this, I’m glad that Effective Altruists are taking one particular approach to improve the world. Similarly, I’m extremely glad my activist friends, working with Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, Animal Rebellion, etc., are doing what they’re doing in pressuring governments and proposing radical visions for the future. I think we need a plurality of approaches to positively transform the world, so there’s plenty of room for different theories of change.

My challenge to the critiques of EA: Are you building a better alternative? Do you think you’re the most you can, with the resources you have, to create a more just and fair world? If you already are, amazing! Thank you for your hard work. In this case, I urge you to not spend significant amounts of your time and energy pulling down others who have similar goals to improve the world, but who use different methods. We can, and we need to, co-exist together.

That said, I think criticism is extremely important for any organisation or movement, if delivered right. The EA community, in my opinion, is unusually open to criticism (they offered $100,000 for the best critiques!), so I encourage any constructive critiques to be posted to the EA Forum. This is the place to offer useful feedback and criticism of Effective Altruism and how it’s being implemented, if you want to actually affect the community.3

And if you answered no to the questions above, and you don’t think you’re doing everything within your means to build a better future—why not? Whilst there are almost 800 million people suffering from starvation, 690 million people living on less than $2 per day, 70 billion farmed land animals killed each year for food, and neglected risks from engineered pathogens, we need all hands on deck. We should be out there, building, and making the world a better place.