Political culture at the edges of Effective Altruism

There is much con­tro­versy over poli­ti­cal and cul­tural dis­putes, is­sues that are fre­quently la­beled as ‘cul­ture wars’. The idea of solv­ing these dis­putes, as in re­search­ing and de­bat­ing and com­ing to an in­formed po­si­tion on these things, seems to be fre­quently (and quite cor­rectly) re­garded as in­tractable and not re­ally worth­while for se­ri­ous EAs.

But it might be use­ful to nar­row our scope from all of so­ciety down to the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment, im­me­di­ately sur­round­ing the EA move­ment. In this con­text, we have ro­bust, di­rect in­for­ma­tion on how poli­ti­cal and cul­tural ide­olo­gies are var­i­ously benefi­cial or harm­ful for the things we un­der­stand. Thus, we can (hope­fully) get a nar­row win­dow of ob­ser­va­tions that are broadly agreed-upon. The scope will be limited, but the re­li­a­bil­ity will be high.

(There is an­other thing we can look at, which is the benefits or harms from peo­ple’s poli­ti­cal ide­olo­gies within the EA move­ment, but I won’t touch that be­cause it’s clearly not go­ing to be ro­bust and un­con­tro­ver­sial.)

Us­ing this frame­work, first let’s list the lo­cal im­pacts of left-wing poli­tics:

Im­pacts on the EA move­ment:

  • Per­haps the most com­mon crit­i­cism of EA is that the move­ment does not col­lec­tively al­ign with rad­i­cal an­ti­cap­i­tal­ist politics

  • Other peo­ple ob­ject to EAs tak­ing ca­reers in high fi­nance and con­sult­ing, based on the idea that these ca­reers are a ma­jor part of the mar­ket econ­omy and there­fore are immoral

  • A col­lege group of dis­abil­ity ac­tivists dis­rupted an Effec­tive Altru­ism event at Univer­sity of Victoria

  • An autis­tic rights ac­tivist con­demned EA by alleg­ing in­com­pat­i­bil­ity be­tween cost-benefit anal­y­sis and dis­abil­ity rights

  • Key EA philoso­pher Peter Singer has been viewed nega­tively by left-wing academia af­ter tak­ing sev­eral steps to pro­mote free­dom of speech (Jour­nal of Con­tro­ver­sial Ideas, op-ed in defense of Damore)

  • Key EA philoso­pher Peter Singer was treated with hos­tility by left-wing peo­ple for his ar­gu­ment on sex with severely cog­ni­tively dis­abled adults

  • The EA move­ment has been viewed nega­tively by left-wing peo­ple due to some over­lap with the fo­rum LessWrong and its mem­bers, to which they are heav­ily hos­tile, par­tially for poli­ti­cal reasons

Im­pacts on poverty re­lief:

  • Less sup­port for Givewell recom­men­da­tions and similar efforts, in or­der to fo­cus on poli­ti­cal activism

Im­pacts on an­i­mal welfare:

  • Left wing nar­ra­tives tend to push more sup­port for an­i­mal rights and, to a lesser ex­tent, an­i­mal welfare. This part is good, though it is not pros­e­cuted with nearly the same vi­gor as left wing nar­ra­tives on other mat­ters of so­cial justice

Im­pacts on ex­is­ten­tial risk:

  • Use­ful x-risk re­searchers, or­ga­ni­za­tions and ideas are fre­quently viewed nega­tively by leftists in­side and out­side academia, due to as­so­ci­a­tion with the fo­rum LessWrong and some­times for di­rect hos­tility to their poli­ti­cal views

  • Google dis­solved its AI ethics board due mainly to hos­tility against its most right-wing member

Over­all this looks bad; al­most all im­pacts are nega­tive. Mov­ing on to right-wing poli­tics:

Im­pacts on the EA move­ment:

  • There seems to be some im­plicit dis­mis­sal of EA as be­ing too “blue-tribe” and liberal, lead­ing con­ser­va­tives to be dis­in­ter­ested in the move­ment from the out­set. This is not eas­ily ob­served, but seems to be the best ex­pla­na­tion for the lack of con­ser­va­tive up­take and interest

  • Peter Singer has been treated with hos­tility by tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tives for his ar­gu­ments on af­ter-birth abor­tion and zoophilia

  • MacAskill’s in­ter­view with Joe Ro­gan pro­voked hos­tility from view­ers be­cause of an off­hand com­ment/​joke he made about Bri­tain de­serv­ing pun­ish­ment for Brexit

  • William MacAskill re­ceived push­back from right-wing peo­ple for his ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of tak­ing refugees

Im­pacts on poverty re­lief:

  • There is op­po­si­tion to Givewell char­i­ties based on the idea that the re­cip­i­ents of Givewell aid are low-IQ and overpopulating

  • There is some at­tach­ment to char­i­ties which help one’s own coun­try or town, rather than global char­i­ties like Givewell recommendations

Im­pacts on an­i­mal welfare:

  • Gen­eral op­po­si­tion, even hos­tility to an­i­mal rights and welfare

Im­pacts on ex­is­ten­tial risk:

  • None yet, that I can think of

With right-wing poli­tics, again we see a con­sis­tent trend where poli­ti­cal cul­ture in­terferes with the im­me­di­ate con­text of Effec­tive Altru­ism.

Left-wing poli­ti­cal cul­ture seems to be a deeper, more press­ing source of harm. How­ever, if we are try­ing to judge how good/​bad ide­olo­gies are in a gen­eral sense, this judg­ment has less ex­ter­nal val­idity be­cause it de­pends on where EA and its pro­jects are lo­cated in ge­o­graphic, cul­tural and eco­nomic space.

One might won­der, to be fair: are there any cases where peo­ple’s poli­ti­cal ap­a­thy or cen­trism dam­ages their re­la­tion­ship with Effec­tive Altru­ism? As far as I can tell, there are none.

So in sum­mary, while broader ques­tions of poli­ti­cal cul­ture may be too difficult to an­swer with any rea­son­able amount of re­search la­bor, we have one cluster of clear data points tel­ling us that rel­a­tively mod­er­ate poli­ti­cal cul­ture (i.e.: in be­tween the Amer­i­can poli­ti­cal main­streams) or poli­ti­cal ap­a­thy are most benefi­cial. This post is not meant to in­val­i­date or de­bunk broader ar­gu­ments about poli­ti­cal cul­ture writ large. How­ever, it should be par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing to those who pre­fer ro­bust ev­i­dence in lieu of naive ex­pected-value es­ti­mates.