Devin on the EA Forum: Volume 1

Since getting an account on the Effective Altruism Forum, I’ve written a few shorter posts for the forum that I haven’t yet crossposted to this blog. Considering that these were short, and often fairly idiosyncratic in their interests, I didn’t want to crowd this blog by crossposting every time. I have decided on a compromise in which I wait to have written a few of them, and then post them together as a compilation. They may be of less interest to readers on this blog than to readers of the forum itself, but hopefully this will strike the right balance. I might make more of these in the future as I write more quick posts on the forum.

I. Brief Thoughts on “Justice Creep” and Effective Altruism

Author’s Note: I started writing this about an hour before posting it. I really do mean it as just quick, initial thoughts I might expand on at some point. Every point here has probably been made elsewhere, and some of the points might not even be that good, but I just really had this on my chest. Take that how you will, maybe think of it more as a comment or informal rant than a normal post, hopefully it is still worth putting out.

Edit 3/17/22: I wrote this piece quickly so it’s pretty sloppy in places, and I may comment some corrections/clarifications in retrospect. The first one is on my discussion of animal welfare as a cause area. I say that animal welfare sticks out a bit as not fitting in with the other really big cause areas, but what I mean specifically is factory farming, I think more speculative high EV sub-causes like wild animal welfare fit in with the arguments for the long term future cause area pretty well.

I think that, just as some of the less pure-expected-value-y, more squishy reasons people stick with global health and development rather than the long term future have been identified, like wanting the more certain pay off and going less weird places at extremes, a good story of this sort about the popularity of factory farming as a cause area reaching this “big three” status is needed. The one that fits my experiences best and I haven’t seen given the emphasis that I think it warrants is that it is a cause area with an unusually strong justice side.

I have lots of thoughts on this recent ACX post, but I don’t want to get into all of them. Having studied ethics, I know that there is a definition of “justice” that is more formal, at least in analytic philosophy, that I could reference in discussing the merits of this post, but…mostly that is not what interests me. I share a basic theoretical suspicion of the distinction it seems to draw on with Alexander, and think insofar as he touches on what justice might formally mean, it is close enough to this formal definition that it isn’t really where any of my issues with or responses to this post lie.

Actually, I want to zoom out and get even less formal about the whole thing. Put aside social posturing or high theory for a moment, what is the feeling “justice” is trying to evoke in these cases Alexander highlights, what is the activist project here? This is something, it seems to me from this post, that Alexander can’t relate to as well as I do. The invocation of police, and of there being no saints, and everything else, doesn’t match my perspective at all.

So, I want to look at an example. The Effective Altruism movement has three big cause areas that always get mentioned, global health and development, animal welfare, and the long term future. If you just read the websites and relevant EA explanations, animal welfare always looks a bit like the odd one out. Want to help in as speculatively big a way as possible from an EV perspective? Go for the long term future. Find some of that too weird and want to help with present problems in as reliable, measurable a way as you can? Go for global health and development.

Even the characterization of animal welfare as the “neglectedness” representative of the trio falls a bit flat, tons of extremely promising EA cause areas are at least as neglected in both other camps, from mental health in Africa, to biosecurity. Maybe this isn’t fair, after all, animal welfare is the most neglected broad category of cause areas EA is interested in. But if Animal Welfare wasn’t around, the most neglected would have been whichever of the other two is more neglected. It isn’t clear why you need the trio, so some better explanation of the unique advantages seems needed.

When talking to fellows new to the movement about Effective Altruism, I have been self-conscious about the fact that when you list your movement’s big axes as “helping the poorest people in the world, saving humanity, and also making farms nicer”, it sounds like some explanation is needed, and I have never been able to give the standard explanations for why it is such a big deal for so many EAs with a straight face. I think the real answer, which doesn’t mesh with the standard narratives very cleanly, is justice.

When Effective Altruists look at the world, they see lots of cases of unacceptable neglect and apathy and deep power differentials between possible beneficiaries and possible benefiters. Oh, and they also see sentient beings even more numerous that humans alive on Earth being actively/purposely subjected to non-stop torture for minor benefits to humans (that probably aren’t even net beneficial to humans), heavily normalized by culture, and which nearly everyone of moderate affluence on Earth is complicit in. The former types of issues can be given a justicey spin, but once you buy the right moral premises, the latter category screams “justice issue”. Ignoring this dimension makes it hard to see why animal welfare is such a popular cause area, indeed many passionate Effective Altruists I have run into, whether they are directly working on it or not, have a special, very personal investment in it when you talk to them. I would include myself in that category. The answer is, Effective Altruists, too, are only human.

Changing topics a bit, consider a common type of Effective Altruist thought experiment. Say you have been transported back to 1800, what does the Effective Altruist of the time do? A prime candidate is to in some way work on making the industrial revolution go well, figure out ways to mitigate long-term environmental harms, amp up growth and promote it outside of the Euro/Anglo-sphere, help build good infrastructure. An Effective Altruist might well give this answer, but they also might give the answer that pretty much everyone other than the Effective Altruist would give: devote your life to abolitionism. The industrial revolution was an incredibly important point in history that probably has had a much bigger overall impact if you look to the whole of the future past that point, but abolitionist screams justice.

This is where the biggest misunderstanding of Alexander’s piece jumps out to me, he laments by the end that we have no saints if we view the world as being about justice, no real heroes, just minimally decent people. Fascinating theory, but look at the list of our actual cultural heroes for a moment. King, Gandhi, Lincoln, Mandela, the list goes on and on. Lots of our cultural heroes were just impressively talented people, artists, scientists, and so on. Those we revere the most, and with the most ethical reverence in particular, were champions of justice. It is an ongoing struggle of the Effective Altruist movement to get people like Stanislav Petrov and Norman Borlaug to get a fraction of the spotlight of justice champions.

The reason why there are now so very many fill-in-the-blank justices is pretty obvious if you look at it this way. Every movement, even the ones with the very best arguments that their cause is fantastic, wants to find at least some little piece of justice in the issue they can rope in to tide over their haggard activists.

There is maybe a meta point implied by Alexander’s piece that is still relevant on this framing, that this “justice” thing doesn’t capture all that matters. Indeed, even if you managed to find an angle for “justice” in everything worth caring about, the ones that most screamed justice would not map cleanly onto the ones most worth caring about. This is concerning, especially if you aren’t compelled by the idea that justice maps some genuine independently important thing, as many people intuit that it does. It seems like in order to confront this, however, the best thing to do is to first recognize how deep the thing you are worried about runs in people. Justice is not about viewing the world in terms of cops and bad guys, it is about having a bleeding heart.

II. The Many Faces of Effective Altruism

Author’s Note: This post based on a Discord rant

Epistemic Status: Very very un-rigorous, just a distillation of some things I’ve been thinking about recently that some of my friends encouraged me to post somewhere

The Effective Altruism movement is, in my opinion, not a single subculture, but a coalition of several related ones that occupy a similar memespace, and often overlap. Recently I have been thinking about this undertheorized aspect of the movement, and wanted to share the beginnings of some distinctions that I see within the movement, and how these might be useful for understanding key things about it. Like all labeling schemes of this sort, this is also of limited value, will undoubtedly be controversial, especially when I get into my specific impressions of what fits where, and will probably be significantly shaped in various ways by my own personal sympathies. Nevertheless, and occasionally against my better judgement, I appreciate when other people make new labeling schemes like this, so I hope I can produce one that is valuable myself. My current thinking divides Effective Altruism into roughly six aesthetics/subcultures that seem meaningfully distinct:

  1. Wholesome Effective Altruism: This is the more infographic/nerdy stuff, often with an interest in popular appeal. It is also more concerned with political causes outside of the common EA priorities, and adheres to EA on top of this basically because doing good is good. Lots of sort of adjacent, mildly sympathetic non-EA media leans this way, like “The Good Place” or Vlogbrothers or Kurzgesagt. Think Future Perfect or Our World in Data for more directly movement aligned media. Example figure: Ezra Klein

  2. Emo Effective Altruism: Emphasizes feeling the appropriate weight from things like suffering and death, lots of the art associated with EA comes from this corner in some way. Made up of people who are real into stuff like “Fable of the Dragon Tyrant” and “500 Million, but not a Single One More” and “On Caring”. I also tend to group the more “emotionally intelligent” side of EA in here, though that’s a debatable connection. Example figure: Eliezer Yudkowsky

  3. IDW Effective Altruism: This is the more centrist or right-leaning, anti-woke side of EA. Often embraces some version of Bryan Caplan’s “EA is what SJ ought to be” idea. Sort of the right’s answer to Wholesome EA, sharing a “doing good is good” type motivation, and also featuring figures who are sympathetic but not that centrally involved, like Steven Pinker and Coleman Hughes. Example figure: Sam Harris

  4. A-aesthetic Effective Altruism: Don’t want to put out much of a vibe at all, and prefer purely unbiased, rigorous analysis. The source of many-a-long, nuanced document Effective Altruists are keen to cite (but perhaps uneager to read), though there is more accessible work that also fits this tone in my opinion. Relatively few people purely fit into this category, though many combine other categories with it, or occasionally wear the a-aesthetic hat. Example Figure: Hilary Greaves

  5. Contrarian Effective Altruism: This is not necessarily about liking unpopular ideas, but more about being super into weird ideas because they seem interesting and cool. Usually I picture the type of person who is into the simulation hypothesis and grabby aliens but doesn’t seem that worried about them viscerally. Not many major figures in the movement seem to fit that well into this category, but I’ve met lots of people on the ground within EA clubs who fit here more solidly. Example figure: Robin Hanson

  6. Cheery utilitarian Effective Altruism: People in this category basically see some underlying tenets of utilitarianism as uncomplicatedly true and good without much of a desire to make this visceral, for instance by doing the emo thing and getting artsy about it. I also picture people in this group as having a fairly cheerful and humorous disposition. A greater quantity of happiness is just better! Not all or only utilitarians fit in here. Picture someone who is more Bentham than Mill, more Norcross than Singer. Example figure: Sam Bankman-Fried

Most people, including the example figures I listed, don’t just fit cleanly into one of these categories. Some examples of people who clearly straddle some line in my eyes include Brian Tomasik the a-aesthetic emo, Robert Wiblin the contrarian cheery utilitarian, Liv Boeree the wholesome IDW, and Nick Bostrom the contrarian emo. Some of these crossovers are interesting phenomena in their own right, for instance the a-aesthetic emo faction sounds like a contradiction, but makes up the backbone of a sort of ascetic, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” type moral core of the movement, one that gets emotional at abstract concepts and numbers in spreadsheets the way other people get emotional at personal stories. Likewise wholesome IDW sounds contradictory, since my framing sets up one as almost just a further right version of the other, but there is a sort of distinct group of people who consistently give off elements of both vibes, often characterized by really liking Elon Musk. Aside from Boeree, Tim Urban is someone I think fits here.

This spread is an undertheorized aspect of the movement, but I think helps better frame various debates about the image and culture of the movement in general. For example, I find that lots of coverage of EA from the outside, including otherwise well-researched coverage, leans into a sort of ascetic frame that always seems badly incomplete at best (some more insider coverage seems to lean this way as well). Some of this comes from what the movement may have looked more like in the past, but I think it is also the impression you get from running into the aforementioned sizable a-aesthetic emo population of EA, and pattern matching it to Effective=a-aesthetic, Altruism=emo, to get oneself a compelling narrative of the movement as a whole.

Maybe even more significantly, lots of people like different local EA scenes vastly better or worse than others, and which one they run into can make all the difference for whether they stick around (or sometimes if they winding up taking some time to circle their way back into EA after being put off by it). There are probably lots of reasons for this, but the biggest one, to my eyes, is that different local groups drift towards favoring different subcultural currents. Some of these currents will badly turn off the same people who are uniquely attracted to another of these currents. If you are very into sincerity and really feeling the scale of the world’s problems, the emo side of EA can offer you something really special, whereas there might be something hard to put into words that will uniquely disturb you about the contrarian side, which is often very interested in fun ideas without seeming to inhabit what it would really feel like to believe them about the world.

A related phenomenon is people who are surprised by what they find when they get more involved in EA, or even feel mildly deceived. EA will often try to coordinate around advertising itself with a certain framing that leans on one or two of these vibes, while being less eager to advertise the others. As an example, I think a common public framing is more Wholesome or A-aesthetic leaning, in that it tries to frame EA as just being about doing work to advance a set of uncontroversial positive principles most people can get on board with and feel empowered by. It will not be at the forefront of this messaging that, when you start being more of a movement insider, you will spend a good deal of your time talking with people who feel genuine empathy with bugs, or see EA as a sort of replacement for conventional left wing politics, or are casually bullet biting utilitarians, or really like talking about obscure decision theories. EA is a mad mad place if you actually look at it as a whole, and not just because weird ideas flourish in it, but I think between all of these affiliated subcultures, nearly everyone can find some niche they like in it. Many people can even find some niche that speaks to them like no other subculture they’ve found, and hopefully anyone, regardless, can find someplace in the movement comfortable enough that they can use their connection to the movement to do good, what it ideally should all be about at the end of the day.

For my own part, I think I have at least some minor degree of sympathy for all of the listed perspectives. From the inside I most feel like I am part of the emo group, but a good deal might come down to how I am actually perceived from the outside, which I just don’t know. One problem for this model is that, very likely, many people are motivated on the inside in a way that doesn’t reflect the group they come off as from the outside. I particularly worry about this for the specific figures I cite, and I don’t give them as examples because I think they would endorse my labels, so much as because the way they come off helps me illustrate some of the hard to explain parts of these aesthetics. Feel free to let me know if you think I missed/mischaracterized some of these, this is just roughly my perspective for now.

III. Art Recommendation: Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End

Given the recent increased interest in finding Effective Altruist inspirational art, I wanted to write a couple of short posts recommending some art with EA relevant themes that I like and think should be better known by EAs.

The first one is the song “Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End” by Van Der Graaf Generator. This will maybe be the more polarizing one, like much prog rock, the lyrics are awkwardly purple in a way that will make them come off as either embarrassingly sincere or embarrassingly pretentious depending on your charity towards it. Nevertheless, there are lines and parts in it that I find resonant, even genuinely moving, especially the ending, and overall I kind of love this song.

I’m not the most passionate or hardcore transhumanist, but thematically I think of it as a great existentialist transhumanist, even longtermist anthem. I have a special personal appreciation for its context as well. It is the closing track on one of my favorite albums from the band, Still Life, which is named for an anti-immortality song from this album. I don’t fully agree with the concern that song expresses, but I respect and am interested in the move of prominently featuring the track on the album, but ending the album with a hopeful transhumanist epic, especially in light of my own rocky historical relationship with immortalist rhetoric. This one is very much a matter of personal taste I think, but at least if you have similar music taste to me, I’d recommend this one as essential.

IV. Art Recommendation: Dr. Stone

In the spirit of my last post, I wanted to make one more recommendation for inspirational EA-relevant media, the anime Dr. Stone (I’m sure the manga is good too, but as I haven’t read it, I’m only recommending the anime here). I’ve actually already written a whole blogpost about it, and considered linking it here as my recommendation, but ultimately I decided that the post as written wasn’t EA specific enough or polished enough for me to be comfortable with that.

Besides which, it barely discusses the most obvious connection Dr. Stone has to Effective Altruism, that it goes through ways to recreate modern technologies from scratch in the wake of a disaster. I was particularly reminded of it as I listened to the 80,000 Hours interviews with Louisa Rodriguez and Lewis Dartnell. Dartnell even said he would like to see a show with roughly this premise in that interview!

EA Twitter has stumbled onto this a couple of times, but it has never seemed to quite stick. In general I find the lack of interest in anime relative to other types of media I see discussed in EA circles somewhat surprising, as EA is disproportionately made of nerds and young people. I think Dr. Stone is a good place to start, and even if you don’t think it’s great as piece of EA media, I still think if you’re an EA, you’ll likely find it inspiring and a lot of fun.

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