Effective Altruism, Before the Memes Started
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Epistemic Status: Uh, I haven’t written one of these before, but since I’m cross-posting to EA Forum, I will disclaim in advance that I banged the first draft of this out in like an hour when I should have been studying, and the empirical claims about movements in it I give examples of aren’t supported more deeply. I rely on the readers to share similar impressions to me on reflection, so don’t treat this as any great confirmation of those impressions.
Special thanks to Glen Weyl for offering some comments on this piece during this very busy time for him.
Summary (added Oct 13, 2021): I wrote a good deal of this stream of conscious so it isn’t really structured as an argument. More a way of me to connect some personal thoughts/experiences together in a hopefully productive way. I can see how that wouldn’t be super accessible. The basic argument embedded in it though is:
Effective Altruism, like many idealistic movements, started out taking critics very very seriously and trying to reach out to/be charitable to them as much as possible, which is a good thing.
Effective Altruism, like most movements that grow older, is not quite like that anymore, it seems to respond with less frequency and generosity to critics than it used to, which is unfortunate but understandable.
Understandable as it is, we should at least take a bit more notice of it if that’s the path we are going down because…
Many movements move on from here to ridiculing criticisms by treating common criticisms as though they were obviously, memeably false, and that everyone in the know gets that (I didn’t use examples, but the one most on my mind was the midwit meme format, which only requires the argument being ridiculed, your stated, undefended position, and some cartoons, to make it look like you’ve made a point). This is bad and we should be careful not to start doing it.
The post proper:
The Effective Altruism movement is not that old, but it is not that new either. There are various ways it has changed, but I wanted to share a little bit of nostalgia. Back in the youth of the movement in 2013, the CEO and a consultant from Charity Navigator published a hit piece on Effective Altruism that is now somewhat notorious in the movement, in no small part, for being pretty bad1. It makes a few highly abstracted, melodramatic arguments that could be countered with simple case comparisons, it engages in needless name-calling (defective altruism), and to boot it was written by people with an extremely obvious professional conflict of interest with the movement. And yet, William MacAskill read this, emailed its authors to isolate their core intellectual disagreement, and then published a brief, pretty polite response to it in the same publication. This was not the only time something like this happened, a few months later he had an exchange with Warren Buffet’s son, which was also polite and seems to me more charitable than the quality of the arguments really warranted (though it was on the heels of a much less polite exchange).
Fast-forward to 2021. Phil Torres writes a piece for Current Affairs tearing into longtermism, one of MacAskill’s biggest interests and a topic he’s personally contributed to within Effective Altruist thought. In my opinion, it also isn’t great, but it is better than these earlier critiques on any dimension you could care to measure. It makes intellectually interesting points about the philosophy2, it gets specific, and it quotes major figures and works within the field. Far from coming from an outsider who has barely thought about this and who has a conflict of interest, it comes from someone who used to be involved with the Future of Humanity Institute, and has nothing obvious to gain from loudly trashing it. He has also written better-received critiques of longtermism in the past, suggesting this was not just a first impression of his. And how does MacAskill respond? Well, as far as I can tell barely at all. Just a couple comments on an EA Forum post that tangentially address relevant points in the article without mentioning it directly. In fact, if Torres is to be believed, he may have even offered to send a draft of the piece to the Future of Humanity Institute for comments before it was published, and gotten no reply.
The closest thing to a charitable, prominent reply to it that I’ve seen is this recent EA Forum post briefly accepting the criticism, and drawing on Scott Alexander’s classic post about “noticing the skulls”. I agree with most of what Manheim says in this post, but I don’t think it grapples with this change very well. It gives the critics some credit, and insists that EAs shouldn’t stop listening in, but doesn’t mention this almost indescribable, gradual shift in Effective Altruism’s relationship with its detractors.
Very early on, when I was first learning about Effective Altruism, something that strongly endeared me to the movement was its willingness to respond to critics, to take their points, and try to evolve with the best versions of those points. This has not been entirely lost, but the movement is less wide-eyed and idealistic on this front than it once was, and this is a loss worth some notice at least. I have written pieces highlighting problems in Rationalism and RadicalXChange, so why not make it a trilogy with Effective Altruism. And as with the rest of these pieces, this one is going to have to touch on Glen Weyl.
A secret which I did not tell anyone about our encounters, not even him, is that the cold email I first sent him wasn’t the first draft. I had previously started composing, mostly as a way of venting and with barely serious intentions to ever send it, a much more frustrated, uncharitable email, detailing all of the ways I have felt about his criticisms in my darker moments, all the things I occasionally secretly suspected about his motives. There are still darker moments when I believe a couple of them, but most of these are things I was thoroughly dissuaded of afterwards. At the time though, I was much more torn. The next day I deleted the whole thing, and composed the much more measured version of it that I did send. I do not at all regret this change of heart.
Okay, I have another secret about these interactions. The phrase “I’m living in your head rent free” may be often misused as a lazy dismissal, but the phrase might as well have been invented for my relationship with Glen Weyl. Weyl has probably emailed with lots of fans with various critiques, and I have no reason to believe he viewed our interactions as especially different from the rest of these. But to me, he was the first public figure I had previously admired to email me back with as much care after a cold email, and we emailed way more than I had with any other public figure. Consequently, I wound up with an unusual, probably unwarranted degree of interest in what he in particular thought about the movements I was in or cared about. I don’t want to criticize him for responding with the care he did, it means a great deal to me that he did, but it resulted for reasons I wouldn’t have foreseen in a sort of emotionally exhausting quasi-parasocial relationship to his criticisms of these movements.
Early on in this period I wrote a piece, with feedback from him, responding to his criticisms of Rationalism, even though I thought many of them weren’t great. I also emailed back and forth with him to try to clarify and resolve our disagreements. Fast-forward to the present day. Weyl has conceded some points of our disagreement, and even apologized for the way he has interacted with Rationalists in the past, apologized in ways I would even consider unnecessarily hard on himself. His criticisms have also appeared to clarify a bit in my opinion, and generally improved, and he seems to have regularly interacted with other critics of his criticisms. In fact, as I was working on this piece, he released a new blogpost outlining many of these changes. On any reasonable standard, I consider him an even better critic today than he ever was. And yet… I am more exhausted with some of his statements than ever.
It takes so little, because I invested so much of my mental energy into his particular corner of the discussion. Weyl’s own response to the Torres article, for example, is something that on reflection did not warrant the frustration it generated in me. One thing that aggravated me about it was broadly the comparison between Rationalism/longtermism and religious extremism. He did not do much to spell out this view (though he discussed it in more detail with Nathan Young in a way that didn’t leave me fully satisfied), but the clearest first question to ask is why he does not merely compare Rationalist/longtermist extremism with religious extremism? The statement seems to suggest either that he doesn’t believe more moderate members of these groups exist, or that even the moderate ones are as bad as the extremists of other ideologies. Both possibilities seem to beg for at least some defense.
A more specific point he made in the surrounding discussion which may have upset me even more was in stating that he didn’t think figures like Ord or Bostrom really have a commitment to pluralism or the idea that theirs is just one worldview of many. I do not know enough about Bostrom’s interactions with other worldviews to comment on him, but to my eyes there are few people who are worse examples of what Weyl is describing than Toby Ord. In his most famous work on longtermism, he spends the whole second chapter detailing seven different arguments and appealing to different worldviews in defense of his position. And this isn’t just tactical slyness, he puts this care for other worldviews into practice in his more academic work as well, being one of the major figures in getting contemporary academic philosophy to take the idea of uncertainty between different ethical theories seriously in practical reasoning.
That said, the thread disagreed with the Torres piece in some ways Weyl wouldn’t have in the past, such as noting that longtermism isn’t actually all that influential, and he mainly said things that I might have expected given his earlier statements. Since I discuss Weyl a good deal in this piece, I showed him an earlier draft of it before publishing and had a phone-call to discuss his feedback. I used a different, I think worse example of my frustrations in that draft, but mentioned I might switch to discussing this thread instead. On the call, he said that he basically agrees with the content of the Torres piece, but felt the tone and overall approach of it was not productive. I have an interestingly parallel, but somewhat different reaction, in that I think pretty much all of the examples it gave were accurate, but its overall interpretations and implications were wrong to the point of being misleading. Despite having some agreements like this, and many of his reactions being predictable, these smaller problems were enough to bring me back to that place where I was when I wrote that first, long-deleted email draft.
And so… despite missing that wide-eyed early EA, I can sympathize with present-day William MacAskill. He wanted to take every major criticism of EA as seriously as possible early on, to help it be a movement that stuck to its ideals of improving, of extending the hand of friendship to apparent enemies, and internalizing every critique as charitably as possible. After a while, caring this much about critics is exhausting. Elsewhere MacAskill has discussed his (unrelated) mental health and anxiety problems. I strongly relate to them, and it seems I am not alone among EAs. By 2021, I can’t be alarmed that he would for the most part ignore critics far better than ones he previously would have devoted great energy to3.
Incidentally, this is now one way that I look at Weyl and RadicalXChange. Starting around the publication of his book, Weyl has responded to his critics with as much generosity as possible, and extended the hand of friendship to them, sought to internalize their points as much as possible. He has recounted this, but I have also seen it in real time, in for instance his signal-boosting of this glib piece from LessWrong criticizing his COVID-19 white paper. While this post seemed to me like a piece of sloppy venting, he is still at the point of being idealistic enough to actively signal-boost it. Truthfully this has led me to be less confident in my own criticism of RadicalXChange. Perhaps it was reasonable, but I now believe Weyl would have somewhat exaggerated to me how reasonable of a critique he thought it was even if he thought it was mostly wrong, as a matter of personal principle. So future readers of it beware4. I wish Weyl luck, quite sincerely, in keeping this up. And yet, I am not optimistic. I cannot think of any modern ideological movement that managed to keep itself in this humble phase for very long.
Effective Altruism, like RadicalXChange, and like Rationalism, is small enough that much of the narrative about it is shaped by the views of a handful of publications on the outside of it who glance in, as Tanner Greer noted about the NYT SSC affair, almost like gods descending from the heavens to declare what your movement now is to people who will never interact with a representative sample of its members. What tops Google, what is the most famous piece of media written about you, how will people react when you introduce your interests to them. This is inevitable, and probably an important part of the process of movement growth, but it makes it hard to shrug off hit pieces, or things we see as hit pieces. Hard to think “well, some more sympathetic journalist will come along and scrutinize this properly”. No one is coming to save you, it is just random small bloggers like me, and a handful of overworked, emotionally exhausted movement figure-heads like MacAskill.
So, I would like to say that Effective Altruists should work hard to return to this early, idealistic phase, the one RadicalXChange (or at least Glen Weyl) currently appears to be in. But I don’t have much hope for that. Let me offer a suggestion that I hope is more workable though, and that I see as absolutely essential: don’t meme the opposition. One exhausting thing about interacting with critics over a long period of time is that, however many times you have tried to incorporate their points, to extend your hand in friendship, you are going to see the same arguments many many times. Sometimes, people just aren’t convinced by your replies, and sometimes, new people come along you haven’t talked to yet. And neither of those things are always enough to make changing the movement the best response.
I don’t want to search out all of the examples, but I don’t think it will take much persuading for my readers to believe that lots of ideologies get frustrated with seeing the same arguments they feel have been perfectly adequately answered, and get some satisfaction out of creating memes (both in the media genre and Dawkins senses) that functionally do nothing but the argumentative equivalent of repeating the words of the critique back in a funny voice. I don’t see a ton of this in Effective Altruist circles right now. My heart is warmed that EA seems to still have enough of an immune system against this stuff that Robert Wiblin, for instance, will occasionally get his knuckles slapped for being a bit snarky on twitter. But I do see this as the next phase in the evolution of movements, the phase movements older than Effective Altruism have very often slipped into.
First you interact with critics as charitably as possible, making all reasonable concessions possible, and taking even the unreasonable points seriously. Then you get tired of doing this every time, and sit back watching what others say about you from the sidelines, only occasionally piping in. Then, when you have seen the same frustrating arguments enough, you make memes. It becomes an understood shibboleth of the movement that you have a grasp on the memes of these arguments. Perhaps long enough into this, you will have forgotten what the actual right replies to them are, and you take it for granted that this point is stupid and bad. This on its own is bad, maybe the criticism didn’t used to be right, but perhaps a long enough time has passed since the meme became established knowledge that the criticism has become more apt, and no one will bother to notice it, because it is not the sort of criticism your people take to heart.5
Even if this isn’t the case, the people on the inside who secretly take this criticism seriously become more and more cynical about the movement. Eventually you lose the best internal critics, and through “evaporative cooling”, the movement is rewarded for becoming less self-critical by getting to become still yet less self-critical. Maybe this stage in the development of a movement is inevitable, and the right thing to do is to notice when the movement has gone too far down this path and to jump ship to a newer one. But maybe not. I miss the old days of Effective Altruism when it felt like all critics were treated as so important and worthy of serious engagement, but I can’t blame the movement too much for slacking off a bit here. I get that. I pray though, that I will never come to miss the current stage of Effective Altruism, the one before the memes started.
In the process of working on this piece, I had a run-in with a current employee of Charity Navigator who insists it is now a very different company that would not put out a piece like this today. This is not especially pertinent to the content of my post, but it is something I think is worth emphasizing so people don’t mistake this as a recommendation against using them. ↩︎
On our call, Weyl suggested another possible explanation (which he doesn’t necessarily endorse, he just doesn’t know what the right reason is). He suggested that early Effective Altruism might have needed to make a positive impression to get more connections and resources, and once it had pulled that off, it saw engaging so much with critics as less necessary. Nick is also quite sympathetic to this account. It is worth keeping this and other possibilities in mind, but the explanation I describe here fits with various other events I’ve experienced that suggest to me this sort of movement fatigue. ↩︎
On our call Weyl emphasized to me that he didn’t think “good” versus “bad” was a great way to think about criticisms, noting both that the effort in communication was another valuable dimension, and that apparently poorly spelled-out arguments are reactions to something, and the mature thing to do is to work to figure out what that something might be and how troubling it is. I agree with this, and along with social dynamic dimensions, feel it is a good reason to be charitable to criticisms even if they seem “bad”. Otherwise I would not find the practice admirable at all. I do, however, think that this winds up casting a very wide net, and returns us to the fatigue problem I wish to emphasize in this piece. ↩︎
Ed. Note: To tangent off this problem a bit: the internet allows us to link the best arguments, not just copy-paste but link them. I almost long for ye olden days of giant indexed argument databases. At the emotional risk of disappointing people yet again with a project that never comes, I do have a secret project idea for a way to fix this problem…] ↩︎