Effective Altruism Has a Novelty Problem
why does "doing good well" always make you look like the cleverest boy in school?
You can read ungodly reams of essays defining effective altruism - which makes me wonder if the people who wrote them think that they are creating the greatest possible utility by using their time that way - but the simplest definition I tend to see is that effective altruism asks how we can do the best job of doing good. How do we not just help people but help them most efficiently and effectively? I have two visceral responses to this effort.
This is a good project and worth doing.
It’s an utterly absurd way to define your purpose.
It’s a good project because, you know, doing good is important and we should want to do good better rather than worse. It’s utterly absurd because everyone who has ever wanted to do good has wanted to do good well, and acting as though you and your friends alone are the first to hit upon the idea of trying to do it is the kind of galactic hubris that only subcultures that have metastasized on the internet can really achieve. Every single moral philosophy and religion in the history of the world has had a goal of doing good well. You cannot find a text that attempts to define the good that does not also explain the difference between doing the good well and doing it poorly. Buddhism has whole lines of inquiry devoted to the idea of people who follow Buddha’s teachings to the letter and still arrive at the wrong conclusions entirely. If you’re a Christian, you could argue that the New Testament is mostly a matter of God sending his son to Earth to explain to human beings how they were failing to live up to the rules in the Old Testament. “Do good well” is not a new idea and certainly not an interesting one, and I’m perpetually put out by how many EA enthusiasts seem to think that they’re playing a powerful Pokemon when they whip that definition out.
EA is not alone in this. Effective altruism and the rationalist movement are, at the very least, kissing cousins. That doesn’t mean that I want to hang one on the other, and I’m aware that there are passionate members of each that disclaim the other. Towards both cultures, I’m more sympathetic than critical, and I think if they can get past their pathologies they have a lot to offer the world. But still, these are broadly overlapping subcultures, and the same sense of converts being deeply self-impressed pervades both. “Oh, we should be rational and use reason to try and solve problems? Why didn’t anyone else think of that!” “Oh, we shouldn’t just try to do good, we should try to do good effectively? Why didn’t anyone else think of that!” Exact same energy, and right now it’s that classic internet scenario of a subculture whose members are unclear about whether they want to stop being a niche - the plight of people who have seen greater gains in popularity, and thus greater potential effect, but also of losing control of their culture, of having to rub shoulders with normies, of becoming just another group like any other. Either way, “do good well” is so banal it’s hardly worth saying.
So if EA isn’t unique in its goals, what makes it distinct? Simply, its moral values. Not its project, which again is ubiquitous, but rather the expression of that project. And let me say off the bat: that’s enough. There’s a lot to like, in effective altruism, and I have learned a great deal about (for example) the vagaries of the nonprofit industrial complex thanks to EA people and their patient advocacy. I just wish they understood themselves to be a collection of positions rather than a methodology. Like many internet subcultures, effective altruism is a set of positions on substance masquerading as a set of positions on process. Why the masquerade? Because “here’s a list of things that we think work and things that we think don’t” is much less sexy than saying “we’re the people who want to do good well.” It really is exactly that simple. And for me, that’s the trouble - the correct ideas of EA are great, but some of them are so obvious that they shouldn’t be ascribed to the movement at all, while the interesting, provocative ideas are fucking insane and bad. The first time I googled “effective altruism,” within 10 minutes I was reading an argument that we should commit genocide against all predatory species, as they kill herbivores, see, and that’s negative utility or whatever. Less than 10 minutes. I can’t find that specific link now, but I can tell you that they were quite passionate!
Setting aside the fact that the lines between carnivores and omnivores and herbivores aren’t actually that bright, because nature, this is… well, it’s nuts. For one thing, it epitomizes EA’s Chesterton's fence problem - reforming anything requires not just saying “this is suboptimal,” but asking why the suboptimal condition exists in the first place, and maybe even extending a little intellectual charity to the people who made those conditions happen, and many EA people are in such a damn hurry to change the world they don’t bother. Nature is very adaptable, it’s true, but it’s also in an exquisite balance, and literally killing all carnivores could potentially threaten many more animal lives than it saves, even setting aside the millions of dead meat-eaters. Also, you know, you shouldn’t kill animal life to the extent that you can possibly avoid it, and also great white sharks are gorgeous creatures, and also what the fuck is wrong with you?
You could accuse me of nutpicking here, and I would agree save for the fact that this kind of extremist position is common in EA spaces, and I would argue is inevitable thanks to the social incentives within those spaces. In a lot of EA spaces, the basic incentive structure is to reward novelty; to me, so much of EA rhetoric reminds me of a guy at a party who has an opinion about a movie or band, and when he delivers that bit of showy provocation, he watches to see how much he’s blown your mind. That’s my beef, if you want to distill it down, the prioritizing of the novel over the good, in direct conflict with the simplicity of the movement’s overarching goal of doing good well. And I think the social dictate to provoke makes nutty ideas coming from EA spaces inevitable. When I read about culling all carnivorous animals, I think to myself, if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule? As tends to happen in internet subcultures, even those within EA who don’t arrive at the nutty conclusions themselves don’t want to police those who take the subculture in a counterproductive direction. But of course such policing is what defines matured intellectual spaces.
For example, the insect sentience thing. It appears to be a bit of a trope in EA - “I started investigating effective altruism, and before I knew it I was reading about insect sentience!” And this is supposed to be, I guess, a demonstration of the field’s depth, or breadth, or its weirdness, or its willingness to follow ideas wherever they go, or similar. But let me say flat out… the insect sentience thing is bad. If people are investigating your moral system and they keep landing on debates about insect sentience, that is a demonstration that your system is immature. Adults don’t debate insect sentience often not because they’re cretins but because they’re preoccupied with the basic debates of human politics and morality, the correct amount of taxation and redistribution, the rights of the individual vs. the good of the whole, the meaning of bodily autonomy in civil society. These things aren’t sexy because everybody debates them, but that lack of sexiness shows precisely that the debates are motivated by a concern with consequences rather than with provocation.
I bow to no one in my love for esoteric debates (if you pass that bong I’ll gladly debate insect sentience), but then I’m not a leader in a movement that has defined its project so materially and so narrowly. I think EA needs to (and will) move away from novelty as it matures. They won’t, and shouldn’t, stop taking their ideas to their logical conclusions, but I think they’ll better divide in-group navel investigations from their basic self-presentation to the world.
So consider Vox’s Dylan Matthews, who definitely possesses the zeal of the recently-converted, in an endearing way. This is about EA:
This is my question for all of the effective altruists down there: what if it wasn’t full of weird rabbit holes? What if it wasn’t constantly hitting you in the face with “we should systematically slaughter every last remaining tiger because that will increase the utilons”? What if being an effective altruist didn’t make you special? What if instead of arriving at some achingly clever way to be better than other people, effective altruism was just a boring and quotidian slog to a slightly better world, the way all of the rest of us have to live? What if you did the calculations and it turned out that the best way to solve some problems was with the typical charitable process of starting foundations and hiring a bunch of bureaucrats and giving out money and negotiating with local governments and filing TPS reports - would you still say that you’ve never been happier to be a part of something? Would you still wear effective altruism as an identity instead of seeing it as a tool, no more invested with meaning than a shovel? Would EA conferences still have so many panels with the most “look at me!” titles? Would EA still be a thing you are rather than a thing you do?
I doubt it, for many or most effective altruists. I seriously doubt it. I thought that this (unanswered) tweet response to Matthews laid it out with brutal efficiency:
Interesting is not the same as important. So why are effective altruist spaces dominated by people trying to be interesting? Why do so many of its acolytes seem determined to distinguish themselves from each other, rather than to simply contribute a little bit to the overarching project of making the world a tiny bit better, without expectation of notoriety? Matthews himself says, in the above-linked piece,
what’s distinctive about EA is that because its whole purpose is to shine light on important problems and solutions in the world that are being neglected, it’s a very efficient machine for broadening your world. And especially as a journalist, that’s an immensely liberating feeling. The most notable thing about gatherings of EAs is how deeply weird and fascinating they can be, when so much else about this job can be dully predictable.
That’s its whole purpose? That’s strange; none of that is the same thing as doing good well. And in fact I can very easily imagine ways that it’s actively contrary to doing good well. Again, Chesterton’s fence: why do topics like abortion and the death penalty and the correct energy policy for developing nations in the face of climate change dominate our political discourse, and why do they so often seem to proceed in such tired circles? Is it really because everyone involved is dumb or corrupt, while you and your friends are so much more clever than everyone else? Or is it that way because it has to be that way, because the world is a certain way, because decent people starting from positions of great sincerity and real good faith were doing their best and path dependency brought us to this place where we all feel tired with the same old arguments?
Who told you that you were entitled to inspiration?
I don’t want any recent and passionate converts to effective altruism to lose that passion, mind you. Passion is a beautiful thing. I want them to understand that in politics (and EA is politics, don’t get it twisted), the only passion that matters is a passion for the ordinary, because we live in the ordinary. Nothing gold can stay. Provocations don’t stay provoking. You start out full of fire and if you’re successful in your professionalization goals you get an office and settle in to filing grant applications. That’s life. This is what the radical left can’t understand, is bent on not understanding: if you’re only into it when it’s exciting, if you can only get the energy to participate when you’re rioting in the streets, you’re not really into it at all. You’re just a tourist. Real left organizing is renting the Portapotties for a demo. That’s the work. And the real work of effective altruism will begin precisely when its members stop being so edgy all the time.
Here is a little bit of hard-won wisdom from someone who has often thought that he has found The Thing, the one overarching project or mindset or philosophy that will dictate the path of the good and the decent: The Thing doesn’t exist. You never find it. All Things eventually go the way of your Thing from when you were 20, when you discovered Buddhism/existentialism/Ayn Rand - it inspired and animated you, you thought you had broken the world’s code, then over time, the cracks inevitably showed, and what seemed energizing and limitless within that Thing was subsumed into the plodding ordinariness of everyday life. I am still a Marxist, as I think the Marxist theory of history (which leads inevitably to the Marxist theory of economics) better describes the world than any other philosophy I’ve encountered. But my adult life has been one long repetitive encounter with the limits of Marxism, not because it’s the wrong Thing but simply because it’s a Thing, and in fact my political origin story really starts at the day I walked away from the orthodox Marxist reading groups of my young adulthood. That’s why when we inevitably get to the part of whatever podcast I’m doing that day and they say “now that we’ve talked for fifty minutes, defend communism for me,” I sound so deflated. Not because I think communism is wrong, but because I have come to understand it for its mundanity and limitation. I’m the last person to get people inspired by Marxism precisely because I have lived so long as an ordinary, bored Marxist.
I have been trying to rehabilitate the ordinary in various ways, around here, and I have been trying to gently counsel people to make peace with the ordinary, as that is where they will necessarily live. The ordinary is inevitable; the periods when we get to escape it are great, but they are necessarily brief and usually unplannable. I’m never trying to tell people not to look for inspiration and passion. I’m instead telling people that they should learn to look for it in the ordinary. Often enough I’m saying this in a more emotional or philosophical way. Today I’m saying it in very basic and material terms: I think effective altruism will become a mature and effective movement precisely when people stop seeing it as a way to be special.