Double-posted from Effective Altruism Forum.
Effective altruism could be said to consist of three claims. Call them Effectiveness, Altruism and EA-morality, respectively:
Effectiveness: When you’re acting altruistically, you should be effective.
Altruism: You should act altruistically a lot.
EA-morality: Global empathy, future lives are very valuable, animal lives are valuable, etc.*
Effectiveness concerns your means, whereas Altruism and EA-morality concern yourends. Now presumably it is, in general, easier to sell Effectiveness than Altruism and EA-morality, respectively. Accepting Altruism means less money and time for yourself, whereas accepting EA-morality might mean a fundamental transformation of your moral values. Accepting Effectiveness means none of those things. Really, it seems very hard to argue against Effectiveness (though people do try to some extent, by all means).
This raises the question of whether it is wise to sell Effectiveness, Altruism and EA-morality as a package deal, as it were, or whether it is better to try to sell Effectiveness alone to some people.
An obvious option is to adapt the message to the audience: to sell the package deal to those who are likely to be open to Altruism and EA-morality, but to focus on Effectiveness when dealing with people who are unlikely to accept those other two claims. You could also, of course, try to sell the Effectiveness + EA-morality-pair (which is what GiveWell is doing, I guess) or the Effectiveness + Altruism-pair if you think that your audience could buy them, given whatever circumstances they are in. In this post, I am, however, going to focus on the Effectiveness-alone alternative.
One reason why this option is attractive is that people are already carrying out a tremendous amount of work which they claim to be altruistic. For instance, most people who do political work, in an extended sense (including voters, people who participate in internet discussions, and so on), would say that this work is being carried out for altruistic reasons. They wouldn’t say that they argue for low taxes, or higher benefits, or whatever, because such policies benefit themselves. Rather, they would argue that they benefit society, are just, or some other reason which is not specifically tied to their own good.
Now of course you could argue that some of these people are fooling themselves, and that the real motives for their political actions are purely self-interested. That may be, but is irrelevant here. The fact that these people claim to be altruistic (when acting politically) suffices to make them open to criticism from Effectiveness. Because, suppose that:
1) They accept Effectiveness.
2) They claim to be acting altruistically when acting politically.
3) It can be shown that a set of actions suggested by the EA-community, X, are more effective at reaching their altruistic goals than their political actions are.
From 1)-3) it follows that:
4) They should change their course of action to X.
This means that if we could make this existing altruistic work more effective, that could do an enormous amount of good. There is one important caveat that must be made here, however. If people get more effective at reaching goals which are altruistic, as opposed to self-interested, but which are opposed to the EA-movement’s goals, then that is obviously not a good thing.
How much existing altruistic work, in the sense used here, has this character? Far less than usually thought, I should say. Even though there are fundamental value disagreements, most political disagreements rather stem from factual disagreements, as Michael Huemer have argued. Most people want less crime, better health, better education, more wealth, and so on (albeit to slightly different degrees). We can discuss this, however.
Also, even if some people do have such “negative” altruistic goals, we could just avoid helping them with those, and focus on making more effective the altruistic work which is, at least roughly, aligned with our own goals.
I take it that some EA-organizations are already involved with making existing altruistic work more effective. That would go for, e.g. 80,000 hours and GiveWell. However, there are many areas where lots of altruistic work is being carried out where the EA community hasn’t been that much involved.
One of these areas is politics. The benefits of making politics more evidence-based and rational, and thereby more effective, should be vast.
Moreover, there is in fact already an existing movement for making politics more evidence-based. For instance, there’s the Coalition for Evidence-based policy in the US and the BritishWhat Works Network. Evidence-based policy is a catch-word in many countries (it’s essentially a corollary of Effectiveness and as such really hard to argue against).
This means that if the EA community would do more work on evidence-based policy, it would have many allies. This is an advantage for two reasons.
1) It obviously increases the chances of success – of making policy more evidence-based.
2) It also provides us with an opportunity to convince mere Effectivists, if we may call them such, to become full Effective Altruists. Once you have acquired people’s confidence, it’ll be easier to convince them of the more far-reaching ideas of the EA movement. This is a general advantage of the Effectiveness-alone strategy.
As a matter of fact, I recently started a network for evidence-based policy in Sweden, for precisely these reasons. We’re only in the start-up phase so far, but people are generally positive to the idea, which makes me think we have reasons for optimism. I’m also running a blog on rational political debate, which is attached to this network (a rational debate obviously makes rational, evidence-based policy more likely). (The blog is in Swedish but some posts in English can be found here.) This work has also been well received, and has got some limited attention by the media.
I thus think there are some reasons to believe that this cause is tractable. It also clearly hasscale and is relatively neglected (most people are working on object-level politics – for this or that political party or movement – and very few work on the meta-level, to make politics more evidence-based and rational). Hence I think it scores well on all of the EA movement’s three cause selection principles.
Politics is just one area, however. Ideally, we would go through all kinds of altruistic works, and point out to people that if you do this for altruistic reasons, then you should be effective, and if so you should do Y instead of Z.
I’d be interested to hearing your views both on the Effectiveness–alone strategy in general, and on the suggestion that EA-members should work on making politics more rational in particular.
* Of course there is not perfect agreement among EA-members on what the EA-movement’s values should be, but let’s leave that aside in this post.