About the author

I am the author, co-author, secondary-author, ghost-author, and non-author of articles, speeches, book chapters, and even entire books! The most recent can be found at LosingMyReligions.net. Currently, I am President of One Step for Animals; previously, I was shitcanned from so many nonprofits that we can’t list them all here. Before my unfortunate encounter with activism, I was an aerospace engineer who wanted to work for NASA (to impress Carl Sagan). My hobbies include photography, almost dying, and {REDACTED}. I live in Tucson with my soulmate and reluctant editor Anne, along with the occasional snake and scorpion.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Lay Off Effective Altruists (Updated Nov. 21 from Scott Alexander)

As anyone who has read this blog or Losing My Religions knows, I have my  disagreements with some effective altruists (EAs). I also have some fundamental philosophical differences. But after this FTX fiasco, some non-EAs are taking one person's failures as an excuse to mock and condemn the entire idea of effective altruism. (And some EAs are losing their minds and questioning their very identity and “purpose” in life.)

Think about it. Fine, SBF seemingly had lots of money. And he said he was pursuing money for EA causes. But he is just one guy! His money doesn't make him any more important than anyone else; even less so because his thoughts and ideas are not central to EA.

Just because one Effective Altruist did things we don’t like doesn’t mean we throw out utilitarianism or toss Peter Singer under the bus, just as we don’t become Republicans because Bill Clinton was sleazy or give up on meditation because some teachers were predators.

The EA community is a lot of people. Some of them are bad. Some of them are mentally unstable. Some of them are crazy. We don’t judge all of EA on one person – that is lunacy.

Let's think about this from first principles.

These people are altruists. In short, they care about others, not just themselves. They want others to not suffer but instead thrive. 

But they also know:
  1. Some individuals are suffering more than others. My hands and back hurt and my tinnitus is screaming, but I can say with absolute certainty that many people out there are suffering worse, such that they wish to die. So if you are a rational altruist, you recognize differences in need, regardless of any other factors.
  2. Efforts and money have different impacts in different situations. An additional million dollars to Harvard has a different impact than a million dollars in Polio eradication. (And both have a different sign compared to a million dollars to the homophobic Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints.)
Now there is a lot more to say about effective altruism, and no one knows this more than EAs. But this is the bottom line: They want to be as effective as possible in helping others.

Is this true of the critics? 

Or do the critics simply not want to feel guilty? 

Guilty about buying a fancy car, owning several houses, taking lavish vacations? Giving to their church, their alma mater, their kid's soccer team? Caring infinitely more for their kids than every non-human animal on the planet?

Before you pile on along with those attacking effective altruists, ask yourself if doing so is the best way to help the less fortunate. 

And note: If you are sure that you know what EAs should do and how they should do it, I am willing to bet all my savings that you are wrong. These questions are simply too complex to have certain questions. 

More from Matthew Yglesias, who is further from EA than I am. (PS below graphic)

Song: Sarah McLachlan, "Adia," for the lines, "We are born innocent. ... We all falter"

This makes more sense in Losing.


Update following some truly vicious and unhinged attacks on Effective Altruism, November 21, from Scott Alexander:

I’ll take this chance to say: a lot of media is predicting the death of EA, or a major blow to EA, or something in that category. Not going to happen. The media isn’t good at understanding people who do things for reasons other than PR. But most EAs really believe. Like, really believe. If every single other effective altruist in the world were completely discredited, I would just shrug and do effective altruism on my own. If they instituted the death penalty for effective altruism, I would do it under cover of night using ZCash. And I’m nowhere near the most committed effective altruist; honestly I’m probably below average. “Saint gets eaten by lions in Colosseum, can early Christianity possibly survive this setback?” Update your model or prepare to be constantly surprised.

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