I first got familiar with effective altruism through a campaign for chicken welfare. This campaign spoke of how most of the land-dwelling animals who humans exploit for food [other than insects] are of the chicken species. Over 70 billion of these birds are slaughtered in a year worldwide. Yet, each was their own individual. We could make a big difference helping them, as they are largely factory-farmed in bad conditions and are barely spoken up for compared to our much smaller populations of dogs and cats. Many supporters of this chicken welfare campaign were into a larger movement called effective altruism.
Effective altruism (EA) is about using data and reason to try to improve how we help each other. It considers things like how many individuals are affected by a given issue, how badly they’re suffering, whether the problem is “neglected” (not getting enough attention or funding relative to its severity), and how likely it is than an intervention will be successful. Thus, it wouldn’t surprise you that those who identify with “effective altruism” are generally more invested in chicken welfare than in dog welfare—even though both are obviously important. If an effective altruist had $500, they would rather use it to help several humans avoid malaria or starvation, than help just one person fly somewhere beautiful before they die, even though either one would be a nice thing to do. You get the idea.
Yet, factors in this world are so complex. Something that does not make a wide impact immediately—such as a farm sanctuary that only helps 100 animals—could inspire a mass movement, or cause something bigger down the road. It is also good to think about how we can mitigate not just present-day problems, but future risks. This is associated with the idea of longtermism, which gained popularity from Will MacAskill’s book What We Owe the Future. And effective altruism does not mean you shouldn’t help yourself and your family. Good individual health and community relationships are indispensable if you want to end up helping the whole world. With so many factors to consider, effective altruists have differences of opinion and are their views are not without nuance. Discussions can be found in the EA Forum over at EffectiveAltruism.org.
Why I have liked EA
I liked effective altruism because it invited me to think consciously and rationally about making a difference. I didn’t just want to help in whatever way felt good or would be immediately congratulated by my current friends. I wanted to stop and scrutinize my impact—even if it felt uncomfortable—so I could improve the trajectory of my efforts. I wanted to get more comfortable with questioning myself a lot, and also do a lot more reading to understand the world better.
Two EA-inspired books that empowered me are Suffering-Focused Ethics and Reasoned Politics by Magnus Vinding. These books instilled in me how deeply important it is for our society to prioritize the reduction of intense suffering, especially for those who are worst off or most vulnerable. The books helped me take an interest in politics, too, and to feel that I could bring my real values to political discussions. If I could keep engaging with such big ideas as this through reading, writing, and conversations, I knew I’d become smarter and figure out my contribution. There are even the sites 80,000 Hours and Non-trivial, which offer support for optimizing one’s career from an effective altruist perspective.
Did I belong in the EA community? Not quite. My sensitivity to conflict has made me avoid intellectual spaces, and I tend to be affectionate in my communications. By contrast, the EA Facebook groups I joined felt rooted in logic and matter-of-factness. People were polite, but didn’t hold back from blunt feedback and open debate. Although out of my comfort zone, this represented the direction in which I wished to grow. I hoped to be less mesmerized by my own self-help, more engrossed in world issues, better at welcoming feedback and discussions every day.
EA has plenty of detractors—here’s what I’m learning
Not everybody is a fan of effective altruism. Especially lately, the movement has been critiqued since FTX, a cryptocurrency company and major EA funder, was exposed as a fraud and went bankrupt. Its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, was shaped by effective altruism… evidently for the worse?
At first, I was exasperated by the anti-EA articles. How could people—especially animal advocates—be so against something that encourages including nonhumans and future generations in our care? EA is supposed to be about ongoing discussion, where no one has to agree on the open question of what is effective. I had seen veganism and other justice movements be dismissed based on a minority of activists’ behavior, and it disheartened me to see similar blanket criticisms of EA.
I also felt hurt because I have a sense of neurodivergent pride in effective altruism. This movement attracts many autistic people. While this might show up in some communication challenges between EA and the rest of society, I believe that EA has channeled some of the common strengths of individuals with autism. We often are not the best at synchronizing with social norms, yet at the same time can be gifted at seeing beyond those norms, considering logical possibilities for society that others might not see as easily.
Alas, I better understood the criticism of EA after reading Wayne Hsiung’s coverage of the FTX scandal. Like me, this advocate has been “deeply committed to EA principles,” yet didn’t fit in with the EA community. For example, he was part of a group that was trying to ban fur in California, and they applied to present at the EA Global 2018 conference. The conference did not invite them. Why? Because their approach was too different from the majority of the community. They were told it wasn’t a “cultural fit.” So even though open discussion is an EA ideal, in practice many folks get left out, even if they do have strong arguments for why their approaches are effective.
It’s easy, then, to see how divisions form in the animal movement over this term “effective altruism.” Our professional careers dwell largely in the nonprofit world, which can feel like a fierce competition for funding. Groups whose issues involve impressive numbers—like those billions of factory-farmed chickens I mentioned earlier—are more likely to capture the excitement of rich donors. Meanwhile, grassroots groups that help others effectively, and actually more tangibly and immediately, but on a smaller scale, get overlooked by the money gods.
Wayne Hsiung in his article explained earlier chats he had had with Sam Bankman-Fried. Bankman-Fried was inspired by the EA idea “earn to give,” thinking he could best help others by becoming a rich philanthropist. Hsiung encouraged Bankman-Fried to do something directly meaningful instead, but in the end, Bankman-Fried went the money route. Somehow, he got overconfident along the way—for FTX had a glaring lack of controls to protect investors, and his friends were mostly EAs who thought like him. Of course, some prominent EAs were against FTX. The Hedonistic Imperative author David Pearce tweeted in 2021, “Should effective altruists participate in Ponzi schemes?”
I would like to believe the FTX collapse does not reflect badly on the basic premise of EA. Yet according to Dr. Krista Hiddema of For the Greater Good, it is not an outlier. Here she shared examples of how she thinks seeking to do the ‘most good’ actually does more harm. One example is that welfare campaigns, like the chicken one I volunteered for, struggle to get companies to follow through on what they promise. Some of the promises, including “cage-free,” are debatable as to how much they really help. Furthermore, fighting for better conditions runs the risk of feeding into the industry’s “humane” lies, making consumers complacent to the widespread violence and suffering that is inherent in raising billions of animals for food. In Hiddema’s view, to the extent that such campaigns take funding away from more holistic efforts, they only make things worse.
I have not studied welfarism in enough depth to be certain what I believe, but I do think it’s important for me to nail “good” before I worry about doing the “most” good. I’d rather take part in a small-scale altruistic project that vibes with both my logic and my intuition—that feels right on all levels—than do something big and grandiose that stirs up a feeling of doubt inside me.
I’m embracing “lowercase effective altruism”
Another insightful post, by Siobhan_M, asked “Is EA a question, or a community based around ideology?” I had always thought of EA as a question of what is effective. But Effective Altruism is actually the name of an organization, which answers the question through the causes it promotes on its website. In addition to being disposed towards particular opinions of what is effective, the EA community is also known for being disproportionately white and male. Here is a Facebook group that aims to discuss improving diversity and inclusion in EA.
Siobhan_M suggested that the EA community empower “lowercase effective altruism” by avoiding tribalism. There are people from all walks of life who seek to do good, who either have never heard of effective altruism or do not fit in with it. Perhaps EAs can interact more plentifully with such people, learning from each other’s ideas without the goal to bringing anyone into the core EA community. This could encourage better communication across divides, and EAs can learn through experience how to make some of their positive values and concepts more accessible to people outside of EA.
Whether we relate to the EA world or not, we can all be building connections with diverse outside thinkers—people who contradict our identities and who show us our ignorant spots. We should not be so attached to our favorite theories that we lose touch with what feels right, either. As Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox, “EA has quite literally saved lives, and its critique of mainstream philanthropy and politics is still compelling. But it needs to change itself to keep changing the world for the better.”
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