Ozy writes that Effective Altruism avoids the typical failure modes of people in developed countries intervening in developing ones, because it is evidence-based, humble, and respects the autonomy of the recipients of the intervention. The basic reasoning is that Effective Altruists pay attention to empirical evidence, focus on what's shown to work, change what they're doing when it looks like it's not working, and respect the autonomy of the people for whose benefit they're intervening.
Effective Altruism is not actually safe from the failure modes alluded to:
Effective Altruism is not humble. Its narrative in practice relies on claims of outsized benefits in terms of hard-to-measure things like life outcomes, which makes humility quite difficult. Outsized benefits probably require going out on a limb and doing extraordinary things.
Effective Altruism is less evidence based than EAs think. People talk about some EA charities as producing large improvements in life outcomes with certainty, but this is often not happening. And when the facts disagree with our hopes, we seem pretty good at ignoring the facts.
Effective Altruism is not about autonomy. Some EA charities are good at respecting the autonomy of beneficiaries, but this is nowhere near central to the movement, and many top charities are not about autonomy at all, and are much better fits for the stereotype of rich Westerners deciding that they know what's best for people in poor countries.
Standard failure modes are standard. We need a model of what causes them, and how we're different, in order to be sure we're avoiding them.
This is the story of my life, through the lens of motivations, of actions I took to steer myself towards long-term outcome, of the way the self that stretches out in causal links over long periods of time produced the self I have at this moment. This is only one of the many ways to tell the story of my life.Continue reading →
This post uses activism around factory farming as an example, but I don’t mean to criticize animal welfare activism in particular. It’s just an especially available example to me of a broader pattern. My selection of example is maybe even biased towards better causes - or causes I approve of more - since I tend to associate with people doing things I approve of. Animals on factory farms seem to suffer a lot, this can probably be changed at fairly little cost, and we should do so.
This is also not the opinion of my employer. I want to make that absolutely clear. This is my private opinion, it’s not based on the opinion of anyone else where I work as far as I know, and it’s not indicative of my employer's future actions.
Before a recent Effective Altruist event in San Francisco, some potential participants complained about the plan to serve meat. There were two main types of arguments made against serving animal products. One was the utilitarian argument against eating meat. Factory farmed meat, so the argument goes, provides much less enjoyment to the eater than suffering to the eaten. I find this argument plausible, though difficult to judge.
The second argument was that the presence of meat would make vegans (and many people associated with the Effective Altruist movement are vegans) uncomfortable. It would make them feel unwelcome. Some said it would be offensive, it would make them feel the way a barbecue featuring roasted two-year-old human would make me feel. This complaint seemed pretty valid to me on the face of it, and presumably the organizers agreed - the food ended up being animal-free. However, something about the argument made and still makes me uneasy.