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.
A few weeks ago, I spent a few days doing little other work than sitting and thinking about my problems. In 2012, I wouldn’t have dared do that. It would have felt like spinning my wheels. It would have felt lazy and self-indulgent. I would have expected to fail - and I would have been right. But now I can do it.
The difference is that I’ve practiced structured thinking, or model-building. Rather than talk a lot about what that is, I’m going to work through an example.Continue reading →
Recently I noticed that my model of social capital is fundamentally mercantilist, and that's pretty dumb. I seem to be trying to maintain a favorable balance of trade, trying to earn social capital through meeting others' needs, and trying to minimize the extent to which I "spend down" this capital. I have a tendency to spend down my real capital to accumulate social credit. This may often be counterproductive because most social currencies depreciate rapidly, and if instead I asked for help in ways that built up personal real capital (e.g. skills growth, introductions, etc.), I'd be in a better future position to trade for what I need. The obvious next move here is to figure out where I should be investing in myself instead of piling up social credit.Continue reading →