A Semester-Long Course In EA

post by nickwhitaker · 2019-11-18T00:56:57.397Z · score: 24 (15 votes) · EA · GW · 3 comments



Hi, my name Nick Whitaker. Emma Abele and I run the EA chapter at Brown University. We are building a semester-long accredited EA course based on Stephen Capser's (Harvard EA) Arete Fellowship curriculum. I'd love to hear people's thoughts on the course. In particular, we have been trying to strengthen the week on suffering, so any advice on that would be welcome. When teaching the Arete course, many students were asking questions like, "What is consciousness/sentience/suffering," so we want to preempt those.


  1. Th Jan 23: Welcome
  2. Tu Jan 28: Guest Speaker #1
  3. Th Jan 30: Principles of EA
  4. Tu Feb 4: Tools of EA
  5. Th Feb 6: Guest Speaker #2
  6. Tu Feb 11: Moral Psychology and EA
  7. Th Feb 13: Guest Speaker #3
  8. Tu Feb 18: no class [long-weekend]
  9. Th Feb 20: Hard Questions in EA
  10. Tu Feb 25: Careers
  11. Th Feb 27: Guest Speaker #4
  12. Tu Mar 3: Suffering
  13. Th Mar 5: Guest Speaker #5
  14. Tu Mar 10: Addressing Human Suffering
  15. Th Mar 12: Guest Speaker #6
  16. Tu Mar 17: Addressing Animal Suffering
  17. Th Mar 19: Guest Speaker #7 & Midterm project (Career Analyses) due
  18. Tu Mar 24: no class [spring break]
  19. Th Mar 26: no class [spring break]
  20. Tu Mar 31: Preventing Suffering Through Progress
  21. Th Apr 2: Guest Speaker #8
  22. Tu Apr 7: Allowing Flourishing to Continue: X-Risk
  23. Th Apr 9: Guest Speaker #9
  24. Tu Apr 14: The Wide World of EA
  25. Th Apr 16: Guest Speaker #10
  26. Tu Apr 21: Topics Submitted by Students
  27. Th Apr 23: EA in Action & Blog posts due
  28. Tu Apr 28: Workshopping Final Projects [Reading period: optional class unless there is snow-day that causes schedule shift]
  29. Th Apr 30: Workshopping Final Projects [Reading period: optional class unless there is snow-day that causes schedule shift]
  30. Tu May 5: Final project due

In lieu of a guest speaker (if there is an issue scheduling), we will have the following assignment: Choose one episode of the 80k podcast, the Rationally Speaking podcast, or the Future Perfect podcast, to listen to and write a two page double spaced reflection.


Welcome [Th Jan 23]

In this first meeting we will explain the structure of this course and what’s it’s all about. This should help shoppers decide if this is a course they want to take. We will also introduce students to Effective Altruism (EA).

Principles of EA [Th Jan 30]

In this meeting we will talk about the main driving principles behind Effective Altruism.

Tools of EA [Tu Feb 3]

Last week, we focussed on different reasons for why we might be motivated to do good from both a common sense and philosophical perspective. In this meeting, we will talk about important tools from a variety of disciplines that we use to figure out how to do good better.

Moral Psychology and EA [Tu Feb 11]

This week we return to some of the ideas we discussed in the “Principles of EA week.” However, this week, we will be focusing on our moral reasoning: Why are we ethical at all? Why do our ethical intuitions sometimes fail us?

Hard Questions in EA [Th Feb 20]

This week we will be discussing complicated topics in EA theory and strategy. We will begin with a few issues regarding what it means to do good.

Now, we will discuss a few issues that EA’s debate when it comes to how to do good.

Careers [Tu Feb 25]

This week we will begin discussing how the principles of EA recommend we live. One of the biggest set of choices we make has to do with our career. We will begin by looking at some advice EAs have created on embarking on a career to do good effectively.

Suffering [Tu Mar 3]

The two weeks after this week will be discussions of how we can prevent suffering, first in humans, and then in animals. Before we get into these questions, we need to clarify what we are talking about when we are talking about suffering

Addressing Human Suffering [Tu Mar 10]

One of the best ways to address human suffering is through public health initiatives and economic development. It is an area where, even before EA as a movement, much research was done, so we have good ideas about what is effective.

Addressing Animal Suffering [Tu Mar 17]

It probably comes as no surprise that some forms of animal suffering are incredibly large in scale, very neglected and tractable. Notably — factory farming.

Preventing Suffering Through Progress [Tu Mar 31]

We’ve talked a lot about moral illusions like distance in this course so far. These next two weeks, we are going to be asking what doing good means when we dispel another moral illusion: Time. This week, we ask how we can make the future better for those who inhabit it.

Allowing Flourishing to Continue: X-risk [Tu Apr 7]

Last week, we talked about making the future better through progress. But, for the future to be better, it must also exist. This week we will think about making it more likely that the future is able to continue by eliminating existential risks (X-risk).

The wide world of EA [Tu Apr 14]

We’ve discussed the classic cause areas in EA: Global development, animal welfare, and existential risk. We’ve also discussed a possible new area: Progress. Yet there are many other experimental ideas within EA. We’ll use this week to discuss a few of them. While you are looking at these proposals, keep the effectiveness framework in mind. Does the effectiveness of any seem close to the classic cause areas?

EA in Action [Tu Apr 21]

Now that we are close to the end of our course, we are going to begin to prepare for final projects. The goal of your final project is to make a research contribution to the EA community. To begin to prepare for this, explore the following twenty-one organizations and read AT LEAST THREE about at least three that are of particular interest to you. Think about questions the organization's projects or research raise — What could you look into? Are any organizations failing to explore an area or project it might be worthwhile for them to explore? This week’s discussion will depend on what you found interesting, so please come, with notes, prepared to share what you found.

Thanks for reading!


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by AlexanderSaeri · 2019-11-18T10:50:34.177Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for posting this, Nick. I'm interested in how you plan to run this course. Are you the course coordinator? Is there an academic advisor? Who are the intended guest lecturers and how would they work? Who are the intended students?

comment by nickwhitaker · 2019-11-18T14:23:00.087Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Alexander,

We have a program called GISP that allows students to run their own course, essentially a group independent study. It should be able to count for an elective philosophy credit too. There is an academic advisor, a professor in our medical school who has been involved in EA. We've been having a lecture series this semester of EA people in the Boston area. We have a lot of students on our mailing list that we've met while tabling that are either vaguely familiar with EA or expressed interest in learning more about it.

comment by ishi · 2019-11-18T22:44:00.871Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I looked at that article because i saw that a 'self designed course' was also possible which would also have some supervision --the kind of thing I like, and also to see what the curricula was, where it was, and if it had an online 'MOOC' style or distance learning version. I noticed its at Brown, where i went, and see you can even course credit for taking the course--at Brown i did partially self-design a few courses which had supervisors or 'mentors', but wish i had done designed my entire major rather than take the 'easy route' and just take a predesigned one . I ended up taking alot of courses I would have taken anyway, but as result my credential actually makes it look like I prepared for a field i actually studied relatively little and prepared me for jobs i neither want nor am qualified for. Oh well. I'm somewhat familar with most topics (since they are in the EA literature i've read, and discussed elsewhere as well).

MOst likely this isn't for me even if logicstics existed. I would probably would want a self-designed EA course, and perhaps might ot even call it EA. I'll add some comments anyway.

My favorite source on EA is the one about ' prospecting for gold' by Owen-Barrett ( video) --mentioned above. The Atlantic article by Derek Thompson did not impress me (nor does the Atlantic in general for similar reasons). I've seen a few papers mostly in economics which were mathematically interesting , and like alot of EA stuff overlap with discussions by people who don't identify as EAs -- though in their work, donations, or life some would also basically say they try to figure out how to allocate resources to help others the most. Others just do research in math, physics, etc. similar to that done by EAs. (Its possible that is EA, because for some people research is their most useful contribution.)

For others it can art, family, education, even if EAs dont tend to mention those as causes.)

I'm not sure I consider myself an EA because while I agree in part with their methodology --eg Impact/neglectedness/Tractability criteria --and some of their reccomendations (best charities) alot of what I see I am not sure about (and wonder if one can even call it a part of 'effective altruism' if it appears that its not a good use of resources (including time) to even discuss these things--it might be an 'innective use of time'. Some EA people seem to come up with view completely opposite to mine)

Sometimes EA appears to be more like a cult or religion with its own language and theology. Of course often different religions coexist and share similar goals, and permit visitors from outside the faith. Thats what i may be.

I come many times to different conclusions about cause prioritization, and some causes i think are important are basically ignored or 'neglected' in my opinion. I also think the INT formalism, while a first start, is 'underspecified' and may lead to 'poorly posed problems' (and priority rankings) , which is why I often disagree with what i see on EA.

(This is common in sciences of courses---people can use same scientific method and come to different conclusions---sometimes this means one scientific field basically splits into 2 or more. I could see this happening with EA as well, if it hasn't already.

I've never posted anything but comments on EA sites--some of which got many - votes, while others got a few + votes--- and I wonder what would happen if i did post my own article. I sometimes wonder if some of these '- votes' are part of a 'vendetta'. I'm in a science online group which has a few members with 'extreme' views (eg are far right' in politics, 'global warming denialists', people who think "einstein was wrong', etc.---basically 'cranks' or ideologues who do not belong in a science group) who will post a negative reply anytime these issues are discussed by people with mainstream scientific views, or are perceived as 'leftists'.

Other times scientists with somewhat old but mainstream views will sort of try to make anyone discussing less mainstream and newer ideas which they don't like, look like they don't know what they are talking about, and the issues are settled. (These are usually 'arguments from authority' , and are a form of gatekeeping, and can be effective at maintaining authority--people with less knowledge will tend to believe them.

Most likely if I had or was in a 'GISP' it might have as a curricula 1/3rd of what is in the above one (the other 2/3rds would be viewed as supplementary material for people who time and interest), and 2/3rds other things, mostly in math/logic, social science (including semiotics) and complexity theory--though avoiding getting too deep into technical details because its easy to get stuck on an intractable problem, and hence become paralyzed. (I view those as most useful for figuring out what is 'effective'. ) Ideally it would have arts, political, and applied education aspects (ie 'each one teach one'---a 'community service ' requirement) but in a sense these can be included informally or implicitly. An ideal GISP would have a mix of people with different histories, competencies and interests.