post by Maya Deutchman
As a new transfer student searching for meaning and community, I was drawn to my university’s Effective Altruism club long before I understood terms like “long termism” and “cause neutrality.” Scanning through pages and pages of student organizations, looking for something to be a part of, I was intrigued by EA’s name and mission. The following Wednesday, I showed up at an 8pm club meeting tucked deep inside an old academic building, and was struck by the deeply earnest nature of all of the people I encountered. These were people with ideas about bettering the world that I had never even heard of, much less seriously considered, yet they were happy to answer my barrage of questions and respond to my confounded critiques. I walked back to my dorm room, wide-eyed but content. I was grateful to have stumbled upon this group of people so dedicated to improving the world.
As fall semester turned quickly to spring, I found myself increasingly involved in my school’s EA club. I signed up to be the club’s Outreach Coordinator, and, in January alone, I completed the Intro Fellowship, designed and ordered t-shirts and stickers, set up tables to advertise to other students, coordinated intro talks, participated in the In-Depth Fellowship and organized general body meetings. I was struck by the seemingly simplistic logic of it all. “Why,” I thought to myself, “Do humans make choices that help less people when they could be helping more people? Wouldn’t everyone who cared about doing good join the Effective Altruism movement if only they knew that it existed?” Then, almost as quickly, I realized that Effective Altruism is not a natural shift for people because it asks us to think and act in ways that are fundamentally opposed to our nature. The reality is that people are emotionally-driven, see the world through their own subjective experiences, and are drawn to stories.
As I became increasingly enmeshed in the Effective Altruism community over the course of this year, I developed strong contradictory opinions on the principles and values that the movement embodies. On the one hand, I appreciate Effective Altruism for its emphasis on maximizing good and helping people determine how they can use their skills and resources to best improve the lives of others. I admire the compilations of randomized control trials, data sets, and research studies that back up each claim and tenet. I respect the focus on making people aware of their own biases and illogical thought patterns. However, despite all of its statistics and studies and rationalization, I began to feel as if Effective Altruism was missing something. Our feelings lie to us, sure, but they also tell us the truth. While we should learn to recognize that our feelings can (and do) deceive us, we should also realize that we feel for a reason. Humans are not computers for a reason. If compassion is the casualty of effectiveness then we are sacrificing the very thing that makes us who we are as humans.
In adrienne maree brown’s groundbreaking book, Emergent Strategy, she speaks of not just the role, but the necessity of emotional awareness and authentic relationships when it comes to enacting powerful and lasting social change. brown explains that many current efforts to improve the world, while well-intentioned, are also deeply flawed. Many altruistic organizations “fall back into modeling the oppressive tendencies against which we claim to be pushing…. Many align with the capitalistic belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change” (2017). A major flaw of Effective Altruism lies in its lack of reimagination, its focus on reducing suffering within the capitalist system as it exists rather than conceptualizing a new system in which oppression is reduced and eventually eliminated. Whether intentional or not, Effective Altruism has adhered so strongly to the current capitalist system that it has begun to replicate some of its most damaging practices in its own internal structure. Capitalism functions through commodification, or converting materials and behaviors into goods to be bought and sold. Effective Altruism’s emphasis on optimization replicates the same commodification process, except the “goods” become people’s time and energy.
During my initial involvement with the Effective Altruism community, I found this focus inspiring. I adopted all the new technologies: downloading Slack, making accounts on Asana and Airtable, and learning how to use Notion in an attempt to emulate the methods I was reading about. However, the more I tried to “optimize” my community building, the more disillusioned I grew with the methods I was initially inspired by. Such strategies began to feel inauthentic: 1-on-1 guides that reminded mentors to say “how are you” and urged them to refrain from talking about EA during their first meetings to feign genuine connection; spreadsheet templates that allowed users to code meetings according to priority and friendliness-level; guidelines expressing exactly how to word invites in order to maximize event attendance.
Logically, this emphasis on optimization makes sense: if Effective Altruists aim to do the most good that they can with their limited time, then it is reasonable to expect them to want to make the best use of their time. However, taken to the extreme, an overemphasis on optimization promotes the idea that people have value only insofar as what they produce. Such a viewpoint diminishes dimensionality, separating people from the wholeness of their personhood until they become not who they are, but what they do with their time. Furthermore, an obsession with optimization neglects the value of community-building and relational power as a means to enact social change. Looking back on our history, groundbreaking, systemic social change has resulted from community-driven, deeply embedded activist efforts. Powerful activist groups within the last century - the Rainbow Coalition, the Black Panthers, the Combahee River Collective, etc. - were all successful in expanding equity and challenging the status quo because of their understanding of the intersecting nature of social oppressions and their deep commitment to community.
Some aspects of work and life can and should be optimized - the whole point of Effective Altruism is to help us understand how we can best use our time and resources to do the most good - and that is a noble goal. We should spend a considerable amount of time optimizing when it comes to considering the consequences of our careers, thinking about our existing institutions, and working towards sustainable, long-term change. However, not only do we miss out on authentic community-building when we extend this language and practice of optimization to all aspects of our lives, we lose people amid the numbers and percentages and constant tracking of every second of our days. Community (real, authentic community) is about reciprocal relationships and care rooted in genuine emotional connection. No amount of spreadsheets or color-coding or pre-planned 1-1s will forge authentic relationships. We cannot optimize our way into loving one another.
In order to move forward, we need to build a framework that accounts for the importance of both objective truth and subjective, emotional understandings. We need to abandon the dichotomy, ridding ourselves and society of the notion that fact and emotion are mutually exclusive.
We should progress with an understanding that, first and foremost, effective community development and altruism necessitates deep, authentic community. We must recognize that people hold value simply by existing, that time is a tool with which to cultivate meaningful social change rather than a good to be commodified. At the same time, we should understand that some activist and altruistic efforts are objectively more effective than others. We do have limited time and limited resources, which can be used to do incomprehensible amounts of good or devastating amounts of bad depending on how we choose to wield them. In order to convince people of the power they hold to have a positive impact, we should use stories as an avenue for statistics and fiction as a platform for fact. Instead of abandoning our emotions, writing them off as worthless and ineffective, we should harness them, learning how to let empathy motivate us without destroying us.
We are nothing without our feelings and neither is our activism.
Comments sorted by top scores.
comment by Jay Bailey ·
2022-04-21T05:06:44.134Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Firstly, I should point out that there is an understanding of the power of both stories and emotions in EA already - see here [EA · GW] for an example.Replies from: firstname.lastname@example.org
Secondly, I think you're associating optimisation with a set of concepts (spreadsheets, data-oriented decision-making, technology) rather than the actual meaning of it, which is to maximise what we can do with our resources. If you associate optimisation with these concepts, it's possible to follow it off a cliff. When people refer to the term "overoptimising", this is what I think they mean - applying optimisation-as-concept to the point where it actually becomes less optimal overall. Maximising our resources does mean taking into account the importance of human connection and acting accordingly - applying technology and outcome-oriented thinking as much as we can to make things better, but no further. If you "optimise" to the point of turning people away or quitting the movement in disillusionment, that's not optimising. The goal is not the process.
Thirdly, you mention the following:
Many altruistic organizations “fall back into modeling the oppressive tendencies against which we claim to be pushing…. Many align with the capitalistic belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change” (2017). A major flaw of Effective Altruism lies in its lack of reimagination, its focus on reducing suffering within the capitalist system as it exists rather than conceptualizing a new system in which oppression is reduced and eventually eliminated.
There's quite a few unspoken assumptions in these sentences - assumptions that are quite common among progressive circles, but assumptions not everyone in EA shares. Primarily, you assume that EA's focus is on "reducing suffering within the capitalist system". This is not how I personally view EA's mission, and I'm not alone in this. I view EA's mission as reducing suffering and helping people, period, regardless of what caused their problem in the first place. For instance, I don't see malaria and schistosomiasis (worms) as "suffering within the capitalist system", but rather suffering caused by nature. It's possible that colonialism exacerbated this through keeping Africa poor and unable to fight off these things that Western countries have essentially eliminated, but it is important to understand that this is not a necessary precondition for us to oppose it. I would still support malaria prevention even if it was proven that capitalism/colonialism had absolutely nothing to do with the proliferation of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Something doesn't have to be labelled as oppression for it to be worth fixing.
Now that we've established this, that means that calling something capitalistic does not automatically make it bad in the eyes of effective altruism. It is not a failure of imagination that causes many EA's to oppose creating a new system than capitalism - it is a legitimate difference in viewing the world. EA is not ethically homogenous - for every point I make I'm sure you can find people who identify as EA and disagree with me. That said, there is definitely an existing viewpoint similar to what I have described, and I believe enough EA's are within this cluster that they must be taken into account.
Finally, you mention several problems you see within EA, but I don't see concrete ideas for fixing them. You mention fixes on the conceptual level, like "We must recognize that people hold value simply by existing, that time is a tool with which to cultivate meaningful social change rather than a good to be commodified.", but - how exactly do you propose people do that? Let's say I'm a community builder who is convinced by your message. What can I do, this week, to begin moving in that direction? What might I be doing that's currently harmful, and what can I replace it with?
- Optimisation means "doing the most good", not "Applying techniques generally associated with optimisation". We should be careful not to confuse the goal from the process, since as you have noticed, excessive application of the process can move us further from the goal.
- Many in EA do not view the world primarily in terms of oppressor and oppressed. Many, like myself, view the world primarily as "Humanity versus suffering" where suffering often comes from the way nature and the universe happened to be laid out. Social structures didn't cause malaria, or aging, or cholera. You don't have to agree with, or even engage with, this viewpoint to be in EA. But if you wish to change the minds of people in EA with this viewpoint, it would help to understand this viewpoint deeply.
- Concrete steps to help fix a problem that you've identified will make for more valuable feedback.
↑ comment by Miranda_Zhang (email@example.com) ·
2022-04-24T23:28:17.804Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
As someone who intuitively relates to Maya & can understand where they're coming from, I really enjoyed your comment. In particular, I thought your point on "maximising our resources does mean taking into account the importance of human connection and acting accordingly" was eloquently articulated.
I will note, however, that this frame isn't wholly satisfactory to me as it can lead me to view self-care etc. only as instrumental to the goal of optimizing for impact. While this is somewhat addressed by the post Aiming for the minimum of self-care is dangerous [EA · GW], this outcome-focused frame (e.g., "self-care is necessary to sustainably make impact") still leads me to feel like I have no value outside of the impact I can have and ties my self-worth too much to consequences.
But I know this isn't a problem for everyone - maybe this is just because I don't identify as a consequentialist, or because of my mental health issues! Regardless, I appreciated your thorough response to this post.Replies from: Jay Bailey
↑ comment by Jay Bailey ·
2022-04-25T02:45:23.939Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
While the point I was making was about authenticity rather than self-care, ("the importance of human connection" being about 1:1's with potential EA's, rather than all human connection in one's life) I think your frame could apply to both.
It's definitely true that self-care is necessary for sustainable impact. However, given the question of "In the least convenient possible world [LW · GW], if you actually could maximise your overall lifetime impact by throwing self-care under the bus, should you?" I notice that I am still reluctant to do this or recommend it to anyone else, and that applies to authenticity too. I don't think we should expect anyone to sacrifice their own happiness or their own morality, even if doing so actually would maximise impact.*
It would be wrong to say we should never sacrifice. Some of us sacrifice money, some of us sacrifice time, some of us sacrifice the causes that intuitively feel dear to us in favor of ones that are further away in space or time and don't feel as compelling. But there are definitely things I would never ask anyone to sacrifice, and happiness/morals are two of them.
Part of the reason is consequential. The more demanding EA as a group is, the less people we attract and the greater the risk of burnout we already have. But even in the least convenient possible world where this wasn't a problem, I think that if I had the ability to mandate what people in EA should sacrifice, I would still say "Sacrifice what you can without meaningfully impacting your quality of life". If someone wants to sacrifice more I wouldn't stop them, but I wouldn't ask it of them.
And if the amount someone can sacrifice without meaningfully impacting their quality of life is next-to-nothing, I would tell them to focus on taking care of themselves and building themselves up. Not because it would lead to maximum impact later, even though it probably would. But because it's the right thing to do.
*I could imagine ridiculous scenarios like "Do something you find morally wrong or the entire planet blows up" where this no longer applies, but here I'm referring mostly to the real tradeoffs we face every day.
comment by Elika (ElikaSomani) ·
2022-04-21T15:27:11.038Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I agree. The EA community does need to be better at supporting people as people.
I think your post could include more of the community health work that is being done. While it's by no means near completion - you're touching on topics that a lot of people (especially those not fitting the dominant EA profile) feel and are working on. It's hard to measure improvements in culture and community, but I hope you would agree that it's a work in progress and more focused on now than ever before. The diversity and inclusion tag [? · GW] on the Forum is one place to look for such examples.
I would push back on your point about feelings. You say "feelings lie to us, sure, but they also tell us the truth. While we should learn to recognize that our feelings can (and do) deceive us, we should also realize that we feel for a reason. Humans are not computers for a reason. If compassion is the casualty of effectiveness then we are sacrificing the very thing that makes us who we are as humans".
I don't believe that being in EA means you can't have feelings and compassion. I think it's the opposite - many people seek out EA because they are so driven by their feelings to help, and helping more with the same amount of resources is one of the most compassionate, feeling-driven things you can do. I agree that amongst all the fellowships and readings and focus on doing, the empathy and feelings can get a bit verbally lost - but I think it's still an unspoken sentiment and driver among most EAs.
I'd be curious what the next steps are? Have there been things in your community building and outreach that you think we should focus more attention on? These reflections are good to note - but we should also use them to improve the community.
comment by emwalz ·
2022-05-03T02:23:52.655Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I appreciate your willingness to put this aspect of your lived experience into writing and share it. I hear that's its not inclusive of every angle or experience - and think the forum can be a really helpful place to find people going through similar experiences. Mostly commenting to support the processing, naming, and sharing of the vast, deep, and sometimes confuddling experience that is community building in a goal-oriented, highly calculating community that is very much in the thick of teenage growing pains.