My new article on EA and the systemic change objection

post by tdsyme · 2019-02-15T18:27:32.931Z · score: 8 (13 votes) · EA · GW · 21 comments

Hi all!

I have just published an article on EA called 'Charity vs Revolution: Effective Altruism and the Systemic Change Objection'.

I re-state the systemic change objection in more charitable terms than one often sees and offer an epistemic critique of EA as well as somewhat more speculative critique of charity in general.

Some of you might find it interesting!

A pre-print is here: https://goo.gl/51AUDe

And the final, pay-walled version is here: https://link.springer.com/arti…/10.1007%2Fs10677-019-09979-5

Comments, critiques and complaints very welcome!

21 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Halstead · 2019-02-17T19:29:22.990Z · score: 22 (10 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for writing this. Some comments:

1. Labelling. I think it would be useful to distinguish different forms of the systemic change objection. The one you advance in your paper is coming from a socialist point of view, but other forms of the critique, e.g. from Lant Pritchett, come from what could plausibly be categorised as a neoliberal point of view. It might be better going forward to label your critique as the 'socialist critique' of effective altruism, which would avoid lumping it in with the neoliberal one, or any other.

2. Do you think there might be an epistemic modesty problem with the socialist critique? The overwhelming majority of economists are broadly pro-private ownership of the means of production, and pro-market. At root, opinion might be split in this way because the claim that "capitalism causes poverty" seems to be strongly in tension with the history of humanity since the industrial revolution. You seem to think it is clear that we should repudiate existing aid and development efforts, but this might be surprising to someone taking the long-view of humanity: since the 1950s, human welfare has increased on all measures by more than all of prior history *combined*. Seen in this view, what we should do is continue with the approach we started in the 1950s. (I should note that this approach - of increasing economic growth - is not what many EAs are focusing on at the moment, and I think this is an error).

3. Your argument for the claim that charity "does more harm than good" by fostering "none of your business norms" (NOYBs) seemed to me heavy on conjecture but light on compelling arguement and evidence. You note how charity as it exists today exists because people have private property and so don't need to seek approval from the rest of society before making a donation. This is true, but you don't actually argue for the claim that EA charity therefore supports the norm to such an extent that the benefits of EA charity are outweighed. You say "their very existence relies upon and thus perpetuates NOYB norms" This obviously doesn't literally logically follow. By the same token, charitable funding of the socialist part of Great Britain relied on NOYB norms, but you presumably don't think that it is therefore net harmful.

To be clear, your claim is that making a $1m donation to AMF perpetuates capitalistic norms to such an extent that the expected harm is greater than ~200 lives. I find that highly implausible.

4. Clarificatory - You argue for democratic as opposed to private control of key economic decisions, but this can come apart from the aim of reducing poverty. Democracies can and do vote for policies that damage the interests of the poor - witness immigration controls for example. Which do you think should be the ultimate aim for socialists - democratic control or poverty alleviation?

comment by tdsyme · 2019-02-26T15:47:38.915Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi - thanks for your comments! Apologies for the delay in getting back to this. Some responses.

1. Re: labelling. I'm not familiar with the Pritchett stuff - is it his 'four fold smell test', which asks whether the proposed development intervention involves something that actually is widespread in developed countries? It looks like a shorthand that is underpinned by a systemic analysis of the history and causes of development, plus some idea that it will happen the same way now as in the past.

My critique is intended to be primarily epistemic - that EA underestimates the urgency and significance of necessarily rather speculative social analysis - and that this therefore puts it at risk of endorsing interventions that are either not the best available or actually make the problem worse by perpetuating the system that causes it.

I think that is the general form of any systemic change objection - that EA ignores relevant 'systemic evidence' and thus gets the wrong answers about effective interventions. This critique can be mounted from the perspective of any substantive social analysis. I develop a socialist version both because I endorse it (though I don't defend it in the paper) and because there are many lefty critics of charity and I think their arguments have been both a bit weak and unfair to EA and that EA's have often responded with similarly weak and unfair arguments.

2. Two points.

I'm very sympathetic to pretty radical critiques of neo-classical economics, especially in its mainstream dominant forms, so I don't think that there is any reason to think that the majority of economists are correct and, in fact, some basic reasons of institutional incentivisation (as well as ideology etc.) to think that they mostly pretty wrong.

I do not offer a direct argument against the claim that capitalist/growth is the best anti-poverty tool. In fact I am quite happy to shift the argument on to this terrain - the terrain of macro-economics, political economy, historical analysis etc. - my aim is precisely to show that this kind of reasoning is inevitably implicated in any attempt to do the most good, and thus in defenses of charity, however obvious it seems that charity is helpful. And of course I think that there is no straightforward empirical data that proves the overall benefits of capitalism at all or as it has actually played out - the relevant counterfactual (i.e. a history of socialism) cannot be tested.

3. It is certainly conjectural - trying to illustrate a genre of reasoning rather than prove the specific claim. I think its an interesting open question whether donations to socialist charities do more harm than good by exploiting NOYB norms - certainly, socialists will usually insist that giving money by itself is far from a sufficient contribution.

I actually included a very approximate quantitative analysis in an early draft, but it was taken out after review as seeming to contradict the overal argument defending qualitative evidence. But, basically, it does sound implausible but it really depends how you specify the all important 'numbers' about a) how much an individual could contribute to the revolution, b) how likely it is that socialism would happen and work and c) how much better it would be. But: there are relatively few affluent people in the world, those who help start a movement probably 'do more' than those who take it to final victory and its conceivable that a long period of socialism would save a truly vast number of lives, as well as relieving a huge amount of other suffering. Once you think in those terms, the trade off is less obviously in favor of e.g. AMF.

4. Excellent question! Socialists have always had big problems with internationalism vs nationalism and current democratic institutions are a big part of this. Undoubtedly, a really effective economic democracy would have to be international in character.

comment by Halstead · 2019-02-26T22:20:47.987Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi, thanks for this sensible response.

1. I think parts of the argument that you made were only part of a socialist critique, especially the part about donations doing more harm than good because they perpetuate a capitalist system. If you're Pritchett, you want to perpetuate the capitalist system! So, he wouldn't accept your second main claim. So, I think it best to distinguish your critique from other forms of the systemic chaneg critique.

2. I agree that the terrain should be move on to these type of debates, and agree that this is a flaw in current EA practice. Note that GiveWell is moving in the direction of assessing policy.

I often find that most people who criticise the prevailing "neoliberal order" can't accurately state the views in economics that they are criticising, let alone criticise them persuasively. I'm not saying this characterises you, but that is what I tend to find. (side note: The critique of capitalism in Radical Markets is different because it (a) knows the literature (b) has some compelling policy suggestions that fit in with the findings of economics.)

I do think there is straightforward empirical data strongly supporting the benefits of capitalism viz. the big fact about human history that I mentioned in my first comment: progress since 1950 has been greater than all prior human history put together. It is true that true socialism might have done better than this, but it does seem unlikely. Why think it would be better than something this good, without any evidence? Socialist states - those with collective ownership of property - have had periods of growth but tend to have flared out, failed to allocate goods well, or had colossal humanitarian costs. While we can't test the counterfactual, this makes me think that it is very unlikely (<1% chance) that socialism would have done better.

3. I see your point that the numbers could come out in your favour, and thanks for the clarification re the quantiative model. I didn't really see any argument for the view that donations to charity had any causal role in increasing support for NOYB norms. If you think it has some effect, then depending on what empirical assumptions you put in about the value of socialism, you could get that answer (though see my doubts about these empirical assumptions).

I don't see any conflict between using quantitative models and assessing systemic change stuff. Open Phil does this, and I did it for the climate charities I looked at in my Founders Pledge climate report. The argument is: quantitative models are often unrealistic but are usually better than intuition due to protecting against bias and clarifying assumptions. It's better to pull numbers out of your arse than to pull a decision out of your arse.

4. Yes that makes sense, but international democracy could also choose policies that are bad for the poor or for achieving equality. International democracy could e.g. choose to give fewer resources to certain groups due to majority preference, or to criminalise innocuous behaviour such as selling enjoyable drugs. Where do socialists stand on potential international democracy vs poverty/equality trade-offs?

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2019-02-17T17:14:07.004Z · score: 17 (8 votes) · EA · GW
Defenders of EA chide critics for not setting up organizations to evaluate potential systemic changes and for their vague critiques of capitalism. They ignore the entire academic discipline of Social Movement Studies, which focuses on the processes and dynamics of large-scale social change as well as vast quantities of analysis by social movements themselves. The failure within EA to even acknowledge the existence of this evidence, let alone engage with it, suggests status-quo bias.

I have never heard of this field, as have (I suspect) many of your readers. Because of this, if you aim to persuade EAs I think you would do well by following Noah Smith's "Two Paper Rule" here. Can you recommend some papers that are good exemplars of the "vast quantities of analysis" here?

If you want me to read the vast literature, cite me two papers that are exemplars and paragons of that literature. Foundational papers, key recent innovations - whatever you like (but no review papers or summaries). Just two. I will read them.
comment by vaidehi_agarwalla · 2019-04-11T22:06:42.457Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Edit: Upon consideration I think that these papers are more helpful for those already in the field of sociology, and less useful for EAs - specifically in the context of Ben's question. I do believe they are especially useful texts in thinking about social movements and conceptualizing them holistically, and from there drawing insights and connecting these to EA as a social movement.

If I could reply to the two papers question - social movement theory is a subdiscipline of sociology that EA could draw from and contribute to. These aren't directly related to EA but are representative of the literature.

The two papers:

1) An article by Bruce Fireman and WA Gamson called "Utilitarian logic in the resource mobilization perspective" which is absolutely brilliant, it breaks down why social movement theory cannot cut and paste from neoclassical economic theory as was done in the 70s and 80s (see: Mancur Olson's The Logic Of Collective Action). It provides a rationale for using a sociological framework to consider social movements, something that I think is often discovered in EA/rationalist community even though literature exists.

2) Chapter 10 and 11 - Michael Schwartz's Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers' Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880-1890

At some point I will compile a better list for newcomers, and include more recent scholarship, regarding internet-age movements and with insights more directly related to EA (if I find them). A generic social movement theory reader might be a good starting point in the interim. I am also planning on writing a few posts about some observations I have drawn from the literature that are relevant to the EA movement.

Timothy - I haven't read your paper yet but I hope to do so soon, it looks very interesting.

comment by kbog · 2019-04-11T22:49:33.654Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW
1) An article by Bruce Fireman and WA Gamson

I think what we are looking for is work that is actually relevant/useful for effective altruism. This is just meta-commentary on what goes on within SMS.

2) Michael Schwartz's Radical Protest and Social Structure

Here's an accessible link: http://library1.org/_ads/7AD2E4176A3FF00C05EA7802BBD95A04

It's 300 pages long. Even restricting to the theory section, that's 60 pages, with the first article also being 60 pages long. Could be useful but still should be shorter for really meeting the "two paper rule". And the difference between a paper and a book is not just length, it's organization. It's much easier to skim a paper (abstract, conclusion, etc) than a book.

Looking at what he says in the theoretical section - the talk of rationality/irrationality seems directly related to what Hanson has written on signaling theory and what Scott Alexander has written about tribalism. They are covering the same ground, this is not a topic that EAs have been ignoring. Arguably Hanson/Alexander have a more up-to-date and accurate view.

Skimming other parts of this section, I'm not seeing anything with obvious implications for EA. There is a lot of common sense that should be apparent to anyone, and lots of classification and description, but I don't see much about actionable guidance for success. Though part of the problem is that it's about protest movements, which EA is not.

Not to mention - it's over half a century old, and it's about something that took place 130 years ago. A lot has changed since then: different norms, business practices, laws, policies, communication, media. Scholarship that doesn't take these things into account is fighting an uphill battle to be useful to current actors.

comment by vaidehi_agarwalla · 2019-04-12T00:08:48.862Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for your thoughtful reply - I agree that these are not directly related to EA and have edited to clarify that. I also agree that they are older and I was trying to give some exemplars in the discipline, not necessarily the relevance to EA. As to your comment about it being older, and about old examples - I agree, I looked back and realised my comment above didn't acknowledge that, although I meant it to so I've edited to update. Apologies for the lack of clarity there.

Looking at what he says in the theoretical section - the talk of rationality/irrationality seems directly related to what Hanson has written on signaling theory and what Scott Alexander has written about tribalism. They are covering the same ground, this is not a topic that EAs have been ignoring. Arguably Hanson/Alexander have a more up-to-date and accurate view.

I didn't refer to precise chapters, my apologies (that has also been updated, and thank you for the link). The most relevant sections are Chapter 10 and 11 on the organization of protests, specifically his discussions of membership and leadership-organized protests, more so than the rationality part (Chapter 9). I also agree that a paper would be more accessible - I will try to find some in the future when I have some time.

Also, could you expand on the signaling theory part and its link to rationality?

Finally, and this is a point I probably will not adequately express here, I think there is some use to older texts and scholarship if not for rapid adoption but from an academic standpoint. I find that well-written, logical texts often help me consider a separate problem with more clarity than recent scholarship that is about the same empirical topic. (On a more pragmatic note, my familiarity with older texts is because I've researched older social movements where these texts were useful, but I will be doing detailed research in the future on more recent scholarship). This is not time-efficient for people who aren't already in the field, so perhaps the recommendations above were not accesible enough.

comment by kbog · 2019-04-12T02:02:25.666Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Oh you don't need to apologize. All good. Looking forward to more reading suggestions.

Hanson's book Elephant In The Brain is probably useful here for explaining why some people behave more rationally (or seem to behave more rationally) than others. When they join a protest, adopt its symbology and beliefs, that's a very tribal sort of project, so it seems very amenable to this kind of analysis (though Hanson seems to think that his analysis applies to pretty much everything in the world). In the context of social movements it lets us talk about them as irrational actors while still having a scientific, predictive approach rather than telling just-so-stories.

In this review, the writer notes some implications for how to build the EA movement and institutions. I bet you could also apply this stuff to the way that radical activists and academics respond to EA.

But I say this speculatively because I haven't really read the book, I just know the general thrust.

comment by vaidehi_agarwalla · 2019-04-14T23:29:02.814Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Two points:

1) The discussions of rationality/irrationality in the links I cited don't consider irrational actors at all, but rather to be motivated by a set of understandable and even rational beliefs and norms. Fireman and Gamson are critiquing the "irrational actor in social movement" paradigm. Their behavior is "irrational" (in the rationalist sense).

2) From the relevant portion of the article, it appears that this concern with rationality/irrationality is more about how to convince newcomers to join the movement. However, the main contribution of social movement theory is to improving the existing movement and the movement's existing resources more effectively. And for that, I think there is a lot that the literature can contribute, even older literature because the medium of communicaton (Internet) hasn't fundamentally changed the core of a social movement. Instead we can understand as altering the amount and form of the resources. For example, we can attract more resources and members through the internet, but local EA groups are still necessary to create a sense of personal community, provide grounds for collaboration and prevent drift out of the movement.

comment by tdsyme · 2019-02-26T15:54:39.985Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for your comment. Apologies for delayed reply.

Apologies is this sounds a bit snide but...invoking this 'two paper rule' is exactly the kind of faux-smart heuristic that EA's critics have a problem with. It tries to take short-cuts to working out what is the best thing to do and even to justify them as themselves effective. But I think this mis-understands the holistic and historically extended nature of worldviews/movements/anlayses.

Social movement studies happens to exist as a self-identified field. That EA's haven't heard of it may say more about them than about the field. But it has a much longer and broader history in other disciplines and outside formal academia.

So, being slightly facetious, I would say that you should read Marx's Capital, Vol 1. and, maybe, Lenin's 'Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism' - even if some of the theoretical and empirical details are wrong or outdated, the basic analyses retain a lot of force and are undoubtedly key texts in the relevant social movements.

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2019-02-27T00:51:25.017Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Downvoted for not being at least two of true, necessary or kind. If you're going to be snide, I think you should do a much better job of defending your claims rather than merely gesturing at a vague appeal to "holistic and historically extended nature."

You've left zero pointers to the justifications for your beliefs that could be followed by a good-faith interlocutor in under ~20h of reading. Nor have you made an actual case for why a 20-hour investment is required for someone to even be qualified to dismiss the field (an incredible claim given the number of scholars who are willing to engage with arguments based on far less than 20 hours of background reading).

Your comment could be rewritten mutatis mutandis with "scientology" instead of "social movement studies," with practically no change the argument structure. I think an argument for why a field is worth looking into should strive for more rigor and fewer vaguely insulting pot-shots.

(EDIT: ps, I'm not the downvoter on your other two responses. Wish they'd explained.)

comment by tdsyme · 2019-03-28T17:58:39.304Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'm back for some reason!

Here's my attempt at non-snide answer.

I think the issue is maybe not really about doing any particular reading or research, but about worldviews.

One does not usually get 'converted' to socialism or whatever simply by reading a couple of smart articles on the issue. Nor would one necessarily be persuaded of the relevance of social movement studies specifically or anything else if one was constitutionally disinclined to think it worthwhile.

A worldview is not just something we rationally choose based on evidence. It is a complex function of upbringing, education, experience, moral commitments and who knows what other combination of emotional, unconscious or whatever factors. We

EAs seem disinclined to recognise that they do in fact have such a worldview and that it plays a big role in how they think about doing good. Givewell does have some important posts about its 'worldview characteristics' but seems to underplay the extent to which these views are controversial and thoroughly intertwined with its understanding of altruism.

With respect to social movement studies, I think the underlying worldview characteristic is the idea that the most significant social changes usually come about by way of more or less organised collective efforts, rather than isolated individual efforts. The field investigates how these organised efforts work.

But if you just don't believe that social movements are the key drivers of change in human history, I don't think there are any '2 papers' that will persuade you!

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2019-04-07T23:44:42.310Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

This is true as far as it goes, but I think that many EAs, including me, would endorse the idea that "social movements are the [or at least a] key drivers of change in human history." It seems perverse to assume otherwise on a forum whose entire point is to help the progress of a social movement that claims to e.g. help participants have 100x more positive impact in the world.

More generally, it's true that your chance of convincing "constitutionally disinclined" people with two papers is low. But your chance is zero of convincing anyone with either (1) a bare assertion that there's some good stuff there somewhere, or (2) the claim that they will understand you after spending 20 hours reading some very long books.

Also, I think your chance of convincing non-constitutionally-disinclined people with the right two papers is higher than you think. Although you're correct that two papers directly arguing "you should use paradigm x instead of paradigm y" may not be super helpful, two pointers to "here are some interesting conclusions that you'll come to if you apply paradigm x" can easily be enough to pique someone's interest.

comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2019-02-15T22:32:41.923Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · EA · GW

There is also a discussion of the paper on Facebook.

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2019-02-17T19:37:16.707Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

This was very interesting food for thought, thanks!

Taking systemic change seriously would require EA to embrace a much wider range of methods and forms of evidence, embracing the inevitably uncertain judgments involved in the holistic interpretation of social systems and analysis of the dynamics of social change.

This is definitely correct, but I'd guess that where I (and many EAs) part ways with you is not in being in principle unwilling to make commitments to other methods/forms of evidence, but rather, not finding any other existing paradigms compelling or not agreeing on which ones we find compelling.

You can't separate the question of "should I take systemic change seriously" from the question of "how compelling is the most compelling paradigm for thinking about systemic change", so I think you would have a stronger chance of convincing EAs to take systemic change convincingly by arguing why EAs should find a specific paradigm compelling.

Here are some features that might make a paradigm compelling to me. I think the current EA paradigm for addressing global poverty exhibits all of them, but it seems to me that one or more is lacking from (my stereotype of) any current paradigm for addressing systemic change:

  • Tolerance of uncertainty and ability to course-correct
  • Compatibility with our understanding of human behavior (e.g. the tendency of people to follow local incentives)
  • Global impartiality
  • Scope sensitivity (i.e. trying to reason about the relative sizes of different things)
  • Grounding in consequentialism
  • Not having its internal discourse co-opted by status seeking or "mood affiliation"
comment by tdsyme · 2019-02-26T16:17:46.995Z · score: -2 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi thanks for your comment! Sorry for delayed response.

As it happens I think that radical social movements, broadly understood, do have the capacity to course-correct, learning from what has worked or failed before and are compatible with our understanding of human behavior. And certainly they are tolerant of uncertainty - there is little choice but to be!

I'm not sure what it means to be grounded in consequentialism - to invoke it explicitly? Not sure why this would be so important - everyone cares about consequences and radicals have often not been restrained by deontological concerns.

I think that global impartiality is impossible - there is no such thing as a wholly neutral perspective on social phenomena, because qualitative interpretation is fundamental to any social inquiry.

Scope sensitivity: I think that e.g. the distinction between base and super-structure reflects a kind of scope-sensitivity - the idea that some parts of society matter more than others to outcomes and so its more important to change them. Plus the spectrum of reformism to radicalism reflects an awareness of the differences in scale/impact of different social and political changes.

Status-seeking: I think EA has just as much of a problem with this, in light of its affiliation with tech/data/wealth/rationalism, all of which are pretty near the top of cultural, economic and political hierarchies right now!

More generally: I'm happy for EAs to prefer their paradigm - I just think they should admit that any paradigm, including their own, has to be justified in the same inevitably controversial, qualitative terms and that evidence/claims of effectiveness within a paradigm are therefore contingent not just on the 'data' but on these qualitative arguments for the paradigm itself. This puts EA on the same footing as those who endorse different paradigms - doesn't prove EA to be wrong, but does suggest it should be more humble and less inclined to traduce its critics as epistemically lazy or whatever.

comment by kbog · 2019-02-18T10:18:47.628Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

There is a critical omission in all of this line of scholarship - the authors never seem to stop to think about the long-run, systemic value of growing EA itself. They seem to think of it as a bare-bones redirection of small amounts of funds, without taking our potential seriously. It seems prima facie obvious that growing the EA movement has a higher value (person-for-person) than growing any other social or political movement, and the consequences of achieving an EA majority in any polity would be tremendous. As someone who identifies with EA first and other movements second (the framework which the author seems to assume), I think that EA is more philosophically correct than others, so its adherents will aim towards better goals. And in practice, EA appears to be more flexible, rational and productive than other movements. So donations and activism in support of EA movement growth are superior to efforts in favor of other things, assuming equal tractability.

comment by tdsyme · 2019-02-26T16:24:12.445Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I do actually discuss this issue a little, although perhaps not quite in these terms. Critics do argue, in fact, that growing EA as it currently works would be bad because it perpetuates harmful attitudes to charity (see e.g. Gabriel's article).

I can assure you that it is not at all obvious that EA is the best movement precisely because of this focus on charity/individualism etc. and the more general epistemic gaps I discuss in the paper.

EA can certainly be defended as an effective movement, rather than just in terms of the effectiveness of its donations, but this takes on the burden of all the historical and qualitative arguments it has avoided e.g. the tricky stuff about the cultural impact of certain kinds of rhetoric, problems of power and compromise, the holistic and long term impact of the changes it seeks, the relationship between its goals and its methods etc. This is fine, but it puts EA in exactly the same position as other movements - reliant on deeply uncertain evidence and thus to some extent a matter of faith and commitment rather than certainty and

comment by kbog · 2019-02-26T17:19:39.041Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Only a minority of EA's total impact comes from immediate poverty relief.

this takes on the burden of all the historical and qualitative arguments it has avoided e.g. the tricky stuff about the cultural impact of certain kinds of rhetoric, problems of power and compromise, the holistic and long term impact of the changes it seeks, the relationship between its goals and its methods etc

Sure. Now that we are really talking about donations to movement building rather than bed nets. But it's not prima facie obvious that these things will point against EA rather than in favor of it. So we start with a basic presumption that people who aim at making the world better will on average make the world better overall, compared to those who don't. Then, if the historical and qualitative arguments tell us otherwise about EA, we can change our opinion. We may update to think EA is worse than we though before, or we may update to think that it's even better.

However, critics only seem to care about dimensions by which it would be worse. Picking out the one or two particular dimensions where you can make a provocative enough point to get published in a humanities journal is not a reliable way to approach these questions. It is easy to come up with a long list of positive effects, but "EA charity creates long-run norms of more EA charity" is banal, and nobody is going to write a paper making a thesis out of it. A balanced overview of different effects along multiple dimensions and plausible worldviews is the valid way to approach it.

reliant on deeply uncertain evidence and thus to some extent a matter of faith and commitment rather than certainty

You still don't get it. You think that if we stop at the first step - "our basic presumption that people who aim at making the world better will on average make the world better overall" - that it's some sort of big assumption or commitment. It's not. It's a prior. It is based on simple decision theory and thin social models which are well independent of whether you accept liberalism or capitalism or whatever. It doesn't mean they are telling you that you're wrong and have nothing to say, it means they are telling you that they haven't yet identified overall reason to favor what you're saying over some countervailing possibilities.

You are welcome to talk about the importance of deeper investigation but the idea that EAs are making some thick assumption about society here is baseless. Probably they don't have the time or background that you do to justify everything in terms of lengthy reflectivist theory. Expecting everyone else to spend years reading the same philosophy that you read is inappropriate; if you have a talent then just start applying it, it don't attack people just because they don't know it already. (or, worse, attack people for not simply assuming that you're right and all the other academics are wrong.)

comment by tdsyme · 2019-03-28T18:10:15.174Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

And a much delayed response...

It is actually 'prima facie obvious' to some people that philanthropic do-gooders - those who 'aim at making the world better' through individualised charity are not actually having a positive impact. This kind of critique of charity and philanthropy is much older than EA.

So maybe everyone will agree with the thin claim that people who try to make the world better in some way will usually have more positive impact than those who don't try. But this has no implications for charity vs politics or anything else - it seems to be no more than the truism that its good to care about goodness. Though I guess some consequentialists would quibble with that too.

I did indeed cherry pick some provocative issues to put in the article, but this was to illustrate the complexity of the issues rather than just to score cheap points.

And you may well be right that I don't get it, as I am not steeped in decision theory or Bayesian methods. So maybe the point is better put this way: EAs do indeed have this prior assumption that charity is good and a charitable movement is a good movement. But plenty of people quite justifiably have the opposite prior - that charity is mostly bad and that a charitable movement does more harm than good by slowing down and distracting from necessary change. If so, EA and its critics are in the same position - and so its not reasonable for EAs to chide their critics for somehow not caring about doing good or adopting anti-charity positions because it makes them sound cool to their radical friends.

comment by kbog · 2019-03-28T19:25:54.281Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
It is actually 'prima facie obvious' to some people that philanthropic do-gooders - those who 'aim at making the world better' through individualised charity are not actually having a positive impact

And those people are wrong and lacking in good reasons for their point of view. (They're also rare.)

But this has no implications for charity vs politics or anything else - it seems to be no more than the truism that its good to care about goodness.

You think that just because something is a truism, it has no implications? It contradicts your point of view, and you think it's a truism with no implications? It tells us that we don't need to play your game of overconfident subjective interpretations of the world in order to justify our actions.

I did indeed cherry pick some provocative issues to put in the article, but this was to illustrate the complexity of the issues rather than just to score cheap points.

But you gave a very narrow take where the "complexity of the issues" is actually reducing everything into a singular goal of implementing socialism. As I said already, you are picking one or two dimensions of the issue and ignoring others. You only talk about the kind of complexity that can further your point of view. That's not illustrating complexity, it's pretending that it doesn't exist.

EAs do indeed have this prior assumption that charity is good and a charitable movement is a good movement.

You are misquoting me. I did not provide this as a prior assumption. I don't grow the EA movement because of some prior assumption, I grow it because everywhere I look it is epistemically and morally superior to its alternatives, and each project it pursues is high-leverage and valuable. The prior assumption is that, when something is aimed at EA goals, it probably helps achieve EA goals.

If so, EA and its critics are in the same position

From your point of view, literally everyone is in the "same position" because you think that everyone's point of view follows from subjective and controversial assumptions about the world. So sure, critics might be in the Same Position as EA, but only in the same banal and irrelevant sense that antivaxxers are in the Same Position as mainstream scientists, that holocaust deniers are in the Same Position as mainstream historiography, and so on for any dispute between right people and wrong people. But of course we can make judgments about these people: we can say that they are not rigorous, and that they are wrong, and that they are biased, and that they must stop doing harm to the world. So clearly something is missing from your framework. And whenever you identify that missing piece, it's going to be the place where we stuff our criticisms (again, assuming that we are using your framework).

and so its not reasonable for EAs to chide their critics for somehow not caring about doing good or adopting anti-charity positions because it makes them sound cool to their radical friends.

There's something annoying about writing a whole paper that is essentially jockeying for status rather than arguing for any actual idea on the object level. Interesting that this is the pattern for leftists nowadays.