Radicalism, Pragmatism, and Rationality

post by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-03-01T08:18:22.136Z · score: 14 (9 votes) · EA · GW · 2 comments

Summary: I reflect on several years of involvement in effective altruism and allied social movements and intellectual communities to seek an answer to why EA appears to be achieve its goal with much more consistency than other movements and intellectual communities which command much many more members and public attention than EA. Having a bold vision and clear ideals inspire public confidence a movement is authentic. Applying reason, science, and evidence to achieve goals builds a stable platform for a movement better than engaging in a public competition to be seen as the most reasonable and scientific group of people around. Finally, the pursuit of radical ends can be tempered in its volatility by practically learning from past mistakes to not make similar mistakes in the future. Using examples from how outreach and messaging in AI safety and effective animal advocacy have improved over the years, I show how EA has applied these lessons to make constant incremental improvement and progress towards achieving our goals in ways many other movements fail to manage. Hopefully we can draw more insight from these experiences as a community to improve how we relate and reach out to the public even further.

The Importance of Having Radical Ideals

One thing I appreciate about the work Jacy Reese and Lewis Bollard do as leaders in effective animal advocacy (EAA) movement is continually emphasize the pursuit of a radical end. Even though the better evidence always points to the most effective approach to reducing farm animal suffering being different interventions and strategies over time, EAA retains the kernel of idealism of aspiring to end animal farming.

A while ago I read an essay from Current Affairs magazine by Nathan Robinson in which he argued having principles and ideals in an integral pillar of social and political movements. He was talking about socialism. Effective altruism and effective animal advocacy have different goals than socialism. Yet if all movements need to acquire resources to achieve their goals, and that requires gaining increasing public support, than public appeal is a crucial instrument. And the way political and social movements can do that is by sending a clear public signal they have a soul: principles, ideals, and values.

Robinson accurately explains how the Left's capability to authentically and earnestly talk about values in regard to current events is something establishment politics has lacked. This can grant alternative political organizations an advantage. Ironically, while both socialism and intersectional social justice movements have become more popular, Robinson doesn't mention how finding fresh ways to resonate with the public has also empowered their opponents. Yet that both sides can gain public support by appealing to widely held values so much more than establishment politicians shows the importance of doing so.

EA, along with a suite of adjacent intellectual and social movements, like EAA and rationality, are movements that aren't apolitical, but consider other domains of public and private life just as important as the political realm for affecting social change. There are lots of other movements that also do so. Yet what EA and adjacent movements have in common is an emphasis as among their core values a pursuit of truth using clear thinking, reason, evidence, and science. The skepticism movement so well in opposition to resurgent threats to secular society in the aftermath of 9/11. However, in the last several years the skepticism and New Atheism movements have become more fractured along political lines.

There Is Little Rational In Being Radically Moderate

For many people in the rationality and EA communities, the skeptics community might have been the one we'd have been more partial to had we not found EA and rationality, or had we came of age several years earlier. Especially with the injection of New Atheism, and sufficient public support for opposition to harmful irrationality like religious extremism and charlatanism in science and medicine, there was a period of several years when, at least to me, the skepticism movement felt like it had achieved the right balance of hardheadedness and public-spiritedness.

The most prominent leaders of New Atheism and skepticism have largely fallen out of the public spotlight compared to several years ago, save for Sam Harris who has hopped to the closest thing the skeptics movement has to a contemporary successor, the self-identified as classically liberal Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). Unfortunately, due to being formed in opposition to political correctness, the IDW is widely perceived as a suite of self-important apologists for prejudice. As a mostly political movement spending almost all their time trying to oppose the progressive political machine, the IDW has lacked the capability to create a positive vision for the public to rally around.

An advantage of movements like EA and EAA have is being able to have public appeal without attracting as much public opposition. While more political movements have wider public appeal than us, they're also up against movements with arguably millions of members who are in direct opposition to them. Trying to at all times have visibly more power than an opposition just as if not more resourceful can take up a majority of a movement's resources.

This is a point made by economist Robin Hanson about how policy tug-o'-wars of politics prevents social networks which command a huge amount of resources from getting anything else done.

That EA has been relatively successful at avoiding this failure mode I think is a neglected consideration in how the EA movement is able to make so much progress toward its goals. The Open Philanthropy Project [EA · GW] has hundreds of millions of dollars to disperse every year, and by and large EA, and the causes we support, have put much of it to great use. EA Forum user casebash recently wrote a post about what EA has actually done [EA · GW]. These achievements in 10 years of the EA community existing in the form of NPOs like Givewell and Giving What We Can, with most of the progress towards these milestones achieved in the last 5 years, show what concerting focus onto a community's self-directed goals can accomplish.

I think another mistake the IDW makes is mistaking moderation for rationality. They harken back to Enlightenment values as a vision for a better world, and encourage everyone to adhere to them as if this addresses the problem causing the political conflicts we see in the world around us today. A common criticism of EA is it addresses a symptom of social problems rather than solving the root problem itself. While that may be true, it seems to me the extent to which a community is addresses a symptom rather than a root problem falls on a spectrum. That's because it seems the IDW is responding more to public reactions to cultural conflicts rather than trying to address the causes of the problems provoking those reactions. The Enlightenment is an 18th century tradition that shaped the political philosophies of much of the modern world, giving birth to the institutions of capitalism and liberal democracy. In the 21st century, more and more people are signalling they believe these institutions alone are insufficient to solve the problems global civilization now faces.

Friend of the Intellectual Dark Web Steven Pinker went so far in his book Enlightenment Now as to advocate for a dedication to reason as sufficient to see why pessimistic concerns about global problems like existential risk and global wealth inequality are largely overblown. Pinker himself has noted a year later how much backlash this message has received. While it may appear as though this is simply because of increasing rates of opposition to Enlightenment values, I think the reality is closer to more people recognizing a dedication to Enlightenment values alone as being insufficient to address the problems we face. Merely making appeals to science, reason, and humanism aren't enough. The world at least needs bold, new ways science, reason, and humanism are applied and implemented.

A seemingly pragmatic response to global problems of "everything is progressing; stay the course" isn't sufficient to satisfy a public need to prepare for an uncertain future. Having ideals means having a vision for the future with solutions to society's present-day problems. I think EA and adjacent movements find the right balance of pragmatism and idealism to appeal to that section of the public who is seeking a radical movement that has avoided becoming polarized.

Rational Radicalism

I emphasize "radical" not in the sense of being a stereotype of political radicalism, but that EA has advocated for a radically better future for humanity and life on Earth than the world is aiming for on its current trajectory. And I think what's good in the world we seek to preserve was in large part created by spiritual predecessors to EA who at their heights had a vision for a better world as radical as EA's is today.

Lewis and Jacy are keeping alive a spirit of idealism in effective animal advocacy of 'ending factory farming' rather than 'reforming industrial farming,' or 'promoting veganism,' is because its a concrete and clear vision for a world radically different, broadly appealing, and better than the world we live in now. In the last few years, I've seen a fiery spirit in EA dwindle. I do think EAA, EA, and the rationality community have insulated themselves from being hollowed out by politics much better than many other intellectual movements and communities today. Yet I think this more conservative approach to movement EA has instinctively adopted may be an over-correction. In becoming more moderate in our messaging and outreach, EA loses of lot of what initially propelled it.

In 2013 and 2014 when EA launched on the public scene with mass appeal, the boilerplate message for global poverty alleviation was 'ending global poverty.' Over the last few years, that's ben rolled back to the more modest 'saving lives,' or 'cost-effective charity,' as if ending global poverty itself doesn't already entail effectively saving countless lives. I understand in a certain sense it's hazardous for existential risk reduction to have mass appeal, but that doesn't mean it can't have an idealistic vision it inherited from the rationality and transhumanism movements. I agree with a conservative approach to growing these movements insofar as I don'think it makes sense to make an obstinate rejection of any outcome short of glorious immortality the main plank of their outreach strategies. Yet I definitely think a bigger risk is downplaying the seriousness of AI alignment by emphasizing too much AI safety focused merely on lethal autonomous weapons and self-driving trucks (not that those aren't very important problems in their own right), instead of longer-term, more general transformative AI.

As modest as they are in scope relative to movements which command millions of members, EA, and allied movements and communities, forms one of the world's most publicly visible social networks using trying to use reason, science, and evidence to create a roadmap to a radically better future. Given how small we are relative to other movements, and the scale of our own original ambitions, it's depressing to think we might be so alone in trying to directly solve the world's most pressing problems. When EA loses that fire that inspires people to join rather than to look past us with the same indifference they look at other movements with, I'm disappointed. Yet when I think about the unfathomable loss to the world if the outcomes EA fears come to pass, and how unprepared other social movements are to address these problems, EA's loss of ambition scares me.

I'd like to see EA become a torchbearer worldwide for creating a radically better future. In the last few years, the EA community has grown so dramatically, and has changed so much, we're scared to be as bold in our public-facing efforts as we were a few years ago. Yet I think it's something the world needs. Because EAA is the arm of the EA movement most confident in sticking to its original radical mission and roots, I think it gets better than any other constituent community in EA that idealism is necessary to inspire public confidence.

Making EA Rational, Radical, and Pragmatic All at Once

Philosopher David Hume wrote of how reason should be slave to the passions. This notion is a talking point in the rationality community, and has been recreated in the trope of the 'Straw Vulcan,' the fake notion logic is categorically superior to emotion in determining the appropriate content of human objectives.

I think when the average person looks at the world around us, characterized by global inequities that threaten conflict, and crises of global civilization like climate change and potentially dangerous emerging technologies, they see how the world is being run while doing so little to address these problems as unreasonable.

In the face of problems current thinking can't solve, to stick to current thinking is neither rational nor radical. I think EA is both more rational and radical than many movements, and this has been key to EA's success. Not in all cases, but in ours, rationality and radicalism go together.

Neither is an orthodox approach of staying the course in the face of global problems pragmatic. At the same time, a rational radicalism can itself become impractical. Much of animal liberation is still predicated on the notion advocating for individual behavioural change is imperative to end factory farming. Jacy Reese commonly cites studies showing in public opinion most people think factory farming's impacts are sufficiently horrible the industry needs to be radically changed. In other words, factory farming persists in spite of so many people perceive it as irrational in its current form. Yet most people would probably tell you doing so by convincing the vast majority of people to go vegan won't work. So the goal of ending factory farming is both radical and rational, but the typical approach isn't pragmatic.

Similarly with AI alignment, while we may consider it rational to take seriously the radical threat transformative AI potentially poses to humanity, EA went through growing pains of not pressing the importance of this problem on the public, and finding approaches that practically worked. It was over a decade after AI alignment was first conceived of in its current form before the rationality and EA communities had the sense to give AI safety and AI alignment a more approachable public presence. William MacAskill has pointed out multiple times the past mistakes EA made in making a melodramatic case for the importance of AI as an existential risk that turned out to be counterproductive. Similar to earning to give was originally spun, edgily emphasizing the moral value of being a Wall Street bankers at a time when Wall Street bankers were held in lower regard than any time since the Great Depression, William tells these stories to prevent EA as a movement from making the same kinds of mistakes in the future.

Effective animal advocacy has succeeded in a believable vision of how to end industrial animal farming is by weaving a story to tell out of the already effective strategies employed to mitigate the harms of factory farming. Between the potential for clean meat to relieve any need for the world to farm so many animals to feed billions of people, and the unprecedented success of recent corporate cage-free welfare campaigns, people can see in the distance how following the path we're currently on to the end could take us to an end of factory farming. I think if for all causes we can find a way to tell a story of how our best efforts now could take us to achieve our ultimate goals and missions, more people would see how EA's present connects to the future we want to create.

For a long time, global poverty alleviation efforts in EA have been slagged for how they don't aim to solve the systemic problems giving rise to endemic poverty in low-income countries. What a lot of this criticism misses is because treating deadly and totally preventable diseases, or unconditional cash transfers, can free up individuals and families in low-income countries to be free of burdens preventing them from determining their own future, and changing the societies they live in. While different community members will support a cause area for different reasons, it's the case, then, that many of us support global poverty alleviation because we think it's the most effective way to start systemically changing societies plagued by endemic poverty.

In summary, I think it's EA's commitment to rationality that has led us to pursue radical ends, and it's our ability from a community to learn from our own past mistakes that has led to such pragmatic and practical success so far in pursuit of our radical agendas.

2 comments

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comment by Denkenberger · 2019-03-03T16:58:13.171Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Perhaps another way of saying this is that EA should have BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). I think Feeding Everyone No Matter What qualifies, though I might be biased.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-03-04T01:05:39.004Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I think the work ALLFED does definitely qualifies for the kind of effective altruism I'm talking about.