How Effective Altruists Can Be Welcoming To Conservatives

post by ozymandias · 2018-12-20T07:20:01.653Z · score: 64 (34 votes) · EA · GW · 17 comments

Most effective altruists are on the left; only a small number of effective altruists are on the right (as opposed to identifying as centrist, libertarian, or something else). For this reason, effective altruists often assume that everyone interested in effective altruism is a liberal. However, many conservatives are interested in doing good better, and it seems to me that there’s low-hanging fruit in making the EA community a community in which conservatives feel comfortable.

(To be clear, I myself am a liberal. I’m basing this post partially on my own experiences as a person with minority political beliefs in various communities, and partially on talking with conservative friends. I encourage conservative commenters to offer their advice and opinions.)

There are some compromises we don’t want to make in order to make conservatives feel more welcome. Most obviously, we don’t want to compromise honesty. In certain cause areas such as criminal justice reform, many top charities will have a liberal lean. (Of course, it’s perfectly possible that in other cause areas the top charities will have a conservative lean– and part of the advantage of being inclusive of conservatives is that they might alert us to those charities.) As effective altruists, we must report honestly what we believe the best place to donate is, and not censor ourselves based on political convenience.

There are some ways that effective altruist norms have evolved that may make conservatives uncomfortable but that we wouldn’t necessarily want to change. For example, effective altruist communities typically request that people use trans people’s preferred pronouns. Many conservatives (and some liberals) are uncomfortable using trans people’s preferred pronouns, and this norm may make them feel unwelcome. However, I think that using trans people’s preferred pronouns is in fact a relatively low-cost way to make trans people much happier and I do not think the effective altruist community should shift to a different set of norms in order to welcome conservatives.

Nevertheless, there are certain pieces of low-hanging fruit that I think many effective altruists may want to consider picking up.

Much of the low-hanging fruit actually overlaps with other kinds of low-hanging inclusiveness-related fruit we might want to pick. For example, while effective altruism as a movement is consequentialist, many conservatives (and, for that matter, non-effective-altruist liberals) are not strict consequentialists. Remember that most people have some non-consequentialist beliefs and that it is not a completely baffling and incomprehensible situation if someone objects to a course of action for non-consequentialist reasons.

The key thing is to always consider that a conservative may be in your audience. Many effective altruist speeches and essays assume the entire audience votes Democratic, even when the subject is entirely unrelated to politics. It’s easy to make an off-handed remark about vote-trading to get Clinton to win being a plausible EA cause or the president being the world’s number one Cheeto-related existential risk, but these remarks can hurt conservative listeners or readers. It is often worth rereading your speech or essay, imagining that you are a conservative and flagging passages that would make you feel unwelcome.

Pay particular attention to your jokes. Many jokes hinge on the idea that a group of people (none of whom, obviously, are in the audience) is stupid, not worth listening to, or evil, or on misrepresenting a group’s opinions so that they look dumb. These jokes feel awful if you’re a member of that group, and they’re not good from a truth-seeking perspective either– if you want to claim that a group of people is generally stupid and evil, you should defend it properly and not hide behind humor.

In particular, watch what you say about creationists. I have seen many rationalists and effective altruists say “we should engage with the arguments of people who disagree with us, as long as they’re not incredibly dumb like young-earth creationists.” It’s true that there are likely to be few young-earth creationists in EA. However, since political views run in families, many conservatives have young-earth creationist friends and family, and many used to be young-earth creationists themselves. Having their loved ones or past selves dismissed as incredibly dumb can make many people feel like you’re calling them dumb.

Similarly, think twice before making broad generalizations about Trump supporters. Many conservatives voted for Trump (often very unenthusiastically), and even those who stayed home, voted third-party, or held their noses and voted for Clinton may have loved ones who voted for Trump. Calling all Trump supporters Nazis or racists can make even Never Trump Republicans feel like you’re calling all conservatives Nazis or racists. When it is necessary to talk about Trump supporters, try specifying exactly what you mean: say “Trump’s base in the primaries has above-average levels of ethnocentricism according to polls”, not “Trump supporters are racist.”

Take particular care to avoid characterizing all conservatives as sexist, racist, xenophobic, or homophobic. Again, speaking in specifics can help: “many conservatives support reduced immigration, which I believe is harmful to the global poor,” not “conservatives hate immigrants.” Try engaging with conservatives’ arguments: for example, you might explain that the evidence suggests that immigrants do not actually take our jobs.

Scrutinize every mention of Donald Trump with great care. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that we should never mention the president, but I think it is best to avoid mentioning him in effective altruist writing unless he is obviously relevant to the topic.

“If you’re religious, then the most effectively altruist thing is to convert everyone because of the infinite utility of Heaven” is not nearly as clever as you think it is. Every religious effective altruist has heard this argument from a hundred different atheists, including ones whose religion does not actually include a concept of Heaven. No religious effective altruist is doing this. Stop bringing it up.

Don’t schedule all your events on Sunday mornings.

When it is necessary to give political examples, try to give an equal number from both sides of the aisle. I find pro-life causes to be a particularly fertile source of examples. Pro-life advocacy is similar to effective altruism in many ways: its advocates believe that they’re fighting against an ongoing moral atrocity and it involves expanding the circle of concern. There’s a lot of opportunity to prioritize pro-life charities or start new charities based on reason and evidence. For example, as far as I’m aware, few pro-life advocates are exploring provision of long-acting reversible contraception, uterine replicators, or early miscarriage prevention.

When it is relevant, make a point of highlighting the altruistic achievements of conservative politicians. For example, Senator Mike Lee, a Republican, has been one of the strongest voices in favor of allowing animal-product-free alternatives to be labeled “mayonnaise,” “soy milk,” and so on. Not only is understandable labeling important in the short run, it establishes a good precedent for clean meat being labeled as meat, which could help customers accept it as an alternative to animal-grown meat. Similarly, PEPFAR– a program championed by George W. Bush– has saved the lives of at least a million people for only $2,500 a life, competitive with GiveWell top charities.

17 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by MichaelPlant · 2018-12-22T14:42:10.254Z · score: 24 (21 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I want to note a tension in this article. It was about being welcoming by, roughly, not assuming all people you speak to are from a certain group. However, while 'conservative' is a general term, the conservatives under discussion were clearly conservatives in the USA; in the UK, from where I write, there isn't much in the way of creationists, pro-lifers, or Trump supporters. As such, I would like to suggest that one way effective altruists can be welcoming is by not presuming everyone interested in effective altruism is an US citizen.

comment by ozymandias · 2018-12-23T17:03:21.767Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you! You're right. That's absolutely a flaw. In the future, when I write things like this, I'll try to be more careful about highlighting that both I and my conservative friends are American and I can't speak to other countries.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2018-12-25T23:00:24.121Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree, and I was going to say something about this as well. As a Canadian, I notice the tacit America-centrism in EA discourse even more than what Ozy rightly notices is the assumption in much EA discourse we're all left-of-centre. At the same time, going by the 2018 EA Survey, at least one third [EA · GW] of EA community members are in the U.S. Other factors that would be missed by the EA survey are the fact that the majority of resources EA commands are in EA:

  • Between the Open Philanthropy Project and perhaps the majority of earners-to-give being in the U.S., the vast majority of funding/donations driven through EA comes through the U.S.
  • I haven't definitively checked, but I'd expect at least half the NPOs/NGOs who identify as part as or are aligned with EA are in the U.S. This includes the flagship organizations in major EA cause areas, such as virtually all x-risk organizations outside Cambridge and Oxford universities; Givewell in global poverty alleviation; and ACE and the Good Food Institute working in farm animal welfare.
  • In terms of political/policy goals in the populations of different countries, the U.S. will still be of more interest to EA than any other country for the foreseeable future, because it seems one of the countries where EA is likeliest to impact public policy; where EA-impacted policy shifts may have the greatest humanitarian/philanthropic impact, due to the sheer population and economic size of the U.S.; and a country where EA-impacted policy gains can best serve as a model/template for how EA could replicate such successes in other countries.

As long as EAs writing about EA from an American perspective qualify in their articles/posts that's what they're doing, I think the realistic thing for non-Americans among us to do is expect for the foreseeable future a seemingly disproportionate focus on American culture/politics will still dominate EA discussions.

comment by e102 · 2018-12-26T03:02:38.483Z · score: 15 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Most of your advice focuses on behaviours. This is resonable, but I worry that the problem with that approach is that it deals with the symptom of partisanship rather than the root cause. If you think conservatives and their beliefs are fundamentally immoral and alien, you are likely to behave in ways that make conservatives feel unwelcome. Conscious attempts to moderate these behaviours, while good, will always be imperfect. I think one thing people can do is to read higher quality conservative media sources just to see some of the argumentation on the other side. It's much harder to hate people when you realise they have reasons for their beliefs. Then again, maybe that would just have a radicalising effect.

comment by Holly_Elmore · 2018-12-28T14:48:47.976Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Of all the academic, activist, and Silicon Valley-type communties I belong to, EA is the most inclusive to (US) conservative ideas. It's not a very high compliment, but still. The strong free market bent of EA takes most of its members away from mainstream liberal economic policies, i.e. being in favor of globalization (though this issue keeps switching sides). And people tend not to feel any shame about supporting a "conservative" policy if they arrived at it through reason and evidence.

What I do notice is contempt for the culture of American conservatism, beyond even equating it with racism and sexism. Aesthetic horror at the use of guns and big trucks, derision at the idea that anyone could believe Fundamentalist Christianity, considering suburban or rural family-centered life to be lame, condescendingly asserting that the majority of conservatives vote outside of their interests (read: because they are too dumb and driven by fear and hatred to see that we know what's best for them), everything to do with Trump...

I think the cultural stuff is a big blindspot in EA and the most significant way in which we lack needed diversity, but I'm very hopeful that with essays like this, EAs will be open to looking at conservatives differently. And I hope so, because, stripped of culture war baggage, we could use their perspective.

comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2018-12-24T13:57:43.996Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
“If you’re religious, then the most effectively altruist thing is to convert everyone because of the infinite utility of Heaven” is not nearly as clever as you think it is. Every religious effective altruist has heard this argument from a hundred different atheists, including ones whose religion does not actually include a concept of Heaven. No religious effective altruist is doing this. Stop bringing it up.

I don't believe this is representative of Christians involved in EA, but the Pay It Forward Foundation advocated applying EA principles to "saving souls" in addition to recommending GiveWell top charities.

The website now redirects to effectivegive.org, but it's not clear to me whether they've stopped trying to "save souls" or if they're just more subtle about it. For instance, if I click through the donate section, I still see an option to donate to the "Save a Soul Program."

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2018-12-26T01:41:22.403Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

What strikes me as odd to me is this organization doesn't appear to me to operate in a way considered necessarily effective or respectable by the standards of Christian international aid either, let alone EA standards, based on what I know of them. Like, most Christian organizations working in the developing world may have a hand in evangelism, yes, but they partially do so by materially benefiting the charitable recipients as well, such as teaching children how to read, or building and then teaching them in Christian schools. It's not clear from the website this org does any of that.

This creates the issue where if the Pay It Forward Foundation, or its staff or supporters, identify as both Christian and EA, there are in fact some Christian EAs who believe evangelism in this manner is the most good they can do. Most EAs might not be comfortable with that, but the Pay It Forward Foundation might not take us seriously if we tell them they're not effective, because obviously they're going by their own standards of what they think 'effective altruism' means. If they weren't, they wouldn't bother associating with EA in the first place while being so different from the rest of EA.

While they are the minority, there are a significant number of Christian effective altruists. While how to approach the Pay It Forward Foundation seems awkward (at least to me), I think the next best step might be to ask some Christian community members what they think of the Pay It Forward Foundation, and how they believe the community should approach them, if approaching instead of ignoring them is something any of us decides is worthwhile.

comment by Denkenberger · 2018-12-20T17:55:21.270Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think if EA can expand more with conservatives, it could dramatically increase its giving capability and influence. I'm curious about your assertion that no EA religious person is prioritizing converting people. When I talked to a former evangelical, he said that if you truly believe that people are going to hell if they do not believe in Christianity, then you have this burning desire to convert people-it is your top priority. Please note that there are multiple repeat posts.

comment by Larks · 2018-12-20T23:08:52.407Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I thought this article was very thoughtful.

I have one quick question about the examples you mention. While I agree that pro-life examples are a great idea, I'm not sure what you are getting at with the heaven-infinite-value example. Is the problem that people have been using this as a reductio?

comment by Julia_Wise · 2018-12-21T14:41:14.679Z · score: 20 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think it's an absurd example. It's come up seriously as a question about how Giving What We Can members can donate as part of their pledge.

comment by Carl_Shulman · 2018-12-22T18:19:43.954Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

What happened in those cases?

comment by Julia_Wise · 2018-12-23T17:07:26.091Z · score: 15 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Religious evangelism is not counted toward the Giving What We Can pledge. https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2015/11/giving-what-we-can-people-faith/

We realize that some people do genuinely believe it's the best way to help others, but it's far enough from the goals of our project that we think people who want support in sticking to their goals of donation for that cause should instead connect with the many existing communities that favor funding evangelism.

comment by Larks · 2018-12-24T01:54:18.057Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

According to this article [EA · GW] on the pledge:

While the Pledge was originally focused on global poverty, since 2014 it has been cause-neutral. Members commit to donate to the organizations they believe are most effective at improving the lives of others.

Specifically, originally the pledge did not include animal welfare groups, but was later 'amended' to include them. Is there a principled reason to include animal welfare, but not religious outreach? They seem quite similar:

1) Both ingroups have (by their lights) strong reasons to think what they are doing is literally the most important thing in the world.

2) Many/most people agree with premises that logically imply the importance of both causes (i.e. many people are religious and believe in heaven, and many people believe animal cruelty is bad)

3) Both causes are seen as somewhat wierd by most people, despite 2)

4) Both causes are quite far from the original stated and de facto goals of GWWC, namely helping people in the third world.

comment by Julia_Wise · 2018-12-25T13:35:49.117Z · score: 24 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Giving What We Can has always emphasized that the evidence points to some interventions being much more effective than others, although it's increased the scope of interventions it now encourages members to consider.

In keeping with the "evidence and reason" basis of effective altruism, we encourage people towards cause areas that hold up well under at least reason even if there is not yet evidence. For example, there's plenty of scientific evidence on how animals respond behaviorally and neurologically to stimuli that would be painful to humans, so it seems reasonable to conclude they do experience pain, and to consider whether interventions aimed at reducing that pain might be more effective than interventions aimed at other morally relevant populations. While the evidence on something like policy change or preventing GCRs isn't nearly as established, because they're about trying to cause or prevent something that hasn't happened yet, we think there is often good reasoning behind efforts in these areas. We see evangelism as different because believing that people who are currently alive will continue to be moral patients after we can no longer observe any evidence of them having continued consciousness, and that their holding specific religious beliefs is essential to their wellbeing in the afterlife, is called "faith" because it doesn't fully rest on either evidence or reason.

I agree there's not a terribly bright line here, and we could find more cases that could plausibly go either way. There are also more causes that some people consider best but that Giving What We Can would not accept towards the pledge, like white supremacy or destruction of the world to prevent future suffering.

comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2018-12-24T16:07:12.793Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Presumably, GWWC did not want to exclude EA cause areas outside of global poverty. Since animal welfare is an EA cause area, presumably it did not want to exclude it.

1-3 applies to nearly all EA cause areas to varying degrees, including global poverty. The difference, of course, is that EA cause areas (including animal welfare) are supported by evidence and reason, while religious outreach is not.

Specifically, "animal cruelty is bad" is a well argued position, making it very different from a religious belief. See Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.

comment by Kit · 2018-12-24T18:16:03.273Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Also see https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/SfMvGMPYswSwpeGDk/pursuing-infinite-positive-utility-at-any-cost

comment by Yannick_Muehlhaeuser · 2018-12-20T22:35:24.573Z · score: 6 (9 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good and important points. I feel maybe the same care should be taken towards people who have various kinds of anti-capitalist beliefs.