What are your main reservations about identifying as an effective altruist?

post by richard_ngo · 2021-03-30T09:55:03.249Z · EA · GW · 23 comments

This is a question post.

A recent EA forum post [EA · GW] mentioned that at the Leaders Forum 2019, around half of the participants (including key figures in EA) said that they don’t self-identify as "effective altruists". That seems pretty high to me! So I'd be interested in hearing more from people who are hesitant to identify as effective altruists, about why that's the case.

If you'd prefer to answer anonymously, you can fill in this form instead.

Answers

answer by Habryka · 2021-03-30T17:51:15.891Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The movement at large strikes me as too prestige-seeking and power-seeking, and as such has pretty strong antibodies against a lot of stuff that could potentially, hypothetically, pose a PR risk or make enemies of any kind, or seem generally off-putting to anyone. 

I have found that when I identified as an EA, I had a lot more unproductive critical voices in my head that prevented me from considering a lot of potentially good ideas, and it exposed me to a lot of people who would get angry at me if I did anything that "damaged the reputation of the movement". After many years of actively carrying EA as part of my identity, I had noticed that my ability to take directed action in the world had very greatly atrophied, I was much more anxious and risk-averse, and it took me at least two years of internally distancing myself quite a lot from the EA-identity cluster before I felt like I could have novel ideas again and start working on ambitious projects again. 

In short, overall identifying as an EA and placing myself as a representative of the EA community made me much worse at thinking and achieving difficult things. These days I am holding the identity very much at a distance, but am of course still active in the community. I still find this pretty stressful, but mostly think the costs are worth it.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2021-03-31T16:54:29.178Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Since you achieved some internal distance from an EA identity, are there any projects you've worked on, or ideas you've discussed publicly, that fall into the category "I wouldn't have done this before, because it felt like the kind of thing that would have made people angry/raised the 'reputation damage' flag"?

I'm interested in the extent to which the thing that happened was:

a) Feeling empowered to do specific things that run counter to what you think people in the movement would have approved of, vs.

b) Feeling more ambitious and creative in general, even if the results didn't have much to do with controversial-in-EA topics

Replies from: Habryka
comment by Habryka · 2021-04-02T06:54:03.616Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Since you achieved some internal distance from an EA identity, are there any projects you've worked on, or ideas you've discussed publicly, that fall into the category "I wouldn't have done this before, because it felt like the kind of thing that would have made people angry/raised the 'reputation damage' flag"?

I guess... almost everything I am now working on? 

My Long Term Future Fund writeups were something that definitely falls into this category, as does a lot of the grant analysis and debating with people that's behind the final decisions. This is also true for my involvement with the Survival and Flourishing Fund. 

Also, my work on LessWrong feels like very much like the kind of thing that felt harder. LessWrong's reputation is a lot better now, but a lot of people thought I was investing in something quite harmful when I started working on LessWrong, and I was definitely quite self-conscious about it. 

answer by Josh Jacobson · 2021-03-31T16:35:16.500Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm bothered by a certain type of way I observe a significant number of EAs orienting toward the non-EA world. To me, it feels like there can be a lack of understanding, appreciation, and respect for the work/thoughts/opinions/accomplishments/culture of non-EAs that I sometimes find particularly naive and alienating. These experiences in particular drive me to have hesitance in self-identifying  as an EA.

comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-03-31T17:04:40.934Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That definitely resonates, and is one reason why I tend to not heavily emphasize EA as label or community when I interface with the "non-EA world".

answer by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2021-03-31T19:01:37.847Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't feel comfortable saying 'I'm an effective altruist', though if someone asks me if I am one the most truthful answer is clearly 'yes'. I think I'm not that keen on labels in general, though there are some I'm comfortable with, including 'feminist' and 'utilitarian'.  I was one of the participants Jonas mentions. 

This is basically an instinct rather than a thought-through opinion, but at a guess, the biggest reasons for my hesitation are: 
- It feels self-aggrandising to call myself 'an effective altruist'. It feels hard to really know that I'm altruistic (as opposed to doing work I find fulfilling for example), and even harder to know that insofar as I'm altruistic, I'm being effective about it. On the other hand, I understand utilitarian to mean something like 'I think better outcomes are the ones with more wellbeing in, and those are the ones I'm aiming at'. That feels like something I'm happy to claim. 
- Identifying some people as 'effective altruists' feels like it's dividing people unnecessarily. I think most people want to help others, and most people would like to do so in a way that's effective rather than ineffective. Obviously, I really like the idea of there being tools and mechanisms (like this forum) for helping people do that, and also a community of people trying particularly hard to do this and do so in particular ways. And having some label for those does seem useful, so it does seem hard not to do this 'identifying'.  

comment by HowieL · 2021-04-05T19:55:44.769Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

+1

answer by riceissa · 2021-03-30T19:28:29.957Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For me, I don't think there is a single dominant reason. Some factors that seem relevant are:

  • Moral uncertainty, both at the object-level and regarding metaethics, which makes me uncertain about how altruistic I should be. Forming a community around "let's all be altruists" seems like an epistemic error to me, even though I am interested in figuring out how to do good in the world.
  • On a personal level, not having any close friends who identify as an effective altruist. It feels natural and good to me that a community of people interested in the same things will also tend to develop close personal bonds. The fact that I haven't been able to do this with anyone in the EA community (despite having done so with people outside the community) is an indication that EA isn't "my people".
  • Insufficiently high number of people who I feel truly "get it" or who are actually thinking. I think of most people in the movement as followers or promoters and not even doing an especially good job at it.
  • Generic dislike of labels and having identities. This doesn't explain everything though, because I feel less repulsed by some labels (e.g. I feel less upset about calling myself a "rationalist" than about calling myself an "effective altruist").
answer by technicalities · 2021-03-30T15:22:20.586Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I see "effective altruist" as a dodgy shorthand for the full term: "aspiring effective altruist". I'm happy to identify as the latter in writing (though it is too clunky for speech).

comment by ben.smith · 2021-03-30T20:34:39.458Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm the same. I'm a "member" and even a "community leader" in the "EA movement", and happy to identify as such. But calling yourself an "Effective Altruist" is to call yourself an "altruist", at least in the ears of someone who isn't familiar with the movement. I think it will sound morally pretentious or self-aggrandizing. Generally the label of "altruist" should be given to an individual by others, not claimed, if it should ever be applied to describe a specific individual, which actually seems a bit weird regardless of whoever is bestowing the label.

Replies from: RobBensinger
comment by RobBensinger · 2021-03-30T22:28:44.506Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I'm an EA: an Estimated-as-Effective-in-Expectation (in Excess of Endeavors with Equivalent Ends I've Evaluated) Agent with an Audaciously Altruistic Agenda.

answer by DavidNash · 2021-03-30T12:49:25.064Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think I've ever called myself an effective altruist, part of it is the small identity idea mentioned in the original post and another part is that it doesn't seem correct to call myself effective when there are large uncertainties about the prioritisation of causes and interventions, so new evidence could come up showing I was actually very ineffective.

On a more practical level, it's easier to have conversations with people who are newer to EA or are sceptical of certain aspects of it when I'm not calling myself an EA and making it seem like something you are either in or out of.

It's also probably easier to find flaws in a topic when it isn't part of your identity, it reduces the chance of defensiveness, and I think I should try and make it easy to always be open to potential problems in EA.

answer by Aaron Gertler · 2021-03-31T21:36:14.155Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm a big fan of EA philosophy and the people I've met through EA. But I think of EA as a philosophy/movement/personal practice, not a political party or a religion or any other thing that naturally seems to grant an "-ist" label.

While I'm sure I sometimes lapse into the "EAs" shorthand in conversation/casual commenting, I try to avoid it in everything I write for CEA, and I push (gently) to keep it out of things I edit/review for others.

My preference is to say "I try to practice effective altruism" or "I try to follow the principles of effective altruism" (more precise, but clunkier). There are things I associate with EA (trying to increase impact, being cause-neutral, weighting different sorts of beings equally, considering counterfactuals) that I try to do, but don't always succeed at. That's what defines an "EA" to me — goals and behaviors.

comment by MichaelA · 2021-04-05T06:16:16.935Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm a big fan of EA philosophy and the people I've met through EA. But I think of EA as a philosophy/movement/personal practice, not a political party or a religion or any other thing that naturally seems to grant an "-ist" label.

It seems weird to push back against these sentences, since they're is about your personal perceptions and what you want to / feel comfortable identifying with. But these sentences seem a bit odd to me, because I think people do use "-ist" labels for many philosophies, movements, and personal practices, not just political parties or religions or things like that. 

Some examples:

  • Deontologist
  • Virtue ethicist
  • Feminist
  • Pianist
  • Novelist

And I think "-ian" labels are basically equivalent (with the distinction between about what letters precede them or something like that, rather than something deeper). In which case, examples like utilitarian and vegetarian are also relevant.

Maybe your perceptions on this aren't really driven by the "-ist" label alone, but by that label plus it being attached to the sort of community of people that seem more likely to form a shared identity, shared ideological blindspots, or similar than e.g. pianists or novelists would be?

Replies from: aarongertler
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2021-04-05T23:58:34.272Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You've drawn a good distinction here, and I should revise what I said before. 

In my previous comment, I lazily copied the explanation I use to tell people they shouldn't capitalize "effective altruism" ("it's not a religion"). As you say, it doesn't fit here.

The thing I don't like about applying "-ist" labeling to EA is the addition of "effective", which (as many others have said) seems to presume impact in a way that seems a bit arrogant and, more importantly, is really hard to prove.

Are you a pianist? Yes, you play the piano.

Are you a virtue ethicist? Yes, you believe that virtue ethics are correct (or whatever).

Are you an altruist? Yes, you give some of your resources to other people for reasons outside of law, contracts, etc.

Are you a great pianist? ...maybe? What defines "great"?

Are you an effective altruist? ...maybe?  What defines "effective"? You might hold a bunch of ethical beliefs that lots of other people who use that label also hold, but it seems unclear exactly which set of beliefs is sufficient for the label to fit. (And even if we could settle on some canonical set, the word "effective" still seems presumptive in a way I don't want to apply to individual people.)

comment by Linch · 2021-04-01T01:50:41.047Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If I recall correctly, this was not your position several years ago , when we talked about this more(circa 2015, 2016 or so). Which is not too surprising -- I mean I sure hope I changed a lot in the intervening years! 

But assuming my memory of this is correct, do you recall when you made this shift, and the core reasons for it?  Interested if there's a short/fast way to retrace your intellectual journey so that other people might make the relevant updates. 

Replies from: aarongertler
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2021-04-02T00:54:04.065Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting! I don't remember what position I held years ago, but I assume this is about the name of the group we ran? I legitimately don't remember whether it was "Epic Effective Altruism" or "Epic Effective Altruists".

If it was the latter, I don't think I had a strong view in favor of "altruists" — it just felt like the default name to use and I doubt I thought twice about it. (I'm pretty sure this is long before I ever read "EA is a question, not an ideology" or similar posts.)

The first time I saw someone express reservations about the term "effective altruist", I imagine that would have shifted my position quickly, since I don't think I had a strong prior either way. But if that's also not what you remember... well, fill me in, because much of that time is a blur for me now :-P

Replies from: MichaelA
comment by MichaelA · 2021-04-05T06:17:44.193Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(I'm pretty sure this is long before I ever read "EA is a question, not an ideology" or similar posts.)

(In case anyone reads Aaron's comment and is unfamiliar with that post, here's [EA · GW] the link.)

answer by Max_Daniel · 2021-03-31T08:54:02.195Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I feel fine about referring to myself as "an EA" in contexts where this is convenient and doesn't imply major "identity" or "ideological" commitments. And indeed I sometimes do so.

In many ways the label does seem quite descriptive of my views and career goals.

I don't feel like I identify as an EA in any strong sense, or like I would want to describe myself as such no matter the context. For me, this partly has to do how I think about EA relative to other life goals. The way I roughly see it now, maximizing impartial goodness is one of the most important goals I'm pursuing; but there are also other, more personal goals. I feel like tying my identity to just one of them would "privilege" that one goal at the expense of others, in a way that messes with my way of internally resolving conflict between them (and of course such conflicts sometimes to come up). This feels true to me even if it turned out that in some sense, maximizing impartial goodness was my most important goal, or the one I cared most about, or similar.

For a couple of months during the first year after I had encountered EA I was more in a mindset of "EA is the most important/only goal, and I can pursue other goals only insofar as they're instrumentally useful or it would be psychologically impossible for me to not pursue them". Partly this was due to bad social influences. This isn't exactly the same as "identifying as an EA", but I now think my mindset at the time was both unhealthy and instrumentally harmful for my long-term ability to do good, and so it's one key reason for why I'm skeptical about, in some sense, "emphasizing EA too much".

[I wasn't at the Leaders Forum 2019.]

answer by MaxRa · 2021-03-30T12:13:06.652Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My reservation is around the idea of keeping my identity small, as Jonas suggested in his post. I feel 5/5 as a member of the EA community,  I’m just worried prominently giving myself tags like „I am an Effective Altruist“, or „Feminist“, “German“, „Man“, “Vegan“ etc. comes with baggage that will constrain my thinking and behavior without many benefits, compared to saying „I am part of the EA community, I come from Germany, my diet is vegan, I care about XYZ“.

answer by G Gordon Worley III · 2021-03-30T14:43:28.263Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'll note that I used to have some reservations but no longer do, so I'll answer about why I previously had reservations.

When EA got interested in what we now call longtermism, it didn't seem obvious to me that EA was for me. My read was that EA was about near concerns like global poverty and animal welfare and not far concerns like x-risk and aging. So it seemed natural to me that I was on the outside of EA looking in because my primary cause area (though note that I wouldn't have thought of it that way at the time) wasn't clearly under the EA umbrella.

Obviously this has changed now, but hopefully useful for historical purposes, and there may be folks who still feel this way about other causes, like effective governance, that are, from my perspective, on the fringes of what EA is focused on.

answer by evelynciara · 2021-05-10T06:57:33.690Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Even though I identify strongly with the EA movement, I want to be humble about how much my actions actually benefit the world, especially when I have so little experience and wisdom. So I tend to identify as an "aspiring EA" or "adherent of EA."

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comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2021-03-30T13:41:40.027Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's worth mentioning that during that session, we realized that some people want to keep their identity small as a general rule. For this reason, someone specifically asked the following question (paraphrased): "Who 1) has some labels ('-isms') they identify with (e.g. atheist, feminist, utilitarian) and 2) does NOT identify as 'effective altruist'?" And in response to that particular question, around half of people raised their hands. (I didn't count them – might also have been just 30% or so, but definitely a significant percentage. You might think "okay, probably those were the participants who were mainly into AI safety or rationality rather than EA" but that wasn't the case.)