Has anyone actually talked to conservatives* about EA?

post by david_reinstein · 2022-05-05T19:05:43.734Z · EA · GW · 23 comments

This is a question post.


Although ozymandias' post [EA · GW] is based " partially on talking with conservative friends"

I don't see much discussion (in the post nor the comments) of ...

actual conversations with US conservatives/Republicans about EA and EA ideas ... reporting what their reactions were.[2]

Has anyone done this? Is there any source material? I'm particularly interested in...

Are there conservatives in many EA student groups? What parts of the EA message particular appeals to conservative students, and which aspects do they hate the most? Are they interested in particular cause areas, or careers, or earning-to-give?

(Note: I expect some of the work and outreach EA for Christians [? · GW] is doing may be relevant, but it's not quite the same.)

  1. People reading this post who themselves identify as conservative: Obviously please do feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts and impressions of EA messages, approaches, and ideas. ↩︎

  2. Note: I added the word 'Republicans' to the above phrase. ↩︎


answer by Ariel Simnegar · 2022-05-05T22:29:47.732Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm a conservative EA who's discussed EA at length with other conservatives.

For context, my conservative friends and I were born and raised in the comfortable left-wing community of Brookline, Massachusetts. I went to a very non-elite state school. One of the friends in the group I discuss here goes to military school and has an eye on a longer term political career.

Things my conservative friends (and I) like about EA:

  • The philosophy of choosing to make important life choices in a way which rigorously adheres to one's ethical principles.
  • Many religions mandate tithes (portions of one's income to be given to the poor), so my conservative friends see earning to give as complementary towards both secular and religious morality.
  • EA thought tends to regard solving problems like racism, sexism, and homophobia to be far less marginally impactful than poverty, malnutrition, and disease. Conservatives tend to believe that the former social issues occupy far too large a space in the American mind.
  • Liberal democracy is hailed by both EAs and (in the classical sense) conservatives.
  • The ability of EAs to talk to people on both sides of the political aisle without making emotional arguments, accusing the other side (conservatives) of disingenuousness, or behaving uncivilly. In my personal experience, these behaviors are shockingly common from the general population towards conservatives, but I've never had a fellow EA act that way towards me.
  • At the risk of repeating myself, rationality! My anecdotal experience is that those with unpopular opinions on contentious issues have often thought deeply about the issue at hand before coming to a conclusion, whereas it's easy to absorb and echo a popular opinion without thinking it through. For nearly all Western universities, conservative students are in the minority, and having a discussion with a left-wing peer who's spent substantial time thinking their ideology through is a huge breath of fresh air.

Things my conservative friends dislike about EA:

  • They're typically meat lovers XD
  • There are libertarian EAs, but the consequentialist core of much of EA thought disagrees with the idea that classical liberal principles are conclusively true. For example, one could construct a consequentialist hypothetical where restricting freedom of speech would be the right thing to do to maximize happiness, even if one believes that freedom of speech is in general an extremely important principle.
  • Conservatism tends to prioritize classically liberal principles and traditional institutions, which broadly tends towards a deontological ethical philosophy rather than a consequentialist one.
  • EA does have respect for institutions, but I think it's fair to say that the conservative prior on the value of institutions is greater than the EA prior.
  • There are some liberal policies that are difficult to avoid explicitly endorsing as an EA; for example, increasing foreign aid, socializing healthcare, and increasing environmental protections. This isn't something my conservative friends "dislike" about EA per se (as we're well-conditioned to avoid disliking somebody just because of their political views), but it is an ideological hurdle to deal with for a conservative trying to take on an EA mindset.
  • There's an undercurrent in liberal thinking where it's assumed that conservatives are at the very least ignorant and at the most acting in bad faith. EAs are quite good at avoiding that for the most part, but it does sometimes seep in, and it's frankly awful for discourse and doesn't help anybody.
  • There aren't any prominent conservative EAs (or at least none that I've heard of). As a result, EA thought tends to ignore conservative perspectives in general, even when (in my opinion as a conservative) they can be highly valuable. For example, I believe there's a seriously compelling argument that abortion should be considered an EA issue. (I've written my argument here if anybody would like to take a look. Please do comment as I'm highly interested in feedback!)
comment by Charles He · 2022-05-06T03:08:11.135Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There aren't any prominent conservative EAs (or at least none that I've heard of). As a result, EA thought tends to ignore conservative perspectives in general, even when (in my opinion as a conservative) they can be highly valuable. 

You care deeply about human life, and I think you are fighting for others, but the particular topic you linked to, might be difficult to talk about right now.

Is there another topic you wanted to discuss, or you think other conservatives here would share an interest in? 

Maybe a topic, where once discussion starts, might be illuminating or build a bridge toward "conservative" thinking?

Replies from: Ariel Simnegar
comment by Ariel Simnegar · 2022-05-06T13:14:57.848Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sure! Conservatives and libertarians in the United States hail the separation of powers between the federal and state governments. The framers explicitly designed this separation of powers to stymie tyrannical actors: 

The smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens" (Madison, Federalist No. 10).

The framers' intentions were for the vast majority of actual governance to take place at the state level, with the federal government's enumerated powers used primarily for foreign relations:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State. (Madison, Federalist No. 45)

I think this separation of powers is an extremely valuable idea. Federalism lends the United States a Byzantine fault tolerance with redundancy in the form of individual states. Novel policies can be experimented with on the state level, pros and cons can be assessed, and either other states will be convinced by the marketplace of ideas to adopt the policy or the policy will be rolled back. Even in the worst case where some states succumb to tyranny, the United States will endure.

As the centuries have passed, power has become increasingly concentrated in the federal government, and our politics have become nationalized to the point that virtually every contentious issue today concerns the actions of the federal government.

Progressives (and many EAs) have been frustrated about how the filibuster has prevented Democrats in the federal government from delivering on their ambitious promises during the 2020 election cycle and how conservative the Supreme Court is. The existence of the filibuster, which admittedly was very much unintended by the framers, has the useful role of decreasing the effective power of the federal government. The Supreme Court's power has expanded drastically outside of its original confines to the point that it can be stacked (or has been stacked, depending upon your point of view) to create tyrannical outcomes. I think EAs (and progressives writ large) could do with a greater appreciation of federalism and ways the concept of separation of powers could be extended to our altruistic goals.

comment by Charles He · 2022-05-05T23:43:37.316Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This was extremely informative and gave balanced and thoughtful perspectives, thanks!


Also, I don't mean to ignore it, but there's a big issue related to the document you linked and too hard to talk about (the bigness is not about the normal politics or recent SC actions; also no one asked, but I personally 1000% support abortion rights in the lefty/coastal liberal sense).

Replies from: Ariel Simnegar
comment by Ariel Simnegar · 2022-05-06T13:16:47.844Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You're very welcome!

comment by Denkenberger · 2022-05-13T06:11:38.302Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Strong upvote. I would guess that another commonality between EAs and conservatives is not tending to resent the rich and their philanthropy, as many on the left do.

comment by Yitz · 2022-05-06T11:09:50.388Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’m curious if you have any friends who identify as “far right” or “alt-right”—do their views on EA substantially differ?

Replies from: Ariel Simnegar
comment by Ariel Simnegar · 2022-05-06T14:33:33.232Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have friends who'd identify as "deeply conservative" who I'd include in my above answer, but I'd opine that "deeply conservative" is a significantly different characterization from "far right" in modern American politics. For example, conservative values support upholding the integrity of institutions, not insurrection and/or attempts to overturn democratic elections. Unfortunately I can't give you an informed answer on "far right" or "alt-right" types.

comment by Randomized, Controlled (LKor) · 2022-05-06T00:12:18.896Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

>There aren't any prominent conservative EAs (or at least none that I've heard of).

I feel like Tyler Cowen is reasonably libertarian/right of centre. I don't know if he would call himself an EA, but he has an account on the forum, under his full name. I feel like he's pretty well know, at least in these circles.. 

Replies from: dumont
comment by dumont · 2022-05-06T03:11:03.535Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

OP was asking about US conservatives/Republicans, which is a different set of people than libertarians (which is where I'd probably put Tyler). For example, in the 2019 survey [EA(p) · GW(p)] libertarians were 8.7% of the respondents, whereas 'right' and 'center right' were a combined 3.4%. (Note that US respondents were roughly 40%, so a one-to-one comparison can't be made without further analysis.)

Replies from: LKor
comment by Randomized, Controlled (LKor) · 2022-05-06T16:36:10.315Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I can see "Republican" becoming its own cluster in the last couple of decades, but what cleanly distinguishes small-c conservative from libertarian? Eg, I definitely would not call Cowen a Republican, but I get the sense he might be somewhat conservative in how he thinks about development, economics and institutions. 

answer by BrigidSlipka · 2022-05-06T12:37:32.835Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My impression of the George Mason academics is that they lean conservative.

Another conservative message I have seen among EAs is a general anti-tax sentiment. This has included practical advice on promotion of donor-advised funds, a personal asset that serves to reduce taxes. The argument seems to be that an EA can better direct what would have been taxes to a high impact charity than the government would be able to spend it.

answer by Randomized, Controlled (RandomizeControlled) · 2022-05-06T00:19:31.370Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Don't know if you want to include "podcast conversations" in your set here, but if you do:

Russ Roberts is fairly conservative, also seemed quite thoughtful and to have good epistemology, when I was listening to econtalk regularly (which hasn't been in a few years). He had a conversation with Bostrom, about AGI, which I thought went terribly (no good, bad bad bad). He also had a conversation with MacAskill, which I don't remember as well, but I have the general sense that it also didn't go super well. Maybe worth a re-listen. He's probably talked with some other major figures, if you go digging in the archives -- there have been a lot of development economists, some of whom are probably important to EA research. 

comment by Julia_Wise · 2022-05-06T01:46:42.713Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Another Russ Roberts - EA overlap was his interview with Peter Singer. I first heard him discussing it with another guest who said "Wow, that Peter Singer interview was crazy, you must have really been biting your tongue" and Russ agreed he'd been holding back. Then I went back and listened to the Singer interview and . . . couldn't figure out what the crazy part was supposed to be. So apparently I can't pass an intellectual Turing test as Mike Munger or Russ Roberts.


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comment by Easton Lambson · 2022-05-06T15:54:53.297Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I am the president of the EA group at BYU-Idaho, which has been ranked by some sources as the #1 most conservative school in America. With that being said, nearly all of our 21 members are conservative, including myself. Our university is likewise a private religious institution, with the vast majority of students (~98%) professing devotion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Naturally, the tenets of Effective Altruism are seen more as a useful tool that empowers us as Christians to fulfill Jesus Christ's commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:39). The EA model for global health and poverty is therefor of especial interest to our members. 

Due to the nature of our conviction, EAs within our circle typically do not attach much weight to x-risk causes that would vastly reduce the human population and stifle the likelihood of intelligent life reforming (e.g., asteroids or super-volcanic eruptions).

 Additionally, though our faith demands the proper treatment of animals and contains a health code which limits our consumption of meat, few members from both our uni-group and the Church at large adhere to this precept. Surprisingly, we have seen several members of our EA group adopt a vegan or plant based lifestyle proceeding our discussions on animal rights/factory farming and how it  relates to our belief.

For sake of time, I'm afraid I cannot offer more information. If you would be interested in talking in person, possibly at an EAG conference or virtually, I would be happy to oblige. 

comment by Kirsten (Khorton) · 2022-05-05T21:35:24.691Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Meta point: The way this question is asked suggests that no one reading the Forum is conservative, which feels alienating.

Replies from: david_reinstein
comment by david_reinstein · 2022-05-05T21:52:48.167Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good point, although I sort of have this suspicion that there are few conservatives here?

How could I rephrase it?

Replies from: david_reinstein
comment by david_reinstein · 2022-05-05T21:55:30.993Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I added an asterisk that should help a bit I hope

comment by rodeo_flagellum · 2022-05-05T23:20:26.760Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I believe my father qualifies as "conservative" (I don't have a clear definition for "conservative", and age is a confounding factor in this case, but that he was a Trump voter in 2020, generally opposes immigration, and loves meat indicate him as conservative), and have discussed EA ideals  and concepts with him at length over the span of several years. 

He supports altruism, and in general believes that altruistic practices  (he mainly discusses global health and development) could be more effective. On this note, he believes EA is "good". However, when considering longtermist causes / x-risk, he differs from what I believe to be the community consensus in that he believes nuclear risk and natural risks pose a greater threat than bioterrorism (nothing concerning lab leaks have been brought up) and risk from AI. 

I asked him if he believes he would have been part of EA had it existed when he was 15-25, and he replied that he might have in the context of global health and development. 

I would be interested in an extension question for this post: Have EAs asked their conservative family members or parents for their thoughts on EA or adjacent concepts?

Replies from: Harrison D
comment by Harrison Durland (Harrison D) · 2022-05-06T00:34:07.483Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have not directly asked my parents for their views on EA, but I've mentioned it before, and I've gotten the sense that they would probably also be supportive of trad-EA work like in health and development, but I suspect that they are not particularly sympathetic to the focus on x-risks—especially actual extinction from things like AI—given their religious views, which is one of the main reasons I don't tend to bring it up that much in the first place.

comment by Harrison Durland (Harrison D) · 2022-05-05T21:35:34.748Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We're going to need to start by defining what we mean by "conservative." Speaking as someone who was occasionally taunted as a "conservative" (despite having many relatively centrist views) by people in my college debate club, I think that many progressives either struggle or simply don't care to come up with fair definitions for what a conservative is.

But to be fair, I'm not sure even the average American conservative has a great sense of how to define conservativism.

Replies from: david_reinstein
comment by david_reinstein · 2022-05-05T21:57:26.434Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For my current purposes, a practical (but obviously hand-waving) characterization would be "someone who often votes for Republicans and would strongly consider doing so in the future". I added the word Republicans in the post to help clarify.