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Have you heard about the new “effective cars” movement? Passionate young philosophy students from top universities have invented a revolutionary new idea, now sweeping the intellectual world: cars that get you from home to the office or store and back again as reliably, comfortably, and fast as possible. As opposed to using cars used as shrub removers, pots for plants, conversation pits, or paperweights. While effective car activists cannot design, repair, or even operate cars, they are pioneering ways to prioritize car topics.
Not heard of that? How about “effective altruism”?
Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be. …
I helped to develop the idea of effective altruism while a [philosophy] student at the University of Oxford. … I began to investigate the cost-effectiveness of charities that fight poverty in the developing world. The results were remarkable. We discovered that the best charities are hundreds of times more effective at improving lives than merely “good” charities. .. From there, a community developed. We realized that effective altruism could be applied to all areas of our lives – choosing charity, certainly, but also choosing a career, volunteering, and choosing what ewe buy and don’t buy. (MacAskill, Doing Good Better)
This all sounds rather vacuous; who opposes applying evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do better at charity, or anything? But I just gave a talk at Effective Altruism Global, and spent a few days there chatting and listening, and I’ve decided that they do have a core position that is far from vacuous.
Effective altruism is a youth movement. While they collect status by associating with older people like Peter Singer and Elon Musk, those who work and have influence in these groups are strikingly young. And their core position is close to the usual one for young groups throughout history: old codgers have run things badly, and so a new generation deserves to take over.
Some observers see effective altruism as being about using formal statistics or applying consensus scientific theories. But in fact effective altruists embrace contrarian concerns about AI “foom” (discussed often on this blog), concerns based neither on formal statistics nor on applying consensus theories. Instead this community just trusts its own judgment on what reasoning is “careful,” without worrying much if outsiders disagree. This community has a strong overlap with a “rationalist” community wherein people take classes on and much discuss how to be “rational”, and then decide that they have achieved enough rationality to justify embracing many quite contrarian conclusions.
Youth movements naturally emphasis the virtues of youth, relative to those of age. While old people have more power, wealth, grit, experience, task-specific knowledge, and crystalized intelligence, young people have more fluid intelligence, potential, passion, idealism, and a clean slate. So youth movements tend to claim that society has become lazy, corrupt, ossified, stuck in its ways, has tunnel-vision, and forgets its ideals, and so needs smart flexible idealistic people to rethink and rebuild from scratch.
Effective altruists, in particular, emphasize their stronger commitment to altruism ideals, and also the unusual smarts, rationality, and flexibility of their leaders. Instead of working within prior organizations to incrementally change prior programs, they prefer to start whole new organizations that re-evaluate all charity choices themselves from scratch. While most show little knowledge of the specifics of any charity areas, they talk a lot about not getting stuck in particular practices. And they worry about preventing their older selves from reversing the lifetime commitments to altruism that they want to make now.
Effective altruists often claim that big efforts to re-evaluate priorities are justified by large differences in the effectiveness of common options. Concretely, MacAskill, following Ord, suggested in his main conference talk that the distribution looks more like a thick-tailed power law than a Gaussian. He didn’t present actual data, but one of the other talks there did: Eva Vivalt showed the actual distribution of estimated effects to be close to Gaussian.
But youth movements have long motivated members via exaggerated claims. One is reminded of the sixties counter-culture seeing itself as the first generation to discover sex, emotional authenticity, and a concern for community. And saying not to trust anyone over thirty. Or countless young revolutionaries seeing themselves as the first generation to really care about inequality or unwanted dominance.
When they work well, youth movements can create a strong bond within a generation than can help them to work together as a coalition as they grow in ability and influence. As with the sixties counter-culture, or the libertarians a bit later, while at first their concrete practice actions are not very competent, eventually they gain skills, moderate their positions, become willing to compromise, and have substantial influence on the world. Effective altruists can reasonably hope to mature into such a strong coalition.
Added 1a: The last slide of my talk presented this youth movement account. The talk was well attended and many people mentioned talked to me about it afterward, but not one told me they disagreed with my youth movement description.
Added 10a: Most industrials and areas of life have a useful niche to be filled by independent quality evaluators, and I’ve been encouraged by the recent increase in such evaluators within charity, such as GiveWell. The effective altruism movement consists of far more, however, than independent quality evaluators.
Added 8Aug: OK, for now I accept Brienne Yudkowsky’s summary of Vivalt, namely that she finds very little ability to distinguish the effectiveness of different ways to achieve any given effect, but that she doesn’t speak to the variation across different kinds of things one might try to do.