Should We Partition Effective Altruist Spaces?

On Tumblr, Bartlebyshop brings up concerns that she’s had with effective altruist writing that have kept her away from it. I don’t think this is an isolated case; I think it indicates a problem that this community has been having.

Supporting and discussing EA encompasses a lot of different things. Some of those things are controversial even within the movement, let alone among society at large. Occasionally, one of these controversies metastasizes and takes on a visibility far out of proportion to its actual importance among most EAs. Within the last couple of weeks, we’ve had this happen with meat at EA Global, with Nick Bostrom’s astronomical waste argument and the role of AI risk within the movement, with the idea that EAs don’t care about art, and I think I’m missing a few things.

Obviously some of this is the unavoidable result of universal human political dynamics, but I do think that, to a certain extent, this is something that we ought to be trying to fix. EAs are disproportionately likely to be the kinds of people who love to argue about things, and it’s important to do so in order to find the most effective things to do, but it can also be tiring when EA spaces have been temporarily taken over by the latest iteration of some perennial argument that you’re not interested in. It may be worth asking ourselves if this is something that could be ameliorated with better social technology.

Although some online EA spaces are devoted to a particular cause or focus area, most of them are fairly general-purpose in terms of what kinds of discussions happen there. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it might have been a good idea to instead set up different spaces for different types of discussions.

In particular, four kinds of discussions come to mind, each of which might do best in its own space:

  • Philosophical arguing. This would be where people could talk about things like consequentialism/metaethics, the drowning child argument, the moral value of the far future and of animals, the relative importance of EA’s major focus areas, etc. Right now, this is the area that I think most needs to be contained; a lot of people are allergic to these kinds of arguments, both because they often lead to extreme conclusions and because they’ve been going on forever and probably aren’t going to be solved to everyone’s satisfaction anytime soon. At the same time, we want these discussions to be part of EA; they are a major reason why many EAs are EAs, and a major guiding force in many EAs’ donation decisions and life decisions in general.
  • Comparative analysis of causes and charities. I confess that this is the area that I personally am most interested in, and I sometimes think that the other areas have driven this one largely out of sight, except at a few blogs like GiveWell’s. (Of course, this is probably because many people find this kind of analysis boring, and that’s fine; we want to have something for everyone.) In spaces devoted to this, we’d have discussions of research by organizations like GiveWell and OpenPhil and ACE, and of what interventions and causes are most promising. (We’d want this to focus on analysis that doesn’t depend on, or that explicitly conditions on, extremely deep value judgments of the kind argued over in the “philosophical arguing” section.)
  • Mutual support. This would be a place for people who’ve allowed EA to shape their lives—by donating a significant percentage of their income, or going vegetarian, or choosing an effectiveness-oriented career path—to talk about their shared life experiences as EAs, and to request and give advice. I think that Giving What We Can has a comparative advantage here, and also that a lot of important discussions in this sphere are happening on blogs like The Unit of Caring on Tumblr.
  • Community organizing. Here we’ve got things like .impact, discussions among meetup organizers, and other sorts of meta-concerns. To a large extent, these things already happen in their own special-purpose spaces, but there might still be more of them in general-purpose spaces than is ideal.

Of course, since the established EA spaces already exist and we can’t change the past, there isn’t room for a clean partition. However, I do wonder if there’s anything that individuals within EA communities can do to move things in this general direction, and whether doing so is likely to be a good idea.


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