Posted on Tuesday, March 7th 2017
(last updated Sunday, January 23rd 2022)
Over the last year, I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of how the effective altruism community can stay true to its best elements and avoid problems that often bring movements down. Failure is the default outcome for a social movement, and so we should be proactive in investing time and attention to help the community as a whole flourish.
In a previous post, I noted that there’s very little in the way of self-governing infrastructure for the community. There’s very little to deal with people representing EA in ways that seem to be harmful; this means that the only response is community action, which is slow, unpleasant for all involved, and risks unfairness through lack of good process. In that post, I suggested we create two things: (i) a set of guiding principles agreed upon by all of EA; (ii) a community panel that could make recommendations to the community regarding violations of those principles.
There was healthy discussion of this idea, both on the forum and in feedback that we sought from people in the community. Some particularly important worries, it seemed to me, were: (i) the risk of consolidating too much influence over EA in any one organisation or panel; (ii) the risk of it being impossible to get agreement, leading to an increase in politicisation and squabbling; (iii) the risk of losing flexibility by enforcing what is an “EA view” or not (in a way that other broad movements don’t do*). I think these were important concerns. In response, we toned back the ambitions of the proposed ideas.
Instead of trying to create a document that we claim to represent all of EA, enforced by a community panel as I suggested, we’ve done two things:
(i) Written down CEA’s understanding of EA (based in part on discussion with other community members), and invited other organisations to share and uphold that understanding if they found it matched their views. This will become a community-wide vision only to the extent that it resonates with the community.
(ii) Created a small advisory panel of community members that will provide input on important and potentially controversial community-relevant decisions that CEA might have to make (such as when we changed the Giving What We Can pledge to be cause-neutral). The initial panel members will be Alexander Gordon-Brown, Peter Hurford, Claire Zabel, and Julia Wise.
The panel, in particular, is quite different from my original proposal. In the original proposal, it was a way of EA self-regulating as a community. In this new form, it’s a way of ensuring that some of CEA’s decisions get appropriate input from the community. Julia Wise, who serves as community liaison at CEA, has put together the advisory panel and has written about this panel here. The rest of this post is about how CEA understands EA and what guiding principles it finds appropriate.
How CEA understands EA is given in its Guiding Principles document. I’ve also copied and pasted the contents of this document below.
Even if few organisations or people were to endorse this understanding of EA, it would still have a useful role. It would:
- Help others to understand CEA’s mission better
- Help volunteers who are helping to run CEA events to understand the values by which we’d like those events to be run
- Create a shared language by which CEA can be held accountable by the community
However, we hope that the definition and values are broad enough that the large majority of the EA community will be on board with them. And indeed, a number of EA organisations (or leaders of EA organisations) have already endorsed this understanding (see the bottom of this post). If this understanding of EA were widely adopted, I think there could be a number of benefits. It could help newcomers, including academics and journalists, to get a sense of what EA is about. It could help avoid dilution of EA (such that donating $5/month to a charity with low overheads becomes ‘effective altruism’) or corruption of the idea EA (such as EA = earning to give to donate to RCT-backed charities, and nothing else). It might help create community cohesion by stating, in broad terms, what brings us all together (even if many of us focus on very different areas). And it might give us a shared language for discussing problematic events happening in the community. In general, I think if we all upheld these values, we’d create a very powerful force for good.
There is still a risk of having a widely-agreed-upon set of values, which is that effective altruism could ossify or become unduly narrow. However, I hope that the openness of the definition and values (and lack of enforcement mechanism beyond community norms) should minimise that risk.
Here is the text of the document:
The Centre for Effective Altruism’s understanding of effective altruism and its guiding principles
What is effective altruism?
Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.
What is the effective altruism community?
The effective altruism community is a global community of people who care deeply about the world, make benefiting others a significant part of their lives, and use evidence and reason to figure out how best to do so.
Putting effective altruism into practice means acting in accordance with its core principles:
The guiding principles of effective altruism:
Commitment to Others:
We take the well-being of others very seriously, and are willing to take significant personal action in order to benefit others. What this entails can vary from person to person, and it's ultimately up to individuals to figure out what significant personal action looks like for them. In each case, however, the most essential commitment of effective altruism is to actively try to make the world a better place.
We strive to base our actions on the best available evidence and reasoning about how the world works. We recognise how difficult it is to know how to do the most good, and therefore try to avoid overconfidence, to seek out informed critiques of our own views, to be open to unusual ideas, and to take alternative points of view seriously.
We are a community united by our commitment to these principles, not to a specific cause. Our goal is to do as much good as we can, and we evaluate ways to do that without committing ourselves at the outset to any particular cause. We are open to focusing our efforts on any group of beneficiaries, and to using any reasonable methods to help them. If good arguments or evidence show that our current plans are not the best way of helping, we will change our beliefs and actions.
Because we believe that trust, cooperation, and accurate information are essential to doing good, we strive to be honest and trustworthy. More broadly, we strive to follow those rules of good conduct that allow communities (and the people within them) to thrive. We also value the reputation of effective altruism, and recognize that our actions reflect on it.
We affirm a commitment to building a friendly, open, and welcoming environment in which many different approaches can flourish, and in which a wide range of perspectives can be evaluated on their merits. In order to encourage cooperation and collaboration between people with widely varying circumstances and ways of thinking, we resolve to treat people of different worldviews, values, backgrounds, and identities kindly and respectfully.
The following organizations wish to voice their support for these definitions and guiding principles:
- .impact (now Rethink Charity)
- 80,000 Hours
- Animal Charity Evaluators
- Charity Science
- Effective Altruism Foundation
- Foundational Research Institute (now the Center on Long-Term Risk)
- Future of Life Institute
- Raising for Effective Giving
- The Life You Can Save
Additionally, some individuals voice their support:
- Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell and Open Philanthropy
- Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell and Open Philanthropy
- Toby Ord of the Future of Humanity Institute
- Peter Singer
- Nate Soares of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute
This doesn’t represent an exhaustive list of organisations or people involved with effective altruism. We want to invite any other organisations to endorse the above guiding principles if they wish; write to our content team to be included in the list.
Julia and I want to thank all the many people who helped develop this document, with particular thanks to Rob Bensinger and Sky Mayhew, who went above and beyond in providing comments and suggested wording.