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How do we effectively expand the effective altruism movement?

By Anonymous

I think expanding the effective altruism community is likely a fairly intangible cause area but that the long arc of progress since the Enlightenment is roughly headed in the right direction such that we shouldn’t need to do much anyway, and hopefully the movement will expand organically (assuming we do not go extinct before that). I’m going to now briefly explain why I think this.

A common critique of effective altruism is that its ideas are “obvious”. Many of the core principles (try to be as effective as possible in helping others, be intellectually curious and open, do not discriminate based on where or when someone lives) certainly seem quite obvious to me, or at least they seemed very reasonable the first time I heard the ideas. Because of this it was not difficult for me to ‘convert’ to being an EA. I did not need convincing. Anecdotally, I’ve heard similar statements from others in the community. I question how many have actually been ‘convinced’ in any meaningful sense, as opposed to simply stumbling upon the community somehow.

There are, of course, many that have openly criticized EA and who are against EA ideas, or at least their idea of what EA ideas are. I’m preaching to the choir here but I think most of this can be attributed to misconceptions of the principles and conflation of the EA community and certain members with the movement as a whole.

Because of the power of misinformation and our natural bias to be skeptical of ‘movements’, I think it’s likely that evangelizing EA in open association broadly to strangers is likely to be negative in utility. Coupled with the fact that I think most people who are likely to become EAs don’t need much convincing in the first place, it seems to me that promoting effective altruism, at least in a direct way, is not very effective at all.

One interesting question to ask is whether it’s reasonable to assume that, if people did not hold any of the various common misconceptions and unsound arguments against EA ideas, they would embrace EA and view its ideas as “obvious”. I think for the most part, the answer is yes. I’m not saying that in such a world everyone would be attending monthly EA meetups, but I think that in such a world the statement “I support EA” would be an uncontroversial statement, even when you include the less mainstream ideas like longtermism. I’m not even saying that EA is ‘correct’ – more that its ideas are obvious and agreeable to most people who are educated in the 21st century, when you remove the popular misconceptions of EA.

Because of this, it seems it would be effective to promote EA ideas by simply strengthening the existing education system. It’s sort of like the “give a man a fish” vs “teach a man to fish” idea. Educate people so that they naturally arrive at EA-aligned conclusions, rather than giving them EA as an answer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many in EA are from similar backgrounds in terms of education.

Even if the phrase “Effective Altruism” some day becomes synonymous with something unsavory, I think that’d mostly be fine. Even if they don’t call themselves EAs, people, when put through the modern education system, come to naturally embrace its ideas, and isn’t that all that matters?


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