Is effective altruism new?

Note: this is a draft. The claims here have not been stress-tested, so plausibly could turn out to be misguided. The general thrust seems right to me (especially the existence of past priority-setting efforts in global health), and the main uncertainty is regarding interpreting claims of newness. In addition, the parts of EA I claim are new could turn out not to be new (given further investigation).

Summary

Both members of the effective altruism movement as well as opponents explicitly claim or imply that effective altruism is “new” in the sense that it prioritizes between different causes and interventions. I claim that effective altruism is new for:

However, the idea of prioritization itself is not new. In particular, I will draw on the history of priority-setting in global health (one of the main causes of effective altruism) to show this, and I also consolidate previous critiques of the effective altruism movement along these lines. I finally suggest exploring the history of global health, philanthropy, and various movements as a way to ground the movement in past and current efforts and to guard against criticisms of arrogance.

Claims that effective altruism is new

In this section, I collect statements along the lines that effective altruism is a new idea, specifically for trying to prioritize between interventions. I include both statements from those in the broader effective altruism community (though I realize that community membership is a fuzzy notion) as well as from pieces critical of the effective altruism movement. I also want to emphasize that there is quite a bit of uncertainty regarding interpreting claims of newness; in many cases it is not clear what precisely people are claiming or implying.

Katja Grace asks why effective altruism is “new and obvious” in a post, and begins by quoting Ben Kuhn, who writes:

Effective altruists often express surprise that the idea of effective altruism only came about so recently. For instance, my student group recently hosted Elie Hassenfeld for a talk in which he made remarks to that effect, and I’ve heard other people working for EA organizations express the same sentiment. But no one seems to be actually worried about this—just smug that they’ve figured out something that no one else had.

The “market” for ideas is at least somewhat efficient: most simple, obvious and correct things get thought of fairly quickly after it’s possible to think them. If a meme as simple as effective altruism hasn’t taken root yet, we should at least try to understand why before throwing our weight behind it. The absence of such attempts—in other words, the fact that non-obviousness doesn’t make effective altruists worried that they’re missing something—is a strong indicator against the “effective altruists are actually trying” hypothesis.

Katja writes:

if an idea is too obviously correct for anyone to advocate for, you might expect more people to actually be doing it, or trying to do it. I’m not sure how many people were trying to be effective altruists in the past on their own, but I don’t think it was a large fraction.

And concludes:

If Effective Altruism really stands for pursuing unusual values, and furthermore doing this via zealous emphasis on accurate metrics, I’m not especially surprised that it wasn’t thought of years ago, nor that people disagree.

Jeff Kaufman mentions “the paradox of EA being both obvious and new” in a Facebook post (implying others have talked about this).

Tyler Cowen writes:

You are lucky enough to have some money to give away: It could be $100 or $1 million. Whether you are prepared to make a small donation or a big one, you would like to accomplish something good with it.

But how do you evaluate the best way to deploy your money? Alas, economic research until now has offered little guidance.

It’s not clear what exactly he means by “economic research” and “until now”.

Lisa Herzog:

Whatever your whims or good intentions, there will be lots of organizations that tell you to support their cause because it’s the most important or urgent or compelling. But a new movement called “effective altruism” claims that there’s a more neutral and “scientific” approach to the thorny questions of philanthropy.

Note that it’s unclear about whether she just means that EA itself is new, or whether the whole idea of prioritizing among causes or interventions is new.

The following are some criticisms of effective altruism that specifically mention prioritization.

Charity Navigator:

defective altruism [i.e. effective altruism; the authors decided to call the movement “defective altruism” throughout the article] is—by the admission of its proponents—an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another.

[…]

This approach amounts to little more than charitable imperialism, whereby “my cause” is just, and yours is—to one degree or another—a waste of precious resources. This approach is not informed giving. Were such opinions limited to a small audience, we could reasonably dismiss them as a danger only to those unfortunate enough to hear them. However, in taking on this cause and using the bully pulpit of its website as its forum, GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.

Charity Navigator restricts its criticism to effective altruism even though it seems to me that it would apply to priority-setting in global health as well. This could mean:

Iason Gabriel:

effective altruists do not care about who benefits from an intervention or in what way, only that the greatest total gain in well-being is achieved. This means they often overlook the weakest and most vulnerable members of a population, who are frequently illiterate, victims of discrimination, and consigned to geographically remote places. Many of them also suffer from disabilities that place out of reach the welfare gains able-bodied people can achieve. Therefore effective altruists tend to focus their efforts elsewhere. This approach leads to systematic neglect of those most in need, something that strikes many people as unjust.

As with the Charity Navigator quote above, Gabriel is possibly implying that effective altruism is new (by not extending the criticism to others who do the same sort of prioritization).

In contrast, some, like Catherine Tumber, make it clear that they are responding to utilitarianism itself, and are simply instantiating the criticism because they happen to be talking about effective altruism:

Utilitarianism, with its bent toward quantification, for regarding people as abstract units, is the ethical system of distant administrators. It is no coincidence that it emerged in the nineteenth century with the rise of large, impersonal corporate entities. Singer’s variation rejects the ethical philosophy’s pleasure-or-pain calculus as too subjective and, potentially, hedonistic. His own preference utilitarianism seeks to rescue ethics from categorical abstraction while restoring grounds for subjective rational choice.

[…]

The suffering are units to be managed effectively; the more of them so managed, the better from an ethical perspective. […] That is what happens when you reduce self and others to quantifiable widgets, much as the global financial markets regard us.

It’s difficult to decisively claim that people think effective altruism is totally new, and in fact I would expect that if pushed, people would say they’re not entirely sure. But I still think it is notable that people omit discussion of priority-setting efforts in global health and treat effective altruism as a new movement because they prioritize between interventions. It’s also difficult to convey the “vibe” through quotes; there are probably several more like the ones above that I’ve missed, as well as a more implicit belief that effective altruism is new.

TODO: look at http://benjaminrosshoffman.com/effective-altruism-not-no-brainer/

Previous remarks that effective altruism isn’t new

Several people have noted that effective altruism isn’t new. The instances of this I could find are all in response to Ben Kuhn’s post that was mentioned above.

Brian Tomasik:

Honestly, I think this idea is one of EA’s bigger oversights – not that people haven’t noticed that EA is recent, but that people don’t realize that it’s not recent. The components of EA have each existed for millennia, and movements combining several parts are also ancient. This particular combination may be a little different from past movements, but not more than past movements have been from each other.

On the whole, I think EAs vastly overestimate their value relative to everyone else in the world who are actually doing some really important work as well but don’t happen to be part of our social circles. I agree that EAs (myself included) would do well to explore more different perspectives on the world beyond the boundaries of their community.

From the framework of “components of EA”, I will only examine priority-setting and the evaluation of nonprofits. Moreover for the former, I have only looked for precedents in global health.

Similarly, Philip_W comments that the Rotary Club has some of the aspects of effective altruism.

And Ishaan:

Consolidating an old idea under a catchy brand using the momentum of the internet / being the most recent innovator does not mean you’ve invented an idea. EA’s stand on the shoulders of many people who have been trying to do the same thing before them. Notions of things such as “QALYs”, for example, have been around for 50 years.

Previous and ongoing prioritization efforts in global health and philanthropy

Now I aim to show that prioritization itself is not new in global health or in philanthropy in general. Consider the following:

Criticisms of priority-setting in global health

It is interesting to compare criticisms of effective altruism to those of priority-setting in global health.

I’ve compiled some of the criticisms of priority-setting in global health at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priority-setting_in_global_health#Reception, though I expect there to be others I haven’t encountered. Tentatively, I find it interesting that while criticisms of effective altruism’s prioritization focus on whether it is okay to prioritize, the criticisms of priority-setting in global health focus on the specific approaches taken.

In what ways is effective altruism new?

Conclusion