Ben Kuhn makes some reasonable criticisms of the Effective Altruism movement. His central claim is that in the dichotomy of ‘really trying’ vs. ‘pretending to try’, EAs ‘pretend to really try’.

To be explicit, I understand these terms as follows:

‘Really trying’: directing all of your effort toward actions that you believe have the highest expected value in terms of the relevant goals

Pretending to try‘: choosing actions with the intention of giving observers the impression that you are trying.

Pretending to really try‘: choosing actions with the intention of giving observers the impression that you are trying, where the observers’ standards for identifying ‘trying’ are geared toward a ‘really trying’ model. e.g. they ask whether you are really putting in effort, and whether you are doing what should have highest expected value from your point of view.

Note the normative connotations. ‘Really trying’ is good, ‘pretending to try’ is not, and ‘pretending to really try’ is hypocritical, so better than being straight out bad, but sullied by the inconsistency.

I claim Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.

Why is this? Because Effective Altruism is a community, and the thing communities do well is modulating individual behavior through interactions with others in the community. Most actions a person takes as a result of being part of a community are pretty much going to be ‘pretending to try’ by construction. And such actions are worth having. If they are discouraged, the alternative will not be really trying. And pretending to try well is almost as good as really trying anyway.

Actions taken as a result of being in a community will be selected for being visible, because visible actions are the ones you will be able to pick up from others in the community. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are only pretending to try – it will just happen to look like pretending to try. But actions will also probably be visible, because by assumption you are driven to act in part by your community membership, and most ways such motivation can happen involve a possibility of others in the community being aware of your actions.

Many actions actions in communities are chosen because others are doing them, or others will approve of them, or because that’s what it seemed like a good community member would do, not because they were calculated to be best. And these dynamics help communities work and achieve their goals.

Of course people who were really trying would do better than those  who were only pretending to try. As long as they could determine what a person who was pretending would do, a person who really tries could just copy them where it is useful to have pretending-to-try type behaviors. But there is no option to make everyone into such zealous tryers that they can do as well as the effective altruism movement without the social motivations. The available options are just those of what to encourage and what to criticize. And people who are pretending to really try are hugely valuable, and should not be shamed and discouraged away.

A community of people not motivated by others seeing and appreciating their behavior, not concerned for whether they look like a real community member, and not modeling their behavior on the visible aspects of others’ behavior in the community would generally not be much of a community, and I think would do less well at pursuing their shared goals.

I don’t mean to say that ‘really trying’ is bad, or not a good goal for an individual person. But it is a hard goal for a community to usefully and truthfully have for many of its members, when so much of its power relies on people watching their neighbors and working to fit in. ‘Really trying’ is also a very hard thing to encourage others to do. If people heed your call to ‘really try’ and do the ‘really trying’ things you suggest, this will have been motivated by your criticisms, so seems more like a better quality of pretending to really try, than really trying itself. Unless your social pressure somehow pressured them to stop being motivated by social pressure.

I also fear that pretending to try, to various extents, is underestimated because we like to judge other people for their motives. A dedicated pretender, who feels socially compelled to integrate cutting edge behavioral recommendations into their pretense can be consequentially very valuable, regardless of their virtue on ethical accounts.

So I have argued that pretending to try is both inevitable and useful for communities. I think also that pretending to really try can do almost as well as really trying, as long as someone puts enough effort into identifying chinks in the mask. In the past, people could pretend to try just by giving some money to charity; but after it has been pointed out enough times that this won’t achieve their purported goals,  they have to pick up their act if they want anyone (themselves included) to believe they are trying. I think a lot of progress can come from improving the requirements one must meet to look like one is trying. This means pointing out concrete things that ‘really trying’ people would be doing, and it hopefully leads to pretending to really try, and then pretending to really really try. Honing the pretense, and making sure everyone knows what the current standards are, are important goals in a community with goals that might be forgotten if we undervalue pretending to really try.


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I like this claim about the nature of communities. One way people can Really Try in a community is by taking stands against the way the community does things while remaining part of the community. I can’t think of any good solutions for encouraging this without assuming closed membership (or other cures worse than the disease)

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