Effective altruism and criticism toward activism: Answer to a paradox

by ArthurRainbow4 min read17th May 20203 comments

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Since a little while now, I have been exploring the notion of Effective Altruism - EA for short. My readings on the topic so far have been very interesting [1], and I would like to add my own idea that I deem important and have yet to read elsewhere. If ever this has been written down somewhere, I can at least attest to it being all well too hidden. Personally, I believe that it should be discussed in introductions to the EA topic.

Why is it bad form to critic others' actions

In the groups I have been in, criticizing the actions of another volunteer or activist is very unwelcome. Since the very notion of telling others how they should conduct their own actions is at the core of Effective Altruism, it would then follow that EA as a whole would be unwelcome in those groups. So I strived to reconcile the two. To do that, I first needed to understand why - precisely - telling someone else not to act is bad form. I know of two reasons:

Do not act

The first one is that criticisms about someone else's action often come from people who do seemingly nothing. It is way harder to act than not to, and criticizing is easy. Since a lot of those criticisms are non-constructive, effectively following them would mean not doing anything at all. And people not doing anything at all is not - generally - a better situation then them following through their actions.

It is worthy of note that the advice being given is not usually "Stop". But it can for instance come under the form of "You're harming our cause". Typically, it is said systematically to other activists who are said to "give bad press to the group". This may happen when they would get worked up, rise their voices, insult others, tag, break glasses, protest on strikes, and so on...

Your struggle is not important

The second one, more dire, is that a lot of those criticisms stems from struggle appropriation. I have often heard the story of racialized LGB or T friends acting on LGBT issues that they would get told constantly -by their family or other racialized peers- that they are merely wasting their time and should focus on what really matters: Racism. Sometimes, they even lack the imagination to perceive the activist as belonging to both groups, since being non-white does not follow the LGBT stereotypes.

Likewise, I have heard that social unions have been violently rejecting homosexual issues for a long time, as being homosexual was associated with the rich and egoistic culture, to which they did not want to be likened. Unions have used the same reasoning for sexism - after all, once capitalism is no more, patriarchy will fall behind and men will have no more means to subjugate women.

Finally, I have heard time and time again that polyamorous issues should not be treated yet, not before we are done fighting against LGBTphobias (this one is different in that I have heard it coming from polyamourous people themselves, who are often LGBT as well).

The first two examples paint a very bad light. I do not know that the end of capitalism will cause the end of patriarchy. I do not know that capitalism will even end before humanity. But even if one would take for granted that capitalism can and should end, I am convinced that if there were a way for sexism to be assuaged quickly, we should do so. If we can better women's situation now, then we should do it.

All of this is to give context to the phrase "You should do your activism differently" having a long and negative history in the activist sphere, because it has almost always meant: "Your fight is not that important". Or, to be more precise "As your fight is not important to me, I will assume it is for no one - except maybe for my enemies".

Why this does not apply to EA.

Do act! But differently.

First, EA does its criticism in a constructive fashion. They give different ways to act, and how to measure one's impact. So the first point is not being relevant here, and even moreso that for measurement of an action to exist, that action must exist and persist in the first place.

There is only one situation, on the top of my head, where they advise for an action to stop without any substitute: In the critical case where the action is demonstratively deleterious to the goal being pursued. The key word here is "demonstratively". For instance, this could apply to sex workers and the amount of violence toward them. It is relatively standard for official measures that are undertaken under the promise of helping them that they actually rise the danger they have to face. In this case, from an efficiency-standpoint, it can be advised to stop those measures without any other suggestions. (From a political standpoint, not suggesting anything is a delicate task. However, it seems to me that the political dimension of it is not at the core of this issue).

I personally hold that the - severe - consequences of such measures are way more important than the emotions people may have about them. And that, therefore, this is a different criticism than "You are giving us bad press".

Choose what you act for

As for the second point, I have to make a distinction between two versions of EA: The theoretical one that is described in books, and the concrete one that exists in EA groups. In those groups, EA is focused on a handful of topics: (wildlife) Animal suffering, the literal destruction of the earth by a poorly-aligned AI, easily cured illness... However, the books/handbooks on EA describe EA as theoretically agnostic. It is repeated often that EA offer techniques that are useful no matter the cause. This is a little apparent when an EA organization offers a panel of most effective actions in a variety of domains and says "If you want to give for animal lives and rights, give to A. If you want to give for poverty, give to B. And so on." It is more clearly portrayed in the EA handbook when it gives example of other cause that could be studied, such as the betterment of scientific study. But still, there are examples I would have loved to see that were completely missing from it, such as the fight against discrimination. In the theoretical frame, however, nothing is said against those goals being analysed and optimized following the EA process, the only issue being time. It requires for someone to give it proper time and dedication, and, since studies can cost quite a lot both in resources and time, that this person also receive support from a large organization.

I see an easy way for EA to actually convince me it does not pretend to know or tell what goals matter. It would suffice that EA emphasizes how it could be used for a cause which I consider detrimental, for instance: The defense of the "traditional" nuclear family. I mean, I am glad that EA-researchers are not actually taking the time to make the marriage protection movement more efficient, that is not my point. But this contrived example, "EA can benefit marriage protection", shows how the search for effectivism does not make any assumptions on the aim itself. That the goal is to be decided by oneself, and that EA only suggest actions in and on themselves. So that if it suggests a fight to pick, it does not mean it is making negative statements about other fights, it just mean the obvious: Fighting in the name of cause A is not necessarily effective to the fight in the name of cause B.

P.S.

It has been very hard for me to find a title; and the current one is not much to my taste. I do not know how to pick one that makes it known it is about EA, about an always-implicit rules, and the tensions between the two that I see that I haven't seen any other mention.

This is a cross post from my blog

[1] I have attempted some meeting with the French EA group, and have seen nothing but discussions yet. As it seems I have been more effective through direct actions against LGBTPhobia in high-school - for all my uncertainties about them - it had seemed pointless for me to join.

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