A significant part of human communication is non-verbal.  Body language and gestures often have the capacity to convey and signal a great detail and wealth of information about a person.  Furthermore, historically, various organizations, ranging from secret societies to religions to militaries have sought to utilize very specific physical gestures as a way of communicating affiliation covertly or overtly for various purposes.

I would like to propose then that we within the Effective Altruist movement devise our own particular salute, to help us identify each other and also for the positive psychological effects that deliberate symbolism can entail.

Before I go on, I will emphasize here that I am aware of the potential for misuse that such methods can also cause, and that I am familiar with the very well-known failure state that was historical fascism’s “Roman salute”.  In fact, the particular choice of gesture I will be advocating is deliberately in opposition to that example.

My proposal consists of two gestures, one which I will refer to as the “Light” gesture, as it is open, transparent, and obvious in its symbolism.  The other I shall refer to as the “Dark” gesture, as it is more covert and plausibly deniable.

The Light gesture consists of:

  • Place left hand behind back.
  • Place right hand on forehead.
  • Move right hand to heart.
  • Outstretch right hand towards the front or other person with palm raised upwards and fingers open and slightly curled.

The Dark gesture consists of:

  • Place left hand behind back.
  • Outstretch right hand towards the front or other person with palm sideways, the fingers closed, and the thumb raised upwards.

Explanation of Symbolism

In both cases the left hand is placed behind the back.  This is, for those of you familiar with it, a reference to the Christian scripture of “When you give, do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.”  I know the majority of Effective Altruists are probably not religious, but I think that the symbolism of this reference from our cultural history remains a useful signal.

In the case of the Light gesture, placing the right hand on the forehand first before then placing it on the heart and then extending this in the universal gesture of giving/receiving/cooperation is indicative of “reason to compassion”, which I hope we can all agree sums up Effective Altruism quite nicely in a nutshell.

I need to emphasize again that the upward facing palm and open fingers are essential.  It is admittedly a more submissive gesture, but it is also the exact opposite of the “Roman salute” position, which was symbolically chosen by the fascists because it represented emotional power and dominance and superiority.  We are trying to be in essence, the opposite of that, to represent reason, equality, and compassion.  The upward direction of the palm also symbolizes that we have a higher ideal we aspire to.

The Dark gesture is less obvious.  It is for when you can’t be so open about your affiliation, for whatever reason.  Symbolically, the palm facing sideways and thumb upwards symbolize moral equality and having a higher purpose respectively.

Proper Responses

The proper response to the Light gesture is not as pop culture would assume, some kind of high five slap down.  Rather, the respectful symbolic response is to in turn, grasp the gesturer’s wrist and raise the gesturer’s hand up even further, which suggests a mutual understanding of Effective Altruism.

The proper response to the Dark gesture is not a handshake, as would be normally assumed, but to return the gesture identically if possible, or to make the handshake more of an equally measured clasp if there is a need to be covert about it.  If the situation is one that demands pretending not to be allies, then perhaps returning just a thumbs up without a handshake can appear as such to outsiders, while signifying that you got the message.

Obviously, none of this will fool careful observers and as rationalists, you should be avoiding the use of deception and championing truth as much as possible, but I leave the Dark gesture proposal as something to consider for particular circumstances.  Personally I would prefer that we publicly use the Light gesture proposal for most normal circumstances.

I’m curious what people think of these ideas.  Thank you for reading and considering!

-8

New Comment
39 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:32 PM

I think this is a terrible and ridiculous idea. likely to create in-groups and out-groups and do more bad than good.

While you are willing to go down these paths have you considered sign-language representations? I am unfamiliar with them other than knowing they are there.

The in-group, out-group thing is a hazard I admit. Again, I'm not demanding this be accepted, but merely offering out the idea for feedback, and I appreciate the criticism.

I haven't had a chance to properly learn sign-language, so I don't know if there are appropriate representations, but I can look into this.

I am trying, and failing, to think of any possible situation in which I would want to use one of these gestures.

If you don't know the person you're facing is another EA, the likely outcome is that you make a weird gesture and the other party is offended or confused, thinks you're creepy and weird, and avoids interacting with you in the future. Extra bonus points if they ask why you just did that weird thing, you explain it's an identity symbol for effective altruists, and now they think effective altruism is a sinister cult with weird hand gestures.

If you do know the person you're facing is another EA, why do you need a special gesture to identify you both as such?

Maybe it might be used in a situation other than one-to-one interaction like, er, that Nazi salute? But it's not like EA rallies are particularly common, and if they were you'd need this gesture to be known by everyone there, which ... doesn't seem likely to happen.

What other instances are there of this kind of gesture being used? You get them sometimes in secret societies like the Freemasons with their special handshakes, or maybe the early Christians supposedly scratching fish symbols in the dirt. But EA isn't a secret society nor (so far as I know) does it aspire to be one; effective altruists aren't persecuted and have no need to hide, and the available evidence suggests that openness about generous giving helps to encourage others to give more.

What am I missing? When would anyone use this and why? I think I need some concrete examples. The OP says things like "for various purposes" (what purposes?) and "to help us identify each other" (in what situations?) and "for the positive psychological effects" (of doing what, exactly?). I just don't get it.

Well, I was hoping that people could be creative in coming up with uses, but I suppose I can offer a few more ideas.

For instance, maybe in the business world, you might not want to be so overt about being an Effective Altruist because you fear your generosity being taken advantage of, so you might use a subtle variant of these gestures to signal to other Effective Altruists who you are, without giving it away to more egoistic types.

Alternatively, it could be used to display your affiliation in such a way that signals to people in, say, an audience during a speech or lecture, where you're coming from. Again, this can be overt, or covert depending on circumstances.

Furthermore, if this is a one on one "conversation", the response could be useful for telling you how overt or covert you should be in the environment. Say for instance, you display a subtle "Dark" gesture to someone you suspect to be an Effective Altruist in an environment that may otherwise be hostile to Effective Altruism (like say, a financial company). Depending on their response, you can gauge how open you should be in the future. They might for instance, give you a very covert sign in return, which may signal that the environment is hostile. Alternatively, they may signal back with the "Light" gesture, indicating that they themselves are able to be open in this environment safely.

While it is true that most of us want to be open as effective altruists, I suspect that there is a significant number of people who while sympathetic to our causes, are hesitant to openly affiliate for fear of being taken advantage of by free riders and egoists. These gestures would be most useful for those people.

use a subtle variant of these gestures to signal to other Effective Altruists who you are, without giving it away to more egoistic types.

Sorry, still not seeing it. Why are you trying to give these cryptic signals to other EAs at work? Is the idea that EAs will start cutting one another specially favourable deals and giving preference to one another for good jobs? That seems likely to be hugely counterproductive, because as soon as such things get suspected it's going to be bad for the whole EA movement.

If you're overtly signalling affiliation while making a political speech or something, why not just do it by talking about effective altruism? If it's a speech in which it doesn't make any sense to do so, then what the hell are you doing signalling affiliation in the first place? Again, this is the kind of thing that gives a movement a bad name. (Ditto, even more so, if it's covert.)

a subtle "Dark" gesture [...] a financial company

OK, so I am, let's say, an investor considering putting some money into a hedge fund. I go to visit their offices.The fund manager or one of his colleagues greets me by putting his hand behind his back and giving a thumbs-up gesture. Are you suggesting this is a subtle gesture that won't make anyone suspicious?

Again, maybe I'm just missing something. But every time I actually try to imagine a concrete situation in which this sort of gesture might be useful, I can't do it.

It's not for underhanded secret deals. It's to allow you to know who you can trust with information such as "I am an effective altruist and may be a useful ally who you can talk to about stuff".

Ideally one might want to overtly talk about effective altruism, but what if circumstances prohibit it. Imagine Obama or Elon Musk one day gives this gesture while talking about, say, foreign aid to Africa. Then you know that he's with us, or at least knows about Effective Altruism. There could be a myriad of reasons why he doesn't want to talk about it though, ranging from it being ammunition for Fox News, to perhaps people in his own organization not agreeing with it, and them having to walk a fine line.

We can drop the hands behind back part and make it as subtle as you want. I'm not beholden to the specifics of the gesture, so much as just offering the merits of the idea itself.

Maybe it's a bad idea that would hurt us more than help us. In which case, it's good to get the debate out of the way quickly, and I appreciate your response.

Imagine Obama or Elon Musk one day gives this gesture while talking about, say, foreign aid to Africa. Then you know that he's with us

/rolls eyes

This is middle-school Secret Club for Spies and Benefactors of Humanity crap.

By the way, what you describe is known in politics as a "dog whistle" :-P

Imagine Obama or Elon Musk one day gives this gesture while talking about, say, foreign aid to Africa. Then you know that he's with us, or at least knows about Effective Altruism. There could be a myriad of reasons why he doesn't want to talk about it though, ranging from it being ammunition for Fox News, to perhaps people in his own organization not agreeing with it, and them having to walk a fine line.

Obama uses a secret code for signaling that he's an EA would be ammunition for Fox News. Him speaking positively about the AMF or even speaking positively about GiveWell wouldn't give Fox News good ammunition.

Outstretch right hand towards the front or other person with palm raised upwards and fingers open and slightly curled.

I would interpret that as "Give me".

Mmm... I admit this is a possible way to interpret it... I'm not sure how to make it more obviously pro-cooperation than to maybe tilt the hand downward as well?

Interesting -- I don't know of any non-verbal more-or-less-culturally-neutral signal that says "I want to cooperate".

There's "I mean no harm" (showing empty hands), there's "I trust you" or "I submit" (bowing, kneeling, in general making yourself vulnerable), but nothing comes to mind with respect to equal cooperation.

I wonder what does this say about humanity.

Furthermore, historically, various organizations, ranging from secret societies to religions to militaries have sought to utilize very specific physical gestures as a way of communicating affiliation covertly or overtly for various purposes.

What makes you think that communicating affiliation is the primary goal of those gestures?

Well, there's obviously lots of possible uses for gestures like these. I'm only choosing to emphasize one that I think is reasonable to consider.

How about the sign of the fish?

:)

[-][anonymous]7y2

I prefer a movement that is both operationally and symbolically transparent

Okay, so the responses so far seem less than impressed with these ideas, and it has been suggested that maybe this shouldn't be so public in the first place.

Do people think I should take down this post?

Nah.

It's not like we're making vewwy sekrit plans over here.

Proposal: discreetly fingerspell E-A. It's a small movement, not too noticeable, and easy to perform quickly in the middle of another movement without being too conspicuous.

I like this! But, you know, publishing it on the internet doesn't exactly make it secret. On the other hand, keeping secrets is difficult anyway, especially in large groups.

These gestures suppose that people already know (or at least suspect) that the other one is a part of their group. So perhaps there should also be some kind of "passive" sign; one that allows you to notice that a stranger in a crowd of strangers is likely a member of your group (and then you approach them and proceed with the gesture). Something like esperantists wearing a green star.

Another "passive" sign that might work could be the humble white chess knight piece. In this case, it symbolizes the concept of a white knight coming to help and save others, but also because it is chess, it implies a depth of strategic, rational thinking. So for instance, an Effective Altruist might leave a white chess knight piece on their desk, and anyone familiar with what it represents could strike up a conversation about it.

Illuminati conspiranoids are so going to freak over this.

It's doubtful that if this were to gain that much traction (which it honestly doesn't look like it will) that the secret could be kept for particularly long anyway.

I'm not really sure what would make a good passive sign to indicate Effective Altruism. One assumes that things like the way we talk and show cooperative rational attitudes might be a reasonable giveaway for the more observant.

We could borrow the idea of colours, and wear something that is conspicuously, say, silver, because silver is representative of knights in shining armour or something like that, but I don't know if this wouldn't turn into a fad or trend rather than a serious signal.

I've got to admit, I love this idea because it is so very very honest. It gets to the heart of what EAs really want. High status without crass status symbols. That's probably why your fellow EAs are cringing and attacking. Nobody wants to admit that their status symbol is actually a status symbol.

I get it! It's so darn frustrating that you can't really distinguish, you know, the really good people from the regular schmoes. A gesture would be helpful.

For what it's worth, altruists would not do a handshake. That's too fez-headed Masonic. They'd bow. While gently cupping their oversized hearts.

How would you expect the world to look differently if EAs really wanted to help people and improve the world?

I believe EAs really do want to help people and improve the world. But even more than that they want to be (seen as) altruists who are helping people and improving the world. And/or they want that wonderful drug-like jolt of endorphins produced by doing a good deed. Most importantly, they don't want to admit that they want to be seen as altruists and they consider it rude when someone points out the very obvious truth that the reason they are doing it is not to help people or improve the world, but to be seen helping people and to get the jolt of good feelings from it.

This is important because the disconnect between the stated desires and the true desires distort whatever help is being given. Those distortions seem irrelevant from the perspective of the giver. They are massive from the perspective of those being helped. Which perspective is more important?

My non-American wife frequently (and gently) mocks me by saying that we Americans (and Euros) are naive like children. And she's right. We spend so much energy projecting how we want the world to be that we fail to see how it actually is. We think we can fix things without understanding the harsh realities. We easily confuse the appearance of virtuousness with actually being virtuous.

This is the reason the "effective" people don't actually go into the aid business, they simply fund the aid business with the proceeds of their effectiveness. If they actually spent time on the ground they would see those distortions. Their handiwork would slowly dawn on them. And they would be appalled.

That doesn't answer the question at all. How do you think the world would look differently when EAs put more value on helping then being seen as helping?

This is the reason the "effective" people don't actually go into the aid business, they simply fund the aid business with the proceeds of their effectiveness.

GiveWell actually does on the ground investigation of the effects of the recommended charities and it's certainly part of the EA movement. It seems like you are projecting something that isn't true.

How do you think the world would look differently when EAs put more value on helping then being seen as helping?

Ahh. I didn't understand the question.

EAs would help people very close to them with whom they can empathize. I mean empathize in the truest form of the word. They would be able to understand the plight of those they are helping, understand how they got there, and understand the complex consequences that flow from the administration of charity. Distortions occur with distance and differences.

But EAs are driven by a compulsion to do good so they are forced to reach further afield for problems to solve because they understand the complexities of the problems close to home (homelessness for instance or urban-education). They purposely blind themselves to this intractability by seeking problems far away and seeking solutions with layers of insulation from it. They hire professionals to deal with those frustrating details.

You understand intuitively what would happen if you went to a really bad neighborhood near you and simply gave out cash to poor people no questions asked. So you send it to Uganda with the naive belief that their problems are somehow easily solvable by the injection of cash. Your overwhelming desire to do good in the world blinds you to the fact that problems are as complex there as they are here.

So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying: We can tell that EAs really value looking and feeling good rather than genuinely doing good, because if they genuinely valued doing good then they would focus on those very close to themselves rather than people far away.

It looks to me as if you are assuming that EAs share some opinions of yours that I don't think they generally do.

So let me ask a variant of my original question. How do you think the world would look, if EAs (1) were more interested in genuinely doing good than in looking and feeling good, and also (2) sincerely believed that they could do much more good per unit money spent in far-away places than "very close to themselves"?

Because it seems to me that the simplest interpretation of the available evidence is that #2 really is what most EAs believe; that it's not an obviously unreasonable thing for them to believe; and that, if they believe it, it explains their preference for sending money to (say) sub-Saharan Africa just as well as your hypothesis that what, deep down, matters to them most is looking and feeling good.

I guess you will reiterate that "they understand the complexities of the problems close to home", so "they purposely blind themselves [...] by seeking problems far away", etc. For sure, that's possible, but to me it's far from obviously true, which is why I am asking: what's your evidence? How would you expect the world to look different if they weren't doing that but were genuinely motivated by a desire to do as much good as possible?

(Let me say a few words about your last paragraph, restraining my temptation to get cross at your cack-handed attempts at psychoanalysing people you haven't met. There aren't actually any really bad neighbourhoods very near me, and AIUI what characterizes "really bad neighbourhoods" is not just extreme poverty but violence and criminality; if you go to a "really bad neighbourhood" the chances are that a lot of the people you see are criminals. Handing out money to them would not send it to the best places. But my guess is that a programme of going to very poor places near me -- in so far as they exist -- and trying to identify people in need of money and give it to them would, despite various obvious difficulties, probably do a fair bit of good. However, not only is there a shortage of really "bad" places near where I live; in the whole country where I live there is scarcely any poverty as extreme as is found all over the place in some parts of the world. The effectiveness of money in relieving the ills of poverty is, very crudely, proportional to how severe the poverty is; I therefore expect a given amount of money to do more good in poorer places. This will be counterbalanced somewhat by the greater difficulties in getting the money to effective places at a distance, but I see no reason to expect the latter to outweigh the former. I don't, of course, think that sending money to these very poor places will solve all their problems. In fact, if it were going to then we could almost certainly do better by sending some of the money somewhere else. And I don't, of course, think that the mere fact of sending money somewhere guarantees doing good; you have to find interventions that actually help, and look at the evidence that they do; there is in fact some fairly decent evidence for this in the case of the interventions performed by e.g. GiveWell's preferred charities. -- Now, of course I may be wrong about any of that. But please explain to me why I'm so obviously wrong that you can be confident that my actual reason for liking these interventions is that I want to look good and feel good and deliberately blind myself to their complexities.)

Do you believe anecdotal evidence is generally superior to systematic evidence gathered in studies?

Even if that's what you believe, why do you believe taht people who believe the opposite, do so because of signaling concerns?

I like studies and think they are useful. I think EAs are motivated to do good and are motivated to believe that money will solve problems that are further away when they know that it does not solve them close to home.

Also, I think it is impossible to measure certain metrics. For instance, in Africa group interdependence is extremely important. Everyone helps everyone. It is known as Ubuntu in Southern Africa but is common throughout sub-Saharan Africa

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_%28philosophy%29

Cash injections from outsiders harm this. But how could you possibly measure it? How could you measure the interdependency of a community? How could you measure the harm done to that critical interdependency?

How could you measure the harm done to that critical interdependency?

It's not obvious that this interdependency is a good thing. It's characteristic of pre-capitalist societies.

How are capitalistic societies not interdependent?

Capitalist societies thrive on, even require, mobility -- social, economic, geographical. They require risk-taking and creative destruction. They require greed (or at least the desire to maximize something).

Interdependent societies of the Sub-Saharan Africa type provide some safety and support, but they pay for it with stagnation. They provide less degrees of freedom, less tolerance of the weird and the unusual, less capability to absorb (or generate) social and economic shocks.

A web of ties to others supports you, but it also binds you.

Spot on analysis.

EAs focus on eliminating (or mitigating) suffering. The devil is in the definition of suffering.

You would have to change the entire culture of the continent to change their version of interdependence. This is a massive change. African culture has proven to be rather persistent so you would have an uphill battle. Is it possible that the imposition of a capitalist culture might create more suffering (from the African perspective) than relief?

I'm a capitalist. But I was born in a capitalist society and reared by those who shoved me out of the nest to encourage my ability to fly. Imposition of a very different culture on Africa could be tantamount to shoving a flightless bird from the nest at the top of the tree then referring to the resulting splat on the ground as creative destruction. One man's creative destruction is another man's disaster. Who gets to decide?

shoving a flightless bird from the nest at the top of the tree

A flightless bird at the top of a tree is screwed, anyway :-/

If you're interested in the topic, I believe it was extensively discussed with respect to post-Soviet Russia.

A flightless bird at the top of a tree is screwed, anyway :-/

Spit my tea on the keyboard.

From our perspective a government official who helps his family while being in the role of being a burocrat is corrupt. From the African practice his actions are commandable because he's practicing ubuntu.

The amount of that kind of interdependence in Western society isn't zero but it's a lot less than it's in Africa. Western society needs the prime loyality of a burocrat to be to the state. It needs the prime loyality of an employee in his role as employee to his company.

Cash injections from outsiders harm this.

Why do you think that GiveDirectly style donations hurt this? What kind of real world effect to do expect to see in a world where it hurts it compared to a possible world where it doesn't hurt?

As ChristianKI says, you haven't actually answered the question.

the very obvious truth that the reason they are doing it is not to help [...] but to be seen helping [...] and to get the jolt of good feelings

Why is this "very obvious"? It isn't very obvious to me. (It looks to me as if there's a variety of different motivations, and at least some EAs seem clearly to be losing more personal utility by their donations than they could plausibly be gaining from being seen helping and from jolts of good feelings.)

Is what's very obvious to you specifically that EAs have those motivations, or that everyone does?

[...] we [...] We [...] we [...] we [...] We [...] we [...] We [...]

I have the impression that you keep saying "we" and meaning "you".