In Praise of Tribes that Pretend to Try: Counter-"Critique of Effective Altruism"

by diegocaleiro 11 min read2nd Dec 201319 comments


Disclaimer: I endorse the EA movement and direct an EA/Transhumanist organization,

We finally have created the first "inside view" critique of EA.

The critique's main worry would please Hofstadter by being self-referential: Being the first, having taken too long to emerge, thus indicating that EA's (Effective Altruists) are pretending to try instead of actually trying, or else they’d have self-criticized already.

Here I will try to clash head-on with what seems to be the most important point of that critique. This will be the only point I'll address, for the sake of brevity, mnemonics and force of argument. This is a meta-contrarian apostasy, in its purpose. I'm not sure it is a view I hold, anymore than a view I think has to be out there in the open, being thought of and criticized. I am mostly indebted to this comment by Viliam_Bur, which was marinating in my mind while I read Ben Kuhn's apostasy.

Original Version Abstract

Effective altruism is, to my knowledge, the first time that a substantially useful set of ethics and frameworks to analyze one’s effect on the world has gained a broad enough appeal to resemble a social movement. (I’d say these principles are something like altruism, maximization, egalitarianism, and consequentialism; together they imply many improvements over the social default for trying to do good in the world—earning to give as opposed to doing direct charity work, working in the developing world rather than locally, using evidence and feedback to analyze effectiveness, etc.) Unfortunately, as a movement effective altruism is failing to use these principles to acquire correct nontrivial beliefs about how to improve the world.

By way of clarification, consider a distinction between two senses of the word “trying” I used above. Let’s call them “actually trying” and “pretending to try”. Pretending to try to improve the world is something like responding to social pressure to improve the world by querying your brain for a thing which improves the world, taking the first search result and rolling with it. For example, for a while I thought that I would try to improve the world by developing computerized methods of checking informally-written proofs, thus allowing more scalable teaching of higher math, democratizing education, etc. Coincidentally, computer programming and higher math happened to be the two things that I was best at. This is pretending to try. Actually trying is looking at the things that improve the world, figuring out which one maximizes utility, and then doing that thing. For instance, I now run an effective altruist student organization at Harvard because I realized that even though I’m a comparatively bad leader and don’t enjoy it very much, it’s still very high-impact if I work hard enough at it. This isn’t to say that I’m actually trying yet, but I’ve gotten closer.

Using this distinction between pretending and actually trying, I would summarize a lot of effective altruism as “pretending to actually try”. As a social group, effective altruists have successfully noticed the pretending/actually-trying distinction. But they seem to have stopped there, assuming that knowing the difference between fake trying and actually trying translates into ability to actually try. Empirically, it most certainly doesn’t. A lot of effective altruists still end up satisficing—finding actions that are on their face acceptable under core EA standards and then picking those which seem appealing because of other essentially random factors. This is more likely to converge on good actions than what society does by default, because the principles are better than society’s default principles. Nevertheless, it fails to make much progress over what is directly obvious from the core EA principles. As a result, although “doing effective altruism” feels like truth-seeking, it often ends up being just a more credible way to pretend to try.

Counterargument: Tribes have internal structure, and so should the EA movement.

This includes a free reconstruction, containing nearly the whole original, of what I took to be important in Viliam's comment.

Feeling-oriented, and outcome-oriented communities

People probably need two kinds of communities -- let's call them "feelings-oriented community" and "outcome-oriented community". To many people this division has been "home" and "work" over the centuries, but that has some misleading connotations. A very popular medieval alternative was "church" and "work". Organized large scale societies have many alternatives that fill up these roles, to greater or lesser degrees. Indigenous tribes have the three realms separated, "work" has a time and a place, likewise, rituals and late afternoon discussions, chants etc... fulfill the purpose of "church".

A "feelings-oriented community" is a community of people who meet because they enjoy being together and feel safe with each other. The examples are a functional family, a church group, friends meeting in a pub, etc... One of the important properties of feeling oriented communities, that according to Dennett has not yet sunk in the naturalist community is that nothing is a precondition for belonging to the group which feels, or the sacredness taking place. You could spend the rest of your life going to church without becoming a priest, listening to the tribal leaders and shamans talk without saying a word. There are no pre-requisites to become your parent's son, or your sister's brother every time you enter the house.

An "outcome-oriented community" is a community that has an explicit goal, and people genuinely contribute to making that goal happen. The examples are a business company, an NGO, a Toastmasters meetup, an intentional household etc... To become a member of an outcome-oriented community, you have to show that you are willing and able to bring about the goal (either for itself, or in exchange of something valuable). There is some tolerance if you stop doing things well, either by ignorance or, say, bad health. But the tolerance is finite and the group can frown upon, punish, or even expel those who are not clearly helping the goal.  

What are communities good for? What is good for communities?

The important part (to define what kind of group something is) is what really happens inside the members' heads, not what they pretend to do. For example, you could have an NGO with twelve members, where two of them want to have the work done, but the remaining ten only come to socialize. Of course, even those ten will verbally support the explicit goals of the organization, but they will be much more relaxed about timing, care less about verifying the outcomes, etc. For them, the explicit goals are merely a source of identity and a pretext to meet people professing similar values; for them, the community is the real goal. If they had a magic button which would instantly solve the problem, making the organization obviously obsolete, they wouldn't push it. The people who are serious about the goal would love to see it completed as soon as possible, so they can move to some other goals. (I have seen a similar tension in a few organizations, and the usual solution seems to be the serious members forming an "organization within an organization", keeping the other ones around them for social and other purposes.)

As an evolutionary just-so story, we have a tribe composed of many different people, and within the tribe we have a hunters group, containing the best hunters. Members of the tribe are required to follow the norms of the tribe. Hunters must be efficient in their jobs. But hunters don't become a separate tribe... they go hunting for a while, and then return back to their original tribe. The tribe membership is for life, or at least for a long time; it provides safety and fulfills the emotional needs. Each hunting expedition is a short-termed event; it requires skills and determination. If a hunter breaks his legs, he can no longer be a hunter; but he still remains a member of his tribe. The hunter has now descended from the feeling and work status, to only the feeling status, this is part of expected cycles - a woman may stop working while having a child, a teenager may decide work is evil and stop working, an existentialist may pause for a year to reflect on the value of life itself in different ways - but throughout they do are not cast away from the reassuring arms of the "feeling's oriented community".

A healthy double layered movement

Viliam and I think a healthy way of living should be modeled like this; on two layers. To have a larger tribe based on shared values (rationality and altruism), and within this tribe a few working groups, both long-term (MIRI, CFAR) and short-term (organizers of the next meetup). Of course it could be a few overlapping tribes (the rationalists, the altruists), but the important thing is that you keep your social network even if you stop participating in some specific project -- otherwise we get either cultish pressure (you have to remain hard-working on our project even if you no longer feel so great about it, or you lose your whole social network) or inefficiency (people remain formally members of the project, but lately barely any work gets done, and the more active ones are warned not to rock the boat). Joining or leaving a project should not be motivated or punished socially.

This is the crux of Viliam's argument and of my disagreement with Ben's Critique: The Effective Altruist community has grown large enough that it can easily afford to have two kinds of communities inside it: The feelings-oriented EA's, whom Ben calls (unfairly in my opinion) pretending to try to be effective altruists, and the outcome-oriented EA’s, whom are Really trying to be effective altruists.

Now that is not how he put it in his critique. He used the fact that that critique had not been written, as sufficiently strong indication that the whole movement, a monolithic, single entity, had failed it’s task of being introspective enough about it’s failure modes. This is unfair on two accounts, someone had to be the first, and the movement seems young enough that that is not a problem, and it is false that the entire movement is a single monolithic entity making wrong and right decisions in a void. The truth is that there are many people in the EA community in different stages of life, and of involvement with the movement. We should account for that and make room for newcomers as well as for ancient sages. EA is not one single entity that made one huge mistake. It is a couple thousand people, whose subgroups are working hard on several distinct things, frequently without communicating, and whose supergoal is reborn every day with the pushes and drifts going on inside the community.

Intentional Agents, communities or individuals, are not monolithic

Most importantly, if you consider the argument above that Effective Altruim can’t be criticized on accounts of being one single entity, because factually, it isn’t, then I wish you to bring this intuition pump one step further: Each one of us is also not one single monolithic agent. We have good and bad days, and we are made of lots of tiny little agents within, whose goals and purposes are only our own when enough of them coalesce so that our overall behavior goes in a certain direction. Just like you can’t critize EA as a whole for something that it’s subsets haven’t done (the fancy philosophers word for this is mereological fallacy), likewise you can’t claim about a particular individual that he, as a whole, pretends to try, because you’ve seen him have one or two lazy days, or if he is still addicted to a particular video game. Don’t forget the demanding objection to utilitarianism, if you ask of a smoker to stop smoking because it is irrational to smoke, and he believes you, he may end up abandoning rationalism just because a small subset of him was addicted to smoking, and he just couldn't live with that much inconsistency in his self view. Likewise, if to be an utilitarian is infinitely demanding, you lose the utilitarians to “what the hell” effects.  

The same goes for Effective Altruists. Ben’s post makes the case for really effective altruism too demanding. Not even inside we are truly and really a monolithic entity, or a utility function optimizer - regardless of how much we may wish we were. My favoured reading of the current state of the Effective Altruist people is not that they are pretending to really try, but that most people are finding, for themselves, which are the aspects of their personalities they are willing to bend for altruism, and which they are not. I don’t expect and don’t think anyone should expect that any single individual becomes a perfect altruist. There are parts of us that just won’t let go of some thing they crave for and praise. We don’t want to lose the entire community if one individual is not effective enough, and we don’t want to lose one individual if a part of him, or a time-slice, is not satisfying the canonical expectation of the outcome-oriented community.

Rationalists already accepted a layered structure

We need to accept, as EA’s, what Lesswrong as blog has accepted, there will always be a group that is passive, and feeling-oriented, and a group that is outcome-oriented. Even if the subject matter of Effective Altruism is outcome.

For a less sensitive example, consider an average job: you may think about your colleagues as your friends, but if you leave the job, how many of them will you keep regular contact with? In contrast with this, a regular church just asks you to come to sunday prayers, gives you some keywords and a few relatively simple rules. If this level of participation is ideal for you, welcome, brother or sister! And if you want more, feel free to join some higher-commitment group within the church. You choose the level of your participation, and you can change it during your life. For a non-religious example, in a dance group you could just go and dance, or chose to do the new year’s presentation, or choose to find new dancers, all the way up to being the dance organizer and coordinator.

The current rationalist community has solved this problem to some extent. Your level of participation can range from being a lurker at LW, all the way up, from meetup organizer to CFAR creator to writing the next HPMOR or it’s analogue.

Viliam ends his comment by saying: It would be great to have a LW village, where some people would work on effective altruism, others would work on building artificial intelligence, yet others would develop a rationality curriculum, and some would be too busy with their personal issues to do any of this now... but everyone would know that this is a village where good and sane people live, where cool things happen, and whichever of these good and real goals I will choose to prioritize, it's still a community where I belong. Actually, it would be great to have a village where 5% or 10% of people would be the LW community. Connotatively, it's not about being away from other people, but about being with my people.

The challenge, in my view from now on is not how to make effective altruists stop pretending, but how to surround effective altruists with welcoming arms even when the subset of them that is active at that moment is not doing the right things? How can we make EA’s a loving and caring community of people who help each other, so that people feel taken care of enough that they actually have the attentional and emotional resources necessary to really go there and do the impossible.

Here are some examples of this layered system working in non-religious non-tribal settings: Lesswrong has a karma system to tell different functions within the community. It also has meetups, it also has a Study Hall, and it also has strong relations with CFAR and MIRI.

Leverage research, as community/house has active hard-core members, new hirees, people in training, and friends/relationships of people there, very different outcomes expected from each.

Transhumanists have people who only self-identify, people who attend events, people who write for H+ magazine, a board of directors, and it goes all the way up to Nick Bostrom, who spends 70 hours a week working on academic content in related topics.

The solution is not just introspection, but the maintenance of a welcoming environment at every layer of effectiveness

The Effective Altruist community does not need to get introspectively even more focused on effectiveness - at least not right now - what it needs is a designed hierarchical structure which allows it to let everyone in, and let everyone transition smoothly between different levels of commitment.

Most people will transition upward, since understanding more makes you more interested, more effective, etc… in an upward spiral. But people also need to be able to slide down for a bit. To meet their relatives for thanksgiving, to play Go with their workfriends, to dance, to pretend they don’t care about animals. To do their thing. Their internal thing which has not converted to EA like the rest of them have. This is not only okay, it is not only tolerable, it is essential for the movement’s survival.

But then how can those who are at their very best, healthy, strong, smart, and at the edge of the movement push it forward?

Here is an obvious place not to do it: Open groups on Facebook.

Open Facebook is not the place to move it forward. Some people who are recognized as being in the forefront of the movement, like Toby, Will, Holden, Beckstead, Wise and others should create an “advancing Effective Altruism” group on facebook, and there and then will be a place where no blood will be shed on the hands of neither the feeling-oriented, nor the outcome-oriented group by having to decrease the signal to noise ratio within either.

Now once we create this hierarchy within the movement (not only the groups, but the mental hierarchy, and the feeling that it is fine to be at a feeling-oriented moment, or to have feeling-oriented experiences) we will also want to increase the chance that people will move up the hierarchical ladder. As many as possible, as soon as possible, after all, the higher up you are, by definition the more likely you are to be generating good outcome. We have already started doing so. The EA Self-Help (secret) group on Facebook serves this very purpose, it helps altruists when they are feeling down, unproductive, sad, or anything actually, and we will hear you and embrace you even if you are not being particularly effective and altruistic when you get there. It is the legacy of our deceased friend, Jonatas, to all of us, because of him, we now have some understanding that people need love and companionship especially when they are down. Or we may lose all of their future good moments. The monolithic individual fallacy is a very pricy one to pay. Let us not learn the hard way by losing another member.


I have argued here that the main problem indicated in Ben’s writing, that effective altruists are pretending to really try, is not to be viewed in this light. Instead, I argued that the very survival of the Effective Altruist movement may rely on finding a welcoming space for something that Viliam_Bur has called feeling-oriented community, without which many people would leave the movement, by experiencing it as too demanding during their bad times, or if it strongly conflicted a particular subset of themselves they consider important. Instead I advocate for hierarchically separate communities within the movement, allowing those who are at any particular level of commitment to grow stronger and win.

The first three initial measures I suggest for this re-design of the community are:

1) Making all effective altruists aware that the EA self-help group exists for anyone who, for any reason, wants help from the community, even for non EA related affairs.

2) Creating a Closed Facebook group with only those who are advancing the discussion at its best, for instance those who wrote long posts in their own blogs about it, or obvious major figures.

3) Creating a Study Hall equivalent for EA’s to increase their feeling of belonging to a large tribe of goal-sharing people, where they can lurk even when they have nothing to say, and just do a few pomodoros.


This is my first long writing on Effective Altruism, and my first attempt at an apostasy, and my first explicit attempt to be meta-contrarian. I hope I may have helped shed some light on the discussion, and that my critique can be taken by all, specially Ben, to be oriented envisioning the same large scale goal that is shared by effective altruists around the world. The outlook of effective altruism is still being designed every day by all of us, and I hope my critique can be used, along with Ben’s and others, to build not only a movement that is stronger in it’s individuals emotions, as I have advocated here, but furthermore in being psychologically healthy and functional group, a whole that understands the role of its parts, and subdivides accordingly.