The growing influence of effective altruism

Longtermism sees history differently: as a forward march toward inevitable progress. MacAskill references the past often in What We Owe the Future, but only in the form of case studies on the life-­improving impact of technological and moral development. He discusses the abolition of slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the women’s rights movement as evidence of how important it is to continue humanity’s arc of progress before the wrong values get “locked in” by despots. What are the “right” values? MacAskill has a coy approach to articulating them: he argues that “we should focus on promoting more abstract or general moral principles” to ensure that “moral changes stay relevant and robustly positive into the future.” 

Worldwide and ongoing climate change, which already affects the under-resourced more than the elite today, is notably not a core longtermist cause, as philosopher Emile P. Torres points out in his critiques. While it poses a threat to millions of lives, longtermists argue, it probably won’t wipe out all of humanity; those with the wealth and means to survive can carry on fulfilling our species’ potential. Tech billionaires like Thiel and Larry Page already have plans and real estate in place to ride out a climate apocalypse. (MacAskill, in his new book, names climate change as a serious worry for those alive today, but he considers it an existential threat only in the “extreme” form where agriculture won’t survive.)

“To come to the conclusion that in order to do the most good in the world you have to work on artificial general intelligence is very strange.”

Timnit Gebru

The final mysterious feature of EA’s version of the long view is how its logic ends up in a specific list of technology-based far-off threats to civilization that just happen to align with many of the original EA cohort’s areas of research. “I am a researcher in the field of AI,” says Gebru, “but to come to the conclusion that in order to do the most good in the world you have to work on artificial general intelligence is very strange. It’s like trying to justify the fact that you want to think about the science fiction scenario and you don’t want to think about real people, the real world, and current structural issues. You want to justify how you want to pull billions of dollars into that while people are starving.”

Some EA leaders seem aware that criticism and change are key to expanding the community and strengthening its impact. MacAskill and others have made it explicit that their calculations are estimates (“These are our best guesses,” MacAskill offered on a 2020 podcast episode) and said they’re eager to improve through critical discourse. Both GiveWell and CEA have pages on their websites titled “Our Mistakes,” and in June, CEA ran a contest inviting critiques on the EA forum; the Future Fund has launched prizes up to $1.5 million for critical perspectives on AI.

“We recognize that the problems EA is trying to address are really, really big and we don’t have a hope of solving them with only a small segment of people,” GiveWell board member and CEA community liaison Julia Wise says of EA’s diversity statistics. “We need the talents that lots of different kinds of people can bring to address these worldwide problems.” Wise also spoke on the topic at the 2020 EA Global Conference, and she actively discusses inclusion and community power dynamics on the CEA forum. The Center for Effective Altruism supports a mentorship program for women and nonbinary people (founded, incidentally, by Carrick Flynn’s wife) that Wise says is expanding to other underrepresented groups in the EA community, and CEA has made an effort to facilitate conferences in more locations worldwide to welcome a more geographically diverse group. But these efforts appear to be limited in scope and impact; CEA’s public-facing page on diversity and inclusion hasn’t even been updated since 2020. As the tech-utopian tenets of longtermism take a front seat in EA’s rocket ship and a few billionaire donors chart its path into the future, it may be too late to alter the DNA of the movement.

Politics and the future

Despite the sci-fi sheen, effective altruism today is a conservative project, consolidating decision-making behind a technocratic belief system and a small set of individuals, potentially at the expense of local and intersectional visions for the future. But EA’s community and successes were built around clear methodologies that may not transfer into the more nuanced political arena that some EA leaders and a few big donors are pushing toward. According to Wise, the community at large is still split on politics as an approach to pursuing EA’s goals, with some dissenters believing politics is too polarized a space for effective change. 

But EA is not the only charitable movement looking to political action to reshape the world; the philanthropic field generally has been moving into politics for greater impact. “We have an existential political crisis that philanthropy has to deal with. Otherwise, a lot of its other goals are going to be hard to achieve,” says Inside Philanthropy’s Callahan, using a definition of “existential” that differs from MacAskill’s. But while EA may offer a clear rubric for determining how to give charitably, the political arena presents a messier challenge. “There’s no easy metric for how to gain political power or shift politics,” he says. “And Sam Bankman-Fried has so far demonstrated himself not the most effective political giver.” 

Bankman-Fried has articulated his own political giving as “more policy than politics,” and has donated primarily to Democrats through his short-lived Protect Our Future PAC (which backed Carrick Flynn in Oregon) and the Guarding Against Pandemics PAC (which is run by his brother Gabe and publishes a cross-party list of its “champions” to support). Ryan Salame, the co-CEO with Bankman-Fried of FTX, funded his own PAC, American Dream Federal Action, which focuses mainly on Republican candidates. (Bankman-Fried has said Salame shares his passion for preventing pandemics.) Guarding Against Pandemics and the Open Philanthropy Action Fund (Open Philanthropy’s political arm) spent more than $18 million to get an initiative on the California state ballot this fall to fund pandemic research and action through a new tax.

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