Effective Altruism and It's Intersection with Traditional Social Justice

There have been a series of discussions on EA forums about representation of minorities and marginalized groups. I will be writing several posts about this topic.

One conversation that I found particularly of interest was in the Women in Effective Altruism group. While the conversation was broad, the topic/question originally posed was about the intersection of feminism, progressive thought, social justice, and the 'new kid on the block' EA.

Below is my comment* in the thread.

This is a great conversation to be having and thank you for posting! One thing I am continually re-discovering is how often causes focused on more measurable outcomes - things like hunger, poverty, education, and health - turn out to actually also be women's issues.

By supplying clean water to a village I've created space for young girls to go to school and their mothers to be more empowered. By deworming children, girls are better able to learn which leads to better health and autonomy. So in my mind EA is a deeply feminist movement, whether we talk about it explicitly or not. Frequently it is difficult and 'messy' to try to discuss, let alone quantify, things like power dynamics and systematic marginalization of groups. So instead of trying to tackle these complex tangled issues head on, EA takes the approach of easing suffering through low hanging fruit. No woman can become empowered, or flourish if she has died from malaria.

I believe that this approach also helps us avoid 'white knighting.' I think by preventing deaths and easing suffering we are better able to be a support for those living in poverty and in situations and cultures vastly different from our own. Anecdotally I am less comfortable supporting an organization that tries to tell a woman in sub-Saharan Africa how to address her marginalization. I do think it is reasonable to give her a cash transfer and let her decide how to empower herself. Again the goal being to address the larger issue by tackling a smaller, more measurable, manageable outcome.

Having said all this I think it is important to note that in my experience most EAs do not take the work of older SJ movements for granted. It is through their research and experiences we are better able to understand our complex world. I don't think that questioning efficiency is intrinsically a negative judgment. It's a question.

EA can at times come off as 'not listening' because in general the people drawn to EA are passionately curious. We want to KNOW. A request for more data, a push to explain yourself, a request for evidence, particularly from someone pale and male, can seem dismissive and flippant. When really in many cases it is an excitement to learn about an issue that someone is deeply invested in. It is this desire to verify and maximize that can come off as cold, but it feels important to do this despite it being uncomfortable at times.

I hope we've been able to demonstrate a little bit of the listening and sharing you were hoping to find. I would love to read your article when it is finished. Would you be willing to post the link here?
context: the person asking the question disclosed she was writing an article for Mother Jones. I'm excited to read & share what she writes.


*Note that I have taken out names to protect anonymity since this is a closed group