Photo credit: Laura Gamse

Photo credit: Laura Gamse

While I was at EA Global, I was able to see more directly some of the outlooks of other EAs that I haven't been able to experience first-hand. While by and large this was a good experience, it also led to several moments of contention.

First and foremost, on lot's of minds was the debate around serving vegan food at the event. Jeff wrote a good summation of the whole problem; one of my favorites (unsurprisingly) comes from The Unit of Caring; and the lovely and talented Aceso Under Glass is clever and sciencey as always. I don't really have a strong opinion. I like food; it is yummy. Please serve more of it next time.

I also had mixed reactions to the emphasis placed on AI risk. As usual Dylan Matthews at Vox (who was on one of the best panels) wrote a completely on-point article. He has this ability to explain complex layered ideas so succinctly. I want to steal his ability. Or maybe his editor.

In any case his article "I spent a week at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away... worried" is clickable gold. Go read it. I'll wait....

   *hums jeopardy theme song*

Good, right?! I'll leave the crazy math alone. For now. What struck me as undeniably true, and a great summation of the best criticisms of EA is this:

"And you have to do meta-charity well — and the more EA grows obsessed with AI, the harder it is to do that. The movement has a very real demographic problem, which contributes to very real intellectual blinders of the kind that give rise to the AI obsession. And it's hard to imagine that yoking EA to one of the whitest and most male fields (tech) and academic subjects (computer science) will do much to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the fold...
Effective altruism is a useful framework for thinking through how to do good through one's career, or through political advocacy, or through charitable giving. It is not a replacement for movements through which marginalized peoples seek their own liberation. If EA is to have any hope of getting more buy-in from women and people of color, it has to at least acknowledge that."*

I laughed. I cried (almost). I jumped out of my seat (actually). Spot-fucking-on.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm actually inclined to believe there is risk in an indifferent, sufficiently intelligent artificial intelligence. This is a new development -- before EA Global I believed the chances of AI being an existential risk were very, very slim. However, I think climate change, nuclear fallout, and pandemics are all more likely to kill us off; I think I am just not willing to put my money or time into mitigating existential risk. Ultimately there are millions of people across the globe now that are suffering. To me, the potential future death of many doesn't take precedence over the certain hardship and misfortune of individuals alive today.

Beyond my personal assessment of prioritization, Dylan points out it is problematic that it is the nerds proclaiming their own brilliance will be the downfall of us all. Talk about a pale and male problem! Lacking diversity can easily lead to self-aggrandizing, ossification, and (dun dun dun) ineffectiveness. The self-absorption problem Dylan is talking about is real. Hint: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.

One of the other fractures I noticed is that of movement growth. There are those that are concerned that bringing more people in on the idea of Effective Altruism quickly could result in a large culture shift. While at the conference I was discussing the talk triplet on movement building - another one of my favorites - and someone mentioned the concern around growing to quickly, or even growing too large at all. The concern being that by growing we would wind up being not as effective or exceptional.

The argument goes something like this: the best way to make change and construct something better is by using the best minds and skills available. These individuals (in this case, those of us here at the conference) are better suited to decide the best way to proceed in creating the correct kind of change. If we focus on bringing in more people we would dilute this exceptional talent pool and undermine our ability to create a better world.

The red warning lights inside my brain were blaring loudly.


There's nothing wrong with putting the best and brightest on the problem. It is the idea that only the most capable should be deciding how to instigate change, and that everyone else less suited to the job should be excluded, that is problematic. More than that, it is elitism. Battered in good intentions, deep fried in utilitarianism, and dusted with sugar. But still elitism.

This strain of thinking isn't knew. Mill's work on liberty is focused on the elite, class based individualism, and those he considers to be of superior intellect. The idea of elitism isn't new to utilitarianism. This line of thinking matches well with the reasoning of exclusion: inaccessibility is good because it keeps the riff-raff out. As I've discussed previously those with different strengths, and different experiences are necessary for an effective organization. To dissuade participation, or ignore opinions is to exclude data.

Almost without exception as a larger society we have decided that elitism is morally wrong and leads to injustice. We come to this conclusion through a history of elitism leading mainly to injustice and brutality. In other words pattern-matching indicates these behaviors and beliefs make you an asshole.

All this narcissistic thinking makes me wonder what drew such individuals to Effective Altruism in the first place. Hint: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.

It is concerning when anyone can walk away from our gathering with a feeling that we are too self-congratulatory, or that we are prioritizing areas based on our demographic. It troubles me acutely when this person is myself.

Overall I loved the event. However the occasional undertone of pomposity gave me a feel for why others are so concerned about EA being undemocratic. It made me realize the real importance of having traditional nonprofit workers and social justice advocates, women and minorities in the movement.

Clearly we need someone who can step back from the philosophical argument and go "wait, you know that makes you an asshole, right? Right?"


* Someone recently pointed out to me that the term 'people of color' is very clearly a US word and is not only inapplicable other places, but even offensive. In other parts of the world (and in the US) discrimination is based on much more than melanin. I was cautioned that using this terminology poses a clear US-slant on something that is a global problem and to consider it's usage carefully.

An Illustration of My Fears

This. So much This.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Every now and then I get reminded of the importance of story telling; or we can call them illustrative examples. This story reminded me of that, mainly because it clearly represents two of the things I have been thinking about recently: the things I find so wrong and so disheartening about charity work (and poverty alleviation in particular) as well as the exactly thing I fear most about the Effective Altruism movement.

Things that are fucked up and wrong: victim blaming, nonsense goals and mission statements, strong leadership that is wrong leadership, silencing of relevant leaders, over emphasis on acquiring more funding (mainly because there never feels like enough to go around) and on and on the list goes

Things I fear for EA: becoming the crazy white dudes in a conference room proposing an exciting new study on people we don't know and don't understand. Because surely a study will solve this problem; never mind that the study itself is irrelevant and dehumanizing.

Being Low(er) Income In Effective Altruism

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 proposed way to increase donations and charitable giving is to destigmatize discussions of money and giving. We do this because when we discuss our behavior with others it creates a standard of conduct within our communities. When we review and examine our charitable donations it reminds our friends and family the importance of giving and creates a norm around increasing donations as well as support and praise for giving. The goal being to create a culture of positive reinforcement and praise. So we are working on building a culture that is OK talking about money because we believe that this has the potential to do a lot of good, even though it may be uncomfortable at first.

But these discussions can be super uncomfortable if you know you can't donate at that same level. So it becomes easy to see why going to a meet-up or discussion where people are talking about how to donate large sums of money is something people of lower income would avoid.

A few months ago at an EA meetup, the question was asked if everyone in the group was a tech worker. At the time I didn't volunteer being the only non-techy in the room. One because I was interested in other people's response, but mainly because I was overcome with my latent desire not to draw attention to myself. I also had a suspicion that had I thrown my hand up I would have gotten questions about what I do (which I don't think is very interesting), or worse *eep* why I'm not earning to give.

The several people in the room that know I don't work as a programer, or anywhere around the tech industry, also didn't volunteer that I wasn't 'one of them.' This experience was interesting, not just because of my amusement at my own shyness, but because it exemplifies something that I've heard others mention about being around a lot of effective altruists. The group has a tendency to be be mostly homogenous in nature, which can be ostracizing for those that don't necessarily fit.

Most of the male, techy, analytical types that inhabit the EA space have very high earning potential. More than that, they start out with at pretty good pay rate. The Seattle group is mainly late 20s, early 30s working professionals. Which means most of our members are already earning a good salary and even earning to give, while comfortably paying off what student debt they have.

I do not fit this mold.  Read: I'm broke.

I earn a decent salary now for an entry level admin job. But I graduated college as the market crashed in 2009. I have debt with high interest. I have the support of a great family, but we have always lived paycheck to paycheck. I chose to work in a field that does not pay well. I live in an expensive city. All this culminates to mean that every month I run my finances through the calculator. It means that frequently my bank account reads $3 for a day or two before my paycheck. It means I have to budget in coffee dates and doctor visits.

When I’m surrounded by people I know earn enough to give away 10% of their income and still not sweat buying dinner for 7 people I feel out of place*

All this means that I am fairly consistently thinking about money. Not always stressed about it, but always thinking about it. I have the running tally sheet of expenses in my head, that gets pulled up every time someone suggests we grab dinner. It means I have a small constant drain on my thought process, on my decision making abilities, and my emotional stability.

It means that every time I organize a meet-up for EA I have to worry about who is paying for snacks. It means that I feel guilty eating dinner I know someone else paid for, even though I know the expense has very little impact on them. It means that I carry cash to pitch in whenever possible. This is partially because I fear standing out among my EA group*, but mostly because when you are lower income you value and count money closely.

And that seems like the main difference. I feel each dollar spent, even when it isn't my dollar.

When I'm surrounded by people I know earn enough to give away 10% of their income and still not sweat buying dinner for 7 people I feel out of place. I am in awe of being able to do that. I feel fully the fact that this simple difference puts me at a disadvantage to those around me*. And I wonder how to relate to these people I am supposed to be organizing, motivating, and advising.

I'm well aware of my own privilege and I know I not nearly as bad off as most low income people in this country. But the fact that I can feel so out of place at EA meetings, given the relatively low difference in income between myself and my peers, I realize that truly low income individuals would likely not feel comfortable in our group at all. And that makes me inexplicably sad.

As a culture we have a tenancy to brush over economic diversity when discussing inclusion. Sadly, I think this is because it is closely related with ethnic and racial diversity. Also because we just don't like to talk about money. I believe that effective altruism can feel very exclusionary to those of lower economic status, and that this group is incredibly underrepresented within EA (for a discussion of why homogeneity is detrimental see my previous posts about diversity).

So we naturally don’t socialize with people that spend above our means.

One reason why EA is lacking economic diversity is because we tend to naturally separate ourselves based on class; as I illustrate in my experiences above, it feels icky to not be able to keep up. So we naturally don't socialize with people that spend above our means. But this distinction, this other-ness becomes clearer and more prevalent when hanging around effective altruists because we value talking about money and how much we donate.

But this means we are missing a huge chunk of donors! Because people of lower income donate lots of money. Like this ineractive map, most of these references focus on percentage donated, which actually works out to slightly less money than the donations by larger donors. But the inclination for altruism seems stronger in lower and middle income individuals (perhaps because we feel each dollar spent). It may be worth considering that it is easier to convince someone who is already donating to change their charitable giving than it is to convince someone to start giving, or give more.

Perhaps beyond diversity, it may be more effective to be wooing lower income donors.

So I decided I would start raising my hand, and raising it higher. Now when the question goes out in groups if everyone is a tech worker I swing my hand up and practically yell "I'm not!" When I was talking with people about plans to attend EA Global I explicitly mentioned that money was my limiting factor. Even though it made me cringe each time I said it. Of course no one minded, and it meant I got some support from friends. But that isn't why I said it.

I point out my lack of money to other EA people now, not for myself, but for those who are not there. Those that have either felt excluded from, or never even heard of, EA specifically because of their income level. I own the fact I am lacking in funds so that our community stays cognizant of the fact that not everyone who cares about effectiveness is a well-off tech worker. Because lots of people can't meet for coffee twice a week to discuss cause prioritization or AI risk. Because $10 a week on coffee is just too damn much. Because Lyft rides are expensive y'all! Because $400 for a conference registration can be hugely prohibitive (a gigantic shout out to everyone who has supported the scholarship program!).

I hope that my uncomfortable declarations of my economic status lead more of us to be inclusive, and creates space for our group to grow into including more economic diversity.

Because diversity is good!

And low income donors give a larger percentage

*Please note that feelings of inadequacy expressed are not due to discriminatory acts of members of my group, or EA members in general, but are more accurately attributed to societal pressures and my internal dialog. In no way has anyone ever explicitly made me feel unwelcome, more that society tells us that our value is closely tied to our wealth.

Seattle Effective Altruist’s “Be Excellent To Each Other” Policy

A few people from the EA community have asked for a copy of the Seattle EA "Be Excellent To Each Other" policy (ostensibly our behavioral contract). Elizabeth posted it to her blog a while ago, but I thought it bore repeating. Mainly because I think it is a great group policy, but also because I think it is just an excellent piece of writing, and she deserves some good credit for it.

I think my favorite is the second paragraph.

It is the goal of Seattle Effective Altruists that all members feel safe and respected at all times.  This does not preclude disagreement in any way, we welcome differing points of view.  But it does preclude personal attacks, unwanted touching (unsure if a particular touch is wanted?  ASK), and deliberate meanness.  This policy applies to all members, but we are conscious that some people have traveled a more difficult road than others and are more likely to encounter things that make them feel unsafe, and are committed to countering that.

If you are wondering if something you are about to say follows the policy, a good rule of thumb is that it should be at least two of true, helpful, and kind.  This is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is very close to both.

If you find something offensive (including but not limited to: racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc) or it otherwise makes you uncomfortable (including but not limited to harassment, dismissal, unwanted romantic overtures), we encourage you to speak up at the time if you feel comfortable doing so.  We hope that all our members would want to know that they have said something offensive.  If you do not feel comfortable speaking up at the time, please tell a membership of the leadership (currently John, Elizabeth, and Stephanie) as soon as possible, in whatever format you feel comfortable (in person, facebook, e-mail, etc).   Depending on the specifics we will address it with the person in question, change a policy, and/or some other thing we haven’t thought of yet.

If someone tells you they find something you (or someone you agree with) said offensive, you do not have to immediately agree with them.  But please understand that it is not an attack on you personally, and quite possibly very scary for them to say.  If you did not mean to be offensive, express that, and listen to what the person has to say.  if you are a bystander, please convey your respect and support for both people without silencing either.

If you did mean to be offensive, leave.  Deliberate personal attacks will not be tolerated.  Repeated non-deliberate offensiveness will be handled on a case by case basis.

SEA is not in a position to police the behavior of our members outside our meetings and online presence (e.g. the facebook message board), and will not intervene normal interpersonal disagreements.  But if you feel unsafe attending a meeting because of a member’s extra-group behavior (including but not limited to threatening, stalking, harassment, verbal attacks, or assault), please talk to the leadership.  We will not have group members driven out by others’ bad behavior.

This is a living document.  We can’t foresee all possible problems, or remove the necessity for judgement calls.  But we hope that this sets the stage for Seattle Effective Altruists as a respectful community, and encourage you to talk to us if you concerns or suggestion

My additional two cents. Particularly when you are talking about controversial or sensitive topics.

My additional two cents. Particularly when you are talking about controversial or sensitive topics.

Diversity: Why it is particularly hard to talk about in EA

Please note that this article is not a theory to solve all problems of inclusion. Nor do I think that my views expressed here are a sufficient means to inclusion & diversity, simply that representation is a necessary step. I am hesitant to publish this article because of it's sensitive nature.
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.

There has been a lot of chatter around the EA forums lately about being welcoming, inclusive, feminist, diversity etc, etc, etc. But recently I got to have a brief encounter with someone in my EA group that brought to light some of the reasons this is particularly odd topic for EA.

I believe that many people take it as a matter of course, or have been trained to STFU, that diversity is a Good and Virtuous aim. A lot of Effective Altruists have come to the community through things like LessWrong & Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) which promote rationality and clearer more logical thinking. Which makes total sense! EAs are trying to make rational, deliberate choices around the best way to improve the world. And as J pointed out, EA is an easy way to feel like you are applying the rationality skills you learn.

So to be involved in the EA movement to some extent you touch on, if not get wrapped up in, the rationality movement. One thing I've noticed hanging out with a bunch of rationalists is that they have a desire, and have trained themselves, to question and analyze ideas, to poke at them and follow them to some sort of conclusion. All ideas. Particularly ones we take as a matter of course.

Enter diversity.


Have I made you uncomfortable yet?


No? Let me explain with my experience referenced above. During our last meet-up, and having been thinking about diversity and inclusion in relation to EA I looked around the room. Not too bad. We have several Latinos, almost a 50/50 split of women, several Asian members, and a few people who would identify as Queer. Good representation of Seattle demographics except... oh wait. We're all white.

I don't mean Caucasian, I mean the physical complexion of the group was fairly uniform and fairly... fair. Part of this undeniably is because we live in the PNW and don't know what sunshine is. But mostly it is because we just didn't have anyone of a darker complexion in the room. Beyond that everyone was college educated and a programer (myself excluded [more to come on that later]).

After the meeting had concluded and there were a few of us left chatting, I brought this up. Another member paused, looked at me and asked why I thought it would be of benefit to the group to have or recruit members who are specifically of a different complexion. It took me a few small moments to collect myself and remember the social context of the people I was with - I point you back to paragraphs 2 & 3. She asked not out of internalized racism but out of a desire to test my thinking and the rationality of my argument.

My response followed basically this premise:

People of different physical attributes experience the world differently. Both because of the potential prejudice they face, and due to historical systemic inequality. Having disparate life experiences creates different ways of looking and understanding the world which informs new ways of thinking. EA could benefit and be strengthened by incorporating and being cognizant of various viewpoints and ways of understanding.

This seems sort of logical to me. But we aren't going for logical, we are going for rational so..... link, link, study, study, study, findings, and findings. As most of the data in the articles listed show, it is not enough to have diversity for diversity's sake; to improve performance and potential of a group it is important to have a diversity of experiences and perspective. It seems unlikely that we will have a diverse number of perspectives with a group that is generally homogenous in terms of outward racial identifiers.

For a wonderful example of how this argument can be problematic see this article by Nonprofit with Balls (whom I love).

This member and I also briefly discussed color being a 'stand in' word or identifier for economic differences. And while I think these can be related, I also think they are distinct. Again more on that later.

What I failed to mention that day and what I think slips so many people's minds is also a very simple truth: those that benefit from the most effective charities, the world's ultra poor, are disproportionately people of color. And how can we be a movement that serves this demographic, and clearly states our goal is to avoid white knighting if we can't recruit people of color?

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