Three recent posts that may be of interest:

  • Moral Misdirection (introducing the general concept: public communicators should aim to improve the importance-weighted accuracy of their audience's beliefs)
  • What "Effective Altruism" Means to Me (sets out 42 claims that I think are true and important, as well as a handful of possible misconceptions that I explicitly reject)
  • Anti-Philanthropic Misdirection: explains why I think vitriolic anti-EAs are often guilty of moral misdirection, and how responsible criticism would look different. (Leif Wenar's recent WIRED article is singled out for special attention.)




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I really enjoyed this series; thanks for writing it!

One piece of stylistic feedback on Anti-Philanthropic Misdirection: I think the piece's hostile tone—e.g., "Wenar is here promoting a general approach to practical reasoning that is very obviously biased, stupid, and harmful: a plain force for evil in the world"—will make your piece less persuasive to non-EA readers for two reasons. First, I suspect all the italics and adjectives will trigger readers' bias radars, making people who aren't already sympathetic to EA approach the piece more critically/less openmindedly than they would have otherwise (e.g., if you had written: "Wenar promotes a general approach to practical reasoning that is both incorrect and harmful"). Second, it reads as hypocritical, since in the piece you criticize "the hostile, dismissive tone of many critics." (And unless readers have read Wenar's piece pretty closely and are pretty familiar with EA, they're not going to be well-positioned to assess whose hostility and dismissiveness are justified.) So, while I understand the frustration, and think the tone is in some sense warranted, I suspect the piece would be more effective at morally redirecting people if it read as more neutral/measured. The arguments speak for themselves. 

Thanks, that's very helpful!  I do want my points to be forceful, but I take your point that overdoing it can be counterproductive.  I've now slightly moderated that sentence to instead read, "Wenar is here promoting a general approach to practical reasoning that is systematically biased (and predictably harmful as a result): a plain force for ill in the world."

Reading through your articles, I can't help but share your concern especially because of how potentially fragile people's important and impactful altruistic decisions might be.

If my family is making 100k and they are choosing to designate 10% of that annually to effective charities, that represents vacations that are not had, savings that are not made, a few less luxuries, etc. I may be looking for a permission structure to eliminate or reduce my giving. This is probably even more true if I am only considering donation of a significant portion of my income. 

Critics of effective giving can help people feel morally justified in abstaining from effective giving, which might be all that they need to maintain the status quo of not giving, or tilt a bit more of their budget to themselves and their families. 

We do of course need to worry about the flip side: plenty of times (especially in political groups) you see people being told not to criticise the group's positions because it will make it less likely that the public in general will buy the overall picture (which the critic probably still agrees with). This can be pretty toxic.

I don't think Richard is advocating for that, but I think it's a risk once you legitimize this kind of argument.

Right, that's why I also take care to emphasize that responsible criticism is (pretty much) always possible, and describe in some detail how one can safely criticize "Good Things" without being susceptible to charges of moral misdirection.

For my part, I especially liked reading the article on moral misdirection, which I think gives a clear explanation of (and name for!) a worryingly-prevalent dynamic. Thanks!

These are great posts, thank you for writing them!

IMHO EA's can vastly improve our effectiveness by focusing more on effective communication. Your articles are definitely a step in the right direction. 

There is an opportunity to go a lot further if we can also do more to adjust the style of our communication. 

To me, and to most EA's, your articles are beautifully written, with crystal-clear reasoning. However, we need to keep reminding ourselves that, in a sense, we are outliers, we people who like to communicate in this way. We focus on content and precision and logic and data. 

We can learn a lot from people who communicate very effectively in very different ways. Look at beer commercials. Look at TicToc influencers. Look at Donald Trump (really - he is obnoxious and wrong, but he is a very effective communicator in the sense that his communication serves his cynical, obnoxious purpose very well within his target audience - the fact that so many liberals refuse to admit this and fight fire with fire is a big reason why he could still win). 

Most people hated maths in school, they didn't study philosophy or logic. When we communicate only in the style that we feel comfortable with, we're almost excluding them - while allowing others to communicate to them. So they end up believing the wrong people. 

We want to be reasonable and logical, and convince people one by one. But most great communicators (including many good people, like MLK or JFK or Obama) realise that many people want to feel part of something bigger than themselves. It is part of what we are as humans. Trump knows this. His ardent supporters value loyalty to their group more than they value truth or logic or science. If you've ever been a fan of a sports team, you will know this feeling. Obama's "Yes we can" was also a movement. it allowed adherents to answer "yes we can" when they faced obstacles, even obstacles that seemed impossible to overcome. 

As EA's, we're not comfortable with this kind of talk. Every article starts with reasons why it might not be correct. This is great from a philosophical POV, but not great for mass audiences. 

Recently Daniel Kahneman died. He wrote the wonderful book "Thinking Fast and Slow" which talks about how, most of the time, people will jump to an immediately obvious conclusion - which is often wrong - rather than analysing a question in detail. Great mass-communicators realise this - they do not depend on people making the mental effort to study an issue, but rather they look at ways to manipulate their fast-thinking mode. Beer-commercials create a mental link between drinking beer and being surrounded by fun, attractive people in exciting locations. Laundry commercials create a mental link between using their products and having a nice suburban home and a happy family. And so on. 

The SBF communication is a perfect example. Millions of people form the easy connection between SBF, Fraud, Opulence, EA. They conclude that EA is an excuse for rich people to justify getting really rich while making themselves feel good about themselves. This is based on exactly one data-point - but it's the one that the public knows. Most people are not interested enough in EA to invest time to read complex arguments about why this is wrong. It may even make them feel happy to see "self-righteous do-gooders" taken down a peg.** 

Ironically, most charities are seen positively. This is because they communicate in a very different way to EA's. They show pictures of individuals suffering, they present themselves as caring and empathetic and emotional. They show the sacrifices they make to help others. Most EA's would not be comfortable communicating about EA in this way, but maybe we need to focus on the word "Effective" in our title, and get out of our comfort zone. Because this kind of communication can be much more powerful than our logic / facts / data-based communication. Certainly, it can powerfully complement it. 

I always cite climate-denial as the great example of our time. There is no doubt that the scientists are right, that the IPCC recommendations are correct. Even the oil-companies and the vehement climate deniers know this. But still, in terms of communication, they beat the scientists hands down. 

We scientists focus on facts and logic and data, and that makes us lazy. It's convenient for us, it's our language. Deniers know that they don't have logic on their side, so they are forced to optimise their communication. They find ways to make it about tradition, about pride, about emotions. They find stories of individuals who will be harmed by climate-action, and turn them into victim-heroes, fighting against the cynical scientists. The obfuscate the data, not randomly, but in a way that they have learned from focus groups will create just enough doubt among most people. They strategically do not deny things that can easily be proven to non-scientists, but instead propose things like "let's wait until we have more evidence" which sound reasonable to anyone who doesn't have the time and energy to delve deeply into what it really means (more climate-damage). 

There is a certain irony that I'm making this point while writing badly in the style I'm saying isn't very effective for mass-communication. But it's what I'm comfortable with too. But my point is: there are people out there who have studied, scientifically, which methods of communication are effective with "the public". Politicians learn from them. The EA movement could do so too. 

Ultimately, we are right (I think) on most of the points we argue; it would be very valuable to get more and more people thinking the way EA's do. We should not limit this to people who also like to communicate the way EA's do. 


**The very existence of the term "do-gooder" is proof of this - there is no conceivable logical reason why people should hate a person who does good, but they do. Bono is consistently considered the most hated person in Ireland, in a close contest with Bob Geldof - because both are classed as "do-gooders" who need to get off their high-horses. It's not about people thinking deeply about the good they actually do, or questioning whether they truly add value. it's about people not being comfortable with the idea of people making them feel uncomfortable about themselves. By criticising them, we're allowing ourselves to feel better about not doing anything. I think that sometimes EA's could be seen in a similar way. 


Yes, I agree it seems important to have marketers and PR people to craft persuasive messaging for mass audiences. That's not what I'm trying to do here, and nor do I think it would make any sense for me to shift into PR -- it wouldn't be a good personal fit. My target audience is academics and "academic-adjacent" audiences, and as a philosopher my goal is to make clear what's philosophically justified, not to manipulate anyone through non-rational means. I think this is an important role, for reasons explained in some of the footnotes to my posts there. But I also agree it's not the only important role, and it would plausibly be good for EA to additionally have more mass-market appeal.  It takes all sorts.

Thanks, I enjoyed these pieces! Really clear and well-structured.

Richard I really love your writing, but as a parent I find it so hard to just sit and read stuff. 95% of the forum's content I get via the podcast feeds. Now, I don't expect everyone to go full Experimental History or Joe Carlsmith and audio narrate each post, but unless you're wanting to keep things on Substack turf, you might consider cross-posting the full thing here (like Bentham's Bulldog did for the critique of the wired article). I don't ask this of everyone, so please consider this a compliment: I love your work and want it in my ears.[1] 

  1. ^

    That sounded weirder than I meant it to

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