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Can EA become less elitist?

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

Leonard Li, HKU Bachelor of Arts, Philosophy


I think it is fair to say that EA at its current stage of development is rather elitist, in the sense that its membership and influence are limited to a small group of well-off people mainly in cosmopolis with high educations and decent careers (see here). Some think that it should stay this way because it may be more effective to keep the movement small and elitist based on the argument that elitism is more effective (see here). Though we should probably be open to the possibility that EA has the potential of including more people, I think the trait of elitism is rather hard to overcome without some fundamental theoretical changes of EA. My reason, different from the one based on effectiveness of elitism mentioned earlier, rests upon my analysis of a methodological assumption at the core of EA, which can be called marginalism.


There are at least two ways to interpret the notion of elitism. One is to take elitism to refer to the fact that a way of thinking or social organization is largely for the elites, and that the general public is basically the recipients of elites’ decisions without an important part to play. This interpretation could potentially be used against EA, saying, for instance, that the evaluation of effectiveness is done by a few organizations as if it is the arbitrator of the value of other charities. But I don’t think this kind of criticism is doing justice to EA, and to be clear, I don’t mean to discuss elitism in this sense. What I mean by elitism is the feature that an activity or ideology is (1) shared or applicable to only a minority of people, and (2) this minority largely composed of a group of well-educated and well-off elites.


To put in another way, I think the current theoretical framework of EA is unsuitable for becoming a universal standard to guide the moral action or career choice of the general public, even though this in theory can maximize the total effectiveness of the whole society, which is in line with EA’s primary concern. My main reason for this unsuitability is based on an analysis of a central theoretical and methodological stance that could be called marginalism. So forgive me that I have to take some extended space to discuss marginalism, which can even be taken as an individual issue, before linking it with the elitism as its product.


Marginalism is one of EA’s core ideas, and it is usually taken for granted within the EA community. By marginalism, I refer to EA’s explicit emphasis on the marginal impact that an individual can achieve. Arguably, the notion of effectiveness, one that is even part of the name of EA, implies marginalism, as effectiveness is usually assessed by the impact that a marginal unit of resource can bring about. The often-mentioned triaxial standards of scale-neglectedness-tractability is also meant to pick out the “low-hanging fruits”, or areas where the greatest impact can be achieved with the least resources.


In the spirit of marginalism, EA aims at working out and be guided by a set of marginal priorities, the cause areas with the highest marginal return, as opposed to absolute priorities, the cause areas which could have the highest total return (see here). Here we can see a pair of contrasting theories, marginalism and what we can for our purpose refer to as “absolutism”, the former of which focus on the marginal return while the latter concerns the overall worthiness of a cause and the allocation of the totality of resource. It is probably the case that for absolutism, only the scale or importance of an issue matters while neglectedness and tractability are less significant.


Fundamentally, the distinction between marginalism and absolutism has its root in the contrast between methodological individualism and methodological holism. (The notion of individual here should be understood in a broader sense, encompassing both individual human beings and individual organizations) If one adopts a holistic viewpoint, then what she would be primarily concerned with is only what is pressing and needs to be solved, and whether a number of people are already working in the area or whether the problem is easily tractable is but a secondary concern, given that the problems have to be solved anyway. (Climate change might be a good thing to think about here)


Admittedly, if there are some low-hanging fruits, some relatively “easy gains” (not in the literal sense as those problems still requires a lot of effort and resource to tackle, but in a comparative sense) that are simultaneously large in scale, neglected and solvable, then we have no good reason to leave the issue unattended and let it cause more suffering. However, it is inevitable that such low-hanging fruits are small in number, and a few talented or wealthy people working on these areas might be most effective. Attracting too many people to these high-impact cause areas is unnecessary and can lower the marginal return. (Demand surplus is perhaps already happening in EA-related jobs. For instance, see here)


——Now we are in a good position to see that the elitist tendency demonstrated in EA movement is implied by marginalism, or ultimately methodological individualism, as decision-making guided by methodological individualism has its focus on individual entities, but not the collective. At least, it has been shown how marginalism can lead to (1); that is, why marginalism works most comfortably with a minority. And it only takes a small step to show (2), i.e. that this minority is not an arbitrary small group of people, but a group of elites.


The reason is that marginal impacts is more easily measurable for exceptional cases. When the impact level decreases, the incommensurability problem becomes more prominent. What this means is that it is easier to discern some fields that happen to score high on scale, neglectedness and tractability, than assessing and comparing areas that rank significantly lower, because it becomes harder compare the effectiveness of two radically different fields. For example, it may be easier for a CS student to figure out the comparative effectiveness between being a computer game programmer or doing AI safety research, but a lot harder to determine whether it is more effective for an undereducated boy to be a farmer or a sweatshop worker. In other words, marginalism works best when applied to high-impact fields, and the evaluation of effectiveness might be a lot difficult to carry out when it comes to ordinary occupations and fields.


For these reasons, EA in the form of marginalism might not be capable of providing a standard or framework for maximizing the effectiveness of the whole society beyond maximizing the impact of a few elites. This also means that we should probably view EA as a supplementary project to the normal functioning of society, and such project is designed for only a small group of people to play a central role.


Of course, what is discussed above can go two ways. It could mean either that EA needs some fundamental theoretical shift from marginalism and methodological individualism to a more holistic perspective, which is perhaps happening as EA is increasingly emphatic on longtermism, or that we should be more realistic and conscious about EA’s place in the larger society, i.e. as a supplementary project, albeit highly significant and worthwhile.


(Special thanks to Cynthia Chen for reviewing an early version of this post and providing some useful comments. My gratitude also goes to Cash Callaghan, a conversation with whom sparked some ideas for my subsequent development of the argument.)



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Note from evecutive member


If you want to learn more about how EA global community deal with the same concern, you can refer to this website: https://concepts.effectivealtruism.org/concepts/coordination/

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