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The Public, Billionaires, Governments, and the EA Community

By Ivan Lian

Effective altruism has gradually become a social movement that proposes the effective use of resources to do the most good with the help of scientific analysis. It is popular among the top universities and the upper class, which have the capacity for intellectual debate on effective altruism and providing a large sum of donations. However, the nature of EA has led to three problems that may hinder the further development of the EA community and the success of EA-related initiatives.

First: EA puts too much stress on scientific and evidence-based analysis, which imposes a high entry barrier to the public.

This scientific nature has attracted lots of STEM-related talents or those who are more rational (e.g., economics, computer science, philosophy students), who constitute most of the population in the EA community. The community encourages rigorous debate on EA and advocates for projects that are backed significantly by statistics. In the long run, this may cause the EA community gradually to become an elitist coterie, excluding the public.

Although the EA community wants to gather more talent to make a huge impact, it is also worthwhile to introduce EA to the public and let EA be their guiding principle. EA is not only an intellectual project but also a social movement which needs a basis of supporters and followers. If effective altruism is a practical idea, then it should at least to some extent be understood by the public. EA may seem a too-technical principle to newcomers if it is introduced with tons of articles initially. Given this, arts can better promote EA rather than rigorous debate. The definition of EA in a broad way – to do the most good under limited resources and some values held by EA such as prioritization and impartial altruism may be expressed through films and fiction, which can reach a greater proportion of the population (See: Please use art to convey EA! by Sanjay). This can more efficiently let the public understand and follow the EA principles and attract them to choose the career path that can help the most.

Second: The promotion of donating to EA-related funds, ‘earning to give’, may become an excuse for some billionaires to justify their illegal or immoral wealth-earning behaviour.

For example, Sam Bankman-Fried, who founded the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, was a famous effective altruist. His misappropriation of clients’ assets led to a massive loss of the investments. He was accused of fraud, which also caused effective altruism to be blamed. The claim of ‘earning to give’ may give the moral ground for the billionaires to explain away many of their companies’ illegal actions.

EA requires a lot of funding to support its projects and the proposition of earning to give undoubtedly helps make this smoother. However, a potential assumption is that the source of funding is less important than the size of funding; though EA also emphasizes we should not harm others when doing good, the funding may still be encouraged as long as its potential effect on doing good for the current and the future generations are far greater than its harm. This may encourage more immoral billionaires to use effective altruism, either claiming externally or thinking internally, as an excuse for justifying the use of deception or illegal behaviour to earn money.

Third: The stress on initiating and supporting philanthropy rather than encouraging improvement in government efficiency may reduce the effectiveness of doing good.

One major example is the provision of mosquito nets by the Against Malaria Foundation to fight malaria. This is a direct service, rather than eradicating the root cause. A more substantial improvement in hygienic management and infrastructure may be more effective in the long run.

Besides, Open Philanthropy provides lots of funding to support local interventions. This may increase the suspicion from local governments, eventually reducing the effectiveness of the projects. As we can see the projects usually involve substantially large funding and touch areas that are overseen by the government. Then, this funding may easily be viewed as an intervention in government policies by foreign forces.

The provision of critical services may increase the difficulty of establishing trust between the government and the people (See: Response to Effective Altruism by Daron Acemoglu). This may worsen the already weak credibility of the developing governments. Instead of independently initiating projects, cooperation with governments may be more realistic and can gain more support (at least reducing the suspicion of the government).

In conclusion, EA’s approach to interaction between the public, billionaires, governments, and the EA community can be improved. This can provide a larger and more secure basis for the EA community to thrive and develop.

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