by Rena Ruiyi Yang
Does everyone have the capacity to do the most good? The question has been bugging me since I was first exposed to EA six months ago. The core principles of the EA movement and its related research fields focus on working out how to maximize the ‘good' we do to improve the world with the limited resources we possess based on evidence and rigorous analysis, and taking actions on that basis. To do the most good, we can earn to give more effectively or directly pursue high-impact careers ourselves. While it seems to me that the EA community, with its tenet of maximizing impacts through quantitative cause prioritization & intervention evaluation, is rather elitist — with a noticeable proportion of members trained in top universities — and is disproportionately dominated by people with strong STEM backgrounds. How can those in low-income countries, those with limited skills, education, and financial resources, do more good if they want to do so? Is it worthwhile to engage people from non-EA-aligned fields if they do not have many skills necessary for cause areas identified by the EA community? Or more generally, should the movement grow larger and more diverse?
The simplest version of the prisoner’s dilemma in mechanism design offers good grounds for growing the EA community to achieve a socially optimal allocation of donations via coordination. With different preferences and estimations for charities' effectiveness, individual donors may not give their money to the one(s) generating the most benefits for everyone; however, if they cooperate within a centralized system, they could communicate their values and decide how to allocate their common budget to maximize the social good, especially if the information of charities’ cost-effectiveness is available. More importantly, expanding the community has its benefits of greater specialization which can bring higher returns through coordination. One with a comparative advantage in a particular cause area could directly work in that field and become a specialist, while those with the highest earning potential could earn to give (The Value of Coordination - 80,000 Hours). It follows that, by growing the community with more people working towards a shared goal aligned with EA's principles, we could potentially gain better expertise and together do far more good than as individuals.
Such coordination, however, can be hard to sustain because of the high cost to maintain a large community, and rapidly expanding the community can easily end up with a fusion of people with divergent priorities, potentially diluting the focus of EA and the effectiveness of the people within the movement (Building effective altruism - EA Forum). The question, then, becomes what is the most efficient scale of the EA movement? To what extent should we encourage people without either high earning potential (e.g. those in low-income countries) or comparative advantages to work on those highest-impact causes (e.g. those in the arts, linguistics, literature) to join the community?
Awareness and favourability are two determining factors in the growth of a movement. Plainly, under-representing certain groups and over-representing the privileged ones could disadvantage EA with some missing skills and perspectives; lack of diversity may also bring negative inclinations towards EA (reducing favourability).
At its core, EA is an intellectual and practical project rather than merely a set of normative claims (MacAskill, 2019). Evidence from qualitative models and transparency of such information indeed offer reasonable signaling of credibility, which can increase incentives for the less informed parties (e.g. those who are not naturally drawn to EA but with talent & potential to contribute to the movement) to cooperate and practically join the movement. But knowledge in less quantitative fields, say historical trends and counterfactual history, can be more valuable than we think when investigating existential risks, moral circle expansion and other EA-related topics; art and literature such as existential risk fiction can be useful as well to convey values of EA to various public audiences (raising awareness). I think people from fields other than STEM/Econ/Philosophy can significantly improve the world and potentially help explore other promising but currently overlooked issues that might be similarly important as those already identified by the EA community. EA could be more welcoming towards these people perhaps by creating more opportunities for them to delve into the movement or motivating them to connect their skills to EA's prioritized areas.
My current stance is that the objectives of the EA movement can be broader than significantly improving the world by solving the most pressing issues; nudging many more people in a positive direction to make any decision in their lives more effectively with whatever resources they have can be another promising means to do a lot of good if we can do this at a low cost. I would guess the majority of people are drawn to EA by their altruism, which might be motivated by empathy and concern for the welfare of others (Becker's egocentric perspective) or some egoistic concerns (e.g. reciprocity). Perhaps for a more extensive change in people's actions to stay EA-aligned in the long term and avoid easily getting demotivated for various reasons, it is worthwhile to help people link the principles of EA to their own personal motivations for altruistic action (e.g. social responsibility, social justice). Possibly, this will help enhance their sense of personal value by reflecting on them with EA core values. If so, whether one has the resources needed to solve the most pressing problems might become less of an issue in doing more good if they want to do so.