The problem with effective altruism is that it is impossible to signal.
There is an easy way to have nonconfrontational conversations about vegetarianism. My vegetarianism comes up a lot! I can talk to a friend about recipes, or ask whether the restaurant has good vegetarian options, or visibly not be having any of the entree. Sometimes, this is really annoying. I am pretty sure every vegetarian or vegan has had the following conversation:
Omnivore: Why aren’t you eating the bacon?
Vegetarian: Well, I’m vegetarian.
Omnivore: Why are you vegetarian?
Vegetarian: (sighs, knows what’s coming) I’m opposed to factory farming.
Omnivore: Why are you opposed to factory farming?
Vegetarian: Well, they pack animals into spaces so tight that they can barely move, give them no access to the outdoors, and keep them from experiencing natural behaviors, which means that pretty much every animal in a factory farm is experiencing constant physical and mental torment.
Omnivore: GOD, why did you tell me THAT? Why can’t vegetarians ever SHUT UP about VEGETARIANISM? We’re trying to have DINNER here!
But, as annoying as that conversation is, it’s actually good how obvious it is when you’re a vegetarian. The thing is that people hate to be lectured about how terrible their life choices are. (Even when they’re asking for it. I have no idea what omnivores are expecting when they ask why one is opposed to factory farming.) It comes off to them like you’re saying that you’re awesome and they’re evil.
So instead I talk about how yummy Morningstar Farms chicken nuggets are and my favorite risotto recipe and that gives people the idea that vegetarianism is a normal thing done by normal people and not as hard as you think it is and that, in fact, you totally can still eat lots of delicious food. And as annoying as conversations about how factory farming is evil are, at least they are planting a seed that will hopefully blossom into a beautiful flower of not eating corpses.
Unfortunately, there’s basically no way to do this with EA. There’s no situation where effective altruism naturally comes up. Pretty much any situation where you can say “I donate ten percent of my income and you should too!” comes off as “you’re an asshole who doesn’t care about poor people and I am your moral superior,” which is really not a good look on anyone.
This is really bad, because I think people’s #1 response to “you should donate ten percent of your income to effective causes” is “gosh, that’s a lot of money! Can people actually do that? Would I be able to spend money on going to the movies? Would I have to live in a trailer?” So the fact that normal people with happy lives do effective altruism is actually really important.
There are some efforts to fix this with T-shirts, which is my favorite way of fixing everything. However, I think what we really need is a holiday.
Consider Stanislav Petrov Day. Every year, on Stanislav Petrov Day, my social media lights up with people talking about existential risk. (I’d like to particularly highlight this short story by Jai as one of my favorite contributions.) Admittedly, I have a self-selected and awesome group of friends, but I do think that there’s an advantage to having a Schelling point “day where we talk about how it is a bad idea to destroy the world.”
The best thing about Stanislav Petrov Day is that it isn’t even about MIRI. It’s about that guy who didn’t destroy the world. You can totally oppose MIRI and still support having a holiday to celebrate That Guy Who Didn’t Destroy The World That One Time. But it’s a day where you naturally have a conversation that naturally leads to discussing existential risk. That sort of indirection might be good for the holiday, in terms of popular appeal and not signalling virtue, but I suspect an EA holiday would be a good idea regardless.
This is the point where I ought to have a suggestion for what and when the Effective Altruist Holiday should be. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clue. Any good suggestions?