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[Commenting note: As one may tell from the title, use of the forbidden words “motte” and “bailey” is permitted in this comment thread. Please do not abuse this privilege.]

One thing I’ve noticed is that all three of the movements closest to my heart have standardized definitions that are, well, things everyone can agree with. Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. Rationality is systematized winning. Effective altruism is the use of evidence and reason to make the world the best place it can be. Why is this such a common impulse?

One common explanation is that it’s public relations. No one disagrees with the idea that women are people; no one doesn’t want to win; no one thinks that we shouldn’t use evidence or that it’s a good idea to make the world a worse place. Therefore, we can get people to agree that rationality, or feminism, or effective altruism is a good thing under one definition, and then while they’re not looking smuggle in our more controversial claims about Bayesian reasoning, structural sexism, or culices delendi sunt.

However, I don’t think that that’s all of it. I think, when one is looking to characterize a movement, the easiest way is to characterize it by its goals. Effective altruism is evidence-based do-gooding, feminism is about fighting sexism against women, and rationality is about improving people’s thinking. While there’s a certain amount of PR in characterizing “fighting sexism against women” as “believing women are people”, it doesn’t seem like an absurd mischaracterization to me– particularly if you believe (as many feminists do) that a common form of sexism is treating women as Pure Perfect Angels Of The Home and/or Sex And Children Dispensing Objects.

The problem is that a lot of movements’ goals are pretty uncontroversial. The red pill‘s goal is to help men reach their relationship goals; Communism intends to end exploitation of workers; the anti-gay-marriage movement intends to preserve families. I don’t think most people who oppose those groups object to helping men reach their relationship goals, ending exploitation of workers, or preserving families. They object to the empirical claims associated with those groups, like the alpha/beta/omega theory of dating, the labor theory of value, and the gay cooties theory of family dissolution.

So defining a movement by its goals inherently ends up presenting a more palatable version of the movement, because you’re leaving out the empirical claims people find controversial– whether it’s the idea that the differences between men and women are caused by sexism, that volunteering is a less effective way of doing good than charitable donations, or that going to CFAR will improve your thinking.