[If I have made an error or bad argument in this post, please correct me in the comments and I will update this post.]
I’ll be honest: I am exactly the kind of globalist, cosmopolitan technocrat you imagine when you read the word “effective altruist.” But I also believe in working with people who have different sets of values than mine on issues that are important to both of us, and given how talent-constrained most effective altruist causes are, I think cooperation and collaboration are much better strategies than yelling at people. And I’m not a fan of making the perfect the enemy of the good: if you’re not going to help eradicate malaria or factory farming no matter what I do, I’d much rather you go about doing whatever other thing you’re doing well. Scared Straight doesn’t help anyone.
So, you’re not an effective altruist, because you support..
Many people believe that they have a special duty to their family, their friends, their city, or their country. That is perfectly fine; your values are your values. However, believing in a special duty to those close to you is not incompatible with being an effective altruist. Most people don’t have literally zero interest in humanity as a whole; if you care about humanity a little bit, you can be an effective altruist a little bit. For instance, some effective altruists who believe in that duty pair each donation to a friend, family member, or local/national cause with a donation to a global cause. You can also decide what percentage of your resources you want to devote to global causes and use those resources.
If you are determined to only care about local causes, I encourage you to take the following steps:
- Choose a highly important local cause area. For instance, in US policy, many effective altruists believe that land use reform, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, immigration policy, and macroeconomic stabilization policy are the most important. If you think existential or global catastrophic risks pose a threat to humanity, remember that you and those close to you are also part of humanity. You might think that another cause area is the most important. Think about tractability (whether you can do something about it), scale (how many people does it affect), and neglectedness (how many other people are already doing something about it).
- Take an evidence-based approach. Take care to avoid ineffective interventions. Encourage nonprofits you work with to collect information about the good they’re doing or even run randomized controlled trials. When you donate, don’t just consider overhead; think about how much good the charity does per dollar you donate.
- Consider sharing information you discover with the effective altruism community. There are a lot of world problems, and we really really don’t have enough talented people. If you’re working on a highly important cause area, we need your expertise, even if you don’t 100% share our values.
I have seen a lot of people argue that they don’t want to save the lives of people in the developing world because they’re afraid of overpopulation. However, there are several options the overpopulation-concerned effective altruist could take.
First, the evidence appears to suggest that averting the deaths of children– as the Against Malaria Foundation does– tends to reduce fertility. If you think that argument’s true, then you don’t have to worry much about overpopulation effects. If you consider the evidence to be fairly weak, consider donating to a deworming charity or Give Directly, neither of which save lives; instead, they help people become richer. Since rich people tend to have fewer children, this also reduces world overpopulation in expectation.
If you’re skeptical about such indirect effects and want to have a direct effect on people in the developing world, consider donating to a reproductive health charity. Population Services International is a former GiveWell standout charity; it’s still believed to do very good work. You can also donate to IPPFAR, which is the Planned Parenthood organization that caters to Africa. If the topic interests you, consider researching other reproductive health organizations; if you can present evidence that a charity is comparable with GiveWell top charities, maybe other effective altruists will switch to supporting it.
Great! We, too, like structural change. I don’t think anyone’s ideal vision of the world is “everyone in the developed world takes the Giving What We Can pledge; ten percent of the GDP of every developed country goes to the developing world for the rest of time as a sort of international welfare program”.
A lot depends on whether by “structural change” you mean something along the lines of “reform of foreign aid” or something along the lines of “global communist revolution”. If the former: I encourage you to check out 80,000 Hours, which has a lot of advice about how you can use your career to make structural change. For instance, depending on your skills, you can consider joining the civil service, becoming a journalist, becoming a foundation grantmaker, economics research, working for an effective nonprofit, researching structural change charities for an organization like Open Philanthropy Project, or founding a startup like Wave. You’ll probably want to concentrate on advocacy, research, and direct work careers, rather than earning to give.
If you’re not capable of getting work in any high-impact careers, consider donating to charities which may lead to structural change. For instance, GiveWell’s malaria and deworming charities both help with the eradication of their respective diseases, through reducing transmission and infection rates. If that isn’t structural enough for you, I’d like to gently suggest that– whether or not genuinely structural change is the best– we’re not talking about what’s the best thing to do overall. We’re talking about what the best thing to do is for you. There’s no shame in doing the best you can– particularly if the best you can is literally saving the lives of children. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s much better to help some people– even if you aren’t fixing everything in the world– than to help no one at all.
If by “structural change” you mean scrapping our entire political/economic system and replacing it with a new one… well, you’re definitely ambitious, and that’s awesome. It’s going to take ambition to solve the world’s problems. You’ve probably also noticed that the effective altruism movement is somewhat lacking in people who agree with you.
I don’t think that necessarily means it’s a bad idea for you to participate in effective altruism. Effective altruism is marked by its fondness for super-weird ideas; there’s no reason to believe that effective altruists won’t be willing to adopt your unusual ideas, if you back them up with evidence and reason. And, selfishly, if it turns out that the best thing to do is working on replacing our entire economic and political system, then I really want to know about that! If you can convince me, I want to be convinced!
If you decide not to work with effective altruists, I still think an emphasis on effectiveness is important for prospective revolutionaries. A really common way that leftist groups fail (and probably also rightist groups, although I’ve spent less time around them) is that they wind up wasting all their time in petty infighting, abstruse theorizing, or attempting to figure out whose life choices are the most Problematic. This is, uh, not great. Unfortunately, unlike local causes, this isn’t something where I can point to EA research about the most effective strategies. But I think some of the habits of mind are still useful: an emphasis on quantification; paying attention to tractability, neglectedness, and scale; monitoring whether the thing you’re doing has the effects you think it has, possibly including randomized controlled trials.
In addition, I would be remiss not to point out the existence of AI charities. I encourage everyone who’s primarily interested in structural change to pick up a copy of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. While many people (including me) don’t really buy his arguments, you really can’t get much more structural than building a benevolent superintelligence to improve everyone’s lives.