The Good Group
As a professor and public speaker, I’ve spoken to a wide range of student groups. On reflection, my very favorite turns out to be: Effective Altruism. Indeed, I’ve had positive experiences with 100% of the EA groups I’ve encountered.
What’s so great about the Effective Altruists? They combine high knowledge, high curiosity, and high iconoclasm. When I ask EAs if they’ve heard of signaling, or the Non-Identity Problem, or pollution taxes, most of them say Yes. The ones who say No are eager to get up to speed. And if I defend a view that would shock a normal audience, EAs are more likely to be amused than defensive or hostile. They’re genuinely open to reasoned argument.
Though you might expect EAs to be self-righteous, they’re not. EA is a chill movement. While ethical vegans are greatly overrepresented in EA, they’re the kind of ethical vegans who seek dialogue on the ethical treatment of animals, not the kind of ethical vegans who seek to bite your head off.
Most EAs are official utilitarians. If they were consistent, they’d be Singerian robots who spent every surplus minute helping strangers. But fortunately for me, these self-styled utilitarians severely bend their own rules. In practice, the typical EA is roughly 20% philanthropist, 80% armchair intellectual. They care enough to try make the world a better place, but EA clubs are basically debating societies. Debating societies plus volleyball. That’s utilitarianism I can live with.
Why do I prefer EA to, say, libertarian student clubs? First and foremost, libertarian student clubs don’t attract enough members. Since their numbers are small, it’s simply hard to get a vibrant discussion going. EA has much broader appeal. Anyone who likes the idea of “figuring out how to do the most good” fits in. Furthermore, to be blunt, EAs are friendlier than libertarians – and as I keep saying, friendliness works.
Furthermore, while the best libertarian students hold their own against the best EA students, medians tell a different story. The median EA student, like the median libertarian student, like almost any young intellectual, needs more curiosity and less dogmatism. But the median EA’s curiosity deficit and dogmatism surplus is less severe.
The good news is that most EA clubs already contain some libertarians. And the best way to improve both movements is for the libertarians to regularly attend EA meetings. It’s a great chance to spread superior libertarian logos while absorbing superior EA ethos.
When I last spoke at the University of Chicago, one student defended education as a crucial promoter of social justice. In response, I argued that Effective Altruism is what the social justice movement ought to be. EAs know that before you can make the world a better place, you must first figure out how to make the world a better place. This in turn requires you to prioritize the world’s problems – and calmly assess how much human action can remedy each of them. Social justice activists imagine that these questions are easy – and as a result their movement has become one of the world’s major problems. Probably like the twentieth-worst problem on Earth, but still.
Perhaps the main reason why I get along so well with EAs is that their whole movement rests on a bunch of my favorite heresies. First and foremost: Good intentions often lead to bad results. EA exists because many good things sound bad, and many bad things sound good. The very existence of their movement is an attack on Social Desirability Bias and demagoguery. Furthermore, since EAs like to rank social problems by their severity and remediability, their movement is also a thinly-veiled attack on Action Bias and social stampedes. No, we shouldn’t do “all that we can” to fight Covid, or global warming, or anything, because resources are scarce, some problems fix themselves, many problems aren’t worth solving, and many cures are worse than the disease. Once you take these truisms for granted, fruitful conversation is easy. And fun.