Effective Altruism Is Open Territory

Academic disciplines sometimes start with bangs. A few initial ideas lead to a flurry of innovation which lasts until the field is either split off into sub disciplines (psychology, cybernetics), or becomes mostly irrelevant.

I think that Effective Altruism may be an academic discipline waiting to emerge. It seems like there are some incredibly fundamental problems in the field that have barely had any thought put into them. This includes questions like should donations happen now vs. later, or what flow-through effects are like, or understanding if the average software engineer creates more value writing software or donating their salary.

Once some headway is made, questions like these could lead to much larger fields. Judging on the history of science, the discoverers will be remembered, even if many of their insights were inevitable. From a fame and perceived influence perspective, Effective Altruism seems like a good field to study.

Who will do the research?

The ironic thing is that most people able to research Effective Altruism seem to be choosing against it because it itself may not be effective to research. Many of the most prominent EA bloggers have other careers and only think and write on this in their spare time. I think that researching Effective Altruism itself has barely been considered to be an Effective Altruist career possibility at all within the movement, unless its directly related to the efforts of a specific organization like Givewell or 80,000 Hours. It seems quite possible that even within this open territory, incredibly little progress will be made any time soon.

Another possibility is that some non-effective altruists would study Effective Altruism. Perhaps counter-factually this may a rather nice outcome, though the discipline figureheads would all be very strange representatives. While this could be interesting, it seems exceedingly unlikely, as it would be expected to be difficult to research something one doesn’t believe in. However, given the amazing flexibility it seems like we’ve seen in adherence to strict optimization within the community, I’m sure there will be a few members to compromise, even if the math doesn’t work out.

When will Effective Altruism Research be Effective?

The success of Effective Altruism research will very much depend on the acceptance of Effective Altruism among people making important decisions (either lots of people making minor decisions or a few people making very important ones). If this doesn’t happen, even a perfect model of how to optimize one’s life for humanity wouldn’t have any non-academic weight.

So perhaps much research into this field is a gamble in the future public interest in it, as there’s definitely not much now. My guess is that if the movement starts becoming significantly more popular, researchers will begin flooding in realizing the sense of the opportunity. Of course, it may be much more difficult for the movement to become much more popular without significant research on its side. Right now organizations like 80,000 Hours are making recommendations, but detractors are somewhat right when they point out that 80,000 Hours doesn’t have much evidence or research to advice with.

In this system, the current default of employed people doing this in their free time may be a good idea for now. If we have a lot of hobbyists figuring out the basics and promoting them, it may only be a matter of time until the snowball rolls far enough for people to get serious about the discipline. When they do, I suspect things will get very interesting.