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Week 7: What Do You Think?

“It is one of the unfortunate truisms of the human condition that there is hardly a good idea, noble impulse, or sound suggestion that can't be (and isn't eventually) adopted and bastardized by zealots… One iteration of this tendency is in the idea of “effective altruism.”

- K. Berger & R. M. Penna


This session, we’ll give you time to reflect on what you think of effective altruism, and of the specific potential priorities you’ve heard about so far. 


We are dedicating a session to this because, to whatever extent we are wrong, realizing and correcting our mistakes will allow us to do more good. Honestly reckoning with strong counterarguments (from both within and outside of the EA community) can help us avoid confirmation bias and groupthink, and get us a little closer to identifying the most effective ways to do good. 


Such critiques have led to important changes in what many EAs do: for example, GiveWell polled a sample of its recipients on how they would make moral tradeoffs in response to criticisms that it shouldn’t make moral tradeoffs on behalf of the people its recommended charities benefit.


A key concept for this session is the importance of forming independent impressions. In the long run, you’re likely to gain a deeper understanding of important issues if you think through the arguments for yourself. But (since you can’t reason through everything) it can still sometimes make sense to defer to others when you’re making decisions.

Required Materials

Independent impressions:


Recent critique of effective altruism. Read articles in More to Explore  for others:


While we’ve covered some of the most popular EA causes above, there are many other causes that we haven’t had space to cover. Please skim over this list of other causes to get a sense of other ideas that people in EA have discussed. (Note, you don’t need to read this whole post in detail!)


Exercise, which includes reading and reflecting on criticisms of ideas covered in previous sessions (see below).

What topics or ideas from the program do you most feel like you don’t understand?

What seems most confusing to you about each one?

Go back to that topic/idea and see if there are any further readings you can do that would help you address your uncertainties and explore any concerns. Do those readings. Consider writing notes on your confusion, stream-of-consciousness style.

What topics or ideas from the program do you most feel like you don’t understand?

What seems most confusing to you about each one?

Go back to that topic/idea and see if there are any further readings you can do that would help you address your uncertainties and explore any concerns. Do those readings. Consider writing notes on your confusion, stream-of-consciousness style.

List one idea from the program that you found surprising at first, and which you now think more or less makes sense and is important?

How could this idea be wrong? What’s the strongest case against it?

Exercise (1.5 hours)

For the exercise this session, we will take some time to reflect on the ideas we’ve engaged with over the past sessions. Our goal is to take stock and to identify our concerns and uncertainties about EA ideas. 

Part 1 - What are your concerns about EA? (15 mins.)

We’ve covered a lot: the philosophical foundations of effective altruism, how to compare causes and allocate resources, and a look at some top priority causes using the EA framework. 


What are your biggest questions, concerns, and criticisms based on what we’ve discussed so far? These can be about the EA framework/community, specific ideas or causes, or anything you’d like!


Please raise and discuss them at your next meeting!

Part 2 - Reflecting back (45 mins.)

You’ve covered a lot over the past sessions! We hope you found it an interesting and enjoyable experience. There are lots of major considerations to take into account when trying to do the most good you can, and lots of ideas may have been new and unfamiliar to you. This session we’d like you to reflect back on the program with a skeptical and curious mindset.


To recapitulate what we’ve covered:

The Effectiveness mindset

Over the course of sessions 1 and 2, we aim to introduce you to the core principles of effective altruism. We use global health interventions, which has been a key focus area for effective altruism, to illustrate these principles, partly because we have unusually good data for this cause area.

Differences in impact

We continue to explore the core principles of effective altruism, particularly through the lens of global health interventions because they are especially concrete and well-studied. We focus on giving you tools to quantify and evaluate how much good an intervention can achieve; introduce expected value reasoning; and investigate differences in expected cost-effectiveness between interventions. 

Radical empathy

The next section focuses on your own values and their practical implications. We explore who our moral consideration should include. We focus especially on farmed animals as an important example of this question this session.

Our final century?

This session we’ll focus on existential risks: risks that threaten the destruction of humanity’s long-term potential. We’ll examine why existential risks might be a moral priority, and explore why existential risks are so neglected by society. We’ll also look into one of the major risks that we might face: a human-made pandemic, worse than COVID-19.

What could the future hold? And why care?

This session we explore what the future might be like, and why it might matter. We’ll explore arguments for “longtermism” - the view that improving the long term future is a key moral priority. This can bolster arguments for working on reducing some of the extinction risks that we covered in the last two sessions. We’ll also explore some views on what our future could look like, and why it might be pretty different from the present.

Risks from artificial intelligence

Transformative artificial intelligence may well be developed this century. If it is, it may begin to make many significant decisions for us, and rapidly accelerate changes like economic growth. Are we set up to deal with this new technology safely?

More to explore

Effectiveness is a conjunction of multipliers (5 mins.) - one take on why it matters so much to think carefully and critically about which of the above perspectives is right.

Types of criticism:

Systemic change:

Is effective altruism a question or an ideology, or both?


General criticisms of effective altruism:

Deference and forming inside views:

Criticism of EA methods:


Criticism of EA principles:

  • Pascal’s Mugging Critique of the application of expected value theory. How do you deal with  very low probability events that would be disastrous if they took place? (5 mins.) 

  • Ethical Systems - Check out other ethical systems not discussed yet in the program. Which ones resonate most with you? (Varies)

  • AI alignment, philosophical pluralism, and the relevance of non-Western philosophy - Short talk (18 mins.)

  • The Repugnant Conclusion - Total utilitarianism (maximizing overall wellbeing) implies that it’s better to have many many beings with infinitesimally positive wellbeing to a smaller number of beings that are all extremely well off. Some people find this counterintuitive, but there’s significant debate on this. (Video - 6 mins.) 

  • Utility monster - Another thought experiment suggesting that trying to maximize wellbeing may have counterintuitive implications (5 mins.)

  • The bullet-swallowers - Scott Aaronson describes how some theories (like EA) force you to either swallow some tough conclusions or dodge them by contorting the theory. (2 mins.)

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