When radicals win

At last weekend’s Effective Altruism Global conference, Robin Hanson gave a very good talk titled “Human’s aren’t naturally altruistic,” which among other things looked at the EA movement as a youth movement. Hanson wrote up the specific thoughts on youth movements in a post published yesterday:

Effective altruism is a youth movement. While they collect status by associating with older people like Peter Singer and Elon Musk, those who work and have influence in these groups are strikingly young. And their core position is close to the usual one for young groups throughout history: old codgers have run things badly, and so a new generation deserves to take over…

Youth movements naturally emphasis the virtues of youth, relative to those of age. While old people have more power, wealth, grit, experience, task-specific knowledge, and crystalized intelligence, young people have more fluid intelligence, potential, passion, idealism, and a clean slate. So youth movements tend to claim that society has become lazy, corrupt, ossified, stuck in its ways, has tunnel-vision, and forgets its ideals, and so needs smart flexible idealistic people to rethink and rebuild from scratch.

Effective altruists, in particular, emphasize their stronger commitment to altruism ideals, and also the unusual smarts, rationality, and flexibility of their leaders. Instead of working within prior organizations to incrementally change prior programs, they prefer to start whole new organizations that re-evaluate all charity choices themselves from scratch. While most show little knowledge of the specifics of any charity areas, they talk a lot about not getting stuck in particular practices. And they worry about preventing their older selves from reversing the lifetime commitments to altruism that they want to make now…

When they work well, youth movements can create a strong bond within a generation than can help them to work together as a coalition as they grow in ability and influence. As with the sixties counter-culture, or the libertarians a bit later, while at first their concrete practice actions are not very competent, eventually they gain skills, moderate their positions, become willing to compromise, and have substantial influence on the world. Effective altruists can reasonably hope to mature into such a strong coalition.

This got me thinking: while there are some radical changes in the current social order I’d love to see, I’ve tended to be pessimistic about our ability to actually achieve them. But maybe this is, in part, due to a bias of associating “radical” with youth movements which tend, as Hanson points out, to be pretty ineffective (just look at your local campus activists).

But sometimes young radicals grow up. Sometimes they grow into equally unsuccessful old radicals. But sometimes they succeed, and stop looking so radical–in part because they moderated a bit, but mostly because society moved much closer to them. Think of gay rights–Dan Savage sometimes looks at today’s ridiculous college activists and says, “I was a ridiculous college activist too once,” but his movement still won.

Hanson is probably right that the scarcity of older people in the effective altruism movement is a weakness. My proposed solution: EAs should spend more time talking to the previous generation’s no-longer-radicals. Even if they don’t understand why we care so much about animal rights and third world poverty, they could probably tell us a lot about how to take radical causes mainstream.

P.S.–A lot of people are interpreting Hanson’s post as criticism of the effective altruism movement. I’d call it more of a mixed evaluation. He’s explicit that youth movements have advantages as well as disadvantages.


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