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Is effective altruism effective?

Gray Matter

Let X be some idea. Is X effective? We could mean two different things by this.

First, X is a project—a system of rules for governance, both individual and collective. X, privately, tells the individual what to do; publicly, it tells the collective what to do.

Is this program, properly executed by individual and/or collective, effective? If so, X is an effective idea—an idea that believes in having good effects. If not, it is not.

Second, X itself is a tool for changing the world. The effects of X are the impact of infecting human minds with X. Every successful idea is a meme pandemic.

The effects of the idea are the external effects of that pandemic—the ways in which those newly changed minds then change the world. These effects may match the program of the idea. Or not.

If the sum of these external effects—direct private impact on individuals, indirect public impact on the collective—is effective, X is an effective idea. If not, it is not.

For anyone who claims to be an effective altruist, it seems clear that the effectiveness of any idea X must be defined in the second way—by the concrete impact of X, not the abstract project of X. Effective altruism itself cannot be an exception to this logic.

Therefore our question is: are the consequences of infecting human minds with the “effective altruism” idea effective? We are barely at the start of this experiment.

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