You might think that effective altruism and academia were already relatively well integrated, given that a lot of the founders of effective altruism were academics, but in fact, they’ve remained relatively separate, with even the academics who were also working on effective altruism working on it at different points and doing it with their non-academic time. In some ways, you might think that that actually isn’t such a problem, because a lot of excellent research in effective altruism typically needs to be done actually really quickly, because we need to be working out where we can give right now, rather than taking the long timelines that you typically do in academia.
But on the other hand, many of the world’s brightest people go into academia, and we’re really missing out on excellent research that’s being done and also on potentially talented people who might want to work outside of academia on other kinds of research, by ignoring academia.
[There’s] this very plausible view that there are certain things that can only be done by collectives, and so as an individual you can make no difference. An example might be a large protest that as an individual going to a particular protest you’re making really no difference, but the whole group is making a big difference. And so the thinking might be that rather than treating the individual as the agent you’re thinking about, you should really be treating the collective as the relevant agent.
The example [Hilary Greaves] actually looks at is one of vegetarianism, to see whether this holds. If you’re thinking of killing an animal and eating it yourself, it’s very clear what the harm you’re doing there is, but if you’re buying meat in a supermarket, it’s much less clear. It’s certainly not going to be the case that for every chicken you buy, another chicken is slaughtered. A much more plausible model of what’s going on there is that for every 50 chickens that are sold, they order in another 50 chickens. In that kind of a case, it might seem that as an individual it’s very likely that your not buying a chicken is going to make no difference, because you’re probably not the 50th person to buy a chicken. So you might think of this as one of these collectivist cases where we should not be thinking about what the individual should be doing, but only about what the group should be doing.
She then talks about the fact that actually the way we ought to be working out our actions in these cases is by using expected value. If I’m considering whether to buy a chicken, I actually don’t know whether I’m going to be buying the 50th or the 49th. So the way I actually ought to make my decision is using expected value. If there’s 49 chances that I’m not making a difference, but there’s a one in 50 chance that actually I am making the difference here, and so in that way, even simply looking at the individual, I can see how I’m making a difference. The idea is that actually that’s how we should see our participation in a protest or something as well. It’s very likely that we’re making no difference, but there is some chance that we’re making a really big difference.
I think the one thing that people don’t consider enough is research-adjacent types of roles, so roles as research assistants or as project managers, that kind of thing, because actually that also requires really talented people, and it’s the kind of thing that because within academia is not thought well of, often doesn’t attract very good candidates at all. And I think that’s really where people can find niches where they can have a huge amount of impact.
I think having good judgment also is something that isn’t discussed very often, probably because it’s very difficult to pin down, but the difference between having a research assistant and operations person who has really good judgment and understands the work that’s being done and what needs to happen, and having someone who’s really just trying to work out precisely what you said and just do that, can be really massive.