Why EA Will Be Anti-Woke or Die
Rationalism plus identity politics is just liberalism
Sometimes people will say that their politics are based on “common decency” or “treating others well.” Most intelligent observers roll their eyes at this kind of talk. If you describe your politics or philosophy in a way no one would disagree with, you’re not saying anything substantive.
One might think the reaction would be similar to the labels of “rationalism” and “effective altruism.” Does any movement claim to be irrational? Or engage in ineffective altruism? Yet somehow there doesn’t seem to be all that much controversy over whether the terms “rationalism” and “EA” refer to real movements that are distinguishable from others in their epistemology, aesthetics, and moral commitments.
Why is this? If everyone believes they’re rational, how can rationalism have any meaning? Below, I explain how I think about EA, which is the politics-facing outgrowth of rationalism, and its relation to other political and intellectual forces. In the process, I’ll present a theory about political movements more generally, and explain why this one will eventually have to either confront wokeness or be swallowed by it.
Rationalism Means Fewer Taboos
I think we can solve the puzzle of a movement calling itself “rationalist” by understanding that most people who think about politics, ethics, and morality are not rational, and can’t even pretend to be rational with a straight face. This is why, when a group calls themselves rationalists, conservatives and liberals don’t stand up and try to grab the mantle from them. At the same time, while most political movements are irrational, they don’t want to admit their irrationality. Those of us more on the autism spectrum can do less of this kind of compartmentalization. The normie both worships rationality and is repulsed by it. He needs to believe that his views are consistent with reason, but knows that if he follows reason too far it will intrude on certain sacred values.
We can use the terms “rationalism” and “utilitarianism” almost interchangeably. Most rationalists I think would say that they are utilitarians on most things, and when they’re not utilitarians, as in when they bring something like “human dignity” into the equation, they are honest and upfront about it. But to them, non-utilitarian views are more of an aberration than they are for most other people.
For non-rationalists, utilitarian reasoning is only acceptable for the things they don’t care all that much about. For example, an Evangelical Christian might be open to empirical arguments about the capital gains tax or free trade in any direction, but wall off issues having to do with the “sanctity of human life.” You may convince a committed Zionist that his nation should undertake zoning reform, but never that it should exchange land for peace.
If I had to define rationalism, it would be something like this.
Rationalism: The belief that fewer topics and ideas in the areas of politics, morality, ethics, and science should be considered taboo or sacred and not subject to cost-benefit analysis.
I think this is simple and captures the essence of the movement. EA relies heavily on utilitarianism because utilitarianism is the standard people use when they don’t have a sacred value at stake. It’s the “common sense” morality that most people would adopt under most circumstances.
Richard Dawkins quips that he tells religious believers that they themselves are atheists in relation to 99% of deities in human history, he just goes one step further and rejects the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god. A rationalist might say to a normie “you use utilitarianism when it comes to the vast majority of issues you think about. I simply go one step further, and apply it everywhere.”
One can in a certain sense understand movements as being defined by their taboos. Conservatives most clearly reject utilitarian reasoning when it comes to religious commitments, and liberals most clearly reject utilitarianism on wokeness and equity related topics. I spent last weekend on Twitter trying to get someone to explain to me on what basis one can be angry at police engaging in racial profiling but not age or gender profiling, and got nowhere. But people got very mad, and brought up non-sequiturs like they think that age and gender disparities have biological causes while racial disparities supposedly don’t, which has no relevance to the argument at all. I suppose one could make a utilitarian argument that the fact that racial profiling bothers people so much is itself a reason not to accept the practice, but this is pretty circular. “We’re angry because it’s bad, and it’s bad because we’re angry.” The question is how angry we should be, and if we decide not to not care, the supposed “problem” goes away.
Not all taboos are clearly identified with one side of the political spectrum. Take the issue of selling one’s organs. The utilitarian argument for it is clear and straightforward. Most people oppose the practice because it’s “icky,” and the issue doesn’t have much partisan salience. When it comes to things like selling organs or genetic engineering, people bring up arguments that prove too much, and if accepted would abolish freedom and any attempts to improve the human condition. They’ll say that maybe allowing kidney markets or genetic engineering will exacerbate inequality or lead poor people to do things they otherwise might not do, which applies to literally everything. If poor people shouldn’t be able to sell their kidneys for that reason, why should they have the right to sell their bodies through participation in the labor market? Time on this planet is a precious and scarce resource, we surely can’t let anyone commodify it! Communism takes these concerns about “exploitation” seriously in all circumstances. Most non-Communists accept that some choice is better than no choice, and only change their minds when they feel physical disgust towards a practice, at which point they start talking like Marxists. But once a practice becomes common, the ickiness reaction goes away, as it has for things like surrogacy and IVF. Rationalism recognizes that most people’s intuitions about what others should or shouldn’t be allowed to do with their own bodies are almost always dumb, and a smart society should just push through until everyone gets used to practices that are currently disputed. Rationalists tend to have fewer of these kinds of reactions to novel issues, and are better able to consider most things on their merits.
Where EA Falls Short
Does this mean that Rationalists are the only people uniquely free of status concerns and therefore able to discuss important issues in intelligent ways? To a limited extent, yes. I don’t know if rationalists are ultimately less status conscious than other humans. But to the extent that they are status conscious, their status comes from being, well, rational. If you have a community that values physical fitness, everyone in the community might not end up with a perfect body, but they’ll generally be in better shape than those who form communities where status is determined by the ability to play chess or make the most money. People who call themselves rationalists will always fall short of their ideals, but I think it’s likely that they’ll usually come to better conclusions than other groups on most things.
Rationalists and EAs are of course like other human beings. To the extent they do have sacred values, they are likely to be those of people of their own socioeconomic background. As educated Westerners, they’re likely to be woke on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Unsurprisingly, then, controversies within the community look similar to controversies that erupt in other elite American institutions. Nick Bostrom is famous for doing more than anyone else has to alert the world about the possibility of artificial intelligence destroying humanity. One would think that whether he said a certain magic word in an e-mail a few decades ago wouldn’t be something any reasonable person cared about, and it’s easy to see the absurdity of such word taboos when observing them in other societies.
Recently, Time Magazine ran an article about sexual harassment among the effective altruist community. The piece was “based on interviews with more than 30 current and former effective altruists and people who live among them.” Imagine saying that liberalism had a flatulence problem by talking to 30 people related to the movement (including “people who live among them”) and finding that some leftist once cut the cheese. “Sexual harassment” is a notoriously slippery concept, and Time didn’t even make a token effort to understand how pervasive it is in the movement, or how EA compares to other communities that bring men and women together. One can see from the tone of the article that the concept of rationality itself needs to be problematized in order to take sexual harassment seriously enough, as the author of the piece writes of an accuser who “was disturbed at the way the rational frameworks to which she had devoted her life could be used to undermine her own experiences.”
Instead of laughing this article off, the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy went to Twitter, called it a “painful read,” and begged people to send him more allegations.
As I’ve previously written, there are certain psychological dynamics that explain why wokeness has conquered western institutions and movements, and only the ones with antibodies to women’s tears will avoid drowning in them.
Does EA have the right antibodies? I once assumed it did based on its ideological and intellectual commitments. But I’m now realizing that the main reason rationalism has been relatively unwoke so far is that the movement has been new, and new movements attract adherents that are disproportionately highly intelligent, non-conformist, and male. But as it has grown in status, the movement has diversified, which has brought all the usual problems.
I was talking to a smart friend not that long ago, and we were debating the merits of EA, with me being much more friendly to it. Eventually, I realized that we were talking about different things. My exposure to the movement was limited to reading some of the more prominent rationalists, including Robin Hanson, Nick Bostrom, and Scott Alexander. None of these individuals is woke, and all have faced attempted cancellations, since anyone smart and independent-minded will have views on race and sex well outside the liberal mainstream. My friend had a broader view, which seems to have included knowing many people in the Bay Area involved in the movement.
I started checking out LessWrong and the Effective Altruism forum, and although some of the material on these websites is very good, other articles confirm my main fears about where the movement is going. I recently learned that Open Philanthropy made a big bet on criminal justice reform, despite there never having been any reason to suspect that this was an area where a charity could do the most good. Tyler points out that EA has a natural tendency to move towards the views of the demographic from which it draws its adherents, which of course means those of the Democratic Party.
I’m afraid that without an explicit understanding about how and why mainstream institutions are crazy on race and gender issues, and the downstream effects of identity politics, these kinds of things will keep happening. We already have a movement that is able to reason carefully, or at least have a rational discussion, on most things while being beyond hopeless on anything related to identity issues. It’s called liberalism! Accept its views on the need for diversity and the causes of group disparities, and you’re just debating technocratic questions about the best way to address global poverty. Which is fine, but makes EA a movement of extremely limited ambitions.
Women Can’t All Be Aella
The woman issue isn’t trivial. Every movement has to choose how to address, or not address, the fact that whenever humans organize into larger institutions — religions, corporations, intellectual movements, or whatever — men are sure to be a disproportionate share of leaders for biological reasons.
Conservatism has religion, which tells you that God made man and women differently and so like what else do you need to know? Secular conservatives have Darwin, who agrees with Jesus on this point. Opposing the left’s gender blank slatism is core to the identity of modern conservatism, so there’s not much of a women’s tears problem, meaning both that the movement avoids drawing neurotic women, and it is less likely to submit to any that get through the filter.
Liberals deal with the representation problem by practicing affirmative action and changing rules and norms to make neurotic women more comfortable. Many aspects of modern liberalism can be understood in this light. For example, respecting degrees and relying on them helps create more gender parity in leadership roles. Women will never make up a significant portion of self-made billionaires or outstanding philosophers, but they can get a majority of BAs. Academia practices affirmative action in everything from admissions to journal submissions and citations practices, artificially reducing the natural male advantage at higher levels of ability. It’s worth noting that when a group of “Concerned EAs” wrote a letter criticizing the movement, they demanded more diversity and also more reliance on peer-reviewed papers and deference to standard academic credentials. Diversity and credentialism are intimately related. A free market in ideas is like a free market in any other good or service. It ends up with Asian and white men on top who are there because they’re simply better than everyone else. Movements uncomfortable with this naturally get swallowed by wokeness.
What does EA do with its women problem? Well, it starts by treating women as rational individuals, which means adopting polyamory. Why stick to an outdated practice like monogamy when one can develop multiple fulfilling relationships with all kinds of different people, as long as everyone is honest with themselves and others about their boundaries and what they want? I honestly couldn’t write that last sentence without laughing. Who could’ve foreseen that this would end up with an article in Time about how young women who entered into such relationships found them unfulfilling and are now plagued by regret? And such stories would be used to tar the whole movement as hostile to women?
In the end, EA will need something like the Darwin-Jesus synthesis of American conservatism. In this case it would of course be much more Darwin than Jesus, and find Aella more a source of amusement or scientific curiosity than a sign of the apocalypse. But taking Darwin too seriously puts you on a collision course with the left, and not just because it prevents you from achieving gender parity in leadership roles. Be the kind of movement that takes an evolutionary view of sex differences, and you’ll attract individuals able to think freely about the causes of other kinds of disparities. Group differences in IQ is right around the corner, and if you’re going to maintain any kind of commitment to rationalism you’re going to have to either stop yourself before getting on that train or take it to its logical destination.
Wokeness as the Key Axis
I don’t think it’s an accident that wokeness is the axis that defines our politics. People have pointed out how strange it is to call Matt Taibbi or Glenn Greenwald “right-wing” or to say that neocon activists supporting war with Russia and China are “liberals.” It makes perfect sense though if you allow our common culture to define what right and left mean. Anyone today skeptical of feminism, BLM, and trans ideology is conservative, regardless of what they think about abortion, the economy, or foreign policy. It’s why people say I’m a conservative despite half my writing being about how conservatives are immoral, low IQ, and generally inferior to liberals.
One shouldn’t see this kind of labeling as arbitrary. Language develops in ways that reflect our underlying social reality. People intuitively get that differences over wokeness reflect the fundamental division among the chattering class. Partly, this is because wokeness is where most of the emotional energy is, and how one responds to it determines what kinds of institutions you’re going to have.
If you’re giving a lecture on a university campus and a young student starts crying about how your ideas are putting her in danger, the only real options are to turn her into an object of mockery and contempt, or to submit and let her decide what you’re allowed to say. Conservatives take the former approach, while the vast majority of journalistic and academic institutions have taken the latter option. Either path can lead to a stable equilibrium. What isn’t stable is taking a sort of in-between position. As every stand-up comedian knows, women’s tears will defeat men’s logic every time. The only way to avoid this is to banish women’s tears from the start as a matter of principle, ideology, or religious faith. One can say the same for the Sharpton-style race hustle, or its more sophisticated modern equivalent in the form of things like Critical Race Theory. White people don’t want to argue with emotional black people any more than men want to defy crying women. For these reasons, every political or social movement is now either woke or anti-woke.
EA has thus far avoided falling into either category on account of it being new and marginal. But it’s now entering the real world. One path it can take is to be folded into the Democratic coalition. It’ll have to temper its rougher edges, which means purging individuals for magic words, knowing when not to take an argument to its logical conclusion, compromising on free speech, more peer review and fewer disagreeable autodidacts, and being unwilling to engage with other individuals and communities that are too non-conformist to avoid having any heretical strains. A woke EA means noticing that the FDA might move too slow on approving certain kinds of drugs, while ignoring that the fields of biology and medicine are in the name of sensitivity being transformed to increasingly select for a kind of cultish conformity, pushing brilliant and independent thinkers into other kinds of work.
Maybe the first generation of a new domesticated EA would do some good. Working in activism and politics, its members will push for sensible causes like YIMBYism and reforming the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. EAs can convince Democrats to support betting markets and use them as a way to measure credibility, at least until all the top forecasters turn out to be white and Asian men, at which point they’ll accept political reality and grudgingly support a move back towards credentialism.
But movements have a tendency to become what they pretend to be. The next generation of EAs will come up believing the most important causes for furthering human well-being are releasing more dangerous criminals from prisons and finding out how to get more women into STEM instead of something they might actually enjoy. There won’t be an EA at that point.
This is the path of least resistance. But there’s potentially another way, which involves explicitly throwing in with the anti-wokes, and trying to temper some of their worst impulses. This has certain disadvantages, to be sure. All forms of conservatism have a bad rep among educated circles, and for good reason. At the personal level, it might mean breaking with many of one’s friends and family, given the demographic background most EAs come from.
At the same time, there are advantages. Conservatism is not going away as a political force. As a post from last year in the EA forum pointed out, the fact that Republicans are the less educated party means that it is easier to take their movement over. This is why if you’re an elite law student and member of the Federalist Society, you’re much more likely to get a federal clerkship than your other classmates. One might add that the relative lack of gatekeeping institutions on the right also creates an opportunity. Up to this point, this has mostly been a bad thing, allowing cranks and conspiracy theorists to have a large role to play in the movement. But it also creates opportunities for more reasonable forces to have a role to play in setting the agenda. EAs accepting the conservative position on wokeness doesn’t mean they have to follow Republicans on abortion or global warming. Rather, the movement would simply realize that it needs to take certain steps that will create new enemies while also providing new opportunities for forming alliances. It’s theoretically possible that EAs prove as tribal as other people and start adopting Pat Robertson’s views on stem cell research as a result, but for obvious reasons the movement is much less likely to internalize the sacred values that distort the right.
Putting aside political realities, an EA freed from the shackles of wokeness will be better able to live up to its highest ideals by taking seriously important threats to human well-being that the movement currently ignores for purely political reasons. What does it mean that birthrates are decreasing at the same time there is a negative relationship between IQ and fertility across much of the developed world? And, speaking from a strictly utilitarian perspective, why exactly do we let a tiny minority of violent criminals make large swaths of what are potentially some of our most economically productive urban areas uninhabitable, instead of simply getting rid of them in full confidence that we’re doing the greatest good for the largest number of people? These are the kinds of questions an honest movement either has to ignore or become obsessed with.
Reality won’t be as simple as EA moving right or left. The movement is large enough now that it’s having influence across the political spectrum. Ideally, those with rationalist leanings will temper the worst aspects of both sides. But if EA is going to remain a distinct force that has something new and significant to contribute to the future of humanity, rather than doing a bit of good on the margin, it’s going to have to figure out how to address the problems that have made other movements so stupid.
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