Effective altruism and criticism toward activism: Answer to a paradox

Since a little while now, I have been exploring the notion of Effective Altruism - EA for short. My readings on the topic so far have been very interesting[1], and I would like to add my own idea that I deem important and have yet to read elsewhere. If ever this has been written down somewhere, I can at least attest to it being all well too hidden. Personally, I believe that it should be discussed in introductions to the EA topic.


[1] I have attempted some meeting with the French EA group, and have seen nothing but discussions yet. As it seems I have been more effective through direct actions against LGBTPhobia in high-school - for all my uncertainties about them - it had seemed pointless for me to join.

Why is it bad form to critic others' actions

In the groups I have been in, criticizing the actions of another volunteer or activist is very unwelcome. Since the very notion of telling others how they should conduct their own actions is at the core of Effective Altruism, it would then follow that EA as a whole would be unwelcome in those groups. So I strived to reconcile the two. To do that, I first needed to understand why - precisely - telling someone else not to act is bad form. I know of two reasons:

Do not act

The first one is that criticisms about someone else's action often come from people who do seemingly nothing. It is way harder to act than not to, and criticizing is easy. Since a lot of those criticisms are non-constructive, effectively following them would mean not doing anything at all. And people not doing anything at all is not - generally - a better situation then them following through their actions.

It is worthy of note that the advice being given is not usually "Stop". But it can for instance come under the form of "You're harming our cause". Typically, it is said systematically to other activists who are said to "give bad press to the group". This may happen when they would get worked up, rise their voices, insult others, tag, break glasses, protest on strikes, and so on...

Your struggle is not important

The second one, more dire, is that a lot of those criticisms stems from struggle appropriation. I have often heard the story of racialized LGB or T friends acting on LGBT issues that they would get told constantly -by their family or other racialized peers- that they are merely wasting their time and should focus on what really matters: Racism. Sometimes, they even lack the imagination to perceive the activist as belonging to both groups, since being non-white does not follow the LGBT stereotypes.

Likewise, I have heard that social unions have been violently rejecting homosexual issues for a long time, as being homosexual was associated with the rich and egoistic culture, to which they did not want to be likened. Unions have used the same reasoning for sexism - after all, once capitalism is no more, patriarchy will fall behind and men will have no more means to subjugate women.

Finally, I have heard time and time again that polyamorous issues should not be treated yet, not before we are done fighting against LGBTphobias (this one is different in that I have heard it coming from polyamourous people themselves, who are often LGBT as well).

The first two examples paint a very bad light. I do not know that the end of capitalism will cause the end of patriarchy. I do not know that capitalism will even end before humanity. But even if one would take for granted that capitalism can and should end, I am convinced that if there were a way for sexism to be assuaged quickly, we should do so. If we can better women's situation now, then we should do it.

All of this is to give context to the phrase "You should do your activism differently" having a long and negative history in the activist sphere, because it has almost always meant: "Your fight is not that important". Or, to be more precise "As your fight is not important to me, I will assume it is for no one - except maybe for my enemies".

Why this does not apply to EA.

Do act! But differently.

First, EA does its criticism in a constructive fashion. They give different ways to act, and how to measure one's impact. So the first point is not being relevant here, and even moreso that for measurement of an action to exist, that action must exist and persist in the first place.

There is only one situation, on the top of my head, where they advise for an action to stop without any substitute: In the critical case where the action is demonstratively deleterious to the goal being pursued. The key word here is "demonstratively". For instance, this could apply to sex workers and the amount of violence toward them. It is relatively standard for official measures that are undertaken under the promise of helping them that they actually rise the danger they have to face. In this case, from an efficiency-standpoint, it can be advised to stop those measures without any other suggestions. (From a political standpoint, not suggesting anything is a delicate task. However, it seems to me that the political dimension of it is not at the core of this issue).

I personally hold that the - severe - consequences of such measures are way more important than the emotions people may have about them. And that, therefore, this is a different criticism than "You are giving us bad press".

Choose what you act for

As for the second point, I have to make a distinction between two versions of EA: The theoritical one that is described in books, and the concrete one that exists in EA groups. In those groups, EA is focused on a handful of topics: (wildlife) Animal suffering, the litteral destruction of the earth by a poorly-aligned AI, easily cured illness... However, the books/handbooks on EA describe EA as theoritically agnostic. It is repeated often that EA offer techniques that are useful no matter the cause. This is a little apparent when an EA organization offers a panel of most effective actions in a variety of domains and says "If you want to give for animal lives and rights, give to A. If you want to give for poverty, give to B. And so on." It is more clearly portrayed in the EA handbook when it gives example of other cause that could be studied, such as the betterment of scientific study. But still, there are examples I would have loved to see that were completely missing from it, such as the fight against discrimination. In the theoritical frame, however, nothing is said against those goals being analysed and optimised following the EA process, the only issue being time. It requires for someone to give it proper time and dedication, and, since studies can cost quite a lot both in resources and time, that this person also receive support from a large organization.

I see an easy way for EA to actually convince me it does not pretend to know or tell what goals matter. It would suffice that EA emphasizes how it could be used for a cause which I consider detrimental, for instance: The defense of the "traditional" nuclear family. I mean, I am glad that EA-researchers are not actually taking the time to make the marriage protection movement more efficient, that is not my point. But this contrived example, "EA can benefit marriage protection", shows how the search for effectivism does not make any assumptions on the aim itself. That the goal is to be decided by oneself, and that EA only suggest actions in and on themselves. So that if it suggests a fight to pick, it does not mean it is making negative statements about other fights, it just mean the obvious: Fighting in the name of cause A is not necessarily effective to the fight in the name of cause B.


It has been very hard for me to find a title; and the current one is not much to my taste. I do not know how to pick one that makes it known it is about EA, about an always-implicit rules, and the tensions between the two that I see that I haven't seen any other mention.

This is a translation of Altruisme efficace et critiquer les actions militantes, réponse à ce paradoxe

Collaborative decks in Anki

A lot of people want to create collaborative deck for Anki. In September 2018, I had already made quite a few add-ons, and some people contacted me thus to discuss collaborative decks. It has always been in the back of my head since. I'm going to try to write down every thoughts I had and why it seems quite complex.

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How hard can it be to code a feature to let users resize images in a software.


In this post, I expect to show you why it may be difficult to create a seemingly simple program. In particular, to do it well. I'll show case with the last program I wrote, an add-on for Anki. More precisely, the most wanted add-on for Anki, according to the vote of users of Anki's subreddit: being able to resize image in the editor. This seems to be a simple add-on; after all, resizing by dragging corner has been done in every editing software for decades[1]. In this post, I intend to document all of the things which made me loose time when I created the add-on "Resize image" for Anki. I also created a video showing how the add-on works.

I'm going to mostly consider the code problem relating to add-ons. This is going to be technical, but I'm going to try to give intuition to people who don't code. I'm going to consider changes in order I made them.


[1] Appart from LaTeX, but let's not consider it.

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How I learn lyrics with anki

After years of using anki, I finally found a nice way to learn lyrics. I think I tried three different methods before finding one which works for me. More precisely, I found it a few months ago, and after testing it, I can finally way I found something which works.

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Learning how to play music with anki

I've been playing music for half of my life. But while I was enjoying sight reading partitions, and sometime practiced a little bit the boring part (scales, arpeggios), I have been stuck. Here is a list of what changed:

  • The most frustrating thing for me being that I relied on partitions. Which means that if you gave me a piano or guitar without a partition, I wasn't able to play anything. I found that ridiculous, and anki helped me solve that.
  • Similarly, I played classical guitar, and I didn't know how to read tab. Because, honestly, they are so many chords, I keep forgetting them. Which means that, if you give me a song with tab, as they are hundred of thousands of them, I couldn't play it, because it was not written in a way I can easily read. I don't know every single chord yet (and I'll probably never know them all), I know far more chords today than what I knew before I started anki, and it clearly helps learning songs and doing improv.

The example in this post are related to ocarina, guitar, piano, harmonica and tin whistle. I will explain what differs and what is similar for all of those instruments. Some explanation may not always be clear, if you don't know the instruments I'm talking about. But don't worry, if you don't understand, just read the next paragraph, you should be able to get the general idea.

This article will be illustrated using almost only cards that I have really seen the day I was writing this article. You can find here my [piano], [guitar] and [ocarina] decks. They are far from being perfect, some typos may still be in them. But it may help you to understand what I write here. And maybe you can find them useful in your collection.

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Anki and learning which require practice (origami, knot, instrument...)

I use anki to learn things which require practice. Origami, drawing, music, rope (nodes and shibari). Music will be considered in another text.

I consider two kinds of practical knowledge:

  • some practice requires making choices regularly (like drawing, or musical improv)
  • some practice requires learning and practicing some exact moves over and over. That may be the case when you want to learn a musical piece, or how to tie some particular note.

I don' have any idea how to deal with the first kind of knowledge, thus I'll only consider the second kind. I'll list here different methods, which depends on what I want to learn. I don't know in general how to decide which method is the best one.

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Lists in anki: desiderata and partial solution

In this text, I assume you are familiar with anki, and in particular know what is a field, a card, a card's type (aka template), a note and a note's type (aka a model), and that you have an idea of what are the rules used by anki to decide which cards should be generated or not.

There is one big limitation in anki, it concerns lists[1]. Here I list my trouble, the existing work arounds I know, their limits, and the functionnality I would really want. Sadly, this functionnality seems to require such a big modification of anki's underlying model that I fear that no add-on can answer my request. In particular if I want this request to also be satisfied in smartphone's application, which does not allows to add add-ons.

Learning a list of things is hard, but it's something I sometime want to do. A poem/song is just a list of line. Sometime, a mathematical notions have 4 distinct names. E.g. a pullback is also called a fiber product, a fibered product and a Cartesian square. In some othe case, a mathematical objects admits many distinct definitions[2]. E.g. I've got 5 definitions of left-trivial monoids. And I'd also wanted to see if I can learn the list of the prime number less than 100. Mostly to see how hard it is to learn an arbitrary list.


[1] I assume here that sets are list, with an arbitrary order

[2] This is in general considered to be a proof that the object is really interesting

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Note on an introduction on Anki given a 35C3

This post is a comment about a self-organised workshop Introduction to anki I gave at #35C3 (35th Chaos Communication Congress, a congress of 17k hackers). This workshop was announced on the anki's subredd where I asked for ideas. I received a lot of useful feedback from this subreddit and from the related discord server. The main audience of the current blog post is thus those person, already in anki's community. This post contains idea in random order.

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The trolley problem, and what you should do if I'm on the tracks

Originally published in French and crossposted on LessWrong. Translation by Épiphanie.

Trigger warning: Death, suicide, and murder. Trolley problem.

This is quite the conventional and ethical conundrum: You are near train tracks, and a train is rolling down the hill. It is going to run over 4 people who are tied to the rails of the main track. However, you can change the train's direction to a secondary track by pulling a lever; so that it runs over only one guy, also tied down the rails. Should you pull the lever?

I do believe there is a more interesting way to frame it: What would you choose if you are yourself tied to the rails, alone, while the train is not heading toward you yet. My own answer is very simple: I want the person deciding where the train should go to have _no doubts_ they should pull the lever! Because, for lack of context, I assume that the other four people are just me, or rather copy of mes. That's a bit simplistic, of course they are not perfect clone. But as far as concrete predicates go, they are indistinguishable. That is to say I have odds of being on tracks alone of 1 in 5, and odds for being in the group of 4 in 5. And tell you what, I prefer dying with 20% probability because of what someone did, rather than to die with 80% probability because no one was ever willing to take the burden of responsibility.

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