How To Resolve Disagreements About Effective Giving: The Problem with Debates (Part 1)
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How To Resolve Disagreements About Effective Giving: The Problem with Debates (Part 1)


Here’s a typical scene from the meeting of a local effective altruist group. Michael thinks donating to Against Malaria Foundation will do the most good per dollar to address global poverty. Sheena believes donating to GiveDirectly does more good per dollar than AMF.

How do they resolve their disagreements? They argue, of course. I’ve watched scenes of Sheenas and Michaels arguing about this question until they were blue in the face. Such arguments usually result in little progress on actually determining the truth of the matter.

We all want to accomplish the broad goal of doing the most good per dollar. However, we often disagree on the best methods for doing the most good and on which organizations are most effective.

When we focus on these disagreements, it can sometimes be easy to forget the goals we share. This focus on disagreements raises the danger of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences – splintering and infighting, resulting in creating out-groups. Many social movements have splintered due to such minor disagreements, and this is a danger to watch out for within our own movement of folks determined to give effectively.

At the same time, it’s important to be able to bring our differences in opinions to light and to be able to resolve them effectively. The usual method of hashing out such disagreements within our movement has been through debates, in person or online.

Yet more often than not, people on opposing sides of a debate, including within our movement, end up seeking to persuade rather than focus on figuring out the best ways of giving based on evidence available. Indeed, research suggests that debates have a specific evolutionary function – not for getting at the most correct answers but to ensure that our perspective prevails within a tribal social context. No wonder debates are often compared to wars.

We may hope that those of us determined to give effectively to alleviate global poverty would strive to find the most evidence-based perspective during debates. Yet given that we are not always fully rational and strategic in our social engagements, it is easy to slip up within debate mode and orient toward winning. Heck, I know that I sometimes forget in the midst of a heated debate that I may be the one who is wrong – I’d be surprised if this didn’t happen with you.

Debates, while often useful, can stir up heated emotions and result in harsh confrontations that leave all participants more set in their opinions. So while we should certainly continue to engage in debates, I propose we should also use additional strategies – less natural and intuitive ones. These strategies could put us in a better mindset for updating our beliefs and improving our perspective on the truth. One such strategy is a mode of engagement called collaborative truth-seeking. This might be a better approach in cases where debates are more likely to fail – such as when participants have deep-held beliefs, when there are strong emotional triggers around topics of discussion, or where previous debates on a specific topic have not succeeded.

Collaborative truth-seeking is one way of describing a more intentional approach drawn from the practice of rationality, in which two or more people with different opinions engage in a process that focuses on finding out the most accurate answer given the evidence. Collaborative truth-seeking is a modality that should be used amongst people with shared goals and a shared sense of trust. Since we can all trust that we aim to address global poverty issues in the most effective ways possible, other folks committed to effective giving are a good audience with whom to use collaborative truth-seeking.

Some important features of collaborative truth-seeking, which are often not present in debates, are: focusing on a desire to change one’s own mind toward where the evidence points; a curious attitude; being sensitive to others’ emotions; striving to avoid arousing emotions that will hinder updating beliefs and truth discovery; and a trust that all other participants are doing the same. These can contribute to increased  social sensitivity, which, together with other attributes, correlate with accomplishing higher group performance on a variety of activities.

In next week’s post, I’ll take you through the specific tactics used in collaborative truth-seeking.


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TLYCS Admin

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.