Optimize… Everything?

As a new transfer student searching for meaning and community, I was drawn to my university’s Effective Altruism club long before I understood terms like “long termism” and “cause neutrality.” Scanning through pages and pages of student organizations, looking for something to be a part of, I was intrigued by EA’s name and mission. The following Wednesday, I showed up at an 8pm club meeting tucked deep inside an old academic building, and was struck by the deeply earnest nature of all of the people I encountered. These were people with ideas about bettering the world that I had never even heard of, much less seriously considered, yet they were happy to answer my barrage of questions and respond to my confounded critiques. I walked back to my dorm room, wide-eyed but content. I was grateful to have stumbled upon this group of people so dedicated to improving the world.

As fall semester turned quickly to spring, I found myself increasingly involved in my school’s EA club. I signed up to be the club’s Outreach Coordinator, and, in January alone, I completed the Intro Fellowship, designed and ordered t-shirts and stickers, set up tables to advertise to other students, coordinated intro talks, participated in the In-Depth Fellowship and organized general body meetings. I was struck by the seemingly simplistic logic of it all. “Why,” I thought to myself, “Do humans make choices that help less people when they could be helping more people? Wouldn’t everyone who cared about doing good join the Effective Altruism movement if only they knew that it existed?” Then, almost as quickly, I realized that Effective Altruism is not a natural shift for people because it asks us to think and act in ways that are fundamentally opposed to our nature. The reality is that people are emotionally-driven, see the world through their own subjective experiences, and are drawn to stories.

As I became increasingly enmeshed in the Effective Altruism community over the course of this year, I developed strong contradictory opinions on the principles and values that the movement embodies. On the one hand, I appreciate Effective Altruism for its emphasis on maximizing good and helping people determine how they can use their skills and resources to best improve the lives of others. I admire the compilations of randomized control trials, data sets, and research studies that back up each claim and tenet. I respect the focus on making people aware of their own biases and illogical thought patterns. However, despite all of its statistics and studies and rationalization, I began to feel as if Effective Altruism was missing something. Our feelings lie to us, sure, but they also tell us the truth. While we should learn to recognize that our feelings can (and do) deceive us, we should also realize that we feel for a reason. Humans are not computers for a reason. If compassion is the casualty of effectiveness then we are sacrificing the very thing that makes us who we are as humans.

In adrienne maree brown’s groundbreaking book, Emergent Strategy, she speaks of not just the role, but the necessity of emotional awareness and authentic relationships when it comes to enacting powerful and lasting social change. brown explains that many current efforts to improve the world, while well-intentioned, are also deeply flawed. Many altruistic organizations “fall back into modeling the oppressive tendencies against which we claim to be pushing…. Many align with the capitalistic belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change” (2017). A major flaw of Effective Altruism lies in its lack of reimagination, its focus on reducing suffering within the capitalist system as it exists rather than conceptualizing a new system in which oppression is reduced and eventually eliminated. Whether intentional or not, Effective Altruism has adhered so strongly to the current capitalist system that it has begun to replicate some of its most damaging practices in its own internal structure. Capitalism functions through commodification, or converting materials and behaviors into goods to be bought and sold. Effective Altruism’s emphasis on optimization replicates the same commodification process, except the “goods” become people’s time and energy.

During my initial involvement with the Effective Altruism community, I found this focus inspiring. I adopted all the new technologies: downloading Slack, making accounts on Asana and Airtable, and learning how to use Notion in an attempt to emulate the methods I was reading about. However, the more I tried to “optimize” my community building, the more disillusioned I grew with the methods I was initially inspired by. Such strategies began to feel inauthentic: 1-on-1 guides that reminded mentors to say “how are you” and urged them to refrain from talking about EA during their first meetings to feign genuine connection; spreadsheet templates that allowed users to code meetings according to priority and friendliness-level; guidelines expressing exactly how to word invites in order to maximize event attendance.

Logically, this emphasis on optimization makes sense: if Effective Altruists aim to do the most good that they can with their limited time, then it is reasonable to expect them to want to make the best use of their time. However, taken to the extreme, an overemphasis on optimization promotes the idea that people have value only insofar as what they produce. Such a viewpoint diminishes dimensionality, separating people from the wholeness of their personhood until they become not who they are, but what they do with their time. Furthermore, an obsession with optimization neglects the value of community-building and relational power as a means to enact social change. Looking back on our history, groundbreaking, systemic social change has resulted from community-driven, deeply embedded activist efforts. Powerful activist groups within the last century—the Rainbow Coalition, the Black Panthers, the Combahee River Collective, etc. - were all successful in expanding equity and challenging the status quo because of their understanding of the intersecting nature of social oppressions and their deep commitment to community.

Some aspects of work and life can and should be optimized—the whole point of Effective Altruism is to help us understand how we can best use our time and resources to do the most good—and that is a noble goal. We should spend a considerable amount of time optimizing when it comes to considering the consequences of our careers, thinking about our existing institutions, and working towards sustainable, long-term change. However, not only do we miss out on authentic community-building when we extend this language and practice of optimization to all aspects of our lives, we lose people amid the numbers and percentages and constant tracking of every second of our days. Community (real, authentic community) is about reciprocal relationships and care rooted in genuine emotional connection. No amount of spreadsheets or color-coding or pre-planned 1-1s will forge authentic relationships. We cannot optimize our way into loving one another.

In order to move forward, we need to build a framework that accounts for the importance of both objective truth and subjective, emotional understandings. We need to abandon the dichotomy, ridding ourselves and society of the notion that fact and emotion are mutually exclusive.

We should progress with an understanding that, first and foremost, effective community development and altruism necessitates deep, authentic community. We must recognize that people hold value simply by existing, that time is a tool with which to cultivate meaningful social change rather than a good to be commodified. At the same time, we should understand that some activist and altruistic efforts are objectively more effective than others. We do have limited time and limited resources, which can be used to do incomprehensible amounts of good or devastating amounts of bad depending on how we choose to wield them. In order to convince people of the power they hold to have a positive impact, we should use stories as an avenue for statistics and fiction as a platform for fact. Instead of abandoning our emotions, writing them off as worthless and ineffective, we should harness them, learning how to let empathy motivate us without destroying us.

We are nothing without our feelings and neither is our activism.