Why are you here? An origin stories thread.
tl;dr I think origin stories are useful. Please share yours if you like. Here’s mine.
I generally find “origin stories”—personal accounts of how people first become involved with EA—to be quite illuminating, and I think that the bulk of their value comes from their aggregation. We have a lot of data on this at a high level, but I would expect a much smaller number of stories at a much finer level of granularity to be about as useful. You might notice particular communities that many EA folk were involved in before EA. You might see particular articles, individuals, ideas or events that were common formative moments for people. Or you might spot common features of paths of people from underrepresented groups in EA. All of these things can help inform more effective strategies for community-building.
I often ask about origin stories in person. (Pro tip: “Why are you here?” is great for clickbait, bit confrontational for a first meeting; try “How did you get involved in EA?”, “What was it about EA that first appealed to you?”, “What brings you here today?” or even simply “What’s your story? Tell me more about you.”) But it’s very difficult for me or others to spot trends in a collection of anecdotes stored in my brain, so I invite you all to share your story here. If you’d like me to share it anonymously on your behalf, you can share it here. Readers, don’t forget the sampling bias we have, e.g. if “I used to be part of this other online forum” comes up a lot in these stories, no that does not mean that EA folk basically all love online forums.
Share as much as you wish to. One line is fine. If longer, don’t feel that you need to explain any gaps or vagueness (but of course, please don’t be deliberately misleading). Don’t censor yourself too much with the thought that “Oh that’s probably just me—that bit won’t be useful for spotting trends”. And consider including any “sub” origin stories that are applicable e.g. How did you first join an offline or online community? What’s the story behind your first significant donation or altruistically-motivated career change? When have you made a significant shift in cause prioritisation and why?
I’ll go first.
Why I’m here
Thanks to an obsession with record-keeping and a good memory, I can see some very early roots. As a child I had a standard magic wish: “Happiness for everyone forever.” I (told myself I) killed spiders because that’s one quick death for a spider against many flies being slowly eaten alive. My favourite games were “schools” i.e. “teach my sister to read despite her protests” and “boat crash”/”plane crash” i.e. “all of my toys are on the verge of death and we manage to save them all”. A consequentialist hero syndrome if ever there was one.
In my early teens, teachers and friends prompted me to think more about ethics and rationality within the context of religion. I ended a school essay on abortion with “if there’s no pain, there’s no problem” (referring to the foetus). I went to church for two years for reasoning similar to Pascal’s Wager, despite this choice generally leading to a lot of misery for me and everyone around me. At this particular church, I was made fun of for considering Islam and for Googling for more questions about Christianity rather than for answers, and the judgements of my romantic life really stung, but my poor fellow churchgoers did try so hard with me and must have thought me mad for attending for so long as a very anguished agnostic.
At some point in this period I also became a moral non-cognitivist (thought that “right”, “wrong”, “good”, “bad” etc. didn’t refer to anything fundamental in the universe) - I’d gained more appreciation for the influence of society on our so-called “moral” beliefs, and I couldn’t conceive of what it would mean for anything to really matter. I wrote in my diary: “The meaning of life is that there is no meaning”.
Still, my interest in the fundamental questions about life persisted and at the age of 16 I discovered philosophy. Yes! This was it! I devoured the subject, spending nearly every spare moment of college in the library, filling ringbinders with notes and discussing philosophy with anyone who’d humour me. As with religion, I struggled to understand how other people could go about their lives without giving these questions serious thought. “Sure,” I thought, “philosophy is notorious for its lack of progress, but that’s in part because its successes split off into new disciplines and in any case, don’t you all at least want to try??” I discovered Peter Singer’s work and loved his rational approach to ethics. At some point I was walking home, and I still remember the place where I stopped as a thought hit me: “Happiness is intrinsically good”. There’s little more I can say about that, but suffice it to say that from that moment on I have been a moral cognitivist. Perhaps nothing actually matters, but I think that contemplation of a particular feature of direct experience has allowed me to at least conceive of something really, ultimately “mattering”.
Thanks to my new-found moral cognitivism built around what felt like an insight—happiness is intrinsically good—I focused my philosophy A-level on ethics where I could, and contributed to my sixth form’s Activists’ Society.
Beyond this “insight” and basic principles of rationality, I hadn’t yet come across anything that seemed relevant to what was ultimately right or wrong (I wasn’t thinking about useful day-to-day moral habits, intuitions or heuristics yet, reasoning that that could only come after I had some fundamental principles in place to draw from). Except perhaps my own rather extreme risk-aversion when it comes to my personal safety, and I wondered if I should conclude from that that our moral obligations are always with the worst-off. For a while, my top candidate ethical theories were classical utilitarianism and what I called “bar consequentialism” (until I found existing terms for similar ideas) - basically the idea that we should always focus entirely on trying to increase the happiness of whoever is suffering the most in the world. Utilitarianism didn’t seem to put enough weight on avoiding suffering, and “bar consequentialism” seemed ridiculous for attributing no value to any increases in happiness or alleviation of suffering unless the subject was the worst-off person in existence, but any way of combining the two seemed arbitrary. Prioritarianism (whereby if you’re suffering more then it becomes more important—but not exclusively important—to help you) showed some promise, but then I concluded that it was actually just the same as classical utilitarianism, and that I could just be a classical utilitarian who puts relatively large numbers on extreme suffering when it comes to judgements around exactly which experiences count as exactly which degrees of happiness/suffering. Nice. Utilitarianism it is. Job done.
Not quite. I was still far from certain, and although I knew that a lifetime would not be long enough to find answers, I was going to do my best. I drew up a life plan that involved studying ethics through philosophy (and, to some extent, theology) as a career at the best university I could get into, publishing whatever I learnt and donating what I could.
Alongside all my philosophising at sixth form I’d been stepping up my altruistic behaviour. I thought most farm animals probably had happy lives even though some of them were awful, so it was fine to eat meat because otherwise those animals wouldn’t exist at all. Then I realised one day that this was the wrong way to think about it—that the awful lives were really awful, and since we didn’t really know where our meat came from, we shouldn’t take the chance—and declared myself a vegetarian in the same breath. I donated to and volunteered for several charities. And I took over the Activists’ Society when no one else would (a habit picked up from math class where I felt despised for putting my hand up and getting the answer right, but I nevertheless wanted the lesson to progress...also a behaviour I’d repeat a few times in the years to come). I learnt about perceived self-righteousness quickly, and we rebranded as the self-deprecating Save The World Club. I don’t know why my altruistic motivation steadily increased over this period, but it did.
Late teens to present
I moved to Oxford for university and soon heard about this society that had just launched called Giving What We Can. What an awesome project! I attended a talk by the founder, Toby Ord, on vegetarianism and remember thinking, “It’s another Peter Singer”.
My mental health declined at Oxford (as I thought it probably would) and I sent emails to Peter Singer and Toby Ord asking for advice about whether to drop out, saying “When other people are giving me advice they never factor in the ‘ethics’ part anywhere near as much as I do so its not always that helpful.” They made time for me and told me what I expected to hear, but I really valued the reassurance of hearing someone else say it. I dropped out.
But I maintained my connection to Oxford. At the first Giving What We Can talk I attended I audibly gasped at the differences in cost-effectiveness estimates from the DCP2 report. I met one of the Felicifia admins at the talk and became an enthusiastic user; for some reason I’d never thought to Google “utilitarianism forum”. It was there that I came across the wonderfully concise line: “Utilitarianism and Nihilism are the only ethical systems that make any sense. If nihilism is true, it doesn’t matter what I do, so I might as well assume it’s false.” (I’m nowhere near that confident of course, but it’s a nice summary of why I don’t bother thinking about the possibility of nihilism any more.) There was some overlap between the Giving What We Can crew and the transhumanists/rationalists and one of the people in this overlap told me the astronomical waste argument at a pub meet-up. I thought it was ridiculous. Then I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on why it was sensible. I kept up my co-leadership of the Oxford anti-genocide society for a while (so chosen because I figured the most effective ways to maximise happiness might still be to focus on the worst-off, and I couldn’t think of anything worse), but eventually my co-leadership of the new Giving What We Can: Oxford society took over. I also launched another charitable student society at one point but eventually that too was handed on so that I could focus more on the emerging “Effective Altruism” movement. I couldn’t get enough of it. In those early years I learnt so much, never failed to be excited at first meetings with like-minded souls, and attended several retreats where I experienced a very strong sense of community, of a beautiful, meaningful shared purpose and heartfelt mutual support to help each other get there.
By the time we decided on the name Centre for Effective Altruism I had one of the fancy “director” titles (we students love our fancy titles) and was working on community support for Giving What We Can. When The Life You Can Save needed new leadership, I stepped up, and when my mental health deteriorated, I stepped down. I then spent three years in jobs in which my priorities were (i) my mental health and (ii) exploration of a large variety of industries and people. Then last summer I was able to take some months off to reevaluate and, feeling more mentally healthy and realising that I’d learnt relatively little of value in my three years “off”, I decided to try EA community-building full-time again.
This is one version of my story. It’s already a bit more exposure than I really feel comfortable with at the moment, so I’ve left out a lot of the embarrassing mistakes I made (nearly all around being too confident and/or emotional in my judgements) and a lot of the things I found difficult. But I hope that you find something useful in it, that you enjoy reflecting on your own story, and that you remember that we each have a story riddled with personal mistakes and challenges but united in one belief: Tomorrow can be brighter than today.
Readers, please remember to keep in mind that these stories are not who we are. They are some of the places we have been and/or snapshots of where we happen to be today. And no doubt they contain many honest innaccuracies.
For anyone interested in more on this topic, see The Life You Can Save’s Supporters Stories, Tom Ash’s A taxonomy of EA origin stories, and some more from Origin Stories Month in January 2015. [Edit: Also on the related question of how people found one of the top sources of EA folk, the LessWrong survey (2014) lists referrals as follows: a link (464, 31%), Harry Potter and the Methods Of Rationality (385, 26%), Overcoming Bias (210, 14%), friend (199, 13%), search engine (114, 8%), other fiction (17, 1%).]
By “underrepresented groups” I mean “the collection of people who currently possess to a relatively high degree the kinds of skills, experiences, motivations, resources, mindsets, habits or other characteristics that you would like to see more of in the EA community”. Maybe for you that includes demographics severely underrepresented in EA compared to the global population. Maybe it’s “very high altruistic dedication” etc. Of course, qualitative origin stories are not the only way to collect relevant data on this.
This post is not just about data collection; the timing is no coincidence. My hope is that this might also serve as a kind of “EA gratitude journalling”—that reflecting on your early days in EA and what you loved or grew to love about it will help generate positive feelings of nostalgia, appreciation and camaraderie. At the time of writing, I sense that tensions are particularly high in our community. I of course have my own thoughts on what mistakes particular people/organisations have made or are making, and on whose judgment or honesty I most trust on which matters, and I think it is often extremely important to discuss them. And often emotion is in the driving seat when I’m discussing my latest thoughts, despite my self-deception to the contrary, we’re all human. But I suspect that an extra dose of empathy and mutual appreciation would be useful for the disagreements being aired right now and I hope that taking part in this exercise, even privately, will help. Almost no one is evil. Almost everything is broken.