Given how incredibly positive I see the influence that EA has had on my own life, this post is a fantastic opportunity for me to say ‘thank you’. Thanks to all of you for your contributions to building such an awesome community around (the) ‘one thing you’ll never regret’ – altruism (I got this quote from Ben Todd). I have never before met a group of people this smart, caring and dedicated to improving the world, and I am deeply, deeply grateful that I can be a part of this.
I remember that in elementary school was the first time I was confronted with other students believing in what they referred to as ‘GOD’. Having grown up in a secular family myself, I was at first confused by their belief, and then started debating them. This went on to the point when one day I screamed insults at the sky to prove that there was no one up there listening and no lightning would strike to pulverize me. My identity started to grow, and after reading the Wikipedia article on atheism in early middle school, ‘agnostic-atheist’ was the first of a number of ‘-isms’ that I added to my identity over the years (though, as I will describe, some of these ‘-isms’ were only temporary). Unsurprisingly, when I encountered the writings and speeches of Richard Dawkins in my teens, I quickly became a staunch fan (let it be pointed out that I am more critical nowadays about his communication style and some of his content).
I can contribute my early political socialization to attending summer camps and weekend seminars of a socialist youth organisation in Germany in middle school. There, for the first time, I met people who really cared about improving the world, and I learned about social problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and – the mother of all problems, from the socialist perspective – capitalism. Furthering this process of ideological adaptation, I learned that the supposed solutions for these and other social problems were creating a socialist, communist or possibly anarchist world-order – if need be, by means of violent revolution. In hindsight, it’s interesting for me to look back and see that this belief in a violent revolution required an element of consequentialist thinking (along with very twisted empirical beliefs largely grounded in Marxism): to create a better society for the rest of all time, we might need to make sacrifices today and fight. I always had a great time with the other young socialists, made friends, had my first kiss, went to various left-wing protests and sat around camp fires where we sang old socialist workers’ songs. (A note on the songs: I remember how powerful and determined they would make me feel in my identity as a social-ist, connected to a cause that was larger than myself and celebrating those ‘partisans’ who were killed fighting (violently) in socialist revolutions. Hopefully, this was a lasting lesson with regards to methods of ideological indoctrination). The most long-lasting and positive effect this part of my life had on my personality, was in igniting a strong dedication to improving the world – I had found my ultimate and main goal in life (provided and hoping that won’t change again).
During my last lesson in ethics class in middle school, we (around 30 omnivore students) debated the ethics of eating animals. The (to me at the time) surprising conclusion we reached was that, in the absence of an existential necessity for humans to eat meat to survive, it was ethically wrong to raise, harm and slaughter animals. On this day, I decided to try vegetarianism. I began to look into the issue of animal farming, animal ethics, vegetarianism and veganism, and I was shocked by the tremendous suffering endured by billions of non-human animals around the world, and that I had contributed to my whole life. Greedy for knowledge, I read as much as I could about these topics. It still took me a year to decide to be vegan henceforth. I read Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ only after I went vegan, but it certainly increased my motivational drive to dedicate my life to reducing the suffering of non-human animals – what I then perceived as the most pressing ethical problem in the world (+ the book was my first real exposure to utilitarian thought). Throughout my high school years, I would write articles about veganism for our school’s student magazine, organise public screenings of the animal-rights movie ‘Earthlings’, distribute brochures of animal rights organisations, debate other students on the ethics of eating meat and supply our school’s cafeteria with plant-based milk alternatives. Later, as part of my high school graduation exams I wrote a 40-page philosophical treaty on animal ethics.
In high school I also learned about environmental degradation – caused, of course, by evil multinationals and, ultimately, capitalism – and started caring about environmental preservation (considering myself an environmental-ist). Reasoning that changing only my own consumer behaviour would have limited effects, once again I started taking actions to affect the behaviour of others. For instance, I started a shop from my room in the boarding school, reselling environmentally-friendly products, such as recycled toilet paper, to other students (I would sell the goods at the market price, without making a profit). I also decided that after my graduation from school, I would take a gap year and go to India to volunteer for a small environmental non-profit organisation. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, in hindsight I don’t think that my work as a volunteer had a big impact).
And then I attended the single most transformational event of my life: an introductory talk on effective altruism, brilliantly presented by the EA Max Kocher, who at the time interned with the predecessor organisation of what would later become the Effective Altruism Foundation. I was immediately attracted by the EA perspective on reducing animal suffering (though I remember finding the ‘risks to the far-future from emerging technologies’ part of the presentation weird). Previously, I had read a lot of stuff online written by vegans and animal rights activists, but somehow I had never come across a group of people who were thinking as rationally and strategically about achieving their ethical goals as EAs. Once again, I became greedy for knowledge, and – in reading many EA articles, books, listening to podcasts and watching talks – felt like a whole new world was opening up to me. A world that I couldn’t get enough of. And in the process of engaging with EA, I encountered a great many arguments that challenged some of my dearly held beliefs – many of which I subsequently abandoned.
Some of the major ways I changed my mind through EA include:
I got convinced that what ultimately counts morally are the conscious experiences of sentient beings, and thus stopped caring about ‘the environment’ for its own sake. Learning about the prevalence and magnitude of the suffering of animals living in the wild, I left behind my beliefs in environmental preservation, the protection of species over individuals, and the intrinsic importance of biodiversity.
The most important normative change I underwent is growing closer to hedonistic utilitarianism, and totalism in population ethics. In parallel to this process, I engaged more with arguments like Bostrom’s astronomical waste argument, and ultimately accepted the long-term value hypothesis. That said, keeping epistemic modesty in mind and the wild divergence in favoured moral theories among moral philosophers, I do attempt to take moral uncertainty seriously.
The most important change in my empirical worldview came with learning more about the benefits and achievements of market economies and the tremendous historical failures of its so-called socialist and communist alternatives. I stopped attributing everything that was going wrong in the world to ‘capitalism’ and adopted (what I now think of as) a much more nuanced view on the costs and benefits of adopting particular economic policies.
Relatedly, I became much more uncertain with regards to many political questions, due to giving up many of my former tribe-determined answers to policy questions. In particular, I have reduced my certainty in policies with strong factual disagreement among relevant experts.
After having engaged with EA intensely, though passively for more than one year in India, upon my return to Germany I was aching to get active and finally meet other EAs in person. Subsequently, I completed two internships with EAF in Berlin, started and led an EA university chapter at the University of Bayreuth, before ultimately transitioning to the University of Oxford, where I am now one of the co-presidents of EA Oxford.
The philosophy and community behind effective altruism have transformed my life in a myriad of beneficial ways. I am excited about all the achievements of EA since its inception and look forward to contributing to its future success!
Some parts of this sound very similar to me, down to ‘left-wing youth political organisation who likes to sing socialist songs’ (want to PM me which one it was?).
I have noticed before how much more common activist backgrounds are in German EAs vs. Anglo-Saxon EAs. When I talked about it with other people, the main explanation we could come up with was different base rates of sociopolitical activism in the different countries, but I’ve never checked the numbers on that.