Effective Altruism and Meaning in Life
Suppose I fail to make a major altruistic breakthrough with my life. Can my life still be meaningful? Do I still have value as a person?
We know in our heads we’re supposed to answer ‘yes’ to these questions. But in our guts, these days—these days of great loathing over the difficulty of getting jobs in EA—it can feel to many of us like we’re stuck living lives that are utterly ordinary, marginal, minuscule, impactless, insignificant, replaceable, unoriginal, unimportant, uninspiring, or uninspired.
The minds of EAs are, admirably, more scope-sensitive regarding impact than average, untrained intuitions. The great saints of EA—heroes like Stanislov Petrov, Norman Borlaug, or various philanthropists and nonprofit founders—truly do save or improve many, many orders of magnitude more lives than a typical person. This can tempt our guts, if not our heads, to feel we are many, many orders of magnitude less important than we could or should be.
What follows is an allegorical, caricatured chronology of how I got to the point of coveting elusive EA talent-gaps, but then realized I was staking too much of my self-worth on success as an EA. It mentions “saints” and “angels” that altered my trajectory and seesawed my optimism. Why on earth would I use these metaphors? Well, it’s not only because it’s more fun (though it is). The hope is that others will find the story familiar, amusing, or reassuring, and will gain some perspective on meaning in life and how EA does and does not contribute to it.
“Build a Movement”: The Gospel according to St. Peter
The vivid yellow cover of St. Peter’s gospel shone persuasively, almost blindingly, into my eyes. Its empowering title, The Life You Can Save, was as luring as the precious, sad-looking child whose picture helped spell out the title.
I held it in my very hands as I gazed amazed around the university lawn, excitedly in dialog with some of the most intelligent, ambitious young altruists I had ever met. Boldly, we brainstormed the myriad ways we could promote effective giving to our community.
And unto us St. Peter spake:
I think we should advocate the level of giving that will raise the largest possible total, and so have the best consequences. . . . [R]oughly 5 percent of annual income for those who are financially comfortable, and rather more for the very rich. My hope is that people will be convinced that they can and should give at this level. I believe that doing so would be a first step toward restoring the ethical importance of giving as an essential component of a well-lived life. And if it is widely adopted, we’ll have more than enough to end extreme poverty. (p. 152)
Soon we faithful would go on to start a Giving What We Can chapter which would meet near that very lawn. Sacraments developed in short order: we Lived Below the Line once a year; we took the Giving What We Can Pledge or at least Tried Giving; we promoted effective altruism across campus; we debated whether to give now or give later. Finally we had found our great calling and purpose; at last we were part of something larger than ourselves. And much unlike superstitious apostasies, we were able to to defend every detail with sound logic, even equations, some fit for the back of an envelope.
Trials: a slow-igniting revolution
Alas, temptation soon surrounded us, and we wavered in our walks. We grew weary of harping on the same message, despite our yearnings to persevere. Conversions were slow: for every hundred people exposed to our holy refrain, ‘your dollar goes further overseas’, barely one or two were transformed by our gospel. Even for the converts we scarcely had enough rousing rituals: signing the Pledge was one-time; Live Below the Line was once a year; debates over cause selection and when-to-give grew tiresome; intervention research was difficult and best outsourced to GiveWell.
Even more trying, we were too poor to Try much Giving. As the oldest of us aged into the workforce, few of us were lucky enough to land jobs at the likes of GiveWell or Oxfam. We craved career advice on how to launch ourselves into the EA ecosystem of donors, direct workers, and researchers of interventions.
To our delight, St. Peter prophesied for our souls a great nourishment. His disciple, St. William, would provide unto us a plenteous bounty of wisdom regarding precisely how to proceed.
Even more delightful was the promise that we could pursue our paths while still enjoying all the comforts of well-off Western lives, perhaps even lucrative ones.
“Earn to Give [or something]”: The Gospel according St. William
EA Global’s sign-in booth was overflowing with shining blue copies of an immaculate new gospel, instructing us in the holy ways of Doing Good Better. As prophesied, St. William gave unto us a blessed instruction: do not follow your passion. Find a personal fit for your career that matches your skills (and also, hopefully, makes you reasonably happy).
St. William spake unto us:
Taken literally, . . . the idea of following your passion is terrible advice. Finding a career that’s the right “fit” for you is crucial to finding a career, but believing you must find some preordained “passion” and then pursue jobs that match it is all wrong. . . . Should you pick a career by identifying your greatest interest, finding jobs that “match” that interest and pursuing them no matter what? On the basis of the evidence, the answer seems to be no.” (Ch. 9)
What we should want in a career, he taught us, were factors like flexible career capital and irreplaceability. Additionally, we should seek generic traits of happy workplaces: the ability to work autonomously, to have a sense of completion, variety, feedback, and a feeling of helping others. St. William’s exemplars of impact were the likes of management consultants, quantitative traders, tech entrepreneurs, data scientists, and software engineers. Traditional paths—law, medicine, politics, nonprofits—were overcrowded, and featured a higher likelihood that one’s contribution was bound to make one replaceable.
Like many a saint, I took the plunge: I went for flexible career capital over immediate impact, general skills over specific experience, strategy over passion. I joined Deloitte; I attended App Academy; or I interned at Jane Street. Although many benighted Ineffective Altruists were confused as to where the altruism in this scheme resided, my fellow EAs and I all understood: this was all, really and truly, for the least fortunate.
Tribulations: a desperate longing to return to the action
A couple of years passed. EA news kept featuring more stories of major grants and charity startups backed by major EA funders such as Good Ventures. As funding gaps became less and less urgent, my often-tiresome, minimally rewarding earn-to-give job felt ever more pointless. EA Global and EAGx events circa 2017 and 2018 put a prime emphasis on getting people to switch careers (often for the second or third time) into paths that would allow them to have direct impact through their work on priority cause areas. AI Safety, and public policy relating thereto, were given pride of place. Community members who had long focused on such existential risks enjoyed increased popularity and social status. To be a truly effective altruist was to be a Rationalist and a futurist.
The lack of mission-drivenness in my own work started to drive me toward despair. I became envious of EAs just entering university with time to major in the right things. “What the hell,” I wondered frequently, “was I doing when I decided this was the way to be altruistic?” On many a Friday afternoon I would finish another week at my six-figure job, walk out to a nearby park in my well-to-do Western city, and cry about how meaningless it all seemed.
Someone was needed to cast out these demons. Someone with the authority to speak on behalf of St. William. Someone to finally deliver us unto the path of the important, the neglected, and the tractable.
“Go Forth and Fill Key Talent Gaps”: The Gospel of St. Benjamin
Unto us, St. Benjamin’s chorus of sages recanted:
In the main career guide, we promote the idea of gaining “career capital” early in your career. This has led to some engaged users to focus on options like consulting, software engineering, and tech entrepreneurship, when actually we think these are rarely the best early career options if you’re focused on our top problems areas. Instead, it seems like most people should focus on entering a priority path directly, or perhaps go to graduate school. . . . [W]e put too much emphasis on flexibility, and not enough on building the career capital that’s needed in the most pressing problem areas.
As this realization sunk in, many EA groups transitioned into careerist think-clubs. Increasingly, EA culture transitioned to a conversation about how to get into government, to start the right think tank, to build the right kinds of policy and technical expertise. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was now more prestigious to us than Deloitte had ever seemed. This seemed both correct and intuitive; most of us should have been more straightforwardly altruistic the whole time.
So we quit our jobs. Scores of us. Even some of the exemplars from St. William’s gospel or 80,000 Hours’ career guide on earning to give have changed strategies. Earning-to-give, and even earning-for-general-skill-building, have fast become strategies of the past. It has been relieving. And we have become excited to join the all-important EA and governmental organizations in which we might save the world.
Vexations: absurd levels of competition
But hundreds of us began applying to the same few positions. Despite hundreds of thousands of monthly unique website visitors and tens of thousands of listeners for each podcast, 80K’s job board typically has contained only a few dozen jobs. Predictably, many hundreds of people began applying for the same positions at the likes of Open Phil. Incredibly talented people started spending many months applying to a dozen or two EA jobs only to wind up empty-handed. Naturally, their ilk began to despair, confessing they felt “a total loser that will never contribute anything towards making the world a better place”; “very disillusioned about [their] ability to contribute to the long-termist project”; and faced with a choice between either A) trying and (probably) failing to become an EA organization employee or B) doing largely meaningless work. Amidst these psychological ruins, some began helpfully strategizing about what to do with people? and building lists of things for people to do.
A Diversification of Meaning Sources
Much to their credit, EAs began to get clever and creative. Guided by criteria of neglectedness, scale, tractability, and narrow career capital, they tended to switch into fields and roles which, although not always at the forefront of EA consciousness, were promisingly high-impact. They
started nonprofits to research wild animal suffering;
campaigned for drug liberalization;
pursued political office and campaigned to legalize prostitution and institute universal basic income;
sought roles in the clean or plant-based meat industries;
started new, experimental EA community centers;
pursued internships in legislatures;
joined traditional animal rights organizations to help them incorporate more EA principles;
and much more.
I became a pilgrim seeking to join in all this, this Great Branching Out of effective altruists circa the 10th anniversary of St. Peter’s gospel. With a close eye on job boards, I applied for many a political and policy-related position and tried to learn my utmost regarding AI and its risks. As I ventured ever further on the road to the proverbial Capitol, I pondered all the risks and challenges awaiting me. Would I really flourish leaving a comfy six-figure salary to sort mail at a Senator’s office? Would I really be happy settling for $40K per year at an animal welfare nonprofit job? Would I really thrive in an operations or executive assistant role at an x-risk organization? Were these a truly fulfilling variety of 21st-century EA asceticism, or would I suffer as a result of not using all the writing or reasoning or mathematical or programming or business talent I had built up?
Would 80,000 Hours change its mind a few more times, jarring my career course to and fro indefinitely?
But then there came a great revelation: I was seeking nearly all my life’s meaning from success pursuing 80K’s priority paths. There was so much more I could live for.
An Epiphany on the Road to the Capitol
Around me there shone a great light. The heavens opened, and choirs of angels sang, accompanied by blazing trumpets and immaculate harps. Down from the clouds descended a host of angels who sang unto me, so sacredly and so profanely, with the following words.
Sang the Angel of Epistemic Humility:
Epistemic status: more certitude than certainty, but fuck it.
Sang the Archangel of Meaning:
Thou shalt pursue a life of meaning.
There is more to life than altruism, and more than effective altruism.
Thou shalt remember that altruistic accomplishment and success, while an animating and robust source of meaning, is by no means meaning’s only source.
It is as St. Susan has explained regarding considered intuitions about what makes lives meaningful:
> [M]eaningfulness in life [comes] from loving something (or a number of things) worthy of love, and being able to engage with it (or them) in some positive way. . . . [M]eaning in life consists in and arises from actively engaging in projects of worth. . . .
> The popular view that takes meaningfulness to consist in finding one’s passion and pursuing it can be taken as a way to emphasize the role that love, or subjective attraction, plays in meaning. The equally familiar view that associates meaning with a contribution to or involvement with something larger than oneself can be understood as emphasizing the role of objective value or worth. (p. 26)
A Sisyphus satisfied—intoxicated by indefinitely stimulating drugs but indefinitely occupied with rolling a simple stone up a hill—can earn no epitaph more flattering than ‘that sure was pointless, but at least he had fun’.
Complementarily, a wretchedly lonely, bored, billionaire, whose posthumous assets accidentally fund breakthrough cancer research, earns no epitaph more acclamatory than ‘it’s great her bequest sort of made up for her lonely, loveless life of disengagement’.
Thou shalt seek for thy tombstone to say something more like: ‘she was as passionate about the people and pursuits she loved as she was about successfully making the world a significantly better place’.
Thou shalt not conflate altruistic success with self-worth.
Sang the Angel of Passion:
Thou shalt follow thy passion.
The core idea of finding a passion and tenaciously pursuing it was always a remarkably tremendous idea.
And of course we mean, not following just any, unreflective, untutored passion for super mundane, cliché, or ordinary shit. After all, aspiring professional athletes and entertainers of non-elite talent truly are far too numerous. Rather we of course mean reflective passions anchored to serious needs in the world.
To ensure longevity in your drive to do good within a particular role, you should choose to work on an issue that you identify with. Yes, dear effective altruist, it is great to try to build excitement about issues that are especially important and neglected. And when anchoring and developing your enthusiasms, you certainly ought to pay attention to the world’s most serious problems and try to think as rationally and scope-sensitively about them as anyone ever has.
But before too long you’ll burn out on it if it’s not something you are fucking passionate about on some fairly deep emotional level.
What else will be responsible for you to surmount the numerous obstacles you will face? What else will help you out-compete the others who will crowd you out from getting your shot at a difficult problem?
Sang the Angel of Love:
Thou shalt engage with whom you love. And thou shalt engage with what you love.
We are afforded precious few beautiful creatures with whom we get to form the valuable relationships that help us through life. These mutual loving relationships animate and beautify our lives; they ground us. They are the only relations between any two things in the universe which involve a deep reciprocity of conscious emotional ties. Without our loved ones, the peak of our existence would be that of isolated consciousnesses having pleasant experiences all on our own. Perhaps we could be solitary utility monsters in isolated experience machines. But we could never attain the ineffable and meaningful wonder of a stable emotional connection with another conscious being.
And then there is love of activities. Creating, exploring, experiencing, mastering all the varieties of pursuits this world makes available. Self-realization, aesthetic expression, communion with nature, grasping the fundaments of nature and mathematics and logic: all these are waiting to be discovered, interacted with, played with, understood. Invest a bit—fuck, maybe even a whole lot—in interacting with the amazing things in this world, from anthropology to history to music to zoology. (And sports are great; fuck the haters.)
As St. Susan suggests, meaning
> is not (equivalent to) happiness, and it is not (equivalent to) morality. Recognizing that meaning is something desirable in life, something we want both for ourselves and for others, means recognizing that there is more to life than either of these categories, even taken together, suggests. This means, among other things, that it need not be irrational to choose to spend one’s time doing something that neither maximizes one’s own good nor is morally best. (p. 49)
And, who knows, you may just become a more effective, or at least a more well-rounded, altruist if you live a little—and love a lot.
Thus sang, harmoniously, the Angels of Truth and Beauty:
Thou shalt pursue truth and beauty, along with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. And rejoice that others have done so!
- Rejoice that Baruch Spinoza wrote the Ethics rather than doubling down on his lens-grinding business to support effective charities.
- Rejoice that Ludwig van Beethoven didn’t give up on music to pursue mundane, even altruistic activities, looking for a higher ‘personal fit’ on account of his hearing loss.
- Rejoice that Frida Kahlo didn’t simply return to medical studies after healing from her traffic accident, but instead pursued her artistic gifts to become a cultural, political, and aesthetic icon.
- Rejoice that Kurt Vonnegut didn’t put more attention into earning-to-give in his car salesman job.
Be an altruist. But do not forget the wide variety of important ways to use a life that fall outside the narrow EA mindset.
Sang the Angel of Vision:
Thou shalt find thy vision, and project thy voice. And rejoice that others have done so!
- Rejoice that Siddhartha Gautama didn’t focus on earning-to-give.
- Rejoice that Martin Luther didn’t try to work up a beaurocratic ladder as a government official.
- Rejoice that Martin Luther King, Jr. never switched to a career in statistics, to start a hip think-tank, to cleverly A/B test messages, to find out which reforms of Jim Crow policies most appealed to voters.
- Rejoice that Harvey Milk simply ran for office, over and over and over and over, motivating an entire movement through iconic leadership and carefully crafted words. Rejoice that he spent his energies building a sociopolitical movement rather than letting (say) fundraising, or the sale of clever merchandise for supporters, eat up all his time.
Make no mistake: we need role-players! Not everyone can lead at once. It won’t work for everyone to try to be chief visionary. But what is key is that the lot of us find and participate in and motivate each other with shared visions of justice, prosperity, and holistically robust experience for all sentient creatures.
The key to ensuring a powerful, transformational, memorable legacy—as individuals and as a movement—is for enough of us to find our voice. Clever calculations about career capital can distract us from finding the core messages we want and need to put forward about the way we want this world to be.
- Effective are those who dream beyond day jobs at Open Philanthropy Project, for they may add much greater value;
- Effective are those who search beyond EA job boards, for they will make themselves truly irreplaceable;
- Effective are those whose vision builds movements, for they will create Cause X;
- Altruistic are those who hunger and thirst for positive world-change, for the expected result is such transformation;
- Altruistic are those who labor and toil at the whiteboard speculating, for their efforts are among the likeliest to preserve innumerable lives;
- Altruistic are those who earn to give passionately, for their influence will nourish entire communities;
- Happy are they who live lives well-rounded, for their legacies will resound both far and near;
- Happy are those who do not let life “live” them, for they will live their lives most fully;
- Happy are those whose steps are guided by love, for they will find the energy that makes all efforts worth it.
Sang the Angel of Feedback:
The community’s insight will help separate the wheat of these revelations from the chaff.