In praise of unhistoric heroism

Dorothea Brooke as an example to follow

I once read a post by an effective altruist about how Dorothea Brooke, one of the characters in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, was an EA. There’s definitely something interesting about looking at the story like this, but for me this reading really missed the point when it concluded that Dorothea’s life had been “a tragic failure”.[1] I think that Dorothea’s life was in many ways a triumph of light over darkness, and that her success and not her failure is the thing we should take as a pattern.

Dorothea dreamed big: she wanted to alleviate rural poverty and right the injustice she saw around her. In the end, those schemes came to nothing. She married a Radical MP, and in the process forfeited the wealth she could have given to the poor. She spent her life in small ways, “feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better.” But she made the lives of those around her better, and she did good in the ways which were open to her. I think that the way in which Dorothea’s life is an example to us is best captured in the final lines of Middlemarch:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

If this was said of me after I’d die, I’d think I’d done a pretty great job of things.

I think many EAs would not be particularly pleased if that was ‘all’ that could be said for them after they died, and I think that there is something worrying about this.

One of the very admirable things about EAs is their commitment to how things actually go. There’s a recognition that big talk isn’t enough, that good intentions aren’t enough, that what really counts is what ultimately ends up happening. I think this is important and that it helps make EA a worthwhile project. But I think that when people apply this to themselves, things often get weird. I don’t spend that much time with my ear to the grapevine, but from my anecdotal experience it seems not uncommon for EAs to:

  • obsess about their own personal impact and how big it is

  • neglect comparative advantage and chase after the most impactful whatever

  • conclude that they are a failure because their project is a failure or lower status than some other project

  • generally feel miserable about themselves because they’re not helping the world more, regardless of whether they’re already doing as much as they can

An example of a kind of thing I’ve heard several people say is ‘aw man, it sucks to realise that I’ll only ever have a tiny fraction of the impact Carl Shulman has’. There are many things I dislike about this, but in this context the thing that seems most off is that being Carl Shulman isn’t the game. Being you is the game, doing the good you can do is the game, and for this it really doesn’t matter at all how much impact Carl has.

Sure, there’s a question of whether you’d prefer to be Carl or Dorothea, if you could choose to be either one.[2] But you are way more likely to end up being Dorothea.[3] You should expect to live and die in obscurity, you should expect to undertake no historic acts, you should expect most of your work to come to nothing in particular. The heroism of your life isn’t that you single-handedly press the world-saving button—it’s that even though you’ll probably fail to achieve any of your dreams, you dream them, you pursue them with a constant heart, and you make the lives of those around you better with your hope and your altruism.

My friend Eli once said to me that if the most impactful thing for him to do was to sweep the CEA offices, he’d be totally happy with that. I think for most people this isn’t the case, that it’s really important that people speak truth to themselves here, and that forcing yourself into thinking you’re happy with things you’re not leads to bad things happening. But I think in Eli’s case it’s actually completely true, and I want to hold out that Eli sweeping the offices is more truly heroic than Eli chasing after the biggest project or the most prestigious role or the highest status research area. (For me the important thing here isn’t what Eli is actually doing, it’s his orientation. He now works somewhere pretty prestigious, but I think he still does it in the spirit of sweeping the offices.)

I still think there’s something important about being in analytical mode where only the actual outcomes count. There’s definitely a time for reflecting on whether your projects actually made a difference. But when it comes to me as a human being, I think it’s the greatness of my heart that matters, and not the greatness of my deeds. Probably I won’t achieve much in my life—but if I actually try, and do it with love, in some sense I think I’ll have done all that anyone could hope to do.[4]

  1. Quote from Middlemarch, from the prologue in reference to women like Saint Theresa, who is then compared to Dorothea, but not in direct reference to Dorothea as a particular individual. ↩︎

  2. I think different answers are legitimate here. ↩︎

  3. I’m using Dorothea and Carl as labels here. For all I know, actual Carl might well be more like Dorothea than he’s like imaginary Carl. I also think it’s pretty unusual to end up as big-hearted and wise as Dorothea. ↩︎

  4. I think actually trying and doing it with love are both very hard to do, and would feel very happy if I achieved that. ↩︎