Look Out The Window
I wrote the following for a Yale EA leadership strategy meeting. It’s optimized for speaking, not writing, so it might read weirdly. It also has some Yale EA specific bits. People seemed to value it, and for various reasons now seems like a good time for me to post it.
Look out the window. That church was built in 1638.
Back then, smallpox was wiping out an entire native population. Slavery was spreading to the Americas. Women had no rights at all here. When most people considered the future, they considered merely their children. Empires colonized lands that were not theirs and subjected their people. Animals: they were just tools.
We killed smallpox, but COVID kills millions. We don’t have mass slavery, but we have racism, and there is still slavery. Women have rights, but we have sexism, and in some places women still have no rights. People barely consider their great-great grandchildren. Here we treat cancer but there we do not even treat malaria. Animals: they are still just tools.
If you hate suffering, you don’t have to look far. Yes, you can look at the parents of children dead from malaria. Or you can look out the window. Suffering is far too present in our world still.
If you love happiness, you don’t have to look far. You can watch me eating beets. Or you can look out the window. Happiness is everywhere in our world.
If you care about justice, virtue, knowledge, beauty, you don’t have to look far. Look out the window. These things and their opposites are everywhere in our world.
This window is like many other windows all over the world. Outside of some, there may only appear happiness, and others, suffering. But most are more like this window, somewhere in between the extremes. Even in the happiest idyllic landscape predators devour prey. Even in the most sad place, people still admire the moon sometimes.
We have a chance to change not just this window, but every window now, and every window in the future. There are arguments for why this could be the most important century to do just that. Our ability to get things done is exploding: we have people and we have money. Pivotal technologies, like synthetic biology and AI, are being developed as we speak. What’s our role?
We are part of a ragtag team of people who try to care about everyone and everything that matters. We are the first true attempt at applied impartial good maximization under these terms. If that’s not the most important thing you could be doing, I don’t know what is.
Now, that doesn’t guarantee that any of what we do here at Yale EA matters to any of this. I think it does. I see our alumni working on stopping pandemics, researching population ethics, assisting longtermism’s greatest thought leaders, doing high-leverage global development work, and starting successful groups at dozens of other universities, and I think: this group did that. And I think we can do even more.
Now, maybe you disagree. Maybe you think what you’re personally doing is not the best use of your time. I implore you: don’t do it! If there is something else that’s the best use of your time, go do that! If it’s a YEA thing, argue for why it’s the best use of your time, and go do it. If it’s not a YEA thing, don’t feel stuck here. Go do the more impactful thing!
I don’t care about Yale Effective Altruism, not in the way I care about you or my family or my friends or even my houseplants. Those things I care about in themselves, separately from how they maximize good. YEA, I don’t. I care about what’s out the window, and that’s why I care about this group.
Think about what’s out the window, not just this window but every window, and go make it better.