On Living Without Idols

For many years, I’ve actively lived in avoidance of idolizing behavior and in pursuit of a nuanced view of even those I respect most deeply. I think this has helped me in numerous ways and has been of particular help in weathering the past few months within the EA community. Below, I discuss how I think about the act of idolizing behavior, some of my personal experiences, and how this mentality can be of use to others.

Note: I want more people to post on the EA Forum and have their ideas taken seriously regardless of whether they conform to Forum stylistic norms. I’m perfectly capable of writing a version of this post in the style typical to the Forum, but this post is written the way I actually like to write. If this style doesn’t work for you, you might want to read the first section “Anarchists have no idols” and then skip ahead to the section “Living without idols, Pt. 1” toward the end. You’ll lose some of the insights contained in my anecdotes, but still get most of the core ideas I want to convey here.

Anarchists have no idols.

I wrote a Facebook post in July 2019 following a blowup in one of my communities:

“Anarchists have no idols.”

Years ago, I heard this expression (that weirdly doesn’t seem to exist in Google) and it really stuck with me. I think about it often. It’s something I try to live by and it feels extremely timely. Whether you agree with anarchism or not, I think this is a philosophy everyone might benefit from.

What this means to me: Never put someone on a pedestal. Never believe anyone is incapable of doing wrong. Always create mechanisms for accountability, even if you don’t anticipate ever needing to use them. Allow people to be multifaceted. Exist in nuance. Operate with an understanding of that nuance. Cherish the good while recognizing it doesn’t mean there is no bad. Remember not to hero worship. Remember your fave is probably problematic. Remember no one is too big to fail, too big for flaws. Remember that when you idolize someone, it depersonalizes the idolized and erodes your autonomy. Hold on to your autonomy. Cultivate a culture of liberty. Idolize no one. Idolize no one. Idolize no one.

My mentor, Pt. 1.

When I was in college, I had a boss I considered my mentor. She was intelligent, ethical, and skilled. She shared her expertise with me and I eagerly learned from her. She gave me responsibility and trusted me to use it well. She oversaw me without micromanaging me, and used a gentle hand to correct my course and steer my development. She saw my potential and helped me to see it, too.

She also lied to me. Directly to my face. She violated an ethical principle she had previously imparted to me, involved me in the violation, and then lied to me about it. I was made an unwitting participant in something I deeply morally opposed and I experienced a major, life-shattering breach of trust from someone I deeply respected. She was my boss and my friend, but in a sense, she was also my idol. And since then, I have refused to have another.

Abusive people do not exist.

A month after my mentor ceased to be my mentor, I took a semester-long course, “Domestic Violence”. It stands as one of the most formative experiences in my way of thinking about the world. There’s a lot I could write about it, but I want to share one small tidbit here, that I wrote about a few years after the course concluded:

More and more people are promoting a shift in our language away from talking about “abusive relationships” and toward relationships with “abusive people.” This is a small but powerful way to locate where culpability lies. It is not the relationship that is to blame, but one individual in it. I suggest taking this a step further and selectively avoiding use of the term “abusive people,” because all people have the potential to be abusive. It is dangerous to promote the idea that there are only certain select “abusive people” the rest of us must look out for[, rather than the potential all of us have in the right—or, rather, wrong—circumstances to become] “people who engage in abusive behaviors.”

Serial killers, Pt. 1.

My ex and I used to play a game: Which of our friends would you be most shocked to learn is actually a serial killer? It was a boring game because, ultimately, no one would shock me.

Animal advocacy despite the animal advocates.

I’ve been a part of the American animal advocacy movement for over a decade and I have witnessed ample disappointing, counterproductive, and destructive behaviors. From needless infighting and inflammatory discourse, to violations of employment law and exploitation of workers, to sexual assault, to explicit bigotry, to repressive litigation tactics. I witnessed the ousting of numerous leaders during the Me Too movement. I witnessed countless good, dedicated people leaving for quieter, less volatile lives. And I, too, have altered my involvement.

But I am still part of the animal advocacy movement. I joined because I believe at a deep, fundamental level that suffering is bad, regardless of who suffers, and nonhuman animals suffer tremendously and preventably. Whether I’m surrounded by a supportive community of like-minded people, alone in the middle of nowhere, or surrounded by hostile naysayers, I believe in these principles. No one can make me cease to be an animal advocate because it is core to who I am and what I believe.

Sometimes, I am an animal advocate despite the animal advocates.

Serial killers, Pt. 2.

When a crime is committed, it is common for the news to report the absolute shock on the part of the criminal’s community. Their neighbors say they seemed perfectly average and even helped shovel neighborhood driveways last winter. Their teachers say they were a polite, respectful student. Their loved ones swear there has been a mistake, there is just no way it could be them. Their village says not here, not in this community, these things never happen here.

The disbelief is so consistent, even in the most clearcut of cases.

But human behavior is far from clearcut. And our ability to predict the behavior of others is deeply flawed and deeply subjective. Your loved one could be a serial killer. And if you can adjust to that reality, you can adjust to your thought leaders holding unsavory views without it jeopardizing your own worldview.

My mentor, Pt. 2.

My mentor violated an ethical principle she had previously imparted to me, involved me in the violation, and then lied to me about it. But what came after? What did I make of the ethical principle she had imparted to me? Did I discard it when she ceased to be my idol? Did I cling to it all the more fiercely after witnessing how readily another proponent could dismiss it?


I held the ethical principle in my palm, like a small flower. I stared at it for a long time. And then I started to spin it gently, looking at it from all angles, probing with my fingertips. When I was ready, slowly, I began to pull it apart. Petal by petal, leaf by leaf, revealing its soft and complex innards and hundreds of fertile seeds. As I inspected each piece, I questioned them. Their purpose. Their necessity. Their possibility and their shortcomings.

And today, I can walk through a garden of unique flowers, born of those seeds. I cherish my favorites. But I also respect those I dislike in a way I never respected their progenitor, in a way born of understanding for all they are and all that has shaped them.

My mentor, Pt. 3.

Five years later, my mentor reached out to me and apologized. She told me she had arrogantly dismissed my ideological bright line as youthful naïveté and saw only later how wrong she was.

Though our paths diverged and our ideologies did as well, we somehow once again found a place of mutual respect.

Living without idols, Pt. 1.

In quiet moments, I remember how lucky I am to have a life’s purpose. I know what I believe most deeply. I know, in broad strokes, what this means for my life. And because I have this foundation, I am able to explore areas of grey. I don’t feel afraid to update in response to new information. And when I witness others change their thinking, I can approach them with curiosity rather than caution.

When someone I respect disappoints me, I allow myself to feel disappointed. I do this without dismissing their good.

When someone I feel aligned with diverges in course, I figure out what this means for my own thinking and planning. I do this without feeling my whole framework unravel.
Ultimately, you may be uncertain about what you believe. And you should be able to lean on others for support and guidance. But that support and guidance should not dictate what you believe but, rather, be in service of your journey toward figuring it out for yourself.

Living without idols, Pt. 2.

Not idolizing others also means not idolizing myself. I, too, can fail. I, too, can harm.
When I create structures for my organization, I create them with my own potential for failure in mind.

I believe myself to be a fair manager, but what if I am not?
I believe I behave ethically, but what if someday I don’t?

Checks on those in power should be seen as a relief, not an obstacle. No one should singlehandedly have the power to launch the nuke. And no one should be above reproach.

EA despite the EAs.

I believe in effective altruism because I believe in using one’s limited time and resources to help others and doing so as well as possible. I believed this before I was surrounded by EAs, I believe it after the events of the past three months, and I will believe this if EA as EA ceases to exist.

Sometimes, I am an EA despite the EAs. But I also am an EA alongside other EAs working to make this movement—and this world—better.