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.
This is beautifully written. Thank you.
I think about the converse of putting someone on a pedestal – completely disowning someone who violates some non-negotiable expectation of yours. For example, you might decide that someone, like Peter Singer, has some beliefs you find deeply objectionable, and therefore none of their views are worth taking seriously. Reflecting on my own behavior, I’ve noticed that I tend to scour the post histories of social media accounts before following them to see if they’ve posted anything in support of communist dictatorships.
To be sure, I find a lot of commonly held belief systems unconscionable – including racism, transphobia, ableism, and Stalinism. But in a world where lots of people disagree on lots of things, it would be impractical for me to disavow everyone who holds an objectionable belief. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is the basis of the flavor of utilitarian liberalism that I subscribe to, yet Chapter 1 of the book asserts that some societies are “backward” and that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with” them. Although I agree with the core argument of the book, I don’t need to agree with everything in it. I am capable of thinking critically about the book in its historical context – it was written in 1859 at the height of the British Empire, and the backdrop of social attitudes has changed a lot between then and now.
It’s recently come out that the Extropians, the group on whose mailing list Nick Bostrom’s offensive email was published, was involved in some extremely offensive antics at MIT in the late ’90s, and offensive emails were par for the course on their email list. I probably wouldn’t disavow Nick Bostrom or his views entirely (nor anyone else who was involved in the Extropians’ problematic behavior who is now prominent in the EA movement). As your post says, people are complex, and for all I know, someone I think of as a good person right now could be doing something horrible unbeknownst to me. We need to make space for diverse people to participate in the movement, and we need to make space for people in the movement to mess up and be held accountable for improving. Both hero worship and its mirror image, the demonization of people who cause harm, are antithetical to these goals.
It’s good to stop putting individual people, books, and organizations in the EA movement on pedestals. But what if we stopped putting the community on a pedestal? It’s kind of disorienting, but it might be freeing, as we could individually embrace the ideas of EA without feeling the need to defend the EA movement as much. I haven’t thought as much about this.
This is well-expressed, and puts into words something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. One person’s answer to the question “How do we do the most good?” does not always have to mean being deeply involved with other members of the community who are trying to answer that same question.
Thanks for this, I hadn’t thought about it but idolisation and demonisation do seem related forms of excessively binary thinking. It often seems that people who are prone to idolisation are also prone to demonisation—once you fall off the pedestal you fall all the way.
I, as an individual, agree with the statement. No one is infallible, every organization has smaller or bigger problems.
On the other hand, idols and community leaders provide an easy point for concentration of force. A few big coalitions have a larger impact than many scattered small groups, and if someone wants to organize a campaign a few leaders can reach a decision much faster than a large group of individuals.
If no one agrees on what to do then the movement of the Movement will grind to a halt. That’s why there is value in keeping EA high-trust, and somehow accepting the word of the few at the top.
but given the amount of scandals in the last few months maybe they overshoot this high-trusting thingy a little bit, imho a bit more transparency would be nice
Thank you all for such a warm response to this post and for your thoughtful comments. I was actually very hesitant to share this publicly and braced myself for flak, so thank you for proving me wrong! And thank you to Megan Nelson, Kyle Lucchese, and Irina Gueorguiev for reading a draft and giving me the encouragement I needed to share ❤️ Sharing personal experiences on the Forum can be scary, but also very gratifying!
I really enjoyed and appreciated reading this, and it resonates a lot with me. Thank you for writing it :)
The mindset you describe seems like a big improvement compared to what I suspect is common among EAs (“naive trust”). However, it doesn’t sound entirely optimal to me either.
Sometimes it’s possible for people (with good people judgment)* to know specific other people well enough to confidently rule out various failure modes around prosociality like “this person certainly isn’t a serial killer” or “this person wouldn’t turn badly abusive even if lots of things go wrong.”**
Note that the emphasis here is on “sometimes.” The question isn’t just “do people with a low corruption threshold exist?” but also “can we identify them ex ante?” Identifying is hard, but sometimes we know someone well enough to do it. This holds especially if that person also makes themselves transparent (which greatly helps with trust-building).
Forming high-trust relationships with a few specific people (or even just one person) can be really valuable, so people might want to learn how to develop that sort of confidence even if they otherwise benefit from adopting the “no idols” mindset. (Note that it might be very rare to have the privilege to form close-enough relationships to make these assessments at all.)
I think the statement “power corrupts” is true, so with power-related failure modes, the world might be more grey (e.g., maybe there’s no person of whom we can tell that they’d never end up corrupted). Even so, you can sometimes say something like “this person seems about as good as it gets for this type of leadership.” That still makes a big difference!
In fact, I think focusing on “people and their traits” gives us more leverage than focusing on “situations” or “temptations/risk factors.” This is why, in organizational contexts, I think focusing on “checks and balances” is less important than choice of leadership. Apart from personality IMO being responsible for most of the variance around good/bad outcomes (no citation; that’s just my impression), I also think that “checks and balances” only control downside risk. They don’t really help much with cases where leadership subtly caps their upside potential for success at the mission in exchange for more easily legible (selfish) “benefits.” (Altruistic missions are much harder to verify than “make $ profits for shareholders,” which is a reason why EA orgs have it harder.) By contrast, good leadership seems like the only way to succeed with a mission where tracking progress is difficult and not really legible for people who aren’t deeply immersed in things.
*People who are good at “people judgment.” Some people are really bad at it, in which case they can only limit downsides.
**I say “badly abusive” because I accept that it can probably happen to even the best of people that they end up unhappy with themselves and let it out on others, to some degree. That said, I think there are people who would notice and care (because they derive their life satisfaction from being a good partner or parent) if they started to do this and who would have the strength of character to accept that they’re doing this (as opposed to going into denial about it and taking it out on the other person even more out of convoluted self-hatred). I expect that “awareness + caring + resistance to strong levels of self-deception” protect quite well against the worst relationship failure modes.
I like your writing style, do you have a blog?
Thank you for this.
Strong contender for “top 10 EA Forum posts of 2023, according to Peter Hartree”.
Thank you. This post really resonated with me, and reminded and inspired me about why I’m actually here.
Obviously, this doesn’t just apply to idols.
Never put ideas, political allegiance, technological innovation, profits, market share, etc., on a pedestal. Always create mechanisms for safety (in AI, genetic engineering, robotics, social media, politics, etc.), even if you don’t anticipate ever needing to use them.
Allow the truth to be multifaceted. Allow yourself and others to be human, capable and flawed. Take advantage of opportunities to understand, respect, and bring out the best in others. This ultimately is the best way to foster cooperation and synergy, and to solve our biggest problems. Be humble. Be grateful for the luck you have received. Never lift yourself by stepping on others.
In general, I like to talk about Can Do attitudes. We don’t use Can Do to talk about simple things. We use it to talk about challenging goals. Examples might include running a marathon, or learning a new language.
Early on, we may convince ourselves that we’ll never run a marathon, or learn a new language. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the talent. But when we put aside our pre-conceived notions, our fears and doubts, make the sacrifices and do the actual work, we may actually achieve our goals. In the process we discover we have more discipline, and are smarter, stronger, and more resourceful than we ever thought.
Equally important to discover are the following:
We can understand why others never attempt, or give up halfway through the pursuit of their “impossible” dreams.
We can be kind and forgiving to, and learn from those who ridiculed or betrayed us.
We can apologize and make amends, even when we really don’t want to.
We can learn things and change our minds even if it scares us and makes us uncomfortable.
We are often more capable of helping others than we realize.
I believe one way to temper fanaticism, extremism, idolatry, polarization, head-in-the-sand I don’t want to know attitudes, we can’t save the world hopelessness, etc., is to show people how to succeed outside their comfort zones, in as many ways as possible.
This, by the way, is all business friendly. “Think outside the box”, moon shot projects, stretch goals, go above and beyond and do things outside your job description to delight a customer, Nike’s “Just do it”, Home Depot’s “You can do it. We can help.”, Taco Bell’s “Think outside the bun”, all challenge people to do more than they thought they could.
Yes, I think EA and corporations should promote these ideas to inspire the public to take on our biggest challenges.
Thank you for your interesting text.
Maybe we can admire people for their certain characteristics , skills they possess or arguments/ideas they provide instead of idolizing them completely and thus putting them on a pedestal?
I really appreciated the post — thanks for writing it. I’m curating it.
While I have only superficial knowledge of the religion, the aspiration to have no idols reminds me of Islam in certain ways. Perhaps there is something to be learned there for EA in terms of putting the value of sentient life front and center and being disciplined about focusing on this underlying unity over any attraction to our ideology’s spokespeople? I realize Islam is kind of a sensitive topic in rationalist circles but thought I would share nonetheless as Islam as a social and ideological movement is strong despite (or perhaps because of?) an inherent aversion to many forms of idol worship.
Thanks for sharing your perspective in this well-written form. I agree that naive trust and idolising people can be hurtful and dangerous. Since even the people we consider virtuous and admire the most are just humans and thus imperfect, it is important to keep that in mind.
On the other hand, I believe that a nuanced view of possible idols or role models can be very useful for inspiration, guidance and growth. Despite having shortcomings, those we admire can provide a lot we that can learn from and that we might want to cultivate ourselves.
As Seneca points out: “Without a ruler to do it against, you can’t make crooked straight.”
I think he argues well for the importance of having (nuanced) reference points to compare the line/quality of our character with.
So rather than disposing of idols and role models altogether, I propose to be more nuanced and to pick and choose the admirable character traits and qualities that are helpful to you.
I love your style of writing and the organization of it with subheadings.
This section was beautifully written:
I too had a mentor who I venerated and felt lost when he disappointed me.
Excerpts (and slightly modified) from my journal on a past idol who let me down:
In my adolescence, I too was misled by one of my idols, a cousin. He lived 8 blocks from me, was 2 years my senior, and we went to the same high school. I strived to emulate his image to the tee. He was top 5% of his class, a straight ‘A’ student, popular, and always dating gorgeous women. A full-ride scholarship to a four-year university helped him become the first person in his family to attend one.
I was partially inspired by him to achieve principal honors (the equivalent of dean honors in high school) in my junior year of high school.
Still, the elder gifted scholar lived a double life, where he engaged in unethical activities. Seeing my hero able to achieve academic, social, and financial success while engaging in such immoral behaviors, I felt justified to follow suit.
He didn’t know about my unscrupulous actions for a year but when he became aware, he gave me advice on how to get away with it and how to improve on it. Not on how to stop. In fact, my mentor would pick me up around the corner of my house to drive us toward inequity.
We parted ways when I realized I couldn’t be around a lifestyle I saw destroy his life and potential. His double life led him to lose his scholarship, have to drop out of college, and strain his relationship with his parents. Sleeping on park benches and couch surfing among miscreates became his new nighttime routine.
My view on scholastics became distorted. The man I had worshipped had given up on academia. If my cousin, the golden boy from the block who shared many of the same obstacles I faced, couldn’t succeed in university, how could I? Can I only prosper if I follow his unethical principles?
It took months for me to realize that no failed idol, no statistics, and no peers, should discourage me from achieving a higher education. Although my life of impropriety is far behind me, I still crusade learning from my past and mistakes.
“ Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others… Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”
-Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian
Very nice post. “Anarchists have no idols” strikes me as very similar to the popular anarchist slogan, “No gods, no masters.” Perhaps the person who said it to you was riffing on that?
Thank you. Knowing you are part of this movement makes me want to stay involved because of, not despite the EAs.
Thank you for this post. I think this “no idols” mindset is a crucial one to have when trying to build an organization or collective identity group that is based on a set of ideas or values rather than simple group loyalty. I usually try to use this mindset when thinking about political leaders and/or “founders” here in the US who often advanced noble causes while commiting clearly immoral actions. In my experience, it is much easier, productive, and accurate to venerate the discrete heroic actions of leaders rather than hold individuals up as heros themselves. This post helped me realize that the exact same approach is needed with respect to EA leaders/founders.