Thanks so much for writing this! I feel like I end up trying to express this idea quite frequently and I’m really glad for the resource on it. I’d also love to see talking about our non-altruistic goals and motivations become more normalised within EA, so yes, thanks 🙂
Personally I identify with the approach you’re expressing very strongly – I find it hard to understand the thought that I might care for my friends only because it ultimately helps me help the world more; I think of them in different categories. But then I know others who find it very alien that I both care a lot about helping the world as much as possible, but am also happy making some decisions for completely non-altruistic reasons. Have others come up against this divide as a problem issue in EA discussions? I feel like at times it is a place where discussions have got stuck.
I’d be interested in knowing too, as others have asked, how do you (and others) tend to approach weighing things to spend your time on against each other when they are part of different goals? I have various strategies that I try, but they usually boil down to using the non-EA goals as constraints – if there is a choice between a morally effective thing and something else, I usually end up doing the EA thing when I get the answer “no” to questions like “will doing it make me sad” or “would I be failing in something I owe to someone else”. I don’t find that very satisfactory – how do others do it?
Thank you very much for sharing this; I think it’s a really powerful idea and piece of writing!I feel similarly to you, however I also strongly identify with the opportunity framing myself – I think this is beause I’ve always seen it a little differently to how you’re expressing it:For me the “excitement” in the opportunity framing isn’t in finding out that there are people in a very bad situation whom I have an opportunity to help; it comes in finding out that something can be done about problems that I, if in a non-specific sense, already knew about. Before finding out about EA, I (and I’d imagine many others) already knew that the world has lots of terrible experiences and unhappy people in it, and cared about that, but thinking that there was nothing I could do about it, the only practical response was to ignore it and shut the feelings away. The excitement of EA for me is in finding out that, in fact, you can do something real and measurable to help, without unachievable resources. I’m not celebrating finding out about the bomb; I already knew about the bomb – I’ve just found out for the first time that there’s a way out. I therefore wouldn’t see the opportunity framing as having the problem that you identify. (Although I certainly agree that it’s highly distasteful to come anywhere near excitement at how terrible the world is; I have definitely experienced discourse within EA that has made me uncomfortable for feeling like it’s approaching that.) Is this different to how others who identify with the opportunity framing feel? Rereading Excited Altruism and Cheerfully I see that that distinction isn’t mentioned, but I suppose I’d always assumed that that was how others felt?
Thanks for posting this, this is really helpful to me!
I don’t currently have a blog (well, I do, but not at all related to EA), so unfortunately I can’t answer your first three closing questions. However I’ve been planning on starting an EA blog for the last month or so and have been thinking about some of this stuff – particularly about just having my own blog vs. just posting to the forum vs. occasional cross-posting – so reading your thoughts from your place of much more experience was useful, thank you.
Are you considering exporting your posts to the EA Forum, why or why not?
Here goes in the hope of any slight value my answer might have, and because I’d be interested to know what others think, although it’s probably only relevant for those like me who are just starting out producing online content.
My current plan is to go ahead with making a personal blog, and then, if I feel up to it, cross-post things that I feel are particularly suitable. Your considerations about the career/image benefit, and being able to have a unified theme and all of my ideas in one place with its own identity, are definitely important reasons why I think this.
Another reason, though, and I’m not sure how much I feel like this is legitimate, is that a blog will have a lot less of a personal barrier to posting. Like I know that the Forum definitely encourages people to post relevant content however unpolished it is, but I also know that if I try to do forum posts only, then I will post a whole lot less frequently because, even though I know I shouldn’t be, I’ll be worrying about it not being good enough. And although one of the purposes of starting to write is for the results of others reading it (i.e. being able to discuss my ideas, present them more widely, if they end up being valuable then influence the thinking of others etc.), another purpose is for me to be able to practice writing and thinking and researching – so anything that makes me do that less will be less productive? And having a blog helps me produce content, I can always post it or a derivative to the Forum later once I feel more confident about it. But yes, I’m very uncertain on whether that is at all a good reason.
On a separate thing, when you are considering exporting your posts, you mean moving your previous posts to the Forum, yes? I’d be interested to know, do you think that the arguments in favour of (or against) that are in any way different compared to when people are considering where to post new content? Just thinking that I’ve seen in several places that people are in favour of cross-posting content to the Forum from blogs, and linking to interesting content elsewhere, but I’ve not seen discussion of whether it might be valuable for existing content producers to post their previous content on the Forum, although some of the same arguments in favour might apply. I suppose if people started doing that too frequently, then new content might get lost among it all?
I think this is a great idea, and I was really interested, and also touched, by the stories people have already posted, so thank you all! Holly, I love the sentiment of “an extra dose of empathy and mutual appreciation” – I feel like to some extent EA culture, or at least that of its online spaces like this one, is very good at hiding the many meaningful personal relationships that I know the community has fostered.
I found EA in late 2012, just after I’d started my first degree in Oxford. At the first meeting of the science fiction society (which I then never ended up going back to), someone pointed me towards HPMoR. I then looked it up when I got back to my room and read a bit of it, and then found someone talking about EA in the comments section. I never did read the rest of HPMoR until a long time later, and apart from that I’ve never interacted with the rationalist community, so I always feel like this origin story is amusingly mismatched to me… Anyway, I then read about EA a bit on the internet, generally thought it was a great idea, and it sat around in the back of my mind for a while. About a year later, I think, I started regular EA-guided donations.
I know for a fact that I’ve changed a whole lot in the last six years, which I’m happy about, because I really don’t like six-years-ago me. When I started university (studying physics) I was – not remotely to say that I think all of these things are bad, of course, only some of them – very analytical in my approach to most things. I was entirely emotionally inept – I didn’t really form emotional friendships (at least, not ones that were emotional from my side); I sometimes treated people rather badly, enough that I’m pretty surprised looking back that some of my friends stayed with me, and I just really didn’t understand most people’s emotional needs, which often led me to be very judgemental and superior, including on moral issues. I liked having very long, theoretical conversations with my fellow students late into the night (that hasn’t changed!), and I liked being reactionary and expressing opinions that were different enough to be shocking to others. Morally I think I was a pretty rigid deontologist.
(As a point of interest, for a while afterwards, I held a really weird position of just-about-moral-realism, where I thought that what was, universally and really, right and wrong for one person, might be entirely different for another in the same situation – I thought that real morality existed, but depended on the actor about whom the question was being asked as much as the action. I had this way of visualising it that was of there being a little “moral bubble universe” attached to each consciousness that was real, but that was only true for that one person, and each person had a moral sense pointing into that space, that could tell them only about what was right for them.)
Once I encountered EA (which was at the time when it seemed to almost entirely concern charitable donations), I did agree with it wholeheartedly; being good is good, and being better is better. But, to be uncharitable to my earlier self, I also liked it because it let me dissociate morality and caring, and because the analytical, counter-intuitive, and just plain unusual nature of it fit well with my, I suppose, aesthetics of ideas at the time.
I didn’t do a lot more with EA other than read about it and direct my donations, and donate increasing (but still small) amounts for a long while after. In 2015 I finished my physics degree and moved to Cambridge, to start a second undergraduate degree in medieval languages. I read a lot more about EA, on the internet and Doing Good Better once that came out, and also started donating more, and eventually took the Pledge last year. However I didn’t do anything with the Cambridge EA group other than go to one formal hall and hang about on their mailing list. Looking back, I think this was because my plan at the time was firmly to remain in academia in the humanities, and I think I had some guilt over the fact that as someone who felt like I knew a fair bit about EA by now, should probably be using it to direct my career, but didn’t want to and so felt vaguely uncomfortable (although of course I shouldn’t have) about the idea of mixing with lots of core EAs.
Compared to the me described above, by maybe two years ago, I’d changed a whole lot (fortunately) – I’d become actually vaguely emotionally capable, both in understanding others’ feelings and my own. I’ve been able to make a wonderful group of close emotional friendships, and I think (hope?) that I’ve become a much more pleasant person to know since I became able to care. While I certainly do still like to be analytical, and think things through properly (and this is a good thing), my opinions have mostly become a whole lot more mainstream and acceptable on many matters as I worked out that on thing after thing, the norms that society’s settled on are actually often pretty good to follow – I have also entirely changed on political opinions, from pretty rigidly conservative to pretty radically left-wing. I’m now certainly a consequentialist morally speaking, although I haven’t worked out precisely what kind yet. (Preference utilitarianism appeals the most to me, but doesn’t satisfy, and I’m nowhere near a satisfying position on population ethics.)
I definitely still fully identify with EA; in some ways it’s the most prominent belief that I feel I’ve actually stuck with, but my reasons for appreciating EA have definitely changed. Obviously a big part of it is still that EA is simply morally correct. However I feel now, if I may risk getting somewhat floaty, more like I’m an effective altruist because I care about people, because I feel like I’m part of a global community of humanity, and it’s tragic that there are so many people who suffer, people who are just like the friends I love in everything except that they were born in the wrong house; it’s tragic that we can’t help them all, and EA is important to me because tells me how we can make the world the biggest little bit less terrible that we can. I also love the idea of EA as a real community of people dedicated to doing good.
Soon after starting my masters course (still medieval languages) I realised I was much less certain about doing a PhD than I had thought, and didn’t apply for one, instead planning to take a year out and think about what I wanted to do. Since then, I had a bit of an EA renaissance (not that I’d particularly had an off period), started reading things a lot more, listening to the podcasts, went to a couple of EA Cambridge events, talked about things more with the one of my closest friends who is very involved in the Cambridge community. When I read the 80,000 Hours article about operations work, that really clicked with me as I didn’t feel most of the other direct work profiles had, and I ended up getting advice from a couple of CEA people, and now plan to work at something relevant for the next year while I’m committed to living in Cambridge with my friends here, then look for something directly effective after that.
Thank you also for posting something that I felt confident enough to reply to – I’ve been reading the forum for ages but never yet managed to comment on anything. Hopefully it will be easier now! And I’m sorry that this got a little long...