These thoughts are super helpful for understanding where you’re coming from, so thank you!! I really appreciate you taking the time to write them all out—my thoughts will be much shorter because I don’t have much to add, not because they weren’t thought-provoking and interesting!I think we have somewhat different beliefs about what makes the speaker’s actions wrong—I think for me it lands very far to one side of the “clearly evil” to “clearly good” trolley problem spectrum and it’s wrongness is a) very clear to me, and b) very hard for me to pin down a reason for: I don’t really find any of the answers I can think of satisfying (including the ones in the works you mentioned—the fact that plans can fail and change the planner in unforeseen ways is a beautiful and important observation, but in this case the plan more-or-less succeeds and it still feels evil to me.) I find this combination fascinating, but I can see how this comes across rather differently if you don’t share this dissatisfaction, which it sounds like is less universal than I believed.Unsong sounds like a very interesting piece of writing, I will have to check it out!
You both raise very good points, and I think you’ve convinced me there are ways to do this that don’t come across as propaganda.
At the same time, I would still stand by my stance that having more EA villains in fiction would overall be a good thing for EA. Good villains are thought-provoking even though their actions are evil—Killmonger in Black Panther and Karli in the Falcon/Winter Soldier series come to mind as pop culture characters who’ve made me think much more than the heroes in their respective films/shows.
I think that the rationalist/EA fiction I’ve seen always falls into a very propaganda-adjacent territory rather than the versions you’ve described—things like HPMOR, which I’ve never heard good feedback on from anybody who wasn’t essentially already in the rationalist community. (I’m sure such feedback exists, but the response in my friend groups has been overwhelmingly negative.) It feels to me like the goal of attracting people outside the community by portraying EA/rationality as positively as possible is self-defeating, because it results as stories that just aren’t very interesting to people who are here for a good story rather than an exposition of the author’s philosophy.
I would much prefer a story that works as a story, even if it’s from a perspective of a villain and doesn’t give you a clear authorial point of view on any of the relevant questions. (Whether or not this works as a story is of course a separate question I’m too biased to judged.) My general sense from my test readers has been that the questions (was what Mr. Green was doing in fact wrong? What’s wrong with the speaker’s super-harsh utilitarianism?) are capable of starting interesting EA-type conversations, and that we can trust readers to have interesting and ethical thoughts on their own.
To be completely honest, I think that “making people reading it think more kindly of effective altruism” is a good goal for creative nonfiction, but not a very helpful goal for fiction. My experience with writing fiction (mostly plays) is that fiction is a really poor platform for convincing people of ideas (I almost always zone out if I feel like a playwright is trying to convince me to believe something), but it’s a really good platform for raising difficult questions that readers have to think through themselves. I suppose my hope with this villain is to confront people somewhat graphically with questions that are important and answers to those questions that are terrible, in the hopes of sparking further thought rather than coming to a specific answer.
[Edited to add that I am the author of the above piece, not sure if that is clear from the rest of the comment]I fully agree with your first statement and disagree with the second. I think maybe some of this is a disagreement on the goal of stories: I really don’t like morality plays where I feel like the author is trying to tell me what to believe. I much prefer stories of flawed people ending up in terrible places or doing terrible things that force me to figure out for myself where the protagonist went wrong. This is, of course, a personal preference and not something that’s “true” or “false”. But I guess more to the point I don’t think that the typical person will find themselves convinced to join EA just because somebody in a story did good EA things. I think the path to changing one’s worldview is long and complicated and comes more from tricky thought-provoking discussions than directly absorbing the worldviews of fictional characters.
I find it very unlikely that this story would lead anybody to think that buying mosquito nets will lead you to commit this protagonist’s actions. But, at least anecdotally, I’ve found that this story starts conversations about why the protagonist is wrong and what we as ordinary individuals might or might not owe to people dying of malaria.