Thank you for writing this, Denise. A lot of this really resonates with me.
I have also been susceptible to ‘over-believing’ ideas circulating in the EA community. I think that, even though you mention that 80,000 hours’ ideas can easily be distorted (and I agree), I would take things that they say with a pinch of salt, anyway. The fact that their guidance has changed quite a bit since I started reading them around five years ago says to me that they will likely be changing again in a short space of time. This doesn’t mean to say that I don’t admire what 80,000 hours aims to do, and I think that their research is really useful. I just don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to just try to get a ‘normal’ job and be good at it, whilst learning more about the world and what you are good at.
Personally, I perceive myself to be less smart than the average person involved in EA (unsure how true this is, but I’m fine with it), and to have fewer credentials relevant to assessing impact. For this reason, I have certainly also deferred some important decisions to advice written by EAs, thinking ‘these people hold similar values to me, and are smarter than me, so it’s probably better to trust their judgement than mine’. I’m not sure that this has been the best idea. The commitment of EA to ‘rationality’ and attempting to understand cognitive bias doesn’t make it immune to groupthink. I also think that uncertainty and the randomness of the world isn’t really taken into account enough in this community (although there does seem to be literature on this—I haven’t read much of it, so not sure, but I’m talking about the general feeling I get from the EA community). You could randomly stumble upon a job opportunity that happens to allow you to do something great. Also, job application processes/interviews are damn hard to pass; you can’t just get a specific job because you’ve decided that’s what you want. I feel like when people in EA are discussing career plans, there’s often the assumption that you will just eventually be able to follow the career path that you want. For me, that bred resentment for myself for being ‘stuck’ in a job which actually allows me to be financially stable (and also make some donations, which are matched by my company!), have a work-life balance, and learn some good stuff about how a larger company functions and how I can be good at my job. I don’t think a community where anyone not working right now on something super impactful feels like this is a healthy one, although I think that it’s possible that this feeling is based on my own distortion of things I’ve heard/read.
I have also been thinking about taking some time away from EA for similar reasons to yours, and I’m really glad that it helped you to get to a point where you feel like making progress.
Same here, how exactly can we help?
If I understand you correctly, I agree. I understand the reason for quoting GiveWell’s framework, however, I think that it is potentially discouraging to someone who is trying to do the most good in a context that they care about. That’s not to say that nobody should ever say ‘maybe there are more neglected causes that you may not have thought about’, but the EA community certainly shouldn’t be giving the impression that we follow some strict ideology that no-one can challenge.
I’m not sure that I would group refugee camps on the Aegean Islands in with ‘disaster relief’ (although I understand that this post was specifically about the fire).
I guess that taking this specific event out of the consideration, the two main causes of suffering here are 1. The actual wars/regimes that people are fleeing in their home countries and 2. The asylum system in Europe (and elsewhere, but I am more familiar with Europe). It doesn’t really seem like donating money can help much with either of these (I’m happy to be corrected if wrong, and I haven’t looked into this in enormous depth). Milbig, maybe you could get involved in a group that focusses on political lobbying? I don’t know how effective this is likely to be, and I doubt that EA would say that this is very tractable as a cause. However, I don’t think that the scale, neglectedness, tractability framework is completely foolproof, and it’s obviously very hard to know what is ‘effective’ when it comes to political issues.
A short but relevant article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/04/help-refugees-donations-government-political-action
Thanks for the post, C Tilli. I often feel, like you, that I don’t deserve to listen to my own needs as my life is so much better than the lives of the majority of people alive today. When I am feeling down about this, my partner sometimes reminds me that we don’t have the capacity to completely ‘overcome our biology’; we will always care about ourselves and our loved ones more than we care about other people. Whilst you may have acknowledged that you have an obligation to care about far-away strangers, you won’t ever be able to make yourself care about them as much as you care about yourself. I think that it’s okay to acknowledge this, and not expect yourself to be a robot who completely disregards their own desires to attend to the needs of the world.
No-one will ever be a perfect utilitarian. Even if you could achieve it for one day, you would probably be so exhausted afterwards that you would spend days recovering and not doing anything useful with your time.
I recently had a bout of increased scrupulosity regarding altruism, and I found that returning to this post helped. I hope you feel better soon, and please feel free to send me a message if you would like to talk about this.