EA's siren call to appease my longing for a just world

post by ea123_123 · 2019-04-01T10:34:39.747Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · EA · GW · 2 comments

(Reading this might not be a good use of your time. No useful criticism of EA, just some personal thoughts on having put EA on a pedestal to quench my anxiety about how awful the world is.)


(Please read this charitably. I very much love EA and its people. Provocative statements are not intellectual opinion, merely nagging thoughts or recurring intuitions. Please take any self deprecation as something close to an objective statement and not a call for compliments, any other emotional support about e.g. the world is of course appreciated)


I've been involved with EA for a few years, starting as a university student in my very early 20s. I'm involved with a local group and I'm thinking about what career to pursue like most people my age. My plans/commitment/motivation to do good effectively are/is still the same, this is not what this post is about.

As we all know, much of the world is pretty awful. There's an unending supply of urgent problems and trillions of individuals suffering immensely. At the same time, the world is very confusing and obscure. Much of what people say things are about, aren't actually about those things (something something Elephant in the Brain). This made it very frustrating for me to know where even to start to try to help. Then I found EA.

Of course that's a thing! That makes perfect sense!, is what I thought. I was just starting be vegan, I didn't even think about wild animal suffering or existential risks in any serious way. Yet in hindsight those things seem obvious. Of course of all people in the entire world, there had to be super smart, super compassionate people using the best ways the human species can think up to systematically fix all the problems we're having!. A comfortable thought to sooth my anxiety about the crushing suffering of so many individuals and most people's lack of caring.

I don't want to feed the meme of EA being a cult or dogmatic. I think it's an incredibly disingenuous framing for the honest attempt to bring people together to fix extremely urgent problems under an umbrella of very simple arguments.

But I did put too much credence into Givewell, ACE, the 80k recommendations and CEA's thoughts on movement building. That's not a criticism of those organizations, in fact if you carefully read the relevant posts, or ideally the ones explaining the reasoning behind the recommendations, you would walk away with an appropriate model of how sure you should be about those claims. But as an average university student, desperate for a group of intellectual superstars to exist in the world, a group who had a good idea on how to fix the world, I had no chance to begin with to get an accurate model of EA.

I didn't take the EA output as "gospel" and when presenting EA I made sure to do so humbly and without denigrating things I thought were less effective. But I still gobbled up all of the EA charity/career recommendations/prioritization thoughts. I thought of it as "among the most reasonable(=scientific) interpretation of the slim evidence we have" and was eager to update my recommendations when "EA generally" did, much rarely when input came from outside EA.

Over the years I began to get a somewhat more reasonable model of EA people/organizations and their output. Much of the EA recommendations were different 3 years ago, I should expect them to be different in another 3 years then. I've also been disappointed again and again when meeting or hearing about prominent EAs in person or when hearing about what it's like working in EA or EA related (=trying to do good effectively in x cause, e.g. effective animal advocacy) spaces. They're all just.. human? (Yes, it's obvious intellectually and I still respect them immensely and very much value them and their work.)

I think I just always naively felt that somewhere in the entire world, there had to be superpeople who could reliably tell me exactly what to do with my life. I'm just some guy. The world has to be incredibly broken when *I* have to rack my brain about where I could do something close to the most good I can do.

2 comments

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comment by aarongertler · 2019-04-01T11:19:17.861Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · EA · GW

I came away from this post a bit confused. It seems like you wish the EA community had better or more consistent models, which is understandable. But when you say:

I've also been disappointed again and again when meeting or hearing about prominent EAs in person or when hearing about what it's like working in EA or EA related (=trying to do good effectively in x cause, e.g. effective animal advocacy) spaces. They're all just.. human?

What are some of the ways in which you are disappointed? Do the people you meet commonly make logical or factual errors? Are they not productive enough? Do they not communicate as effectively as you would have wished?

I think I just always naively felt that somewhere in the entire world, there had to be superpeople who could reliably tell me exactly what to do with my life.

I empathize tremendously with this. In my case, I began to lose this feeling as I read more and more stories of people who thought they'd found such a superperson, or that they were such a superperson, but turned out to be wrong. I gave up on the idea of finding my own superperson without needing to evaluate too many of those people in my own life.

On the other hand, I do think the EA community, and the organizations within it, have made a lot of progress over the last ten years. The "prominent people" you meet here have flaws, but there are also flaws they don't have (mostly), making them different from almost every other prominent person in the history of the world. They care a lot more about the truth (seeking it and speaking it), they've noticed the skulls, and they are actively trying to get better at things rather than basking in the community's admiration.

(It helps that the EA community isn't a very good place for said basking; someone is always ready to point out your mistakes.)

Ten years from now, I expect the community to have accomplished a lot more, and for its most prominent people to be even better at their jobs, even if they never reach the point where they can guide every community member with absolute reliability.

comment by ea123_123 · 2019-04-01T14:59:14.552Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for reading and replying to my rambling, Aaron.

Reading my post again, I should have taken more time to write it or posted it somewhere else. I feel I'm missing an EA place to anonymously post lower quality texts to. There's really only facebook and a deserted subreddit. (Though looking at the subreddit now, there are plenty posts with 8+ comments, which would have been more than enough for me. I hadn't checked it in a while)

I came away from this post a bit confused. It seems like you wish the EA community had better or more consistent models, which is understandable. What are some of the ways in which you are disappointed? Do the people you meet commonly make logical or factual errors? Are they not productive enough? Do they not communicate as effectively as you would have wished?

I think the EA community is doing an exceptional job compared to anything else I've seen with the same ambitions. My (immature) disappointment was always just that EA people were "just" really exceptional people, not superhuman utility maximizers as I had hoped. As of now, I don't have any useful concrete feedback to add to the movement

I empathize tremendously with this. In my case, I began to lose this feeling as I read more and more stories of people who thought they'd found such a superperson, or that they were such a superperson, but turned out to be wrong. I gave up on the idea of finding my own superperson without needing to evaluate too many of those people in my own life.

Thanks for this!

On the other hand, I do think the EA community, and the organizations within it, have made a lot of progress over the last ten years. The "prominent people" you meet here have flaws, but there are also flaws they don't have (mostly), making them different from almost every other prominent person in the history of the world.

I very much agree.