Effective altruism as the most exciting cause in the world

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-09-26T09:17:13.992Z · score: 34 (34 votes) · EA · GW · Legacy · 11 comments

I feel that one thing that effective altruists haven't sufficiently capitalized on in their marketing is just how amazingly exciting the whole thing is. There's Holden Karnofsky's post on excited altruism, but it doesn't really go into the details of why effective altruism is so exciting. So let me try to fix that.

Growing up, it felt like the message I got from society was: one person just can't do much. The problems in the world are huge and structural, and naive reformers will eventually just become disillusioned and burn out. We can try to make small efforts in our personal lives, but they're tiny and won't scale.

Effective altruism says that this doesn't need to be true! Yes, some of the problems are huge and structural, but that doesn't mean that individuals can't have a big impact. The average person working in an ordinary job can potentially save several lives a year, just by donating a measly 10% of his income and doing literally nothing else altruistic! That would already be amazing by itself.

But it doesn't end there. Effective altruism says that, if you focus on the right career, you can have an even bigger impact! And the careers don't even need to be exotic, demanding ones that only a few select ones can do (even if some of them are). Some of the top potential careers that 80,000 hours has identified so far include thing as diverse as being an academic, civil servant, journalist, marketer, politician, or software engineer, among others. Not only that, they also emphasize finding your fit. To have a big impact on the world, you don't need to shoehorn yourself into a role that doesn't suit you and that you hate - in fact you're explicitly encouraged to find an high-impact career that fits you personally.

Analytic? Maybe consider research, in one form or another. Want to mostly support the cause from the side, not thinking about things too much? Let the existing charity evaluation organizations guide who you donate to and don't worry about the rest. Or help out other effective altruists. People person? Plenty of ways you could have an impact. There's always something you can do - and still be effective. It's not about needing to be superhuman, it's about doing the best that you can, given your personality, talents and interests.

Best of all? This isn't just some fuzzy feelgood thing where you're taking things on faith. People in the community are constantly debating these things, looking for ways to improve and to become even better at doing good. If you have even the slightest inclination, you're encouraged to participate and refine the ideas. If you spot a crucial flaw in someone else's argument, or suggest a critical improvement, it may impact the effectiveness of all the other effective altruists who are doing or thinking about doing something related.

Here's an extra bonus. At the moment, the core of effective altruism is formed of smart, driven, and caring people from all around the world. When you become an effective altruist and start participating, you are joining a community of some of the most interesting people on Earth.

A lot of people feel like life is meaningless, and that it doesn't offer any purpose that would feel worth pursuing. I've felt like that at times, too. But it's hard to find a purpose whose idea would be more compelling, exciting, or rewarding than that of effective altruism.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by DavidRooke · 2014-09-26T13:26:01.101Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · EA · GW

This is absolutely so important. There is huge outreach potential for effective altruism into the mainstream. Millions of people would love to make the world a better place, and backing a movement full of vibrant young people doing exactly that using evidence and reason - well that is simply brilliant. Most older people will not want to get involved in the technical conversations - I have heard it distilled as "Go-Compare for charities" (and there involvement will therefore will not disrupt the heart of the EA community to respond to an oft quoted concern) but correctly positioned would be really interested in the sheer genuine, palpable, cut out the nonsense goodness of it - such a refreshing breath of fresh air in a cynical world.

The conclusion of the Oxford Martin Commission having studied the big problems of the world for many years were that at core of these problems is not something out there beyond us, as most of the big problems they identify having fairly clear solutions. The biggest problems are within us and systemic - short termism, selfishness and a narrow perspective.

The long term, cosmopolitan, and altruistic perspective of Effective Altruism is the perfect antidote for these problems, it just needs to go viral!

If EAs say deontological a bit less (particularly in talking to the mainstream) and be excited a bit more I believe that Effective Altruism can not only be one of the most exciting but one of the most important movements in the world.

comment by Marcus_A_Davis · 2014-09-26T17:10:17.144Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Having grown up as one of those people who figured "can't succeed, don't try" with regards to large problems, I think this is really a fantastic point that I hadn't considered expressing this way. I think lots of people like who currently think like I did could be swayed if the message could get through to them that they can indeed change the world for the better.

comment by Benquo · 2014-09-26T12:41:10.231Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

This is awesome! I'm going to try this out next time I get to explain effective altruism to someone.

(I originally wrote "have to explain," but in the spirit of this article I rewrote it as "get to" before posting.)

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-09-27T14:00:34.019Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Great, very inspirational post! I'll direct people interested in the EA movement to this.

I think we should write more articles like this (and/or encourage other media to do so - perhaps journalists should be invited to next year's EA retreat/summit). For instance, we could write articles on individuals and or/groups within the EA movement who personify the sentiments that you're expressing here. Concrete examples and personal, vivid stories that appeal to System 1 have a great persuasion power.

comment by Diego_Caleiro · 2014-09-27T02:55:58.150Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Nothing seems as fulfilling in terms of meaning than participating in the narrative of those who truly did their best to make the world a better place by the most effective means possible, and helped others participate too!

comment by Jess_Whittlestone · 2014-09-28T17:17:11.433Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Great post, and definitely agree we should focus on this more.

Another thing I personally find exciting about effective altruism is that the question "How do I do the most good?" (with my career, money etc.) is a really motivating, intellectually challenging question to spend my time thinking about. So for those who enjoy spending their time thinking about interesting questions, effective altruism offers an environment in which to discuss one of the most important and stimulating questions out there - that's pretty exciting to me. I would imagine at least some others feel similarly.

comment by GRAFD · 2014-09-27T20:01:04.051Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Great article, thank you! I have just recently in the last 6 months decided to focus on how to live with altruistic purpose. I've decided that for myself, I can do the most good by developing a for profit business that has a meaningful social cause. the cause I will focus on, that is most dear to me, is in sponsoring international orphans with disabilities to be adopted into loving homes here in the USA. Specifically, we will sell retail product, but donate 50% of all profits to sponsoring children, one at time. We have already identified an international adoption agency to partner with and we are finalizing all other aspects of the business for a planned November 23rd launch. I would be interested to know what other social mission businesses have been launched by contributors to this forum so I can learn from your success....and failures! 8-)

comment by RomeoStevens · 2014-10-03T00:19:48.402Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Hey, this is fantastic! But I did want to point to something that helped me a lot, which purchase fuzzies and utilons separately. Personally, I find the most emotionally compelling cause to be euthenasia rights. I'm horrified by the fact that we are literally torturing people with terminal diseases for no reason. Despite how strongly I feel about this, I realized that this wasn't where I was able to have the highest impact. It is hard to propagate the feelings I have about this cause towards causes I "know" are superior in impact, but it is something I strive to do on an ongoing basis.

Don't let worry about this discourage you though. Doing something even with uncertainty is ALWAYS better than doing nothing just because of uncertainty.

comment by WilliamKiely · 2014-11-17T04:02:00.996Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA · GW

Speaking of the possibility that individuals can have much bigger impact than is often considered and speaking of the fact that this is very exciting:

Consider a story that very well might be true: "Vlad the Astrophysicist": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9bCFNN67wg

The thought that each of our actions now might be able to change whether our civilization is a common psht![1] or a rare psshht!!![2] or even conceivably a psssssssssssssssssshhhh...[3] is incredibly exciting.

[1] Psht! = A civilization that quickly (say, in another 5,000, 50,000 or 5 million years after the level of development of our present civilization) causes itself to go extinct.

[2] Psshht! = A civilization that continues to thrive for many million years, long enough to spread across an entire galaxy or even meet another civilization arising elsewhere in the universe).

[3] Psssssssssssssssssshhhh... = A civilization that continues to thrive indefinitely, until the end of time if there is an end, or literally indefinitely if there is no end.

And don't forget the possibility that our actions not only may be able to vastly increase the amount of time our civilization flourishes, but also may be able to vastly increase the quality of that flourishing. That's incredibly exciting too.