What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others?

post by lukefreeman · 2020-11-18T06:46:53.385Z · EA · GW · 3 comments

This is a question post.


    Aaron Gertler
    Alex HT
    Aaron Gertler

I realise there have been some [EA · GW] previous [EA · GW] threads over the years, but none recently that I'm aware of (and a lot has been published in recent years).

I'd also like to know specifically ones that are inspiring and thought provoking.


answer by Maxdalton · 2020-11-19T09:30:15.934Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

"I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy - ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness--that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what--at last--I have found.

"With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

"Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

"This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me."

 - Prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography.

answer by Julia_Wise · 2020-11-19T13:51:33.988Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"One day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”
Terry Pratchett (character is Lord Vetinari), Unseen Academicals

comment by Sean_o_h · 2020-11-19T14:00:51.995Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you liked that, you might appreciate Stephen Fry denouncing god in no-holds-barred fashion on an Irish religious programme (I must confess feeling a little sorry for the presenter Gay Byrne - I don't think he got what he was bargaining for): 


answer by Aaron Gertler · 2020-11-18T09:41:45.349Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

George Bernard Shaw (on moral reflection/holding unusual values): 

"The fact that we can become accustomed to anything [...] makes it necessary to examine everything we are accustomed to."

Nick Bostrom (on seeing the better world we could have): 

“Utopia is the hope that the scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.”

Bryan Caplan (on epistemic modesty): 

"Look in the mirror. You don't know the best way to deal with Russia."

Arcade Fire, "Month of May":

I said some things are pure, and some things are right

But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight


Well, I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light

But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

J.R.R. Tolkein:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Dirge Without Music" (on defeating death):

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

comment by reallyeli · 2020-11-19T07:10:03.864Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Strong upvote for Month of May.

answer by Mauricio · 2020-11-20T00:44:38.936Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From Larissa MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning:

"What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”

"This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers — they always feel that strangers, like compatriots in war, are their own people. They know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.”

“Do-gooders learn to codify their horror into a routine and a set of habits they can live with. They know they must do this in order to stay sane. But this partial blindness is chosen and forced and never quite convincing.”

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:54:11.626Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

“No, I do not really hear the screams of everyone suffering in Hell. But I thought to myself, ‘I suppose if I tell them now that I have the magic power to hear the screams of the suffering in Hell, then they will go quiet, and become sympathetic, and act as if that changes something.’ Even though it changes nothing. Who cares if you can hear the screams, as long as you know that they are there? So maybe what I said was not fully wrong. Maybe it is a magic power granted only to the Comet King. Not the power to hear the screams. But the power not to have to.” -The Comet King, a character in Unsong

answer by Alex HT · 2020-11-18T13:38:19.293Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.

If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would give us all, including some of those who have suffered, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists."

answer by MichaelPlant · 2020-11-19T11:16:03.203Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it"

answer by Maxdalton · 2020-11-19T09:36:00.944Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"One day we ... may have the luxury of going to any length in order to prevent a fellow sentient mind from being condemned to oblivion unwillingly. If we ever make it that far, the worth of a life will be measured not in dollars, but in stars.

"That is the value of a life. It will be the value of a life then, and it is the value of a life now.

"So when somebody offers $10 to press that button, you press it. You press the hell out of it. It's the best strategy available to you; it's the only way to save as many people as you can. But don't ever forget that this very fact is a terrible tragedy.

"Don't ever forget about the gap between how little a life costs and how much a life is worth. For that gap is an account of the darkness in this universe, it is a measure of how very far we have left to go."

 - Nate Soares, The Value of a Life

answer by Linch · 2020-11-20T08:54:54.457Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’m proud that e.g. the analytics platform (Epic’s analytics platform) I made when I was 20 is now used by almost every major healthcare organization in the US, when most people don’t get that sort of opportunity until their 40s if ever, but compressing two decades of work into two years definitely took a toll. Specifically, I’m not really able to use my hands anymore since I spent so many hours typing without rest.

It’s definitely annoying that I can’t hold open a book or use chopsticks anymore, but here’s one of the things I’ve wondered about: do people who believe in consequentialist ethics recover from disabilities faster?

If some pandemic breaks out that humanity isn’t ready for, mother nature isn’t going to say “well you guys gave it a good shot, so I will suspend the laws of biology for now” – we’re just all going to be dead. Consequentialist ethics is about accepting that fact – accepting that “trying really hard” doesn’t count for anything. And being lazy doesn’t matter either. As long as you get things done, who cares how hard you had to work?

That may or may not be the correct way to view the world, but I feel like it’s a helpful one. I used to spend 12 hours a day typing, and now I spend 12 hours a day using voice recognition with a weird infrared tracking thing on my head and pedals for my feet. Who cares? The same work still gets done.

Ben West from an interview I conducted a long time ago.

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:48:35.148Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Take pride in noticing when you are confused, or when evidence goes against what you think. Rejoice when you change your mind."

comment by lukefreeman · 2020-11-19T23:59:54.746Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is great. Did you write this?

comment by kokotajlod · 2020-11-20T07:29:14.580Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, though it's of course heavily inspired by things people say on LessWrong. Thanks! It was one of my wedding vows.

answer by Bridget_Williams · 2020-11-19T23:12:29.987Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"When I believed [that personal identity is what matters], I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others."
- Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons

answer by Sean_o_h · 2020-11-19T14:16:13.377Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There's a powerful poem in my native language (Irish) that was published in 1971, whose title loosely translates to "Indifference cannot be permitted". It calls for equality, compassion, and our obligation towards people in all parts of the world, people with mental illness, non-human animals, and (depending on how one translates) possible life beyond earth. It was my first introduction to principles such as those that underpin EA. I won't try to translate it, but it's talked about (and part of it translated) in a recent blog post here: https://www.ria.ie/news/membership-policy-and-international-relations/ni-ceadmhach-neamhshuim


Níl cuil, níl leamhan, níl beach
Dar chruthaigh Dia, níl fear,
Nach dualgas dúinn a leas,
Níl bean; ní ceadmhach neamhshuim
A dhéanamh dá n-imní;
Níl gealt i ngleann na ngealt,
Nár chuí dhúinn suí lena ais,
Á thionlacan an fhaid
A iompraíonn thar ár gceann
Ár dtinneas-ne ‘na mheabhair.

Níl alt, níl sruth, níl sceach,
Dá iargúlta iad, níl leac,
Bídís thuaidh, thoir, thiar nó theas,
Nár cheart dúinn machnamh ar a suíomh
Le gean is le báidhíocht;
Dá fhaid uainn Afraic Theas,
Dá airde í gealach,
Is cuid dínn iad ó cheart:
Níl áit ar fuaid na cruinne
Nach ann a saolaíodh sinne.

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:50:12.378Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"If you get the right answer to the wrong question, you still die." --Van Jones

answer by Mauricio · 2020-11-20T00:42:36.898Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On what could be:

"Have you ever experienced a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration maybe, your mind tracing the shapes of truth and beauty? Or in the pulsing ecstasy of love? Or in a glorious triumph achieved with true friends? Or in a conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or perhaps a melody smuggled itself into your heart, charming it and setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotions? Or when you prayed, and felt heard?  

... you may have discovered inside it a certain idle but sincere thought: 'Heaven, yes! I didn’t realize it could be like this. This is so right, on whole different level of right; so real, on a whole different level of real. Why can’t it be like this always? Before I was sleeping; now I am awake.'  


Quick, stop that door from closing! Shove your foot in so it does not slam shut.

And let the faint draught of the beyond continue to whisper of a higher state. Feel it on your face, the tender words of what could be!"  

- Nick Bostrom, Letter from Utopia

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:53:23.718Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know. If you are selective about which arguments you inspect for flaws, or how hard you inspect for flaws, then every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider." -Yudkowksy

answer by Aaron Gertler · 2020-11-18T09:42:51.138Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here's a collection of quotes tagged by Goodreads users with "effective altruism", which I assume they often tagged after finding them inspirational.

answer by nil · 2020-11-18T21:09:35.484Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In the real world, maybe we're alone. The skies look empty. Cynics might point to the mess on Earth and echo C.S. Lewis: "Let's pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere." Yet our ethical responsibility is to discover whether other suffering sentients exist within our cosmological horizon; establish the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency; and assume responsible stewardship of our Hubble volume. Cosmic responsibility entails full-spectrum superintelligence: to be blissful but not "blissed out" - high-tech Jainism on a cosmological scale. We don't yet know whether the story of life has a happy ending.

-- David Pearce, "High-Tech Jainism"

answer by nil · 2020-11-18T21:05:14.723Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There’s ongoing sickening cruelty: violent child pornography, chickens are boiled alive, and so on. We should help these victims and prevent such suffering, rather than focus on ensuring that many individuals come into existence in the future. When spending resources on increasing the number of beings instead of preventing extreme suffering, one is essentially saying to the victims: “I could have helped you, but I didn’t, because I think it’s more important that individuals are brought into existence. Sorry.”

-- Simon Knutsson, "The One-Paragraph Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics"

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:52:43.165Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There are actually two struggles between good and evil within each person. The first is the struggle to choose the right path despite all the temptations to choose the wrong path; it is the struggle to make actions match words. The second is the struggle to correctly decide which path is right and which is wrong. Many people who win one struggle lose the other. Do not lose sight of this fact or you will be one of them.

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:51:36.042Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Truth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is, and you must bend to its power or live a lie." -Miyamoto Musashi

answer by Peterslattery · 2020-11-19T00:01:39.045Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here are some 'EA' related quotes I have collected - not sure if any are useful for your particular case, but figured it was best to share them anyway!


There is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.

— Albert Einstein...


He is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures.

— Muhammad (c. 570-632 A.D.)...


There are no catastrophes that loom before us which cannot be avoided; there is nothing that threatens us with imminent destruction in such a fashion that we are helpless to do something about it. If we behave rationally and humanely; if we concentrate coolly on the problems that face all of humanity, rather than emotionally on such nineteenth century matters as national security and local pride; if we recognize that it is not one’s neighbors who are the enemy, but misery, ignorance, and the cold indifference of natural law—then we can solve all the problems that face us. We can deliberately choose to have no catastrophes at all.

—Isaac Asimov...

The Precipice

Toby Ord


Cicero wrote: "The best Armour of Old Age is a well spent life preceding it; a Life employed in the Pursuit of useful Knowledge, in honourable Actions and the Practice of Virtue; in which he who labours to improve himself from his Youth, will in Age reap the happiest Fruits of them."

answer by nil · 2020-11-18T21:00:23.998Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If humanity is to minimize suffering in the future, it must engage with the world, not opt out of it.

-- Magnus Vinding (2015), Anti-Natalism and the Future of Suffering: Why Negative Utilitarians Should Not Aim For Extinction

answer by nil · 2020-11-18T20:56:10.699Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[T]rue hedonic engineering, as distinct from mindless hedonism or reckless personal experimentation, can be profoundly good for our character. Character-building technologies can benefit utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike. Potentially, we can use a convergence of biotech, nanorobotics and information technology to gain control over our emotions and become better (post-)human beings, to cultivate the virtues, strength of character, decency, to become kinder, friendlier, more compassionate: to become the type of (post)human beings that we might aspire to be, but aren't, and biologically couldn't be, with the neural machinery of unenriched minds. Given our Darwinian biology, too many forms of admirable behaviour simply aren't rewarding enough for us to practise them consistently: our second-order desires to live better lives as better people are often feeble echoes of our baser passions. Too many forms of cerebral activity are less immediately rewarding, and require a greater capacity for delayed gratification, than their lowbrow counterparts. Likewise, many forms of altruistic behaviour ... are less rewarding than personal consumption.

-- David Pearce, Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?, "Utopian Neuroscience"

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:55:25.095Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Few people are actually trying to do good. The best explanation for most people's behavior--even when they think they are trying to do good--is that they are trying to feel good and look good."

answer by tae · 2020-11-19T21:08:54.549Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"I only ask of God
That I am not indifferent to the pain,
That the dry death won’t find me
Empty and alone, without having done the sufficient."

from https://lyricstranslate.com/en/Solo-le-pido-Dos-I-only-ask-God.html

"But those who fill with bliss
All beings destitute of joy,
Who cut all pain and suffering away
From those weighed down with misery,
Who drive away the darkness of their ignorance— 
What virtue could be matched with theirs?
What friend could be compared with them?
What merit is there similar to this?"

"The great should never be abandoned for the less,
And others' good should be regarded as supreme."

"If with kindly generosity
One merely has the wish to soothe
The aching heads of other beings
Such merit knows no bounds.
No need to speak then, of the wish
To drive away the endless pain
Of each and every living being,
Bringing them unbounded excellence.”

“If the simple thought to be of help to others
Exceeds in worth the worship of the Buddhas,
What need is there to speak of actual deeds
That bring about the weal and benefit of beings?”

from Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (The Way of the Bodhisattva) by Śantideva

answer by reallyeli · 2020-11-19T07:18:27.472Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"There is a genius for impoverishment always at work in the world. And it has its way, as if its proceedings were not only necessary but even sensible. Its rationale, its battle cry, is Competition."

— Marilynne Robinson

answer by Cienna · 2020-11-18T12:18:38.483Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Little Things by Julia A. F. Carney

Little drops of water, 
Little grains of sand, 
Make the mighty ocean 
And the pleasant land.

Thus the little minutes, 
Humble though they be, 
Make the mighty ages 
Of eternity.

answer by kokotajlod · 2020-11-18T10:50:57.496Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Politics is the mind-killer." -Yudkowsky


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comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2020-11-19T19:26:37.245Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This thread was a moving read. Thanks Luke for starting it, and to those who contributed. The intended effect of the quotes worked on me, and I hope my work will be better for it, if only for a while.

comment by CarolineJ · 2020-11-20T07:29:01.710Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree. I have read only a few but I am crying as they are very moving and inspiring. This is the combined effect of their beauty and strength with my attachment to this community that shares my values. I will keep reading them in the next few days... 

comment by lukefreeman · 2020-11-19T23:55:27.897Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Indeed! Thanks for all these great contributions! It was a great start to my morning 😍