Stories and altruism

post by · 2019-05-20T08:37:38.528Z · EA · GW · 12 comments



I recently asked the Giving What We Can Community Facebook Group, “Are there any works e.g. movies, books or music that inspire you to be altruistic?”

I believe this is important because stories we have taken to our hearts can fundamentally influence our choices. In the documentary ‘The Final Year’ President Obama explains this influence as follows: “Sometimes we think people are motivated only by money, or they’re only motivated by power, these very concrete incentives. But, people are also inspired by stories…So it’s worthwhile to listen to other people and ask them questions about the stories that are important to them”.

Trying to use our resources to help others the most can give rise to frequent moments of doubt, guilt, and emotional and physical fatigue and it’s valuable to have such stories to help you see through these times. In turn, these stories offer further motivation, conviction and inspiration when our efforts are being rewarded.

I hope some of the items listed below can give rise to these effects for you and please accept this list as a gift from my heart to yours <3

Also, please feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments for the good of all EAs 😊


You Are My Sister- Antony and The Johnsons

Goodbye Goodbye- M-Ziq

Forever- Conquest

O Magnum Mysterium- Morten Lauridsen

Concerning Hobbits- Howard Shore

Gandalf’s Fall- Howard Shore

Nimrod (Enigma Variations)- Edward Elgar

Land of Hope and Glory- Edward Elgar

God Moving Over the Face of the Waters- Moby

When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die- Moby

Always Returning- Brian Eno

Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo- Pietro Mascagni

Parsifal: Prelude to Act 1- Richard Wagner

Parsifal: Act 3: “Hochsten Heiles Wunder!”- “Erlosung dem Erloser”- Richard Wagner

Lohengrin: Prelude to Act 1- Richard Wagner

2/2- Brian Eno

Prayer of Compassion- Michael Fitzpatrick

Oh Shenandoah

Untitled #4- Gas

A Change is Gonna Come- Sam Cooke

Nella Fantasia- Jackie Evancho

Bridge Over Troubled Water- Simon and Garfunkel

Gymnopedie No 1- Erik Satie

Ave Maria, Opera 52 No 6- Franz Schubert

Comforting Sounds- Mew

Sleep- Eric Whitacre

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity- Gustav Holst


He Named Me Malala (available on Netflix)

The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing

Man on Wire

Elgar: Portrait of a Composer

TS Eliot- Arena

City of Joy (available on Netflix)

The Story of Us

JRR Tolkien ‘1892-1973’ – A Study Of The Maker Of Middle-Earth

Human, All Too Human – Nietzsche

Winston Churchill: A Giant in The Century

Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady of No Fear


(Tuesdays with) Morrie Schwartz: Lessons on Living


The Lord of The Rings

Hacksaw Ridge

A Christmas Carol



The Green Mile

Schindler’s List

The Shawshank Redemption

Long Road to Freedom

The Thin Red Line

The Act of Killing


The Lord of The Rings- JRR Tolkien

Winnie the Pooh- A.A. Milne

The Wind in the Willows- Kenneth Grahame

Terry Pratchett

Cixin Liu

Three Worlds Collide- Eliezer Yudkowsky [LW · GW]

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality- Eliezer Yudkowsky

Cloud Atlas- David Mitchell

Turtles All The Way Down- John Green

The Fault In Our Stars- John Green

Unsong- Scott Alexander

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet- Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit- Becky Chambers

Walden or Life in the Woods- Henry David Thoreau

The Street Lawyer- John Grisham

Meditations- Marcus Aurelius

On the Shortness of Life- Seneca The Younger

An Easter Greeting- Lewis Carroll

Tuesdays With Morrie- Mitch Albom


If- Rudyard Kipling

Invictus- William Ernest Henley

Those Winter Sundays- Robert Hayden

Desiderata- Max Ehrmann

For Katrina’s Sun Dial- Henry Van Dyke

Turn Again to Life- Mary Lee Hall

The Laughing Heart- Charles Bukowski

If You’re Going To Try, Go All the Way- Charles Bukowski

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Summer Day- Mary Oliver


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-05-21T05:39:22.719Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Seeing Life in a Day changed the way I see the world, and was a key step in preparing me to be interested in effective altruism when I first heard about it (roughly a year later).

The film shows hundreds of snippets of ordinary life around the world, creating an overwhelming effect of "everyone is basically the same and matters equally" (at least for me). The notion of caring more about people from, say, my own city no longer made any sense to me after the film ended.

comment by Jemma · 2019-05-22T10:50:53.472Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps not EA-related, but as a refreshing change from the apparent focus on villains in both "literary" and "genre" fiction, I'd recommend Anna Funder's 'All That I Am' and 'Stasiland'. They are based on the stories of resistors to the Nazi regime and the East German GDR regime, respectively. 'Stasiland' is non-fiction (long-form journalism) and also includes stories from informers/ex-Stasi police, but most of the focus is on the resistors. 'All That I Am' is based on the life of a person whom the author, Anna Funder, knew personally.

comment by SamuelKnoche · 2019-05-20T11:46:23.052Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hotel Rwanda is pretty good.

comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2019-05-20T13:05:58.175Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The movie Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) caused me to reflect on how people -- including myself -- might rationalize their contributions to harm, or their lack of responsibility for preventing it.

comment by BenMillwood · 2019-05-20T09:17:49.597Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like the idea here a great deal, but I expect there's going to be a lot of variation in what creates what effect in whom. I wonder if there's better ways to come up with aggregate recommendations, so we can find out what seems to be consistent in its EA appeal, vs. what's idiosyncratic

comment by · 2019-05-20T09:50:50.434Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Ben, sorry for the double-reply.

It just occurred to me that I could make a survey in something like SurveyMonkey and link to it in the post, then periodically update the rankings in here if a decent number of people have voted.

Any thoughts?

comment by · 2019-05-20T09:38:25.524Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Ben, thanks for your comment.

I love your idea of aggregate recommendations and would be very interested in doing a version where that kind of functionality is possible. Off the top of my head, I can only think of posting each item in the list as an individual comment in here so people can upvote their favourites. I'm sure there must be a less clunky way to do this, though. Can I check if you have any ideas, please?

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-05-21T05:37:11.816Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Creating a spreadsheet? You can have two columns (media title and a number) and ask people to increment the number by one if they found something helpful. This could be better than a survey -- it's faster to go through and easier to update.

comment by Ramiro · 2019-12-27T21:51:57.415Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Did the spreadsheet idea survive? Because maybe we should add another column with the total number of people who saw each movie/book; this would be useful to distinguish works that correlate with being an EA (e.g., TLYCS book) from things everyone saw, but we associate with our feelings (like LOTR).

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-12-27T22:02:23.231Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think anyone would have access to that information, but a document with suggestions from a variety of people exists here.

comment by Jonathan_Michel · 2020-11-28T13:04:49.565Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks a lot for writing this. 

One thing I started recently is collecting instances of people acting altruistic and courageous and reading about these when I need motivation (their Wikipedia articles or a text I wrote myself etc.). These examples can go from very small acts to big ones. Reading about actual examples of people standing up to the social norms or laws of their time to do the right thing gives me a lot of motivation to keep pursuing an altruistic path even in the face of difficulty. One example I came across recently is a farther who supported his daughter when she refused to marry a man who raped her (a so called “rehabilitating marriage” which was the custom (and law!) in mid 20th century Sicily). He did so although their town  ostracised them and even burned down their farm. 

Also there is a good amount of great blog posts which I find really motivating. The ones I can think of from the top of my head are:

comment by reallyeli · 2019-05-25T05:09:55.912Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for posting about this! The experiences I've had with art feel like a big part of what motivates my altruism.

One of the ways art can encourage altruism is by rendering real the life of another person, making you experience their suffering or joy as your own. Many pieces of art have this effect on me, too many to name -- indeed I think of it as a defining quality of good art.

Another way art can encourage altruism is by taking a zoomed-out perspective and engaging with moral ideals in the abstract. This you might call "humanistic". I've listed mostly these below, as art of the other type is too numerous to name.


- The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin is very meaningful to me as a vision of what a society where we cared "sufficiently" about others might look like.

- All Kurt Vonnegut, a very humanistic writer. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is explicitly about a philosophically-minded billionaire who decides to give his wealth away to the poor, and the consequences of that decision.

- George Saunders, another very humanistic writer. Tenth of December is great. is a great one of his about the banality of evil.



- (Content warning: suicide)



- (a long, quiet, slice-of-life documentary that jumps between people)

- (the Japanese police botch an execution, causing the criminal to lose all his memories of the crime; the police, panicking, try to jog his memory so they can execute him like they're supposed to)