Framing Effective Altruism as Overcoming Indifference

2019-05-25T12:10:19.474Z · score: 30 (19 votes)
Comment by darius_meissner on Is value drift net-positive, net-negative, or neither? · 2019-05-05T09:58:54.470Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA · GW

How bad (or possibly good) value drift and lifestyle drift are will depend your definition of the phenomenon, as you acknowledge yourself. The way I conceptualise them in the EA Forum article I wrote on the topic ('Concrete Ways to Reduce Risks of Value Drift'), makes them strongly net-negative. In the post I (briefly) make the case that reducing risks of value drift and lifestyle drift may be an altruistic top-priority.

Here's how I think about the topic:

I use the terms value drift and lifestyle drift in a broad sense to mean internal or external changes that would lead you to lose most of the expected altruistic value of your life. Value drift is internal; it describes changes to your value system or motivation. Lifestyle drift is external; the term captures changes in your life circumstances leading to difficulties implementing your values. Internally, value drift could occur by ceasing to see helping others as one of your life’s priorities (losing the ‘A’ in EA), or loosing the motivation to work on the highest-priority cause areas or interventions (losing the ‘E’ in EA). Externally, lifestyle drift could occur (as described in Joey's post) by giving up a substantial fraction of your effectively altruistic resources for non-effectively altruistic purposes, thus reducing your capacity to do good. Concretely, this could involve deciding to spend a lot of money on buying a (larger) house, having a (fancier) wedding, traveling around the world (more frequently or expensively), etc. Quoting myself:

Of course, changing your cause area or intervention to something that is equally or more effective within the EA framework does not count as value drift. Note that even if your future self were to decide to leave the EA community, as long as you still see ‘helping others effectively’ as one of your top-priorities in life it might not constitute value drift. (...)
Most of the potential value of EAs lies in the mid- to long-term, when more and more people in the community take up highly effective career paths and build their professional expertise to reach their ‘peak productivity’ (likely in their 40s). If value drift is common, then many of the people currently active in the community will cease to be interested in doing the most good long before they reach this point. This is why, speaking for myself, losing my altruistic motivation in the future would equal a small moral tragedy to my present self. I think that as EAs we can reasonably have a preference for our future selves not to abandon our fundamental commitment to altruism or effectiveness.
Comment by darius_meissner on How to Get the Maximum Value Out of Effective Altruism Conferences · 2019-04-24T23:15:33.292Z · score: 28 (15 votes) · EA · GW

I'd guess it is common for people to underweight the expected value (EV) of attending EA Globals, because they focus on the predictable and easy-to-measure benefits of doing so. However, the EV of attending these conferences (according to my intuitive model) is dominated by 'Black Swan'-like benefits (i.e. low-probability, hard-to-predict, disproportionately-high-impact benefits). For this reason, it may be the case that even if (suppose) most EA Global attendees got little value out of the conference, there will likely be a few individuals reaping very large benefits that justify the whole event for everyone else.

These underappreciated benefits of attending EA Globals likely include: 1) starting a causal chain that will (eventually) result in a job or internship, 2) finding co-founders for highly valuable projects, 3) making new connections (or deepening existing ones) that will (eventually) provide you with substantial support (e.g. financial, advisory, emotional) or vice versa, 4) changing your mind about an empirical or philosophical crucial consideration that radically alters your priorities (e.g. by changing which cause area to focus on, or which interventions to prioritise).

To account for these potential Black Swan-like benefits when thinking about the opportunity cost of attending events such as EA Global, I deliberately attempt to follow the heuristic of asking myself: "Is this event more likely to give rise to Black Swan-like benefits compared to the best alternative use of my time?". I prioritise events that have 'Black Swan'-generating circumstances (e.g. meeting new people and organisations working on important topics, having opportunities to reflect on major life choices and philosophical beliefs, meeting smart and well-informed people who have major disagreements with my views).

Comment by darius_meissner on Why are you here? An origin stories thread. · 2018-08-10T13:03:12.678Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Given how incredibly positive I see the influence that EA has had on my own life, this post is a fantastic opportunity for me to say ‘thank you’. Thanks to all of you for your contributions to building such an awesome community around (the) ‘one thing you’ll never regret’ – altruism (I got this quote from Ben Todd). I have never before met a group of people this smart, caring and dedicated to improving the world, and I am deeply, deeply grateful that I can be a part of this.


I remember that in elementary school was the first time I was confronted with other students believing in what they referred to as ‘GOD’. Having grown up in a secular family myself, I was at first confused by their belief, and then started debating them. This went on to the point when one day I screamed insults at the sky to prove that there was no one up there listening and no lightning would strike to pulverize me. My identity started to grow, and after reading the Wikipedia article on atheism in early middle school, ‘agnostic-atheist’ was the first of a number of ‘-isms’ that I added to my identity over the years (though, as I will describe, some of these ‘-isms’ were only temporary). Unsurprisingly, when I encountered the writings and speeches of Richard Dawkins in my teens, I quickly became a staunch fan (let it be pointed out that I am more critical nowadays about his communication style and some of his content).

I can contribute my early political socialization to attending summer camps and weekend seminars of a socialist youth organisation in Germany in middle school. There, for the first time, I met people who really cared about improving the world, and I learned about social problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and – the mother of all problems, from the socialist perspective – capitalism. Furthering this process of ideological adaptation, I learned that the supposed solutions for these and other social problems were creating a socialist, communist or possibly anarchist world-order – if need be, by means of violent revolution. In hindsight, it’s interesting for me to look back and see that this belief in a violent revolution required an element of consequentialist thinking (along with very twisted empirical beliefs largely grounded in Marxism): to create a better society for the rest of all time, we might need to make sacrifices today and fight. I always had a great time with the other young socialists, made friends, had my first kiss, went to various left-wing protests and sat around camp fires where we sang old socialist workers’ songs. (A note on the songs: I remember how powerful and determined they would make me feel in my identity as a social-ist, connected to a cause that was larger than myself and celebrating those ‘partisans’ who were killed fighting (violently) in socialist revolutions. Hopefully, this was a lasting lesson with regards to methods of ideological indoctrination). The most long-lasting and positive effect this part of my life had on my personality, was in igniting a strong dedication to improving the world – I had found my ultimate and main goal in life (provided and hoping that won’t change again).

During my last lesson in ethics class in middle school, we (around 30 omnivore students) debated the ethics of eating animals. The (to me at the time) surprising conclusion we reached was that, in the absence of an existential necessity for humans to eat meat to survive, it was ethically wrong to raise, harm and slaughter animals. On this day, I decided to try vegetarianism. I began to look into the issue of animal farming, animal ethics, vegetarianism and veganism, and I was shocked by the tremendous suffering endured by billions of non-human animals around the world, and that I had contributed to my whole life. Greedy for knowledge, I read as much as I could about these topics. It still took me a year to decide to be vegan henceforth. I read Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ only after I went vegan, but it certainly increased my motivational drive to dedicate my life to reducing the suffering of non-human animals – what I then perceived as the most pressing ethical problem in the world (+ the book was my first real exposure to utilitarian thought). Throughout my high school years, I would write articles about veganism for our school’s student magazine, organise public screenings of the animal-rights movie ‘Earthlings’, distribute brochures of animal rights organisations, debate other students on the ethics of eating meat and supply our school’s cafeteria with plant-based milk alternatives. Later, as part of my high school graduation exams I wrote a 40-page philosophical treaty on animal ethics.

In high school I also learned about environmental degradation – caused, of course, by evil multinationals and, ultimately, capitalism – and started caring about environmental preservation (considering myself an environmental-ist). Reasoning that changing only my own consumer behaviour would have limited effects, once again I started taking actions to affect the behaviour of others. For instance, I started a shop from my room in the boarding school, reselling environmentally-friendly products, such as recycled toilet paper, to other students (I would sell the goods at the market price, without making a profit). I also decided that after my graduation from school, I would take a gap year and go to India to volunteer for a small environmental non-profit organisation. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, in hindsight I don't think that my work as a volunteer had a big impact).

And then I attended the single most transformational event of my life: an introductory talk on effective altruism, brilliantly presented by the EA Max Kocher, who at the time interned with the predecessor organisation of what would later become the Effective Altruism Foundation. I was immediately attracted by the EA perspective on reducing animal suffering (though I remember finding the ‘risks to the far-future from emerging technologies’ part of the presentation weird). Previously, I had read a lot of stuff online written by vegans and animal rights activists, but somehow I had never come across a group of people who were thinking as rationally and strategically about achieving their ethical goals as EAs. Once again, I became greedy for knowledge, and – in reading many EA articles, books, listening to podcasts and watching talks – felt like a whole new world was opening up to me. A world that I couldn’t get enough of. And in the process of engaging with EA, I encountered a great many arguments that challenged some of my dearly held beliefs – many of which I subsequently abandoned.

Some of the major ways I changed my mind through EA include:

  • I got convinced that what ultimately counts morally are the conscious experiences of sentient beings, and thus stopped caring about ‘the environment’ for its own sake. Learning about the prevalence and magnitude of the suffering of animals living in the wild, I left behind my beliefs in environmental preservation, the protection of species over individuals, and the intrinsic importance of biodiversity.

  • The most important normative change I underwent is growing closer to hedonistic utilitarianism, and totalism in population ethics. In parallel to this process, I engaged more with arguments like Bostrom’s astronomical waste argument, and ultimately accepted the long-term value hypothesis. That said, keeping epistemic modesty in mind and the wild divergence in favoured moral theories among moral philosophers, I do attempt to take moral uncertainty seriously.

  • The most important change in my empirical worldview came with learning more about the benefits and achievements of market economies and the tremendous historical failures of its so-called socialist and communist alternatives. I stopped attributing everything that was going wrong in the world to ‘capitalism’ and adopted (what I now think of as) a much more nuanced view on the costs and benefits of adopting particular economic policies.

  • Relatedly, I became much more uncertain with regards to many political questions, due to giving up many of my former tribe-determined answers to policy questions. In particular, I have reduced my certainty in policies with strong factual disagreement among relevant experts.

After having engaged with EA intensely, though passively for more than one year in India, upon my return to Germany I was aching to get active and finally meet other EAs in person. Subsequently, I completed two internships with EAF in Berlin, started and led an EA university chapter at the University of Bayreuth, before ultimately transitioning to the University of Oxford, where I am now one of the co-presidents of EA Oxford.

The philosophy and community behind effective altruism have transformed my life in a myriad of beneficial ways. I am excited about all the achievements of EA since its inception and look forward to contributing to its future success!

Comment by darius_meissner on Effective Thesis project review · 2018-06-02T19:16:30.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

This is a fantastic project! I encourage other EA university chapters to share the Effective Thesis website on their social media pages and internal groups 1-2x per year. When you share it on Facebook, make sure to mention the Effective Thesis Facebook page on your post.

Comment by darius_meissner on Concrete Ways to Reduce Risks of Value Drift and Lifestyle Drift · 2018-05-10T19:56:18.109Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Great points, thanks for raising them!

It is possible that a graph plotting a typical EA’s degree of involvement/commitment with the movement would not look like a horizontal line but rather like a zigzag.

It would be very encouraging if this is a common phenomenon and many people 'dropping out' might potentially come back at some point to EA ideals. It provides a counterexample to something I have commented earlier:

It is worth pointing out that most of this discussion is just speculation. The very limited anecdata we have from Joey and others seems too weak to draw detailed conclusions. Anyway: From talking to people who are in their 40s and 50s now, it seems to me that a significant fraction of them were at some point during their youth or at university very engaged in politics and wanted to contribute to 'changing the world for the better'. However, most of these people have reduced their altruistic engagement over time and have at some point started a family, bought a house etc. and have never come back to their altruistic roots. This common story is what seems to be captured by the saying (that I neither like nor endorse): "If you're not a socialist at the age of 20 you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at the age of 40, you have no head".

Regarding your related point:

Is it optimal to expect a constant involvement/commitment with the movement? As EAs, we should think of maximizing our lifetime contributions (...) and find ways of accommodating it within a “lifetime contribution strategy”

I strongly agree with this, which was my motivation to write the post in the first place! I don't think constant involvement/commitment to (effective) altruism is necessary to maximise your lifetime impact. That said, it seems like for many people there is a considerable chance to never 'find their way back' to this commitment after they spent years/decades in non-altruistic environments, on starting a family, on settling down etc. This is why I'd generally think people with EA values in their twenties should consider ways to at the least stay loosely involved/updated over the mid- to long-term to reduce the chance of this happening. So it provides a great example to hear that you actually managed to do just that! In any case, more research is needed on this - I somewhat want to caution against survivorship bias, which could become an issue if we mostly talk to the people who did what is possibly exceptional (e.g. took up a strong altruistic commitment in their forties or having been around EA for for a long time).

Comment by darius_meissner on Concrete Ways to Reduce Risks of Value Drift and Lifestyle Drift · 2018-05-10T14:16:58.779Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks, Tom! I agree with with you that all else being equal

solutions that destroy less option value are preferable

though I still think that in some cases the benefits of hard-to-reverse decisions can outweigh the costs.

It seems strange to override what your future self wants to do, if you expect your future self to be in an equally good epistemic position. If anything, future you is better informed and wiser...

This seems to assume that our future selves will actually make important decisions purely (or mostly) based on their epistemic status. However, as CalebWithers points out in a comment:

I believe most people who appear to have value "drifted" will merely have drifted into situations where fulfilling a core drive (e.g. belonging, status) is less consistent with effective altruism than it was previously; as per The Elephant in the Brain, I believe these non-altruistic motives are more important than most people think.

If this is valid (as it seems to me) than many of the important decisions of our future selves are a result of some more or less conscious psychological drives rather than an all-things-considered, reflective and value-based judgment. It is very hard for me to imagine that my future self could ever decide to stop being altruistic or caring about effectiveness on the basis of being better informed and more rational. However, I find it much more plausible that other psychological drives could bring my future self to abandon these core values (and find a rationalization for it). To be frank, though I generally appreciate the idea of 'being loyal to and cooperating with my future self', it seems to me that I place a considerably lower trust in the driving motivations of my future self than many others. From my perspective now, it is my future self that might act disloyally with regards to my current values and that is what I want to find ways to prevent.

It is worth pointing out that in the whole article and this comment I mostly speak about high-level, abstract values such as a fundamental commitment to altruism and to effectiveness. This is what I don't want to lose and what I'd like to lock in for my future self. As illustrated by RandomEAs comment, I would be much more careful about attempting to tie-myself-to-the-mast with respect to very specific values such as discount rates between humans and non-human animals, specific cause area or intervention preferences etc.

Comment by darius_meissner on Concrete Ways to Reduce Risks of Value Drift and Lifestyle Drift · 2018-05-10T13:44:37.198Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for your comment, Karolina!

That also stresses the importance of untapped potential of local groups outside the main EA hubs.

Yep, I see engaging people & keeping up their motivation in one location as a major contribution of EA groups to the movement!

maybe we have sth like altruistic adaptation, that changes after a significant live event (changing the city, marriage etc.) and then comes back to baseline.

This is an interesting suggestion, though I think it unlikely. It is worth pointing out that most of this discussion is just speculation. The very limited anecdata we have from Joey and others seems too weak to draw detailed conclusions. Anyway: From talking to people who are in their 40s and 50s now, it seems to me that a significant fraction of them were at some point during their youth or at university very engaged in politics and wanted to contribute to 'changing the world for the better'. However, most of these people have reduced their altruistic engagement over time and have at some point started a family, bought a house etc. and have never come back to their altruistic roots. This common story is what seems to be captured by the saying (that I neither like nor endorse): "If you're not a socialist at the age of 20 you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at the age of 40, you have no head".

More could be done about the vale drift on the structural level, e.g. it might be also explained by the main bottlenecks in the community itself, like the Mid-Tire Trap

This is a valuable and under-discussed point that I endorse!

Comment by darius_meissner on Concrete Ways to Reduce Risks of Value Drift and Lifestyle Drift · 2018-05-10T13:22:33.955Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for your comment! I agree with everything you have said and like the framing you suggest.

I believe most people who appear to have value "drifted" will merely have drifted into situations where fulfilling a core drive (e.g. belonging, status) is less consistent with effective altruism than it was previously

This is what I tried to address though you have expressed it more clearly than I could! As some others have pointed out as well, it might make sense to differentiate between 'value drift' (i.e. change of internal motivation) and 'lifestyle drift' (i.e. change of external factors that make implementation of values more difficult). I acknowledge that, as Denise's comment points out, the term 'value drift' is not ideal in the way that Joey and I used it and that:

As the EA community we should treat people sharing goals and values of EA but finding it hard to act towards implementing them very differently to people simply not sharing our goals and values anymore. Those groups require different responses. (Denise_Melchin comment).

However, it seems reasonable to me to be concerned and attempt to avoid both about value and lifestyle drift and in many cases it will be hard to draw a line between the two (as changes in lifestyle likely precipitate changes in values and the other way around).

Concrete Ways to Reduce Risks of Value Drift and Lifestyle Drift

2018-05-08T09:50:14.302Z · score: 84 (53 votes)
Comment by darius_meissner on Announcing the Effective Altruism Handbook, 2nd edition · 2018-05-03T09:41:42.157Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · EA · GW

Now that a new version of the handbook is out, could you update the 'More on Effective Altruism' link? It is quite prominent in the 'Getting Started' navigation panel on the right-hand side of the EA Forum.

Comment by darius_meissner on Introduction to Effective Altruism · 2018-05-03T09:38:45.030Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

In light of the recently published 2nd edition of the EA Handbook, could this page be updated as well? The 'more on effective altruism' link in the navigation menu is quite prominent and it would be great to lead visitors to the most up-to-date content.