On Doing The Most Good

Published in Effective Altruism - 8 mins to read

It’s now been roughly a year since I started becoming seriously interested with Effective Altruism, and I feel like I owe some people I know an explanation - what exactly is this thing, and why have I become so invested in such a short space of time?

I’d originally heard of EA through Raising for Effective Giving back in my poker days, but it’d had never seemed like EA was for me - EA seemed primarily for smart and/or wealthy people, and I didn’t feel like I met the bar. I changed my mind after listening to an episode of the 80,000 Hours podcast entitled “Having a successful career with depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome”, the title of which appealed for obvious reasons. The episode’s protagonist (podtagonist?) clearly didn’t want his name to be published alongside the title, so I’ll just call him H. If you’d like, you can imagine it’s this guy. H recounts going on to have great career successes, despite extensive struggles with depression which ultimately resulted in him taking an entire year of work, and being forced to quit his then-dream job in the process. He later goes on to explain some of the safeguards he now has in place to protect against fallout from future depressive episodes. Hearing these ideas plausibly changed my life - they made me realise that I could have similar successes and have my own set of plans in place to mitigate against future mental health thrills and spills. I came away feeling empowered to be more ambitious, and to use rationality to solve my problems - two of the core tenets of my current thinking around EA. I was intrigued - I wanted to be like H, and as far as I could tell, there was no reason I couldn’t be - if EA allowed him to flourish, then I hoped EA might allow me to flourish also.

But firstly, what is EA - in my mind at least - and why has it become such a significant part of my life so quickly?

EA is hard to pin down. In fact, this is arguably one of its problems - it tries to be many things, and the term “Effective Altruism” can have different meanings for different people. At its core, it’s a question:

“How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?”

One guise that EA takes is that of a school of philosophy; some people read the above question and start thinking well what exactly is good? And how can I quantify it, so I know what the most good is? And these people go off and try and nail that down and write papers and books about it. Some other people fixate on the word resources, and realise that they have more money than they need. They want to give away their excess, but they’ve heard that some charities aren’t very effective. So they decide they’re going to figure out which charities can do the most good with their dollars (with a little help from the philosophers), writing reports and giving recommendations to people with less time to do their own research. There’s another group of people who realise that their career is a potential cornucopia for good, if they use it right. They can build skills to then apply to pressing problems, and get paid to boot - before giving away part of their salary to the recommended charities. Most people in the EA community are some combination of all three. They are usually aiming to do something impactful with their careers but aren’t quite there yet, and a lot of them have pledged to give away 10% of their income for life. They contribute to the discourse, both online and in person. They’ve thought about philosophy and ethics more than most, but probably settled on being utilitarians until they’re forced to participate in some contrived thought experiment designed to expose their intransitive preferences. Given their shared goal is to do good, they tend to be kind, thoughtful people, and given their desire to do so effectively, they tend to be intelligent, open and humble. They are looking at the question fairly holistically, and often find that trying to answer a Big Important Question gives them a sense of purpose.

Within Effective Altruism, people have radically different ideas about what good is, and how we can do the most of it. You don’t have to be an Effective Altruist to know that humanity’s extinction would be a bad thing, and to see that making it less likely is a potential source of enormous value; where things get controversial is when the nature of these risks gets discussed. Some people think one of humanity’s greatest existential threats comes from misaligned advanced artificial intelligence, and that this AI might do a variety things we hadn’t wanted it to do - like turning us all into paperclips. Others are worried about future pandemics that could be even more catastrophic than COVID-19, particularly if they were man-made. Many have a deep compassion for animals, and think that eliminating factory farming is a key moral priority of our time, while others would go so far as to say we have an obligation to prevent the suffering experienced by animals in the wild. Another group argues that we ought to look after our own first, and that global poverty must be eliminated before we begin expanding our circle of moral consideration.

Those are some of the answers, and some of the folks who are thinking about the question. Some people are devoting their lives to one small part of it. For others, their only involvement might be showing up to the socials and discussing the ideas, or having a recurring payment to an effective charitable fund setup and forgetting about the rest of it altogether. All these things come under the EA umbrella.

Effective Altruism and Effective Altruists wear many hats, some of which have been omitted here for brevity or due to authorial oversight. There are many critics of effective altruism, and they sometimes paint one small section of the chimera described above as representing its whole, discarding any value that could be found by taking in the complete picture. Don’t get me wrong - some of the criticism is valid, and there are many things I disagree with or dislike about facets of effective altruism - but the din of bad faith criticism can often drown out the humble voices of critics also seeking an answer to the question of EA.

Why am I so interested in formulating my own answer to this question? I already alluded to part of the answer above - doing good gives my life meaning. The more good, the more meaning, the happier I feel. Seeking my answer, alongside my fellow altruistic sojourners, assuages guilt and doubt; I am doing my part to repay the enormous karmic good fortune that has befallen me, and so I now live the rest of my life without the nagging sense that I am being selfish and miserly.

It also turns out to be a particularly interesting question - how do the moral weights of billions of chickens in factory farms today compare to billions of hypothetical humans in the future? How could we hope to understand what’s going on inside neural networks well enough to imbue them with our core values? Can we make utilitarianism work in practice, or are our mortal minds too small to crunch the numbers? Trying to learn how to think about all of these has scratched an intellectual itch I didn’t consciously realise I had, but has been bugging me for the last decade.

Finally, I love the other people who are also trying to wrangle the EA question into submission. I’ve made more friends in the last year through EA than I have since university. The openness to new ideas, emphasis on epistemic rigour and genuine desire to do good that are so prevalent in EA circles makes them a joy to participate in. When I meet someone through EA, I feel able to relax and be myself from the get-go - something that’s not the case in other areas of my life - and I value this dearly; the EA community is slowly becoming somewhere I feel a sense of belonging.

I anticipate continuing to be similarly involved throughout 2023. There are many things I want like to understand better - like how to think more rationally, the current efficacy of global aid, and the basics of machine learning. I do have reservations about some elements of EA, and I’d like to refine and share these publically. I plan on applying to attend EAG London, and will be at as many of the London-based social events as my schedule can handle. Once the current adverse macroeconomic conditions have passed, I plan on giving a meaningful amount of my salary to charity, and will likely use the GiveWell’s Top Charity Fund.

And most important of all, I plan on continuing to try to persuade my girlfriend that this isn’t a cult.