My first impressions on Ethical Altruism
After 3 weeks of looking into it in my free time
Thanks to a Tom Scott video my family watched a few weeks ago, I was (re)introduced to 80,000 Hours, and through it Effective Altruism. I don't particularly believe in coincidences, but the timing did seem fortuitous, as events over the past few monthshave made me realize that I have a built-in need to be helping others that isn't being met.
I have spent the last three weeks diving into the materials found on 80,000 Hours, the Effective Altruism forum, and elsewhere that provide a really good foundation for what EAis all about. But I wanted to record some thoughts and concerns I have about EA as a newcomer. Somewhat, I view this as a way to guide my readings in the next few months. These points are in no particular order, and are written with two thoughts in mind – I have mostly tried to do the most good based on what I knew, and I have changed and can change my mind about many things when presented with experiences and/or clear evidence (that I can fact check).
Giving and Serving
My upbringing and religious beliefs have always instilled in me that giving is important. What I have realized over the last few years is that I now don't necessarily believe that giving locally/to my religious community is the best place to 'spend' my money. There are so many problems in so many places that need resources from the (globally) wealthy, and I know that as a middle class Canadian, I have a lot of (comparative) power to help. But I can't help solve them all, no matter how much I wish to. I wish to continue giving, but to charities that have figured out how be effective with what they have been given. I am intrigued by the concept of giving to maximize total benefit, as opposed to only providing some benefit.
I have paid some attention to charity comparisons in the past, and have known to avoid certain charities that pay the CEO too much, or spend too much on advertising compared to what they spend on actually working towards the problem they say they are solving. But those comparisons seem to lack a tracker for how effective the dollars spent were (after operating costs are removed). I was impressed to find GiveWell, and to see there are people out there who use evidence to determine where people can best provide help to those who need it.
An adjunct to giving can be serving – giving of my time to those who need it, in an effort to improve their lives directly by my actions. I really enjoy this part. I have done much less serving since Covid-19 shut everything down, and I miss it. I am going to need to find a way to continue doing this, either through or adjacent to whatever I end up doing as a result of my explorations into EA.
After a few weeks of exploring, I see that there is so much information out there. How do I evaluate it? Can I do so empirically, do I use my intuition; do I rank it by what I care about, or by what others say I should care about? I know this is not an easy question to answer, even for people who have been involved in EA for a lot longer than I have. People have made lists on many different topic areas, and I plan to investigate some of these lists, but even tracking down those lists can be a chore.
Not Knowing Where To Help, or Which Direction to Take
I have an undergraduate degree that I haven't really used in the last 15 years. I have observed that there are a lot of introductory EA materials out there that are targeted either at people who are 20-24 years old and are in/just out of university, or the materials are targeted at “professionals” who have a career and/or a Masters or PhD. I don't have those degrees, and at my current place in my life, don't want to commit to more schooling. I also haven't had a “career”, as I took a long break to be a full-time parent. I feel a bit lost about how to find a place to fit with the skills I do have.
Yes, the 80,000 Hours career planning course is a good start. I am part way through, and it has already gotten me to consider some really hard questions. I have a lot of thinking to do about where I might want to direct my efforts. But the course is only a start, and I haven't quite grappled with aligning myself to many of the suggested problem areas. I am not really interested in or intrigued by many of the 'biggest priority' problems, which means finding other issues to which I want to devote my time, that will still be an effective use of my resources (time, skills and money).
Another option might be the 80,000 Hours career advising (I have listened to the two podcasts with the advising team), and I do plan on applying soon, but it has been said multiple times that they have a wait list, and cannot advise all of the applicants. So I cannot count on this as the only way forward.
How to Get Connected
Except for the EA forum and possibly the upcoming EAGx conference, I feel lost on how to get connected. This is especially true when some of the EA groups featured on the EA forum exclusively use Facebook groups, and I do not use Facebook. I am not coming directly out of university, and I do not have a network of career individuals to query.
Even a quick search on "how to get connected in effective altruism" resulted in a lot of links to "Introduction to EA" articles/sites, and very few examples of how to find other EA adherents.
These two points are not meant to be a criticism or a complaint, just a note that I really don’t know how to “get my foot in the door”.
The Importance of “Others”
A fundamental tenet of EA is that we should maximize the well-being of “others”. I cannot and do not disagree with this. However, I am still trying to figure out exactly where I sit on the spectrum of benefit to humans vs. animals, and which areas I really care about. While writing this, I found an article that says, "The idea that we should work for or contribute to the most effective charity, regardless of what we care about, is self-defeating. Most people’s passions aren’t that flexible – they can’t or won’t start caring about a cause simply because a calculation tells them to. Better to follow a passion than be demotivated." Somehow this is the first instance of anyone telling me that it's okay to not care about all the problems, and that I can focus (at least for now) on what I want to see happen for others.
My Vocabulary is Lacking
I have always thought that my vocabulary was fairly extensive. Sure, I don't know a lot of technical terms that I haven't needed in every day life, and there are some archaic words I don't know, but I can usually make it through an article or book and either know what a difficult/unusual word, or be able to infer what it means. This is apparently less true when it comes to EA writings - possibly because many of them are written by academics, as opposed to journalists or novelists? Three examples of words/phrases I have encountered that I either don't know or have realized I don't understand well are "axiom", "heuristic" and "epistemic". I think I will create another post that I regularly update that is just words I want to be able to reference in the future.
These are other questions I have that I don't want to take the time to expand on right now, but may in the future, so I will write them down.
- How is/how much of EA is proactive vs reactive?
- How do we categorize EA? Is it a "movement", "philosophy", "belief", "ideal"? Some combination of these things, or something else entirely? How should it be categorized in the future?
- Where does "ethics" fit in? How do EA's determine what ethics to follow?
As I stated above, this is just the start of my journey into EA. I do not expect to be well versed on EA for many months, and I doubt anyone can truly understand all aspects of EA. But by writing this out in a way that I can reference in the future, I hope to encourage myself to truly dive deep into what's out there, and where I can be effective. (And if I help anyone else do the same, cool!)
See my previous post. Also, in August we saw – for the first time in 3 years – friends of ours who work as teachers at a school on a reserve in Northern Ontario. It was amazing to hear them talk about everything they and their community have been able to accomplish, but it also made me really wonder, “Why am I doing what I'm doing right now? And what could I do better or differently?”
Living near Vancouver, BC, “EA” has always stood for Electronic Arts, a large video game company with offices nearby. Using “EA” for Effective Altruism will take a while to wrap my head around.
I do not agree with many of Facebook's business practices (see here or here), and abhor the presence of so much misinformation. I also realized when Facebook was a new thing that my personality would lead to me being obsessed with social media to the detriment of the rest of my life. I made the decision then to stay away from social media as much as I could.