|This is a Draft Amnesty Day draft. That means it’s not polished, it’s probably not up to my standards, the ideas are not thought out, and I haven’t checked everything. I was explicitly encouraged to post something unfinished!|
|Commenting and feedback guidelines: I’m going with the default — please be nice. But constructive feedback is appreciated; please let me know what you think is wrong. Feedback on the structure of the post is also appreciated.|
I first came across effective altruism as a teenager a few years ago, and the core idea instantly clicked for me after reading one post about it. In this post, I will talk about some ways in which my thinking around doing good has evolved over the years as a young person with a strong interest in making the world better.
The emotions I feel when thinking about others’ suffering are less intense. I don’t know if teenage-me would have predicted this. As a child, I remember crying a lot when watching videos on animal suffering, when I first confronted the idea of infinite hell I was depressed for an entire summer, I wanted to give all the money I received on my birthday to people who were less fortunate because I knew they needed it more.
I think the change is partly from just getting used to it. The first time you confront the horrors of factory farming it is awful but by the hundredth time, it’s hard for my brain to naturally feel the same powerful emotions of sadness and anger. Partly, the change is from starting to believe that it isn’t actually that virtuous to feel strong emotions at others’ suffering. Some of that is from having been in the effective altruism community, where it is easy to feel that what matters are the results of what you do and not the emotions behind what you do.
I still feel strong emotions of empathy for those who are suffering some of the time when I am feeling particularly introspective and emotional. However, and this is because of being in the effective altruism community, I am much more aware of my own ranking of what the biggest problems are and it is harder for me to direct a lot of empathy towards causes that feel less “big” compared to factory farming, extreme poverty, and existential risk - even though, in absolute terms, the suffering of people living in terrible conditions in rich countries is still massive.
At the same time, my ability to live according to my values has increased. I haven’t eaten meat in a couple of years whereas as a child and young teenager, this was really difficult for me to do even though I really wanted to be vegetarian. I have more tools now to do what I think is right, and the biggest of them all is having a social community where there are others who take their beliefs seriously and try to do good.
I am much less willing to try to hack my brain in order to force myself to do and feel things I endorse. I used to be much more ashamed of some of my feelings and actions and felt a strong desire to figure out how to trick my brain into being more willing to sacrifice myself for others, into working all the time and being more ambitious. This involved doing things adjacent to self-deception. This was a really bad idea and caused me lots of pain and frustration.
Instead, the thing that worked for me is acknowledging that I have “selfish” desires, that sometimes I take actions that actively hurt others, and that I have things that I deeply care about besides just maximising the good. Having a better picture of myself and what I actually value allowed me to work with the “altruist” and “selfish” sides of me to do things like be able to enjoy spending money and time on things that make me happy without feeling guilty and then work hard at doing good when it actually came time to work hard, and to figure out the right incentives and habits to reduce my meat intake, not because I “should”, but based on reflecting on what I wanted to do and being kind towards all my wants.
I am more aware of how my actions affect what I do and value in the future. I care more now about cultivating virtue and taking actions that help me become more the person I want to be. When I first learned about effective altruism, based on my naive understanding, I wanted to apply the calculating mindset to everything. I tried to make most of my substantial decisions based on backchaining from my goals and picking the actions that I thought would give me the biggest probability of getting what I want. I suppose this isn’t an EA thing and more of a life experience thing but this is one way in which my approach to doing good has changed so I am including it here.
One big way in which this affects me is that I began to notice how lying was harmful to my soul even if useful, along with some other less major sins like viewing people as a means to an end. I was thinking about social interactions in terms of what exact things I could say to people in order to squeeze as much value out of them as possible. I now think this is a bad approach to trying to have a positive impact. The world is complicated and trying to optimise hard in every little place is counterproductive, and doing it in some areas like social interactions with other people is just not a wise thing to do regardless of what goal I have.
I care much more about AI existential risk than I used do. The first EA conference I went to, I was actually shocked by how much everyone else cared about AI x-risk. The main reason I was doubtful was because 1) it is a pretty weird thing to care so much about 2) it is an “interesting” thing to care so much about - especially if you are a techy, very intelligent person in a rich country who likes discussing intellectual topics.
I would like to think I changed my mind because of actually engaging with the arguments, but I also want to acknowledge that the social incentives were also such that I feel like I would have been considered less cool/intelligent among people I respected if I remained skeptical. Incidentally, this is one reason I am concerned about EA community builders being as aggressive as they currently are in pushing EA cause areas - it makes people like me feel suspicious of the arguments. In fact, even after I started to believe AI x-risk was a big deal, I felt confused and frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how much of my belief was because I was in a cool community of impressive people who believed the same thing. I would like to believe that I have more epistemic defenses against cool communities of impressive people now but I have a suspicion, that as a teenager thrust into that world for the first time, you could have gotten me to believe some untrue things as well if they were similarly high-status.
I got out of my honeymoon phase with the effective altruism community. After coming across effective altruism, I wanted to tell everyone else about it. I was confused and frustrated when other people seemed less enthusiastic about the idea than I was. Now I am much more chill about talking about effective altruism to new people, I usually prefer to talk about my other interests with cool people at parties. Part of this is that I am personally less excited about my own ability to get random people at parties or my friends who have strong interests already in a particular career path to switch to a high-impact career. Part of it is just because it got boring talking about it compared to more fun and interesting things I enjoy learning about.
I also feel somewhat less optimistic overall about the effective altruism community than I used to. Partly just because I think despite its potential, it is still just a small group of people and most positive impact will come from people and organisations outside the EA community (people and organisations that we can leverage though). I also think where it has the potential to do substantial amounts of good, it also has the potential to do substantial amounts of harm and one thing that will make the difference is if it continues to care about having good epistemics. Therefore, I am not excited anymore about just “growing” the movement if it doesn’t also help us think more clearly about how to do good better.
I still care deeply about doing massive amounts of good even if I don’t personally suffer as deeply as I used to when hearing about some of the world’s biggest problems. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that trying to help just was a natural part of myself and a life without trying to do good effectively would feel much less exciting and appealing to me. I wisened up a bit and stopped trying to do good in a naive utilitarian way. I relearned some rules for myself to be more honest and care about epistemics over trying to get people to do things I thought of as valuable. I started to think misaligned AI is the biggest problem for me to try and work on. And I stopped feeling like a teenager with a massive, embarrassing crush on the EA movement.
I can relate to almost all of these! I wonder if this is a universal experience. Thanks for sharing!