Some people discover effective altruism for themselves. They have EA-flavored goals, so they Google something like "do the most good".
Other people have said goals, but don't find EA until someone shows them.
I'm the second kind of person. I went to a Peter Singer talk because I'd read GiveWell's website, which I found on LessWrong, which I heard about from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
In other words, I owe my ethical system to a guy who heard me joke about Harry Potter in a college dining hall, interrupted my conversation, gave me a two-minute pitch for HPMOR, and disappeared, never to be seen again. Simple enough.
But what about the rest of the story?
Peter Singer convinced me to join Giving What We Can. Hundreds of other people watched the same talk, in the same auditorium, and didn't do that. There must be other things that made me receptive to EA — that is, gave me "EA-flavored goals".
Some of the most important factors:
- I speak English, and live in a country that had an EA presence early on.
- My parents are good people who set a solid moral example.
- I went to the kind of college where Peter Singer gives talks and students advertise rational fanfiction.
- I saw a movie called Life in a Day.
These are hard to replicate, except the last one, which anyone can do right now:
The English (foreign language) subtitles seem broken, but English (full text) works.
How the film works
YouTube decided to make a documentary. They asked people to film themselves on July 24th, 2010, and share the footage. They got 80,000 submissions and 4500 hours of content. They used it to make a 90-minute film about life on Earth.
We start and end at midnight. For each part of the day, we jump around the world to see what people are doing. Because people are similar, we see similar actions, in parallel.
For example, the sun comes up eight minutes into the movie. For the next 90 seconds, we watch people wake up. Some have alarms; some have roosters; some rise with the sun. Some are woken up by parents or lovers. Others wake up alone. One person sleeps on the street and wakes to the passing of cars. Everyone is different. But we all wake up.
Submitters also had the option to answer questions:
"What do you love? What do you fear? What do you have in your pockets or handbag?"
We get three minutes of fear (ten for love). People are afraid of ghosts, spiders, lions, and small noises in the middle of the night. They are afraid of God, Hell, and people different from themselves. They are afraid of losing childhood, losing their hair, and losing the people they love. We are all afraid of something.
This is what Life in a Day shows, over and over: In so many ways, we are the same.
What the film did to me
This isn't a new idea. It permeates religion and literature. It informs the Golden Rule, "all men are created equal", and "workers of the world, unite!". It is a guiding principle of modern liberalism.
I am a modern liberal. I walked past a Golden Rule poster every day of first grade. But I didn't really feel the idea, and didn't really think about its implications, until I saw Life in a Day in a Philadelphia theater.
Over the course of ninety minutes, I looked through a thousand windows into a thousand lives. I realized that I am a person like any other, and that other people are a lot like me. I was blasted with empathy until something snapped, in a good way.
Few things in the movie were unfamiliar or surprising. But on the drive home, the world itself felt unfamiliar. My life went from a sitcom with a few hundred characters to an epic with eight billion characters.
When I later heard about a philosophy that was dedicated to helping people as much as possible, it struck a chord. Without Life in a Day, I'm not sure I'd have felt the same deep sense of "Yes, this is obviously right. Every person is a person, so we help them."
Twelve years later, here's how I see the world, through the lens of Life in a Day:
- Everyone lives for 24 hours a day (give or take sleep). Life is made up of experience, and everyone is always experiencing something.
- I was shaving this morning. So were a billion other people.
- As I shaved, I was thinking about this post. The other billion people were thinking about other things. Their thoughts have the same detail and texture as mine, more or less.
- The basic human drives and feelings are nearly omnipresent. If you have an emotion, it's likely that billions of other people have also felt that emotion. Whatever it's like for you to be in love, or afraid, it's like that for other people too.
- There are untold stories happening at every moment, and most of them are small.
- One major news story on July 24th, 2010 was the Love Parade Disaster. 21 people were suffocated in a stampede. The disaster gets two-and-a-half minutes of footage in the film, which is a lot — but also very little.
- When we look at life through the experience of every person, it's hard for any one event to take up very much space. Something which draws "the world's attention" may not have an outsize impact on "the world's experience".
- There are obvious exceptions to this. For example, there is a sequel film, Life in a Day: 2020. It wound up focusing mostly on COVID, because COVID defined the world's experience that day, and on many other days.
- To me, the Life in a Day view echoes the view of effective altruism — the things most worthy of attention are the things that will change the most days, in the most lives.
- Life in a Day: 2050 could be different in many ways, and EA is about navigating to the best version we can.
- The section on animal cruelty (two minutes in the original) might not exist in the 2050 version.
- The boy in Peru (who shines shoes in the original) might have a comfortable life, and children who spend their time on video games.
- Or maybe something bad happens, and there isn't a film at all.
Other notes on the film
- YouTube's "give us your footage" strategy was brilliant. 4500 hours of film adds up to a bunch of incredible shots, some of which might have been otherwise impossible. (I'm not sure "child climbing a multi-story human pyramid with only a helmet to protect her" would get past anyone's lawyers.)
- Unlike with most documentaries, the people filmed for Life in a Day didn't expect they'd actually be in the movie. This makes the scenes feel natural; people are goofy and random and bored and vulnerable in ways I've rarely seen on film.
- I like that the film has no "villains", perhaps outside the section on animal slaughter. The guy getting friend-zoned is sympathetic, and so is his friend. The guy bragging about his Lamborghini is... not so sympathetic, but when he's surrounded by other people showing off their stuff, he mostly just looks human.
- The footage only comes from people who saw the YouTube announcement and submitted something. This led to bias in the raw material, and the movie doesn't hide it. People in wealthy countries are overrepresented, and much of the footage in developing countries comes from unusual sources: a news photographer in Afghanistan; a wealthy South Asian woman filming her maid; the Peruvian government showcasing a cute kid who loves Wikipedia.
- While I'd love to see a more representative version someday, you could also see the original as an effective statement about whose stories end up getting told — even when the storyteller is trying to be fair.
- And despite the bias, it really does cover the full human story: Birth, death, poverty, wealth, peace, violence, progress, tradition...
Showing the film at your EA meetup
I recommend this!
I've shown this to EA groups at Yale, in Wisconsin, and in San Diego, and I think it went well (even adjusting for people telling me what I wanted to hear).
Life in a Day isn't about EA, but I think it could spark conversations for people who know the basics and connect the film to what they've learned.
Possible discussion questions:
- If you were an alien, and all you knew about humanity was this film...
- ...what would you think were humanity's biggest problems?
- ...would you think that human life was, basically, good?
- Which elements of life do you think the film represents well, or poorly? If you were the director, what else would you have included?
- What issues didn't really appear in the film? Why do you think that was? And what does that tell us about seeking out neglected problems?
- If you had been filmed in 2010, how would you have answered the questions?
- What do you love?
- What do you fear?
- What do you have in your pockets or handbag?
Content note: The film contains one shot of someone calling homosexuality a "disease", and a few scenes of factory farming/animal slaughter (the animal cruelty section runs from 42:10-44:40). The Love Parade section is pretty intense.
Disclaimer: The film has a 58 on Metacritic. Some critics found it banal or saccharine. Before you screen it, consider reading reviews not written by an obsessed fan.
What about the sequel?
I didn't find the sequel nearly as effective. It's more consciously political, and the COVID content is more stressful than interesting. It's also less focused on everyday activities and more focused on big, showy moments. Finally, we inexplicably spend a good chunk of the film watching a guy drive around and look at trains, which was just as boring as it sounds.
But the IMDB rating is similar, so YMMV.
One more thing
If this sounds interesting, you might also like Rose Hadshar's "What happens on the average day?"
This awkward expression covers anyone who sees EA and thinks "oh, that's what I want". Philosophers who want to please the ghost of J.S. Mill, charity workers driven to madness by poor epistemics, students trying to rank the world's problems in order of badness, and so on.
The differences only serve to deepen my feeling of connection.
Other people have read books I haven't, or experienced things I never will. Some people have incredible memories and live in worlds full of rich history (my memory sucks). Some of them think in multiple languages. Some of them can visualize an entire house at once. And all of this is happening across billions of minds, for 525,600 minutes every year!
When I consider the inner lives of other people, I feel like a more complete person myself.