Concrete, thought-provoking discussion questions can often spark more interest in new ideas (such as EA principles) than abstract arguments, moral preaching, or theoretical manifestos can. This is true in college seminars, but more generally in small social gatherings of any type.
When I've taught my 'Psychology of Effective Altruism' class (syllabus here), it's sometimes hard to get ordinary college students interested in abstract Effective Altruism ideas. I teach at a large American state university that is not very selective in student admissions, so there is a wide range of cognitive abilities and curiosity levels in the college juniors and seniors who take my EA class. They sometimes struggle to follow abstract presentations of key EA concepts such as scope-sensitivity, tractability, neglectedness, charity effectiveness, utility, sentience, and longtermism.
But they all love superhero movies. Whatever their religious affiliation, they're all familiar with the DC and Marvel pantheons of demi-gods. For better or worse, these superhero pantheons are at the heart of modern global entertainment culture. In a politically polarized era when people can't agree on much, and tend to stay within their partisan news media bubbles, superhero movies and TV series offer some rare common ground for thinking about issues of power, altruism, existential risk, counterfactuals, moral dilemmas, etc.
So, I've found it useful to provoke class discussions with some superhero thought experiments, such as: "If you had all of Superman's superpowers for 24 hours, and you wanted to do the most good in the world during that one day, what would you do?" (For a sample of about 150 replies to this question on Twitter (from ordinary followers, not from college students), see here.)
This question usually provokes immediate and spirited discussion. Almost all students are familiar with Superman's imaginary superpowers, and almost all accept the premise that Superman is a good guy with good intentions.
The most frequent initial responses usually involve geopolitical vigilante justice, on the principle that the fastest way to do good is to eliminate bad guys -- through killing them, jailing them, or otherwise neutralizing them. So, many students will start off saying 'Superman should simply kill foreign leader X', where X is whoever the American news media is currently demonizing as the Global Bad Guy. However, other students will usually point out that political assassinations often create martyrs, generate adverse publicity, and provoke blowback, so the longer-term effects may be neutral or negative. This can lead to a good discussion of unintended consequences, counterfactuals, moral legitimacy, public sentiment, and the global catastrophic risks of geopolitical instability.
Other students will sometimes suggest that our hypothetical EA Superman should simply do what classical Superman has done ever since the comics started in 1939 -- monitor the news, look for people in distress, and go save the individuals and small groups who can be saved. This typically leads to a good discussion of scope-sensitivity: why should Superman save a few people at a time through heroic actions, when he might be able to save many more through delivering water, food, or medicines to the needy? Or through infrastructure projects like digging canals, tunnels, and harbors, building dikes and dams, or delivering metal-rich asteroids to Earth? Students enjoy debating which kinds of interventions would be the best use of Superman's time -- and the 24-hour time limit in the question makes the opportunity costs of each intervention salient.
It's also easy to nudge these discussions into epistemic questions about how Superman could find out which interventions are actually most effective. He's very powerful, but he's not omniscient, so where could he turn for good evidence? How much of his time should he spend scanning peer-reviewed papers on Google Scholar, applying his super-speed to scholarly lit reviews? Does he have any time to run experiments himself, and to evaluate their short-term or long-term impact? Which world experts should he consult with, before he does anything?
And what if Superman has moral uncertainty about what really counts as 'doing the most good'? The EA superhero thought experiments almost always lead to energetic discussions about different moral frameworks, such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Many students start out assuming that Superman is a deontologist at heart, respecting universal rules of goodness and right. But they quickly realize that almost every large-scale intervention involves some tradeoffs and imposing some risks on innocent people, so some consequentialist reasoning is almost always needed.
Many students are primed by science fiction movies to think about global catastrophic risks, so they suggest that Superman should eliminate nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction. But they often realize that Superman flying around and using his heat vision to destroy the US and Russian nuclear arsenals could be very destabilizing, unless handled very carefully, with appropriate warnings to world leaders. This can lead to a discussion about the need for Superman to cooperate with existing power structures, political institutions, national leaders, journalists, social media influencers, etc. Should EA superheroes by bound by global governance protocols (such as the 'Sokovia Accords' that constrained the Avengers)?
Other students will argue that Superman should use his powers for intimidation, blackmail, or extortion to force powerful people and groups to act better. He can impose credible threats of death and mayhem. But, given the 24-hour time limit, how can he ensure that his threats will have any lasting impact? This can lead to a discussion about which promises are credible, which interventions will really work long-term, and which metrics should be used to assess the success of different interventions.
In any class of 20 or so students, a few will be vegans and/or interested in animal welfare issues. They will sometimes argue that Superman should focused on ending factory farming, or disrupting the meat supply chain. This can provoke a discussion about the relative importance of human versus non-human animal suffering, and whether Superman, as an alien intelligence, should have any special sympathy with humans compared to other sentient beings on Earth. This can also lead to a discussion of wild animal suffering, and whether Superman could do anything useful to reduce it.
Apart from Superman, it can also be instructive to consider the EA-relevant capabilities of other popular superheroes. Apart from super-strength, other superpowers typically include super speed (Flash, Quicksilver), regenerative powers (Deadpool, Wolverine), psionic abilities (Professor X, Scarlet Witch), extreme wealth and technology (Batman, Iron Man), control over nonhuman animals (Aquaman, Ratcatcher), changing size (Antman, Wasp), stealthy assassination (Black Widow, Elektra), and weather control (Thor, Storm). Each superpower opens new possibilities for EA interventions that students can debate. Should Tony Stark/Iron Man focused more on developing regenerative medicine, and less on developing nanotechnology suits? Should Professor X use mind control to impose moral enhancement on humans? Should Aquaman nudge the behavior of aquatic animals to reduce wild fish suffering?
Students also enjoy debating which supervillains could do the most harm -- or the most good -- if they wanted to shift the cosmic balance of total sentient utility.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of discussions that the EA superhero thought experiment can provoke in college classes. I've found that these discussions are easy, engaging, vivid, and memorable ways to introduce many EA concepts to students. They often end up realizing that it's a lot harder than they thought at first to do good, effectively, with minimal side-effects and blowback. They also get tuned into issues of epistemic uncertainty, moral uncertainty, and opportunity costs pretty easily.
I'd welcome any comments, feedback, or further suggestions about how to teach EA principles through thought experiments and discussion prompts centered around popular culture.
Thanks for the analysis! After listening to many students: what would you do as Superman in 24h?
This is a really interesting idea. There's a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic with a similar premise: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2011-07-13
If you liked that comic, you'll love this -- a much more thoughtful and elaborate exploration of the same question, in the form of a rationalist short-story: https://archiveofourown.org/works/30351690
I like the story too. Overly indulgent ofc, but sometimes it's good to indulge myself a little.
Jackson - thanks for the link. Very interesting story; I'd recommend others have a look at it too.
I enjoy this kind of thing and have had fun conversations about what effective superheroes would do. Seems like a cool exercise for a class!
I also wrote a (very) short story about a more EA-like superman getting to business.
Like this a lot! Could be useful to then talk about the power we do have - money, time (80k hours) etc… and thus the difference we can make. (Which I guess is the point)
I love it! Someone shoukd make a YouTube video or even a movie or some other media about it!
I wonder if Superman is smart and precise enough that he can single-handedly build a large-scale Martian colony or underwater colony + find enough consenting people to populate such civilizational backups (getting them there is easy: he's Superman).
Unfortunately I don't have good ideas for how having Superman's powers for 24 hours is enough for us to solve the current problem of us planning to summon alien gods with unknown values and priorities, without knowing know to bind them.