"Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
"I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy - ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness--that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what--at last--I have found.
"With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
"Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
"This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me."
- Prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography.
"One day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”
Terry Pratchett (character is Lord Vetinari), Unseen Academicals
George Bernard Shaw (on moral reflection/holding unusual values):
"The fact that we can become accustomed to anything [...] makes it necessary to examine everything we are accustomed to."
Nick Bostrom (on seeing the better world we could have):
“Utopia is the hope that the scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.”
Bryan Caplan (on epistemic modesty):
"Look in the mirror. You don't know the best way to deal with Russia."
Arcade Fire, "Month of May":
I said some things are pure, and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
Well, I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Dirge Without Music" (on defeating death):
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
From Larissa MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning:
"What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”
"This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers — they always feel that strangers, like compatriots in war, are their own people. They know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.”
“Do-gooders learn to codify their horror into a routine and a set of habits they can live with. They know they must do this in order to stay sane. But this partial blindness is chosen and forced and never quite convincing.”
“No, I do not really hear the screams of everyone suffering in Hell. But I thought to myself, ‘I suppose if I tell them now that I have the magic power to hear the screams of the suffering in Hell, then they will go quiet, and become sympathetic, and act as if that changes something.’ Even though it changes nothing. Who cares if you can hear the screams, as long as you know that they are there? So maybe what I said was not fully wrong. Maybe it is a magic power granted only to the Comet King. Not the power to hear the screams. But the power not to have to.” -The Comet King, a character in Unsong
"When I believed [that personal identity is what matters], I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others."
- Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons
"Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.
If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would give us all, including some of those who have suffered, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists."
"if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it"
"One day we ... may have the luxury of going to any length in order to prevent a fellow sentient mind from being condemned to oblivion unwillingly. If we ever make it that far, the worth of a life will be measured not in dollars, but in stars.
"That is the value of a life. It will be the value of a life then, and it is the value of a life now.
"So when somebody offers $10 to press that button, you press it. You press the hell out of it. It's the best strategy available to you; it's the only way to save as many people as you can. But don't ever forget that this very fact is a terrible tragedy.
"Don't ever forget about the gap between how little a life costs and how much a life is worth. For that gap is an account of the darkness in this universe, it is a measure of how very far we have left to go."
- Nate Soares, The Value of a Life
"Take pride in noticing when you are confused, or when evidence goes against what you think. Rejoice when you change your mind."
I’m proud that e.g. the analytics platform (Epic’s analytics platform) I made when I was 20 is now used by almost every major healthcare organization in the US, when most people don’t get that sort of opportunity until their 40s if ever, but compressing two decades of work into two years definitely took a toll. Specifically, I’m not really able to use my hands anymore since I spent so many hours typing without rest.
It’s definitely annoying that I can’t hold open a book or use chopsticks anymore, but here’s one of the things I’ve wondered about: do people who believe in consequentialist ethics recover from disabilities faster?
If some pandemic breaks out that humanity isn’t ready for, mother nature isn’t going to say “well you guys gave it a good shot, so I will suspend the laws of biology for now” – we’re just all going to be dead. Consequentialist ethics is about accepting that fact – accepting that “trying really hard” doesn’t count for anything. And being lazy doesn’t matter either. As long as you get things done, who cares how hard you had to work?
That may or may not be the correct way to view the world, but I feel like it’s a helpful one. I used to spend 12 hours a day typing, and now I spend 12 hours a day using voice recognition with a weird infrared tracking thing on my head and pedals for my feet. Who cares? The same work still gets done.
Ben West from an interview I conducted a long time ago.
There's a powerful poem in my native language (Irish) that was published in 1971, whose title loosely translates to "Indifference cannot be permitted". It calls for equality, compassion, and our obligation towards people in all parts of the world, people with mental illness, non-human animals, and (depending on how one translates) possible life beyond earth. It was my first introduction to principles such as those that underpin EA. I won't try to translate it, but it's talked about (and part of it translated) in a recent blog post here: https://www.ria.ie/news/membership-policy-and-international-relations/ni-ceadmhach-neamhshuim
Níl cuil, níl leamhan, níl beach
Dar chruthaigh Dia, níl fear,
Nach dualgas dúinn a leas,
Níl bean; ní ceadmhach neamhshuim
A dhéanamh dá n-imní;
Níl gealt i ngleann na ngealt,
Nár chuí dhúinn suí lena ais,
Á thionlacan an fhaid
A iompraíonn thar ár gceann
Ár dtinneas-ne ‘na mheabhair.
Níl alt, níl sruth, níl sceach,
Dá iargúlta iad, níl leac,
Bídís thuaidh, thoir, thiar nó theas,
Nár cheart dúinn machnamh ar a suíomh
Le gean is le báidhíocht;
Dá fhaid uainn Afraic Theas,
Dá airde í gealach,
Is cuid dínn iad ó cheart:
Níl áit ar fuaid na cruinne
Nach ann a saolaíodh sinne.
There’s ongoing sickening cruelty: violent child pornography, chickens are boiled alive, and so on. We should help these victims and prevent such suffering, rather than focus on ensuring that many individuals come into existence in the future. When spending resources on increasing the number of beings instead of preventing extreme suffering, one is essentially saying to the victims: “I could have helped you, but I didn’t, because I think it’s more important that individuals are brought into existence. Sorry.”
-- Simon Knutsson, "The One-Paragraph Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics"
"One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know. If you are selective about which arguments you inspect for flaws, or how hard you inspect for flaws, then every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider." -Yudkowksy
I just stumbled across this on my Facebook newsfeed eradicator today and it reminded me of the inspiring quotes thread:
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before beginning to improve the world.”
~ Anne Frank
[T]rue hedonic engineering, as distinct from mindless hedonism or reckless personal experimentation, can be profoundly good for our character. Character-building technologies can benefit utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike. Potentially, we can use a convergence of biotech, nanorobotics and information technology to gain control over our emotions and become better (post-)human beings, to cultivate the virtues, strength of character, decency, to become kinder, friendlier, more compassionate: to become the type of (post)human beings that we might aspire to be, but aren't, and biologically couldn't be, with the neural machinery of unenriched minds. Given our Darwinian biology, too many forms of admirable behaviour simply aren't rewarding enough for us to practise them consistently: our second-order desires to live better lives as better people are often feeble echoes of our baser passions. Too many forms of cerebral activity are less immediately rewarding, and require a greater capacity for delayed gratification, than their lowbrow counterparts. Likewise, many forms of altruistic behaviour ... are less rewarding than personal consumption.
"Have you ever experienced a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration maybe, your mind tracing the shapes of truth and beauty? Or in the pulsing ecstasy of love? Or in a glorious triumph achieved with true friends? Or in a conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or perhaps a melody smuggled itself into your heart, charming it and setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotions? Or when you prayed, and felt heard?
... you may have discovered inside it a certain idle but sincere thought: 'Heaven, yes! I didn’t realize it could be like this. This is so right, on whole different level of right; so real, on a whole different level of real. Why can’t it be like this always? Before I was sleeping; now I am awake.'
Quick, stop that door from closing! Shove your foot in so it does not slam shut.
And let the faint draught of the beyond continue to whisper... the tender words of what could be!"
- Nick Bostrom, Letter from Utopia
"Few people are actually trying to do good. The best explanation for most people's behavior--even when they think they are trying to do good--is that they are trying to feel good and look good."
There are actually two struggles between good and evil within each person. The first is the struggle to choose the right path despite all the temptations to choose the wrong path; it is the struggle to make actions match words. The second is the struggle to correctly decide which path is right and which is wrong. Many people who win one struggle lose the other. Do not lose sight of this fact or you will be one of them.
"I have a dream," said Harry's voice, "that one day sentient beings will be judged by the patterns of their minds, and not their color or their shape or the stuff they're made of, or who their parents were. Because if we can get along with crystal things someday, how silly would it be not to get along with Muggleborns, who are shaped like us, and think like us, as alike to us as peas in a pod? The crystal things wouldn't even be able to tell the difference. How impossible is it to imagine that the hatred poisoning Slytherin House would be worth taking with us to the stars? Every life is precious, everything that thinks and knows itself and doesn't want to die. Lily Potter's life was precious, and Narcissa Malfoy's life was precious, even though it's too late for them now, it was sad when they died. But there are other lives that are still alive to be fought for. Your life, and my life, and Hermione Granger's life, all the lives of Earth, and all the lives beyond, to be defended and protected, EXPECTO PATRONUM! "
And there was light.
"I only ask of God
That I am not indifferent to the pain,
That the dry death won’t find me
Empty and alone, without having done the sufficient."
"But those who fill with bliss
All beings destitute of joy,
Who cut all pain and suffering away
From those weighed down with misery,
Who drive away the darkness of their ignorance—
What virtue could be matched with theirs?
What friend could be compared with them?
What merit is there similar to this?"
"The great should never be abandoned for the less,
And others' good should be regarded as supreme."
"If with kindly generosity
One merely has the wish to soothe
The aching heads of other beings
Such merit knows no bounds.
No need to speak then, of the wish
To drive away the endless pain
Of each and every living being,
Bringing them unbounded excellence.”
“If the simple thought to be of help to others
Exceeds in worth the worship of the Buddhas,
What need is there to speak of actual deeds
That bring about the weal and benefit of beings?”
from Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (The Way of the Bodhisattva) by Śantideva
If humanity is to minimize suffering in the future, it must engage with the world, not opt out of it.
-- Magnus Vinding (2015), Anti-Natalism and the Future of Suffering: Why Negative Utilitarians Should Not Aim For Extinction
"Be as you wish to seem" - attributed to Socrates by the sorts of sources whose quote attributions I don't trust
"Be the change you wish to see in the world" - perhaps Arleen Lorrance (perhaps influenced by an statement from Gandhi)
(As a teenager, I found these quotes quite inspiring. I've rarely thought about them for the last 5+ years. But that might just be because the ideas that they express are now sufficiently absorbed into my mindset that it doesn't seem necessary to think about the quotes anymore.)
Here are some 'EA' related quotes I have collected - not sure if any are useful for your particular case, but figured it was best to share them anyway!
There is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.
— Albert Einstein...
He is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures.
— Muhammad (c. 570-632 A.D.)...
There are no catastrophes that loom before us which cannot be avoided; there is nothing that threatens us with imminent destruction in such a fashion that we are helpless to do something about it. If we behave rationally and humanely; if we concentrate coolly on the problems that face all of humanity, rather than emotionally on such nineteenth century matters as national security and local pride; if we recognize that it is not one’s neighbors who are the enemy, but misery, ignorance, and the cold indifference of natural law—then we can solve all the problems that face us. We can deliberately choose to have no catastrophes at all.
Cicero wrote: "The best Armour of Old Age is a well spent life preceding it; a Life employed in the Pursuit of useful Knowledge, in honourable Actions and the Practice of Virtue; in which he who labours to improve himself from his Youth, will in Age reap the happiest Fruits of them."
In the real world, maybe we're alone. The skies look empty. Cynics might point to the mess on Earth and echo C.S. Lewis: "Let's pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere." Yet our ethical responsibility is to discover whether other suffering sentients exist within our cosmological horizon; establish the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency; and assume responsible stewardship of our Hubble volume. Cosmic responsibility entails full-spectrum superintelligence: to be blissful but not "blissed out" - high-tech Jainism on a cosmological scale. We don't yet know whether the story of life has a happy ending.
-- David Pearce, "High-Tech Jainism"
"Truth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is, and you must bend to its power or live a lie." -Miyamoto Musashi
Distance in space and time degrades intensity of awareness. So does magnitude. Seventeen is a figure which I know intimately like a friend; fifty billions is just a sound. A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance and digestion; three million Jews killed in Poland cause but a moderate uneasiness. Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts. We are unable to embrace the total process with our awareness; we can only focus on little lumps of reality.
People go to cinemas, they see films of Nazi tortures, of mass-shootings, of underground conspiracy and self-sacrifice. They sigh, they shake their heads, some have a good cry. But they do not connect it with the realities of their normal plane of existence. It is Romance, it is Art, it is Those Higher Things, it is Church Latin. It does not click with reality.
I know one who used to tour this country addressing meetings, at an average of ten a week. He is a well-known London publisher. Before each meeting he used to lock himself up in a room, close his eyes, and imagine in detail, for twenty minutes, that he was one of the people in Poland who were killed. One day he tried to feel what it was like to be suffocated by chloride gas in a death-train; the other he had to dig his grave with two hundred others and then face a machine gun, which, of course, is rather unprecise and capricious in its aiming. Then he walked out to the platform and talked.
He kept going for a full year before he collapsed with a nervous breakdown. He had a great command of his audiences and perhaps he has done some good, perhaps he brought the two planes, divided by miles of distance, an inch closer to each other. I think one should imitate this example. Two minutes of this kind of exercise per day, with closed eyes, after reading the morning paper, are at present more necessary to us than physical jerks and breathing the Yogi way. It might even be a substitute for going to church. For as long as there are people on the road and victims in the thicket, divided by dream barriers, this will remain a phony civilisation.
— Arthur Koestler, "The Nightmare That Is a Reality"
"The mark of a civilised person is the ability to look at a column of numbers and weep."
“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”
“It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.”
H. G. Wells
“Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation.”
"Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory."
“Why should costs and benefits receive less weight, simply because they are further in the future? When the future comes, these benefits and costs will be no less real. Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra wanted an extra helping of dessert. How could this be justified?”
On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?
—Thomas Babington Macaulay
The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may so say) of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realized in the one case than in the other.
Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him.
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
—John Lennon and Paul McCartney
I imagine our descendants looking back at those few centuries, and seeing some set of humans, amidst much else calling for attention, lifting their gaze, crunching a few numbers, and recognizing the outlines of something truly strange and extraordinary — that somehow, they live at the very beginning, in the most ancient past; that something immense and incomprehensible and profoundly important is possible, and just starting, and in need of protection.
I imagine our descendants saying: “*Yes*. You can see it. Don’t look away. Don’t forget. Don’t mess up. The pieces are all there. Go slow. Be careful. It’s really possible.” I imagine them looking back through time at their distant ancestors, and seeing some of those ancestors, looking forward through time, at them. I imagine eyes meeting.
-Joseph Carlsmith, On future people, looking back at 21st century longtermism
This post was only published recently and I only read it today, so I can't yet say that this inspired me to use my resources to effectively help others. But I think the sort of idea it points to has indeed inspired me, and I found that passage excellent and expect it will inspire me in future.
(Note that the original post contains some caveats, e.g. "To be clear: this is some mix between thought experiment and fantasy. It’s not a forecast, or an argument. In particular, the empirical picture I assumed above may just be wrong in various key ways.")
“I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good person, you see yourself.” In the film Kundun on the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Little Things by Julia A. F. Carney
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.
Thus the little minutes,
Humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages