[ Question ]

What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others?

by lukefreeman1 min read18th Nov 202050 comments

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I realise there have been some previous threads over the years, but none recently that I'm aware of (and a lot has been published in recent years).

I'd also like to know specifically ones that are inspiring and thought provoking.

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"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

[+][comment deleted]2mo 3

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.”

Another quote by MacFarquhar on Parfit:

"As for his various eccentricities, I don’t think they add anything to an understanding of his philosophy, but I find him very moving as a person. When I was interviewing him for the first time, for instance, we were in the middle of a conversation and suddenly he burst into tears. It was completely unexpected, because we were not talking about anything emotional or personal, as I would define those things. I was quite startled, and as he cried I sat there rewinding our conversation in my head, trying to figure out wh... (read more)

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?

J.R.R. Tolkein:

“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.

Strong upvote for Month of May.

“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

And later iirc "maybe not needing to hear their screams is what being the comet king means."

"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."

(In case any future readers are wondering, this quote is from Derek Parfit.)

"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

"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

Another one from this post:

"There may well come a day when humanity would tear apart a thousand suns in order to prevent a single untimely death.

That is 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."

This is great. Did you write this?

6kokotajlod2moYeah, though it's of course heavily inspired by things people say on LessWrong. Thanks! It was one of my wedding vows.

Agreed. it makes life so much easier and more enjoyable. 

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 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

[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.

-- David Pearce, Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?, "Utopian Neuroscience"

"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

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.

"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."

Unfortunately I do broadly agree. 

I am quite open about the fact that doing good makes me feel good, my reasoning is that if I feel good then I perform better, therefore enabling me to make more money to do more good. I use the Kahneman Happiness model and Paul Zak's neuroeconomics research  to support my approach.  

Can we make doing good cool maybe?

"If you get the right answer to the wrong question, you still die." --Van Jones

"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.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Chapter 47: Personhood Theory

A few more wonderful quotes from HPMOR:

"And Harry remembered what Professor Quirrell had said beneath the starlight: Sometimes, when this flawed world seems unusually hateful, I wonder whether there might be some other place, far away, where I should have been… But the stars are so very, very far away… And I wonder what I would dream about, if I slept for a long, long time.

Right now this flawed world seemed unusually hateful. And Harry couldn’t understand Professor Quirrell’s words, it might have been an alien that had spoken, or an Artificial Intelligence... (read more)

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.

What's the source of this quote? The only reference I could find was another post.

1kokotajlod1moI made it up, but it's inspired by reading this short story. [https://www.yudkowsky.net/other/fiction/the-sword-of-good] (I have a stash of quotes I find inspirational, and sometimes I make up stuff to put in the stash. Having to come up with wedding vows was part of my motivation.)

Here's a collection of quotes tagged by Goodreads users with "effective altruism", which I assume they often tagged after finding them inspirational.

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"

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.)

"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."

from https://lyricstranslate.com/en/Solo-le-pido-Dos-I-only-ask-God.html

"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

"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

"The mark of a civilised person is the ability to look at a column of numbers and weep."

Bertrand Russell 

“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.”

Mahatma Ghandi

“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.”

Alasdair Gray

"Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory."

Irena Sendler

“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?”

Derek Parfit

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.

—Henry Sidgwick

Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him.

—Alphonse Daudet

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.

—Albert Einstein

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

—John Lennon and Paul McCartney

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.

—Isaac Asimov...

The Precipice

Toby Ord

 

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."

“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.

"There is a genius for impoverishment always at work in the world. And it has its way, as if its proceedings were not only necessary but even sensible. Its rationale, its battle cry, is Competition."

— Marilynne Robinson

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 
Of eternity.

"Politics is the mind-killer." -Yudkowsky

3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:02 PM

This thread was a moving read. Thanks Luke for starting it, and to those who contributed. The intended effect of the quotes worked on me, and I hope my work will be better for it, if only for a while.

I agree. I have read only a few but I am crying as they are very moving and inspiring. This is the combined effect of their beauty and strength with my attachment to this community that shares my values. I will keep reading them in the next few days... 

Indeed! Thanks for all these great contributions! It was a great start to my morning 😍