“Should,” “could” and “would” are insidious words. They are inherently judgemental—finding fault with the current state of affairs and envisioning a world different than reality. (In most cases better than reality, according to the beholder).

However, this is a fantasy. It is a flimsy hope with no backing support. Should/could/would imply the possibility for a different, better outcome. It is holding out hope for a better past. But quantum-mechanically, that waveform has already collapsed; the cat in the box is dead.[1]

I say this because one of the most common afflictions I see in EA is the inner critic. Smart, productive, well-intentioned people live in chronic discomfort with the self-flagellating belief that they could do better and should do better. The beatings will continue until morale improves.

I'm not saying don't have goals; I am saying let go of the outcomes. It's fine to be ambitious and set your sights on a target, but the healthy response is to choose contentment regardless of your achievements.

But there must be some minimum ethical standard for being a human on this planet, right? Without that, any behavior is acceptable. I contend that a single metric sets the bar for what I call a minimum viable life (MVL); it is simply to minimize harm.[2]

And that is it. Placing any more expectations on a person—yourself included—is implicitly attaching a judgment to that person: you are a good person if you meet or exceed these expectations; you are a bad person if you do not. Good/bad judgment can sometimes be a useful framing, but it's important to know that judgments are always relative. Their magnitude and polarity depend entirely on where you stand and how you look. I posit that it is never appropriate to judge another person as good or bad. It is only appropriate to assess how much harm they are causing and to put up boundaries or restraints where appropriate to attenuate future harm.

Yes, the bar is low. That's the point. If a person does nothing more than minimizing harm throughout their life, that is enough. If it helps, think of the people eking out living in poverty in LMICs that we are most trying to help. What do we really expect from them? To live life and minimize harm. Anything more anyone can do to positively contribute to the world is a bonus. And here's the important thing: only each person can determine what their own internal compass motivates them to do above and beyond.

Said another way, every individual has full agency over their life. If they want to meditate on a mountain, distribute bed nets in Africa, work on AI safety, or decided to play video games 16 hours per day, that is their right as an empowered human to do. It is only when those actions involve unnecessary harm to others we need to intervene.

It might feel like this low bar would then result in low achievement and low impact. That is a risk, and given 8 billion people on the planet, it is bound to happen. But I am an optimist. I have faith in humanity. I have seen the spark of passion that drives people to go above and beyond simply minimizing harm. Examples abound in the EA community. I have even felt that myself. This post is proof. It would have been less effort to not draft this, revise it, edit it, and post it. Yet I did because I feel it can improve the lives of others.

So I encourage you to lower your achievement bar all the way down to minimize harm: to others but also—and especially—to yourself. If you are in a place where all you feel you can do at the moment is minimize harm, that is OK. Know that this is a universal experience. If you take care of yourself and allow others to step up and support you as well, I have faith you will get past it. When you do get to a better state, the experience and memory of your own struggle will bring you empathy and compassion for others. You will find you have not only the motivation to do what is important but an inner sense of what you uniquely can contribute to the world.

And contribute you will. Maybe not as you envisioned because as much as we'd like to, we cannot predict the future. But you will make a positive difference, and—perhaps more importantly—your journey along the path will serve as a role model for those who follow.


  1. ^
  2. ^

    *It is impossible to do absolutely no harm while living a typical life. You are going to kill tens or hundreds of thousands of animal lives (mostly insects, and mostly inadvertently) as you go about your business. So as much as I'd like to adopt the Hippocratic oath—do no harm—it's more aspirational than realistic. To hold ourselves to such a standard would set us all up for inevitable failure.





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Placing any more expectations on a person—yourself included—is implicitly attaching a judgment to that person: you are a good person if you meet or exceed these expectations; you are a bad person if you do not.

Surely your criteria has the same issue; we are implicitly attaching a judgement to a person based on whether or not they minimize harm?

Correct, which is why the phrase “any more” is key in that sentence.

I agree with some of what you say here. For example, from a mental health perspective, teaching yourself to be content 'regardless of your achievements' sounds like a good thing.

But I think adopting 'minimize harm' as the only principle we can use to make judgements of people, is far too simplistic a principle to work in practice.

For example, if I find out that someone watched a child fall into a shallow pond, and didn't go to help them (when the pond is shallow enough that that would have posed no risk to them), then I will judge them for that. I am not convinced by your post that it is wrong for me to make this judgement.

On the other hand, if someone does go to help the child, and in doing so commits some other relatively minor harm (maybe they steal some sweets from a second child and use them to help treat the first child, who is now hypothermic), then I would certainly not judge them at all for that, even though they have failed according to your principle.

I'm of course just regurgitating the usual arguments for utilitarianism. And you could easily raise objections (why do I judge the person who leaves the child to drown more harshly than I judge someone who doesn't donate all their spare income to the AMF, for example?) I don't have the answers to these objections. My point is just that this topic is complicated, and that the 'minimize harm' principle is too simplistic.

I appreciate the thoughtful response, Toby. The problem with judgment in this scenario is that it presumes complete knowledge of all the factors at play in that situation. There are a lot of scenarios that could account for what was seen. Perhaps that person…

  • doesn't know how to swim and doesn't know the pond is shallow and of no risk.
  • once saw their sibling drown when they were a child and is frozen reliving the trauma of that incident.
  • is impaired—sight, hearing, developmentally…—in a way where they cannot fully grasp the nature of the situation.
  • chose to call emergency services because they believed that was the best way they could intervene.
  • knows the boy has a painful and fatal condition and has chosen to end his life rather than continue to suffer.

Ultimately, what happened happened and we cannot change that. The question is, " How will we live together moving forward?" If we suspect someone is not minimizing harm in their actions, I believe we need to have a conversation with them focusing on the harm and suffering caused to us or others: “I" and "they" statements rather than "you."(If we are speaking for others, it's very important that we are truly representing their experience.) Coming at someone from an accusatory, judgmental stance does not set a tone for a constructive, healthy ongoing relationship. In fact, many people will get defensive, dig in and even push back. 

[It's worth noting there is another person in this story: the observer. Are they a trustworthy reporter? Do they have all the facts? Why did they also choose to only observe and not act?]

You've pointed to a lot of potential complications, which I agree with, but I think they all also apply in cases where someone has done harm, not just in cases where they have not helped.

I just don't think the act/ommission distinction is very relevant here, and I thought the main claim of your post was that it was (but could have got the wrong end of the stick here!)

Maybe I overcomplexifyed things in my previous response. If they have caused harm, or appear to have, I think the next step is to make that known to them plainly, but in a nonjudgmental way. Then be open and curious to their response. We can't go through all the scenarios here, but if someone is defiant about it, doesn't take ownership, doesn't make amends… then we can exclude them from future participation in the community.

So yes, there is judgment taking place, but it is against the metric of harm and whether they are doing their best to minimize it.

Thanks again for engaging. This is helping me clarify my stance.