I've been thinking of maybe writing a book about effective altruism. I've been blogging about these ideas for a long time, but a book would offer the opportunity to go into more depth and to be more thoughtful about some concepts I originally wrote up quickly and casually. Many of these ideas are also worth revisiting; I've learned a lot in the years since!
Looking back over my EA writing I've touched on many aspects, but the bit I've covered the most and would be most excited to expand on is integrating EA ideas into your life:
How should you decide whether to donate? Change careers? Volunteer? Go vegan? Live more frugally? Not have kids? Avoid flying? Which options are basically never worth it, and which are dependent on what you value? Some sacrifices people commonly consider are shockingly poor tradeoffs. You'll usually have the largest impact if you focus your altruistic efforts, but our culture generally encourages a people to take on a wide range of smaller things without considering their tradeoffs.
How does our family put these ideas into practice? Where does our time, money, and attention go? How did we handle the intense pull to do unsustainable amounts, and how has this changed over the years with getting older, having kids, and lifestyle creep? How much does EA influence what we do outside work?
I'd also include a short introduction to EA, key ideas from my other posts (ex: The Privilege of Earning to Give, Responsible Transparency Consumption, Milk EA, Casu Marzu EA), and concepts from related EA blog posts (ex: Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately, Cheerfully). I would want to stick to the "nonfiction" genre and not "memoir", with the focus on EA and only using our family's experience to the extent necessary to illustrate the application of these ideas. I could also see chapters on how some specific other EAs have applied these ideas, interviewing them and writing it up as prose?
There are already several books aiming to introducing EA to a general audience, and if I thought that everything I wanted to say had already been said I wouldn't be very interested in this project. Looking over these books, however, I do think there's a place for what I want to write. The main EA books (Doing Good Better, The Precipice, What We Owe The Future) are primarily moral arguments. While they do get into the more practical side (ex: chapter 10 of WWOTF) I think there's a lot to expand on, especially by connecting EA concepts to specific decisions EAs have needed to make. There's also Strangers Drowning, which does consider how altruists have put their beliefs into practice, but only two of the chapters are about EAs and it covers a time when no one had been an EA for very long yet.
Existing EA writing is also generally aimed at an elite audience. I see why some people have decided to take that approach, but I also think it's really important to have a presentation of these ideas grounded in common sense. If we ignore the general public we leave EA's popular conception to be defined by people who don't understand our ideas very well.
One question is whether I'm the best person to write this. Advantages include that I've been thinking about this for a long time, understand EA ideas well, have a lot of relevant personal experience, have lots of practice at being public about things, and expect to be relatable to many readers (mid-career parent, etc). Disadvantages are that I don't have relevant credentials (not a philosopher or social scientist), am demographically similar to authors of other EA books, and have written enough publicly that almost anyone could find something to dislike. Overall, I think EA would benefit from a less centralized public representation, and adding someone writing from a non-academic perspective would be good.
Co-writing with Julia would be better, but I suspect it wouldn't go well. While we do have compatible views, we have very different writing styles, and I understand taking on projects like this is often hard on relationships. I could see co-writing with someone else? Let me know if you'd be interested!
There's also the question of opportunity cost: what would writing trade off against? A lot of this depends on how I approach it: is this something I should work on after the kids go to bed, when I typically write blog posts? Or should I consider trying to go part-time at work, take leave, or quit? I haven't yet talked to people at work about this, but I would lean towards taking leave or going part time: if this is worth doing it's probably worth focusing on. That I think what I'm currently doing is valuable, though, means that there's a higher bar than just "does this seem like a good book to exist."
Is this a book you'd be interested to see? Advice on the nonfiction industry? General feedback?
"Co-writing with Julia would be better, but I suspect it wouldn't go well. While we do have compatible views, we have very different writing styles, and I understand taking on projects like this is often hard on relationships."
Perhaps there are ways of addressing this. For instance, you could write separate chapters, or parts; or have some kind of dialogue between the two of you. The idea would be that each person owns part of the book. I'm unsure about the details, but maybe you could find a solution.
Yes this was my thought as well. I'd love a book from you Jeff but would really (!!) love one from both of you (+ mini-chapters from the kids?).
I don't know the details of your current work, but it seems worth writing one chapter as a trial run, and if you think its going well (and maybe has good feedback) considering taking 6 months or so off.
The "mini-chapters" idea made me think of Candy for Nets.
Personally, I would not do this to my marriage.
Would love a book like this to exist, and you'd be a great author of it (and Julia too!) :)
I would love to read a book written by you. I've enjoyed many of your blog posts.
Aside from my own reading preferences, I think it would be very nice to have a book written about EA ideas (broadly described) by someone who is not a philosophy professor, and which focuses more on the mundane aspects of everyday life, rather than distant and abstract moral aspirations.
You asked whether you should spend time on this book at the expense of going part time on your job, i.e. you raised the question of the opportunity cost.
In order to assess that, we need to work out a Theory of Change for your book. Is it to support people interested in doing good, and helping them to be more effective? In that case it would be useful to see your model for this:
I suspect that the cruxiest of the above questions will probably be the one about counterfactuals. Will you have a marketing strategy that enables you to reach people who would not have ended up reading another EA book anyway?
If not, my not-carefully-thought-through intuition is that it would be better for you to focus your time on your day job (assuming it's high impact, which, from memory, I think it is). Which is a shame, because I would have liked to see your book!
While people reading the book changing their altruistic behavior in ways that counterfactually improve the world is one way I see this book being valuable, I think a larger component of its value would be via people better understanding what EA is about, and what EAs are doing and why. As above:
How people who don't decide to get into EA view EA approaches to the world matters, and I think we've been neglecting this. I'm concerned about a growing dynamic where we're increasingly misunderstood, people who don't actually substantively disagree with us reflexively counter EA efforts, and people who would find EA ideas helpful don't engage with them because their osmosis-driven impression of EA is mistaken.
I would state that last paragraph even more strongly: my hypothesis is that the views about EA held by people who will never decide to get into EA will ultimately have a larger effect on how EA impacts the world (both in magnitude and in direction) than the views of people who are already a part of EA communities today.
General-public perception of a group pre-filters the types of people who engage with curiosity toward that group’s ideas, and I think that could be a strong enough force to make my prediction true on its own. I also think that general public reputation for a group can affect the types of opportunities that the group can access for acting upon their ideas, which might particularly shape the actual activities of a community that largely focuses on each person’s highest impact opportunities.
Yes. The Life You Can Save and Doing Good Better are pretty old. I think it's natural to write new content to clarify what EA is about.
I wonder if you could reduce the opportunity cost by farming out some of the background labor to (for lack of a better term) a research assistant? Seems like that might be a useful investment (depending on funding) to maximize your productivity and minimize time away from your object-level job.
Jeff -- I think this is a wonderful idea for a book, and I'd strongly encourage you to do this.
If the focus was on 'EA for ordinary parents and families', I think you could reach a lot of people.
In particular, you could offer a lot of solace and reassurance to busy parents that a lot of the the stuff they've been told that they should worry about ethically (e.g. recycling, updating gas to electric cars, donating food to local shelters, getting a rescue dog, partisan national politics, etc) doesn't actually matter very much in the grand scheme, and that there are a lot of much higher-impact things they could be doing that might actually take less time and money.
In other words, for a family to 'turn EA' doesn't necessarily load them with a heavier moral burden; it might actually lighten their moral guilt if they were much more informed and scope-sensitive, and chose their moral battles more wisely.
(Consider just the issue of what to feed a family -- if you could explain that if you're worried about animal suffering, you don't have to force kids to turn full vegan; even just switching from eating chicken and small fish to eating pastured grass-fed beef could reduce animal suffering very effectively, and they can offset by donating a little bit to Vegan Outreach. This might lead parents to feel much less moral guilt about what they feed their kids -- and it might actually reduce animal suffering more than 'trying to be vegan' (which often, sadly, involves switching from beef to chicken).
I think an EA perspective could also help families better handle any misplaced eco-guilt they might have about having kids in the first place, 'contributing to overpopulation', 'burdening the planet', 'contributing to global warming', etc. This could get a bit into population ethics, but it doesn't really need to -- it could just involve reassuring parents that kids are future intellectual and moral resources for fighting against climate change and protecting the ecosphere; they're not just costs imposed on the planet.
In terms of co-authoring with Julia, bear in mind that co-authorship (especially with spouses) doesn't need to be a 50/50 effort; it can involve one author doing 90% of the initial draft, and the other adding their notes, edits, expansions, feedback, and guidance. As long as both people agree they contributed significantly to the book (and their agents, editors, & publishers agree too, which they will), they can both be co-authors. And I think it adds credibility for a married couple to present a book for couples and families.
I am fully supportive of more books coming out on EA related topics. I've also always enjoyed your writings.
As someone trying to write a book about the threat of AI for a broader audience, I've learned that you should have a good idea of your goal for the book's distribution. Meaning, is your goal to get this published by a publisher?
Or self-publish? An eCopy or audiobook?
To get something published, you typically need an agent. To get an agent you usually need a one-page pitch, a writing sample, and perhaps an outline.
If no agent is interested, it is a risk to write the book if you want a third party to publish it.
I love the idea of a book about practical everyday altruism, and I think you absolutely have the stories to back it up!
I'm not familiar with your work so far, but there definitely is room for developing and advertising "EA for Normal People". I think there's value in addressing the very practical problems of doing EA: it's weird, it can be expensive, it's hard to stay motivated, the community is brainy, people won't believe your motivations, you have many existing commitments already.
I think the book might benefit from focusing on a target audience.
As a prolific writer of blogs, you seem to be in a very good position to also write a book. Good luck!
It sounds brilliant. Good luck!
I think it's a great idea. My intuition is that you ought to exaggerate what makes your work different from the existing EA canon. For example, you might want to be much more accessible than the works put out by moral philosophers. To this end, I suggest partnering with someone with a track record publishing pop-science, self-help or similar.
It doesn't mean you have to water down EA ideas. But it would probably mean distilling the essence of EA thought into a few clear principles, which can then use to illustrate why EA leads to various conclusions.
For example (off the top of my head) your principles might be:
Then, in your chapter on personal consumption choices, you can show why (to borrow Geoffrey Miller's example) transitioning from chicken to grass-fed beef, with an offset donation to Vegan Outreach (a bewildering choice to most people) stems from the principles.
In short, you should aim to be accessible, but not one of those books that you have to flick back through to find the answers to each of life's questions. Readers should be left with a clear and lasting grounding in the basics.
While I'm writing about setting yourself apart from the EA canon, I feel I should point out the obvious - women, especially mothers, are not well-represented among EA authors. If you can find some way to productively collaborate with Julia, you should.
I'm not sure if this fits your concept, but it might be helpful to have a guidebook that caters specifically to new EAs, to help give guidance to people excited about the ideas but unsure how to put them into practice in daily life, in order to convert top of funnel growth into healthy middle of funnel growth. This could maybe couple with a more general audience book that appeals to people who are antecedently interested in the ideas.
A couple things I'd like to see in this are the reasoning transparency stuff, guidance on going out and getting skills outside of the EA community to bring into the community, anti-burnout stuff, and various cultural elements that will help community health and epistemics.
You might want to check out this book on on the analogies between a personal relationship and the relationships between countries (focusing on nuclear war) by a husband and wife team.