Supportive Scepticism


I’d like to raise an aspect of effective altruism that I personally find difficult. My hope is that this will promote discussion and help others who feel similarly.

I want to preface this by saying I am incredibly glad that I got involved in the effective altruism community, and that I think overall my life is a lot better because of it. I feel like I have a much greater sense of purpose and belief that I can do good in the world, I have an incredible network of friends with similar values and interests, and a great deal more ambition. Plus I’m actually doing more to make the world better, of course.

But there’s also something about EA that causes me a distress I didn’t have before.

The whole point of effective altruism is that we don’t just want to do good; we want to do the most good possible. But figuring out the “best possible” thing for any person to do is incredibly difficult. And a strong desire to do the best possible thing coupled with a huge amount of uncertainty is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The first part of the problem is that it’s easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself as an effective altruist.

I personally spend a lot of time thinking about whether what I’m doing right now really is the best thing, or whether I could be doing something better. And whilst some doubt and scepticism is definitely useful, I can’t help but think I’m doubting myself more than is useful. It seems quite likely I would be happier and more effective in what I’m doing if I doubted myself less. At the very least, I’d simply be doing more things. I spend far too much of my time in analysis paralysis.

To give a concrete example: I’ve just finished my first year of a PhD program. And I’ve spent a good proportion of that first year agonising with myself over the question: “What should my thesis topic be?”. Every time someone suggested a topic or I thought about narrowing down on an area a little voice in my head would go “But what if that’s not the best thing for you to research? What if this other thing was better?”. You can see how this kind of thinking might start to drive you crazy, and how it might also lead me to feel quite unmotivated to work on my PhD.

Part two of the problem is that it’s also easy to end up putting a lot of pressure on each other.

One of the key parts of effective altruism is that we don’t take claims of do-gooding at face value: just because something sounds like it does good, or produces a warm glow, doesn’t mean that it’s actually doing good. So every time we hear about some kind of altruistic endeavour, we automatically think, “But is that really effective?”. This also happens when we talk to each other about our plans. When I’m telling another effective altruist about what I’m working on or what my long-term plan is, there’s often that niggling voice in the back of my head going, “I wonder if they’re thinking this isn’t very effective and judging me....”. This can also make us appear unwelcoming to people who are new to the ideas of effective altruism. Unfortunately scepticism and warmth just don’t seem to be that well correlated.

I don’t think I’m alone in worrying about this - I’ve spoken to a number of other effective altruists who experience something similar. It seems like quite a few people worry about not being “effective enough” or “not doing enough good” more than is helpful. And I think this is actually a pretty big problem. It may be stopping people from making as much difference as they could. It may also be preventing us from being as warm and encouraging towards each other as we could be, especially towards people new to the ideas of effective altruism.

So what can we do about this?

The crux of the problem seems to be that it’s difficult to be sceptical and supportive: both of other people, and of ourselves. But I don’t think it’s an inevitable consequence of being sceptical that we’ll end up putting pressure on ourselves and others.

I think one thing that’s useful in itself is just for people to admit that they feel this pressure sometimes. Hearing that other people feel the way I do - that other people worry about whether they’re doing the best thing, and worry about what others think of them - helped me to realise that it wasn’t just me, and accept that what I was feeling was natural. That’s a big part of the reason I’m writing this post: so people who feel this way, even a little bit, can realise that it may be a pretty common feeling. I’d be really interested to hear from people the extent to which they can identify with what they described, to know how common it is. Obviously if you don’t feel this way, that’s great - maybe you have some great strategies or ways of thinking those of us who do can use!

The next step is for us to just make sure we are being kind and encouraging - both towards each other and ourselves. We could also reward this behaviour so it becomes more of a community norm. I find actually trying to change my patterns of thought really useful - it’s so easy to get into the habit of thinking hypercritically every time you hear a claim. Now, when I hear a new idea from someone, I try to think about what it’s virtues might be instead of/as well as thinking of ways it might be improved (note: improved, not wrong.) Mental habits are relatively malleable if you practice.

To conclude:

Being kind and being sceptical aren't mutually exclusive, but it's easy to end up feeling like they are. When we think of incredibly warm and kind people, they tend to be the kind of people who will say any idea is wonderful. Of course, this is exactly what effective altruism is trying to oppose: we don't want to lose our habits of rigorously examining arguments and evidence. But just as important is ensuring we don't go too far in the other direction; that we don't become cold towards each other and ourselves. If we can't suspend our scepticism for long enough to make decisions, or listen to someone else's plans without immediately writing them off, then we're unlikely to get very far.