I’ve found it a bit tough to feel as excited as I usually am about effective altruism and our community recently. I think some others have too.
So I wanted to remind myself why I love EA so dearly. I thought hearing my take might also help any others in the community feeling similarly.
There’s a lot I want to say about why I love EA. But really, it all comes down to the people. Figuring out how I can best help others can be a difficult, messy, and emotionally draining endeavour. But it’s far easier to do alongside like-minded folk who care about the same goal. Thankfully, I found these people in the EA community.
Helping me live up to my values
Before I came across effective altruism, I wasn’t really enacting my values.
I studied ethics at university and realised I was a utilitarian. I used to do bits and pieces of charity work, such as volunteering at Oxfam. But I donated very little of my money. I wasn’t thinking about how to find a career that would significantly help others.
I didn’t have any good reason for my ethical omissions; it just didn’t seem like other people did them, so I didn’t either.
Now I’m a Giving What We Can member and have been fulfilling my pledge every year for a decade. I’m still not as good as I’d like to be about thinking broadly and proactively about how to find the most impactful career. But prioritising impact is now a significant factor in how I figure out what to do with my 80,000 hours.
I made these major shifts in my life, I think, because I met other people who were really living out their values. When I was surrounded by people who typically give something like 10% of their income to charity rather than 3%, my sense of how much was reasonable to give started to change. When I was directly asked about my own life choices, I stopped and thought seriously about what I could and should do differently.
In addition to these significant life changes, members of the EA community help me live up to my values in small and large ways every day. Sometimes, they give me constructive feedback so I can be more effective. Sometimes, I get a clear-sighted debugging of a challenge I’m facing — whether that’s a concrete work question or a messy motivational issue.
Sometimes the people around me just set a positive example. For instance, it’s much easier for me to work a few extra hours on a Saturday in the service of helping others when I’m alongside someone else doing the same.
Given what I said above, I think I’d have expected that the EA community would feel pretty pressureful. And it’s not always easy. But the overwhelming majority of the time, I don’t feel pressured by the people around me; I feel they share my understanding that the world is hard, and that it’s hard in very different ways for different people.
I honestly never cease to be impressed by the extent to which the people around me work hard to reach high standards, without demanding others do exactly the same. For example:
- One of my friends works around 12 hours a day, mostly 6 days a week. But he’s never anything but appreciative of how much I work, even though it’s significantly less.
- I’ve often expected to be judged for being an omnivore, given that my office is almost entirely veg*n. But far from that, people go out of their way to ensure I have food I’m happy to eat.
- When I first thought I might be pregnant, I felt a bit sheepish telling my friends about it, given that my confident prediction was that having a child would reduce my lifetime impact. But every single person showed genuine happiness for me.
This feels like a community where we can each be striving — but also be comfortable setting our limits, knowing that others will be genuinely, gladly respectful of them.
I think one reason our community is so understanding of each other is that it’s pragmatic to do so. We want to be a community that many different people can feel at home in.
But I think a bigger part of what’s going on is that the people making up our community actually are just incredibly kind and thoughtful. I’ve been lucky enough to live with around 40 people over the last decade who are involved in EA to differing degrees. It’s been really surprising to me just how considerate my housemates have been and how easy it’s felt to live with them. That doesn’t seem to be the norm for adults in their late twenties and thirties living together.
I’ve just been to EA Global in the Bay Area, which was a wonderful reminder of the kindness of the community.
I talked to someone working on improving access to contraception in poor countries. They talked about how hard it is to come into contact with people losing their babies — people suffering from debilitating health problems like fistula — but they work on it regardless, because it matters so much.
I talked to someone who had every right to find their weekend very stressful, but she didn’t because the main thing on her mind was supporting her friend any way she could.
And I personally became emotional while talking to someone I don’t know very well, who immediately stepped up to help me become happier and replan my day. He even checked in with me later on to say he was happy to provide more support if that would be useful.
People I continue to learn from every day
In addition to how kind people in EA often are, I very much appreciate how much I learn from them on an ongoing basis. The people I’ve met through this community seem unusually keen to try to understand the world and to form their own views about what’s true as far as they can. As a philosopher, I really appreciate people seeking to get to the bottom of things rather than accepting views because they’re the most convenient to believe or they’re the ones people around you hold.
And I also think this critical mindset is what’s needed to do a really good job at the hard projects we’re trying to do.
I also appreciate the extent to which the people I’m surrounded by are continuing to work on their own self-development and are happy to share their learning. Sometimes, this manifests as simple advice like: “This sleeping mat is great for keeping you cool in hot weather.” Sometimes it’s about specialised knowledge and being willing to have somewhat awkward conversations.
For example, an EA friend of mine who’s a doctor recently pointed out that one reason I might hate exercise so much could be exercise-induced asthma. If that’s true, I might exercise more if I were diagnosed and treated for that. It does in fact seem somewhat likely to be true, and it does seem like this insight is going to make me more likely to do intensive cardio. (Though still not “likely” per se!)
Just doing it
What feels most salient to me having just been to EA Global though is how much I appreciate the extent to which people in the EA community are just really going out and helping people. They’re doing things that are difficult, emotional, tiring, and speculative. But they’re not letting those things hold them back. They’re mostly talking about ways to do them better — to get more done and help more people. This includes:
- The philosophy lecturer, who has little contact with anyone else in the community, developing curricula for courses on ethics in different domains and thinking about how to make his material shareable with others
- The person who took leave from undergrad to set up a charity doing mass media outreach to improve the health of women in Nigeria
- The technology manager leaving a lucrative career to set up a governmental centre on the other side of the world
- The person taking an exciting idea in fast-growing technology from speculation to scale through what feels like sheer force of will
These feel like tough times for us as a community. People seem to be managing these difficulties in very different ways, through anger or sadness, or by following recent events. I’ve talked to at least some people who feel less proud of their identity as an EA than they used to.
At least insofar as that’s about our community, and the people in it, I want to push back on this inclination, at least a little. Figuring out how to help people most, and then actually doing that, is a huge undertaking. I find it so much easier when I can do it alongside others. I still feel pretty surprised to have found any people as caring and thoughtful as I have in this community.
I’m deeply grateful for having found so many of them. I’m not too fussed about the big things like brands and websites. But I feel sure that in a decade’s time, I’ll still be living up to my values because of the wonderful people I’m travelling with.
Michelle -- thank you for this lovely, positive, & inspiring post, which reminds us why were were attracted to the EA movement in the first place, why we like and respect EA people, and how rewarding EA has been in our lives.
This is especially timely given the recent controversies and setbacks -- it's helpful to take a step back and remember all the positive and distinctive features of EA.
I'm currently teaching my 'Psychology of EA' course for the fourth time at a large state university in the US. I'm amazed and inspired every week that my undergrads have their minds blown by EA insights, and feel morally inspired that there are so many practical ways they can have a positive impact in the world.
Very few of my students had heard of EA before taking the class. Even fewer had heard any criticisms of EA. Most didn't know anything about FTX, or any of the other recent difficulties. We tend to radically over-estimate how prominent our movement is to the general public (or to typical university students), and how harmed it has been the last few months, and how resistant people will be to our ideas. There are still billions of people out there who haven't even heard the core ideas and values of our movement.
For those of us who have been involved with EA for a while, we tend to take for granted just how novel, powerful, and galvanizing EA ideas can be to those who haven't heard them before.
Love this comment. I think actually this is one (smaller) reason that EAs have an ethical duty to ensure that EA is spoken of truthfully, to still not leave out the good parts, in fact to promote the whole picture, and speak with nuance and not just lie down and put our tails between our legs when we have public criticism. I think of it like: There's some universe where I haven't heard of EA yet, but I'd really want to and really be served by hearing of it. The way we speak of ourselves and allow others to speak of us (if untrue or half-truths) greatly changes the odds that I (and others in this universe who don't know about EA but would like to) find out about it and are galvanized to create the lives they really would prefer.
Ivy - Yes. Well said.
My friend Cullen once said something like "It's good for the world to have at least one group of people committed to doing good as such." At first I was like "Why?" but now I think I understand.
In war, it's generally a good idea to hold back some of your force as reserves. That way as the battle progresses and you get more information about which parts are doing well and poorly, you can send in the reserves to wherever they are needed most.
In the War On Bad Things, EAs are the reserves. They are much more capable of pivoting to different cause areas, projects, etc. as needed, and they are explicitly trying to go where they are most needed (as opposed to most other groups, which are doing the equivalent of trying to take hill X or hold line Z or whatever)
Thanks for this lovely post. I have SO many reasons to love effective altruism, here’s one (maybe I'll write more later):
I’ve been seeking out truthseeking communities all my life, but they all fell short of my goals until I found EA. Some examples:
But EA seems to be very different - this community seems to be unusually good at seeking the truth, even (or especially?) when it is inconvenient, scary, or even shameful. One of the first EA talks I went to blew my mind by questioning whether we are currently wasting our donations, by doing and then undoing good. Then I read GiveWell’s noodling on whether or not some of their (then) top charities are likely to have no impact, and discussions on whether becoming vegetarian increases animal suffering. More recently I’ve seen commentary about whether our community has accelerated dangerous AI capabilities or whether our community contributed to an environment that led to multi-billion dollar fraud. We should take these possible negatives very seriously. The fact that we do take these negatives seriously, and that we continue to try to get better a truth seeking gives me a whole bunch of hope.
Thanks for writing this, Michelle! Since you spent a lot of this post expressing gratitude for other people, I just want to say that you're also wonderfully kind, thoughtful, smart and sincere and I'm extremely grateful you exist. For those reading who haven't met Michelle, I recommend leaping at any opportunity to do so.
Thanks for writing this, I agree with it.
Though also there feels like something slightly beyond my ability to say. Something a bit like "community stuff gets us down because we see how good it can be and we want it to be better". I just have this white hot sense that we can be better, kinder, more joyful, more welcoming, upset one another less, be as sexy as we want to be etc.
And it feels safe to say "I am reassured by all the object stuff going on" and, as someone who is too online I agree with this. But I wish I could figure out how to make all that you say truer, not just on the "we do good work" side but also the "I love being here" side.
I feel like there is something just out of reach.
But I am just genuinely tremendously fond of you all. Thank you for all you do.
Thanks Michelle - this was a wonderful reminder of how great a lot of the people in the community are.
Many recent events have shaken and deeply upset me, but I still remain committed to wanting to dedicate my life to helping others.
People in this community have:
Lots of the connections I have made, I hope will become lifelong friends, and I expect a wider set of people will continue to inspire me throughout my life.
Thank you for taking the time to write this. I love how this was written too. It's in a way where I don't feel like something is being sold to me and it's just a genuine reflection of why EA is still really wonderful.
I at times honestly forget why this movement/community is uniquely valuable. But when I remember, they're enough to keep me hopeful again. As you mentioned, being truly empowered, taking corrective actions are the norm, collective learning etc. all these aspects of the community/movement are still here. They help reassure me that we will continue to do better. Thank you for sharing and helping remind us all.
Also, I love the gel sleeping mat was mentioned because I also recommend that to people (alongside an affordable memory foam topper). It really helps with sleep, general sharpness, mood and electricity bills!
Thank you for taking the time to write this post, Michelle! A lot of it resonates with me and it's a good reminder to sometimes zoom out a bit and think about the positives and the good parts about EA.