Talking EA to your philosophy friends is like talking dirty, academia style. You’re using words they’ve heard before (possibly in undergrad for the first time) such as “utility function”, “utilitarianism”, and “Peter Singer” but in a way that makes them want to mess with you because, well, they think you’re trying to mess with them. “Hmm EA? Isn’t that the philosophy that wants you to make a ton of money to donate as much of it as possible to charities?” “And why do you keep saying “EA”? Sounds like you’ve joined a cult or something.” “Doesn’t Peter Singer have an apartment in Chelsea? That sounds altruistic. And, if he’s donating 2% of his income, he basically donates the amount of money I spend on shampoo on a yearly basis.” These are phrases friends of mine have said to me recently as I was sharing with them thoughts, worries, and hopes on my shift from academic philosophy to EA, the change in the hierarchy of my professional priorities, and my plans for the not-so-distant future.
These conversations have made me conclude that academia and EA make a very difficult pair. I don’t want to say that the two are completely incompatible, but my experience so far pushes me towards thinking that they’re not exactly compatible either, at least not at face value. Why is that? EA is deeply philosophically founded, after all, and philosophers are supposed to be open-minded, free thinkers invested in high quality thinking, humanitarian values, and the pursuit of high causes that involve the common good and well-being of others.
The sad truth, I have discovered, is that most academic philosophers don’t have the intuition that they need to be helpful in some way. Or, to put it more accurately, they don’t have a strong intuition that what they do should be maximally helpful. It has never seriously occurred to them that doing good actually matters or makes a difference, that they should care about differences that make a difference, that there can be something more than solving puzzles without considering how the world would be different if their solutions turned out to be false. That, in the end, all the conceptual games and intellectual endeavors will not matter at all if humanity ceases to exist or if we are doomed to live in a world full of eternal suffering.
It is a sad truth because you cannot make someone have this intuition, feel the impulse to be as helpful as possible. I know that because I did not have that impulse myself for a very long time; I chose a degree and a career path thinking that engaging in abstract intellectual games is good enough, or at least, it’s something I’m good enough at, and I shouldn’t be asking for or expecting more. Moreover, I thought that I would at least get to do some good by being a teacher and nurturing the young minds of my students with what I was envisioning as being inspiring philosophical thinking and lecturing. But I came to realize that that’s a very short-sighted way to see one’s life. It’s not necessarily evil, or even bad; doing good falls into a continuum. In my case, it was a combination of having set my ideals of knowledge as incompatible with being helpful and doing good. It was also because I had spent too much time preparing to go to med school that I managed to burn myself out before even starting college. I couldn’t understand what being useful meant because I thought there wasn’t much use in anything to begin with. It was a sort of self-hate and overall feeling of doom universalized and projected into the whole of humanity.
This mindset is terrible for decision-making. What I needed to have done at 17 was to think carefully about my intellectual strengths and weaknesses, what I enjoy the most and what I find intolerably draining, and take this information into account in understanding how I could be maximally helpful. I doubt I could have done it at the time, even if I had read this post by my future self. Instead, I invested in my philosophical studies under a broader title of history and philosophy of science (HPS) which gave me the impression I could realize the polymath ideal I had spent my entire life looking up to.
So, I went into philosophy not because I wanted to specialize in being an academic analytic philosopher, but rather because I was seeking an analytic enlightenment of a sort, a fresh way to think as lucidly as possible, a way to free myself from prejudice and fear, misleading poetic metaphors, and whatever other burden I might have inherited from my familial and cultural background. The HPS department was a good place to start. Many ideas I got familiar with there really felt like they helped me get rid of illusions of various kinds. I was still, however, not thinking about what I would do with this analytic enlightenment that wasn’t anywhere close and what I was going to optimize for. I’d always find myself in a rush. I cared a lot about what to do next but I was more anxious about the next step or steps and not genuinely willing to make myself problem-solve, calm down, or even enjoy learning and being a student.
And what happened to the analytic enlightenment? My undergrad years kept passing and it wouldn't come; I went to grad school and still nothing. Until I stopped talking like my philosophy friends and tried to understand EA and rationality hoping that eventually my thinking style would change too. As I write in another post, I had terribly misinterpreted the consequentialist tradition. And that itself had consequences that I can observe in the planning and decision-making processes that concerned my studies. That misinterpretation is of course nothing but a sunk cost now. I do see some worth, though, in tracking its roots and creating tools that could prevent me from future misinterpretations that could hold me back in life.
As I talk with people in academic philosophy now while I’m still in, but not quite, I just see the bits and pieces that contributed to my quarter-life crisis (provided I get to live to 98). What I see is truly not wanting to engage in anything demanding or impactful, anything that would be a difference that makes a difference. The diagnosis for that is “intellectual idleness” or “being lethargic”. I could also say “lazy” for the sake of simplicity, however, here I don’t mean to gesture at a completely parasitical live-style (although we have plenty of those who are fine with that way of living). I mean a kind of intellectual laziness only busy academics get to experience. The kind of lazy where you’re working seven days a week and yet, where’s your work?
The push-back I’d get here can involve having to explicitly compare standards of intellectual value, having to reply to someone saying "isn't writing and editing your papers demanding work?", or "some academics have a lot of impact", and so on. My worry here is that most of the push-back entails trying very hard to virtue-signal to yourself as an academic to the point that you get too defensive to actually see what’s at stake. I'm not questioning that academic research takes up a lot of energy and I'm certain that academics are intelligent human beings. What you do with your energy and intelligence as an academic philosopher in 2022 is what I have serious doubts about.
Philosophy was not always like that; and not every single academic philosopher or group is like that today either. Moreover, I don't think academic philosophy should cease to exist. I do have a prediction, though, about the future and most likely, the end of academic philosophy as we've known in for some time now. I predict that at some point in the not-so-distant future there will be three clusters: the first will involve social and political issues; the second will work on formal and mathematically heavy research projects; the third will be naturalized philosophy and cognitive science, with strong connections to AI research too. These three clusters won't need to be under the "philosophy umbrella" which gives hope that even if the field is no longer one unified area, the intellectually curious will still find places to satisfy their brainy needs.