Effective altruism, nine months in

Posted April 17, 2022 · 8 min read

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Last summer, I found myself thinking about my career trajectory. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career that felt meaningful, but I didn't know how to go about that process. Remembering a website that my friend HM recommended to me about how to find an impactful career, I figured that meeting people who had already thought about this question might be helpful, so I found the "effective altruism" meetup in Toronto and added their July social to my calendar.

The morning of the event, I was uncertain about whether or not I should really attend. I had never been to a meetup before, and I was worried that it would be awkward and I wouldn't have much fun. In the end, I thought to myself: "What's the worst that can happen? If it sucks, I can just leave." — and so off I went.

Nine months later, I can see that my decision to go to that social has set off a series of changes in my life. In this post, I'm going to share:

  1. What I've learned about effective altruism ("EA") so far,
  2. How I've engaged with the movement,
  3. What's changed for me as a result,
  4. Some of my remaining questions and reservations, and
  5. What EA-related steps I plan to take in the future.

My goal in writing this post is to articulate what I've been thinking about over these months, share it with others, and keep a record of my thinking that I can look back on in the future (when my opinions inevitably change with time).

1. What is effective altruism ("EA") and why am I interested in it?

The "effective altruism" website defines it as

a social movement and philosophy focused on maximising the good you can do in your career, projects, and other life decisions

and the Centre for Effective Altruism calls it

an intellectual project, using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible [, and] a practical project: to take action based on the research, and build a better world.

When asked to define it, I usually say that it's a movement concerned with how we can do the most good with our limited resources (time, money, attention, et cetera). Effective altruism is particularly concerned with problems which:

  1. Affect a lot of people ("importance" or "scale")
  2. Aren't being worked on enough relative to the severity of the problem ("neglectedness")
  3. Could be improved if we tried ("tractability" or "solvability")

(If you want to read more about this framework for identifying pressing problems, this is a good article to read.)

Some "cause areas" that EA focuses on are improving global health, shaping the safe development of artificial intelligence, reducing biological or nuclear risks, and improving animal welfare.

Effective altruism is of interest to me because I feel that I have an ethical responsibility to help others and make the world better, and it seems reasonable to devote some thought to how I could make the most impact given my own limitations. I also see it as a valuable source of research and investigation into the questions I have about what it means to do good and how I could choose a career that makes a meaningful difference.

2. How I've engaged with the movement so far

Attended meetups: as I mentioned, I started my journey with EA by attending my local meetup in Toronto ("Effective Altruism Toronto", hereafter "EATO"). Since I began attending, I've probably participated in ~1 EATO event per month — mostly unstructured social events, but also a couple of talks about EA-related ideas or initiatives.

Researched the movement: after my first two meetups, I wanted to learn more about EA, so I started by reading Doing Good Better by William McAskill (one of the founders of EA). I then spent a few weeks reading through the EA Forum and various blog posts, like Holden Karnofsky's (a co-founder of two EA organizations, GiveWell and Open Philanthropy) "most important century" series. I tried listening to the 80,000 Hours podcast, which was an effort given that I don't really like podcasts, but I only finished one episode. I also subscribed to Vox's "Future Perfect" newsletter, which covers topics relating to effective altruism.

In general, I had a somewhat haphazard approach to learning about the movement. I could have enrolled in one of their introductory reading groups and discussed the core ideas in a structured way, but by that time I discovered the program I had already done enough research of my own that I figured it wasn't worth the time commitment. (I may change my mind about this and participate at some point.)

Sought mentorship: I've had mixed results with seeking mentorship and guidance from EAs. I had a call with a member of my local group which was encouraging but didn't provide much clarity, another call with an EA that was actionable but not really applicable to what I wanted to pursue next, and a couple of meetings with EAs that deviated entirely from what I had hoped to discuss . In the end, the most helpful advice I received came from a casual conversation I had with an EA friend, on whose advice I:

Participated in EA Cambridge's AGI Safety Fundamentals program: in January, I began to take part in a reading group that met weekly to discuss artificial intelligence (AI) safety topics. I took courses in artificial intelligence and machine learning at university but have never studied governance or policy, so joining the governance track of the program was a way for me to learn more about the field through a curated curriculum and facilitated discussions. I'm finishing up the program now and will likely write more about it later, but it's been a concrete step in increasing my understanding of the area and how I might contribute.

3. What's changed for me

My charitable giving: one of my parents' most admirable traits is their generosity, and from a young age they taught me the importance of giving. When I started working full-time, though, my actions didn't reflect that spirit of generosity. Reading "Doing Good Better" reminded me just how lucky I am to live in Canada and how impactful charitable donations can be in other parts of the globe — the book even links to a "How Rich Am I?" calculator that compares your income to the rest of the world. Since that, I've increased my charitable giving, and have a renewed sense of gratitude for what I have.

My topics of interest: conversations with other people involved with EA have exposed me to new thinkers and topics — in particular, I'm now much more curious about ethics, governance, and philosophy. I also keenly feel that I should brush up on my knowledge of economics and statistics.

My concern about the world's future: to be perfectly honest, I was a bit more hopeful about the future of the world before encountering the most prominent EA "cause areas"; learning more about potential existential risks has made me more concerned about what the next few decades will look like for humanity.

My excitement about a new community: after graduating, it seemed like a huge challenge to meet new people who shared my values and interests. Finding EATO felt like a promising first step in connecting with people with whom I could have interesting discussions and even become friends, and participating in the AI safety reading group has given me an avenue to meet people all around the world who want to learn and make a difference together.

My friendships: at an EATO meetup in August, I met a stranger who has since become a close friend! JT is the first real friend I've made since university, which is pretty cool, and he's also been an indispensable resource for learning about EA.

4. Current questions, reservations, and doubts

Like apparently many other people, I feel weird about identifying too closely with the effective altruism movement. Some reasons that I can think of right now for my current reluctance:

  • "Effective altruism" means different things to different people, so the label can come with baggage that I'm not interested in being affiliated with
  • I haven't been involved for very long, so I still have a lot to learn and I feel as though there are many core ideas that I haven't made up my mind about yet
  • The definition of EA seems to come up against some thorny questions around what's considered "the most good" and how it could be measured
  • I don't feel like I have a strong enough understanding of ethics (or philosophy in general) to critically engage with some of the theoretical underpinnings of core arguments in EA
  • There's a lack of diversity within the movement that raises flags for me
  • I hate participating in communities that are too insular and self-congratulatory, which I've caught glimpses of within EA
  • Many core ideas of EA seem "up for interpretation", which makes me wonder how sound they are

It's worth noting that the first point is the most important one. Even if I found a subset of EA with philosophical underpinnings that I wholeheartedly supported and a diversity and humility of thought and experience, I would probably still have reservations about "EA in general", and I wouldn't be surprised if that was a common sentiment.

To use an example from a context I'm familiar with, there are numerous denominations of Christianity that disagree on a wide array of theological issues while still all claiming the label of "Christian". Unlike Christianity, there's no shared sacred text that unites all EAs, nor are there statements of faith from EA organizations that clearly identify who believes what — there are just a handful of core books and websites, some dense philosophical papers, a few dozen EA-affiliated organizations, and hundreds of blog posts.

There are many aspects of the movement that I consider important and interesting (wanting to make an impact, emphasizing reason and evidence, valuing all sentient life, being thoughtful about important decisions), so I feel that working through my questions and reservations is a worthwhile endeavour.

5. Future steps in EA

When I was first introduced to EA, I tried to learn everything at once and quickly became overwhelmed. Since then, I've been pacing myself, and I'm content to continue to take steps to learn more without feeling rushed.

These are a few EA-related steps I'll try to take this year:

  1. Meet more EAs, either in person or online, to discuss their experiences and philosophies
  2. Attend an EA Global conference, hopefully in San Francisco or Washington
  3. Continue to research AI safety and governance, and maybe brush up on my technical understanding as well
  4. Apply for a 1-on-1 career planning chat with 80,000 Hours
  5. Read more philosophy and spend more time clarifying my own thoughts about the ideas I'm exposed to

Final thoughts

Thinking about and writing this summary has been a helpful exercise for me as I reflect on what I've discovered and the impact it's made on me. Since engaging with the core ideas in effective altruism, I'm more convinced of the importance of contributing what I can to solving problems in the world while remaining thoughtful and clear-sighted about what those contributions might be.

I've learned a lot through my experiences with EA, but my biggest takeaway so far is: if you want to experience something different, you have to do something different. If I had decided to skip that first EATO event and stay home, I would have been exposed to the same people, books, and ideas that I had always known. Doing something new was a catalyst for meeting people I never would have spoken to, receiving recommendations for thinkers I had never heard of, and engaging with ideas that I had never encountered.

Trying something new is an invitation for the world to surprise you.

Thank you JT for providing valuable feedback on this post.


Julia Cooke © 2023