EA Global, the largest ever public gathering of EAs, has left me reflecting on what it means to be an effective altruist.
A few weeks ago, 400+ attendees and prominent EA activists, including Will MacAskill and Nick Bostrom (and Elon Musk!), converged on a Google Campus in Mountain View to discuss the state and direction of the EA movement. I ended up donning a volunteer shirt and helping out—time-keeping for talks, directing and crowd-control, moving heavy objects (a weakness of many Effective Altruists), and scrambling to save the conference from various minor emergencies.
It was an exhausting and important weekend, although it didn’t feel important at the time.
Increasingly, EA has come to guide the direction of my life. I’m earning-to-give with my career (giving a third of all my earnings to high-impact charities), I’m helping to lead .impact, a global EA volunteer group, and I’m helping run Bay Area effective altruism workathons.
I’m taking an active role in helping effective altruism to grow. And it’s growing at a meteoric rate. Since the formalization of the movement in 2011, it’s more than doubled every year. Effective altruism is going to be big, and it has the potential to seriously impact the world.
I want to make sure that happens, and to make sure that impact is as big as it can be. For me, it’s probably the highest-leverage way that I can change the world.
In saying this though, I’ve glossed over an important question. Why did I become an effective altruist to begin with?
There are two ways to answer that.
The first way is to say that all of the arguments are compelling. EA’s critique of conventional altruism is rigorous and persuasive. If you, like me, are committed to moral consistency, it’s hard not to be convinced. In a way, effective altruism begins by pulling softly on the threads of your beliefs, and by the time it’s done, your moral imperatives look completely different.
Let’s call that the ideological answer. It’s the first reason why I’m an EA, and maybe someday I’ll tell the story how effective altruism changed my mind.
But right now, I want to tell another story. I want to tell the story of why effective altruism changed not my mind, but my life. Why EA makes me do things that I wouldn’t otherwise dream of doing—like devoting my life to it.
It’s not because of the arguments or the ideologies. Those things are powerful, but arguments are paltry against all the history and conditioning behind a human life. It takes something more blunt than that to change someone’s life. It takes something powerful and human.
Really, it takes a punch to the stomach.
The other night while walking home, I had such a punch.
I was at the office exceptionally late.
It was 1AM when I finally summoned the awareness that I ought to go home. I closed up my laptop, grabbed my messenger bag, put in my earphones and began down the stairwell. On the ground floor, the security guard, a weathered and prunish Asian man, was fast asleep in a leather chair. I gently opened and closed the building door behind me and stepped out onto Market Street.
At 1AM on a Tuesday, SoMa is deserted. The crisp, young professionals are nowhere to be seen. Even the homeless, usually selling their wares or arguing on a street corner, are absent. There are only a few scuffed-up bundles here and there, dreaming against the walls of buildings.
I turned the corner onto 5th street. It was silent, illuminated with street lights. Cars occasionally floated past. The night felt so barren, I could have been in any city in the world.
I can’t explain it, but it was a scene of almost transcendent beauty. Do you know what I mean when I say that? There was nothing special about the sight of it. It’s just that this was the world, undisturbed, and I was, for a moment, its only witness.
How long has it been since I felt completely alone, I wondered? A long time. It’s an important feeling—perhaps the most important feeling of my entire life. Time and time again I return to it, or if I can’t find it I go searching for it.
Looking up at the lights, walking down 5th street, hands in my pockets, I was thinking: this is it. This is the world. The only one I’ll ever get to experience. I never asked for it, I don’t even deserve it, but here it is.
I became aware of a song in my headphones. It was this one:
And I then remember: damn, am I lucky.
I’m lucky to be born in a rich country.
I’m lucky to have headphones, to own this messenger bag. To have two strong legs. To not be in a bundle on the side of this street. To not have grown up fighting drugs, or malaria, or theocracy, or a war. I’m lucky. I’m so goddamn lucky, and right now I barely even feel it.
I didn’t earn my birth. I didn’t earn my intelligence. I didn’t earn my privilege, my health, my values, my messenger bag. It may as well have been divvied to me in an ancient, secret coup.
I didn’t stop walking. The song was building in my ears.
Billions of humans in this world. And so many lives burdened and stunted by poverty, illness, trauma, war. Billions. Imagine if you could hear the sound of it all at once. That furious ocean of suffering, which is invisible to me because I’m here. Because of how quiet this street is. Because this street has conspired to squelch the sound and magnitude of that ocean.
But you see, it’s not the suffering that gets me. I can accept suffering. Somewhere, someone will always be suffering, and I know that.
It’s just the injustice of it. It’s that the injustice is so big, so absolute, it’s almost suffocating. It’s so much that you can’t swallow right. All around the world, billions of lives—billions, never given any relief, never given a way out of that ocean.
So why me? Why do I get to walk down this street in silence? Why am I the one with a laptop and a messenger bag?
You see, when I think about this, it makes me angry. It makes me fucking outraged. What would you do if you lived in such a world? In a world that conspires against itself, in a world that is arbitrary and unjust?
Would it make you sick? Would it make you want to goddamn do something about it? To start a revolution? To throw up arms against this invisible oppressor?
That’s what it does to me.
It makes me the kind of mad that I almost don’t care what I do. That I might do anything to fight it. That I might throw my entire life against this injustice, just to do it, just so I can say to myself and to my children that my eyes were open, that I saw that injustice, and I fought against it.
To me, that’s the promise of EA.
To me, EA promises: if you want to do good in the world, I will show you the thing that will do the most good.
And when the stakes are so high, and when the question is so dire and important, how could you not take up that promise?
So that’s what I’ve decided to do. That’s why I became an effective altruist.
Perhaps you’ll become one too.