Hey. My name is Guang. I’m just a college kid, typing in my dorm room—pondering our world, trying to decide what to pursue in my future. Having just completed a fellowship on effective altruism, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the movement, its ideas, and its direction.
Effective altruism is great. Growing up, I wondered why things were the way they were, feared a huge asteroid hitting us or a black hole swallowing us up, and tried to figure out how to make our home a better place. These are things we all speculate about, at least once in a while, and effective altruism gives a great framework for valuing these risks, opportunities, and ways of helping out.
As someone who loves math and understands its power, I appreciate EA’s focus on building up axiomatically and using numbers: we want to maximize some utility that measures human happiness, and use Bayes’ theorem and expected value to calculate benefits. The philosophy experiments about the drowning child and the fat man were super interesting to think about, and I believe there is value in looking past our emotional and evolutionary instincts to think “rationally”. I found Sam Harris’ talk to be a convincing argument for using science to solve moral issues. And I think EA is able to see the risk in artificial intelligence that most people overlook from analyzing things scientifically and mathematically: our brains are only a result of evolution (a slow process), and everything is made of an atomic structure that we can understand, so it’s very possible for us to simulate that artificially and produce something much smarter than we are.
There’s great insight in analyzing things quantitatively—in just “shutting up and multiplying”. I would say that it’s a way of thinking that everybody should learn.
However, I also believe that it’s not the only way we should think. EA is a young and potentially powerful movement, but there are plenty of people critical of it. Some arguments against EA seem ridiculous, but I think there are some valid points.
To me, “thinking mathematically” or what we typically term “rationally” is just one way of thinking. It helps us understand things better as human beings, but it’s not quite enough. We also need things like social and human skills and the ability to think artistically or historically. All of these are lenses through which we can view the world, and the more we have in our toolkit, the clearer our vision becomes. “Shutting up and multiplying” won’t solve everything.
There has been a stigma around rational thinking and effective altruism in that it’s ineffective or ridiculous, and that’s something we need focus on changing. Our numbers and theories aren’t perfect: there’s no “equality” factor built into our utility functions, and the perfect saint as measured by our standards doesn’t actually make for a model to aspire to. The introduction of “non-moral goods” means our theory is somewhat incomplete.
To expand effective altruism, we need to bring together people of more diverse backgrounds. We need people who work in arts, sales, and law, in addition to people in math, science, and philosophy. The good news is that our foundational movements are sound—we all want to improve the world—and we have a great framework and promising theories.
But the idea of improving the world is something that every human being on the planet thinks about, and should be able to give valuable input. Effective altruism should be a movement that encompasses all of us. By having diverse conversations and accepting the viewpoints of everyone, we will have a better sense of what constitutes a better world, and we can all work together to improve our future.