Effective altruism in the garden of ends
This is a crosspost from the EA Forum that I was encourage to post here as well. I imagine it may have even more experience here, since the most “hardcore” EAs that I know typically began as rationality community members.
Huge thanks to Alex Zhu, Anders Sandberg, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Andrew Roberts, Anne-Lorraine Selke (who I’ve subbed in entire sentences from), Crichton Atkinson, Ellie Hain, George Walker, Jesper Östman, Joe Edelman, Liza Simonova, Kathryn Devaney, Milan Griffes, Morgan Sutherland, Nathan Young, Rafael Ruiz, Tasshin Fogelman, Valerie Zhang, and Xiq for reviewing or helping me develop my ideas here. Further thanks to Allison Duettmann, Anders Sandberg, Howie Lempel, Julia Wise, and Tildy Stokes, for inspiring me through their lived examples.
I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal […] should demand the denial of life & joy.
– Emma Goldman, Living My Life
This essay is a reconciliation of moral commitment and the good life. Here is its essence in two paragraphs:
Totalized by an ought, I sought its source outside myself. I found nothing. The ought came from me, an internal whip toward a thing which, confusingly, I already wanted – to see others flourish. I dropped the whip. My want now rested, commensurate, amidst others of its kind – terminal wants for ends-in-themselves: loving, dancing, and the other spiritual requirements of my particular life. To say that these were lesser seemed to say, “It is more vital and urgent to eat well than to drink or sleep well.” No – I will eat, sleep, and drink well to feel alive; so too will I love and dance as well as help.
Once, the material requirements of life were in competition: If we spent time building shelter it might jeopardize daylight that could have been spent hunting. We built communities to take the material requirements of life out of competition. For many of us, the task remains to do the same for our spirits. Particularly so for those working outside of organized religion on huge, consuming causes. I suggest such a community might practice something like “fractal altruism,” taking the good life at the scale of its individuals out of competition with impact at the scale of the world.
If you’re a Blinkist or Sparknotes person, you can stop here.
If you read on, you might find that everything written has been said already in the history of philosophy. This is a less rigorous experiential account that came from five years of personal reckoning. I thought my own story might be more relatable for friends with a history of devotion – unusual people who’ve found themselves dedicating their lives to a particular moral vision, whether it was (or is) Buddhism, Christianity, social justice, or climate activism. When these visions gobble up all other meaning in the life of their devotees, well, that sucks. I go through my own history of devotion to effective altruism. It’s the story of [wanting to help] turning into [needing to help] turning into [living to help] turning into [wanting to die] turning into [wanting to help again, because helping is part of a rich life].
There’s also an implicit critique of the Effective Altruist movement here. As far as I can tell, my dark night experience represents a common one for especially devoted, or “hardcore” EAs – the type who end up in mission-critical roles. If my experience is in fact representative, then I suspect it is productive (even on consequentialist grounds) for the movement to confront its dark night problem.
Of course, there has been much discussion about burnout and mental health in EA. The movement has responded: there are support groups and more. But I doubt that ordinary mental health interventions – therapy, coaching, etc – are sufficient for hardcore EAs. Instead, I think that hardcore segments of the movement, who are bound by philosophy, might be helped by examining whether their philosophy is, in fact, in agreement, rather than in competition, with personal flourishing.
Sidenote for the rigorous readers of this forum: I ask you to read this essay somewhat impressionistically. “The logic is incomplete, but let’s see if he’s still onto something,” is the attitude I’d suggest. Although I wrote this essay over six aching months, I admittedly rushed its completion and editing in order to make the deadline of the Red-Teaming contest.
What is quest-relevant?
After days behind Berlin’s grey sky, the sun now peaks through, a thin beam between clouds, golden, lighting the cheek of my partner, as if I am in a role playing game that is telling me this cheek is quest relevant. Maybe it is: I touch it, lightly, and she stirs. “Love,” she murmers groggily, her eyes still closed; the word is both description and invocation. “Love love love.”
I wonder at my role in this game. It is clearly to love, but how?
The world turns and the sun lights much more: It streams through the windows of my parents’ bedroom in New York, where they lie, hoping to become grandparents someday soon. It streams through windows of friends in California, some who lie across mattresses in loneliness, reluctant to call me or anyone else because they are not sure if we care. The world turns and perhaps the sun touches a kid in western Kenya; he wakes with brain fog beyond mere grogginess; his stomach hurts – it is full of hookworms. It turns many times, and the light streams through windows in cities of thirty years into the future. Few of these future people, framed by their windows, know that tomorrow, the sun might shine on an earth empty of subjects, as someone at Google, OpenAI, or Tsinghua University hits go on an algorithmic process designed to maximize economic output. It will spiral out of control, consuming the atoms of friends, children, dogs, sidewalks, trees, necklaces, dirt, rocks, wild boars, the cheeks of lovers, consuming all possibility of letters from utopia, all this for raw materials – unless we hit stop.
A lover’s cheek, mom and dad, lonely friends, a stranger in Kenya, and people of the future – these things are all quest relevant. If you’re like me, you know it to be so, even during the times we convinced ourselves otherwise. And so, if you’re like me, you become overwhelmed.
From childhood through college, I handled the overwhelm by narrowing in on those things which were “near and dear.” I became a New York City Enjoyer and lived vividly: composing songs for friends, dressing brightly, performing nonsense in leotards at art museums, dancing until morning to Balkan brass, meditating, lying in the grassy fields of parks, studying cognitive science for no reason other than fascination.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. As my sense of agency increased, it became impossible to ignore the fact that billions of others didn’t share my idyllic quality of life. In 2013, I was sitting in a zoo, pondering the sentience of animals, when I found myself Googling “how can I make a difference” or “practical moral philosophy” or “what should I do with my life?!?!” or some combination of these words. Eventually, I encountered Peter Singer, and started down the Effective Altruism (EA) rabbit hole.
The unstoppable logic
Previously, I had narrowed on the near and dear to avoid the overwhelm. From 2013-2019, I re-narrowed on the far and dear: the drowning children of other countries, the suffering animals of factory farms, the Schrödingarian citizens of the future who dangled between existence and annihilation. I moved to the Bay Area and I threw myself into the EA movement. With various amazing cofounders, I built EA Global, Reducetarianism, EA Ventures (the precursor to EA Funds), the Pareto Fellowship, Reserve, and a myriad of minor hunks of movement infrastructure.
What had finally tipped me into EA was an article. It proposed dead children as a unit of currency. “Here me out,” it said: It costs roughly $800 to save a child’s life through charity [at least this was the assumption at the time the article was written]. “If you spend eight hundred dollars on a laptop, that’s one African kid who died because you didn’t give it to charity. Distasteful but true.”
Well, fuck. I tried to escape the conclusion. But the logic was unstoppable. Hm. I was still young and poor; I didn’t have money, but I did have time. And so, soon after, I started to work 12-to-14-hour weekdays and weekends on EA causes. No amount of hours seemed like enough. How many hours did it take to raise $800? In my case – since I am decent at “networking” – probably a couple of hours, the length of one movie. So if I watched a movie instead of fundraising, a child was now dead. Did that mean watching a movie made me a murderer? I concluded: yeah. It did.
I extrapolated the implications of this. And so began a personal hell realm. As I crossed its borders, and continued to its interior, I went from being the happiest person I knew to eventually wanting to end my life.
What one must become
How to not be complicit in mass suffering and death? The answer was clear: I needed more time, more energy, more focus. I needed to become superhuman, I needed to become like Elon Musk. Or better: I could become like the Terminator, a machine single-mindedly devoted to improving the world. A couple of fellow hardcore EAs gave me this idea: “Terminator-like focus.” Interestingly, they both work on AI safety.
I became renunciate. I stopped making art, because my art was not worth a child’s life. I swore off emotions that might hamper me. I let go of girlfriends and live music and old friends and calling my mom because these things were now wastes of time in the face of The Big Problems. I stopped dressing in the crazy outfits and bright colors that I’d become famous for; I did not want to harm the respectability of the movement. I gave up my lifelong hope to become a dad. I gave up on love.
But it was not all about giving up. It was also about adding things. I added sprinting up hills every morning. I learned rationality techniques, hundreds of them, to the point where nearly all my thinking happened through rationality techniques (the stakes were too high for things like mind-wandering). I ordered the wakefulness drug modafinil from India. Although I had a policy against lying, I sometimes began to mislead, if I thought doing so might help with the greater good. I started networking with people who I cared about only insofar as their talents, money, connections, or prestige were instrumental for saving or improving the lives of others.
Indeed, this was now the only way I cared about myself. “I am an instrument that serves the world.” I would repeat variants of this phrase in my head to make it true, to eliminate any resistance from the parts of me that wanted things outside my infinite moral obligation.
All of this made me good at my new job as Director of Growth at the Centre for Effective Altruism’s USA branch.
I judged others for not following suit. I judged them for continuing to make art, play video games, and prepare elaborate dinners. I especially judged fellow effective altruists, the ones who I deemed “not really serious about this,” who continued to pursue “non-altruistic desires,” for failing to restructure their entire lives to be hardcore, like me. Did they not stay up at night, thinking about the suffering multitudes they might help by dedicating more time and money to the cause? I did, because I was a real EA.
I wrote the author of the “dead children as currency” article, asking him to write a follow-up article. I told him he should write one about the opportunity cost of not just dollars, but of time, to persuade others to become more dedicated. He declined. He wrote back “…There’s a point at which you run up against how nobody can do 100% effective things all the time without going crazy.” A wise person would have listened. I was a 24-year-old person.
After a couple of years of the Hardcore Way, I began to lose steam. Maybe it had something to do with inattention to my “non-altruistic desires?” A breaking point came around the time that I spoke with an actual real-life friend of Elon Musk. He told me that even Elon makes time for fun. (This was before Elon made his fun more obvious, for instance, by smoking weed on Joe Rogan or tweeting things like “69.420% of statistics are false.”) This surprised me. But the the more I researched, the more it turned out that many of the Great People of history were characterized by rich lives, full of romance and hobbies.
Aha, I thought. My mistake was failing to embrace my human frailty. I could still rescue my motivation. I could stay single-mindedly devoted to doing good. But I needed to adapt my motivation, to make it work with the meat-machine that I inescapably inhabited.
It was time to watch movies again. It was time to call my mom. To reunite with old friends. To write poems once more. Submitting to these lower cravings was necessary for endurance on The Cause.
So I watched movies and wrote poems while something in the back of my head urged, “Refresh me faster!” at these activities. Walking was no longer about just getting from A to B: it was also about soaking in beauty so I could alter my neurotransmitters in ways that would make me more generative. I went to bars in a way that was justified because these nights were spent with allies and comrades with whom I intended to coordinate – not just with any random person I enjoyed the company of. I found a girlfriend, but this was also OK because she was a fellow EA – while other couples might enjoy a candlelit evening, we spent the time strategizing about the long term future. And then by morning I danced in the sun to drums around Lake Merritt in Oakland while wondering, “How can I dance in a way that is useful? In a way that helps me overcome psychological barriers to being productive? Perhaps I can do interpretative dances of important ideas so I can internalize them better.” And I could. I internalized many important ideas through dance.
I wrote poems. A metaphor kept recurring, working its way into my stanzas: it was of my organs fading from red to grey, becoming machine parts whose role was to sustain my output. Sometimes while writing I would break through to a heightened form of consciousness and my world would change, like I’d popped a bubble of numbness: colors became brighter, object-boundaries became sharper, ideas came more fluidly, the people around me felt rich and alive, like worlds onto themselves which my heart was bursting to explore. During these episodes, as I reflected on my state, two things would happen at once.
One part of me would say, “This is what life is about. You used to feel this way all the time. Remember? But these days you are doing something terrible to yourself. You are becoming a husk.”
Another part of me would say, “This heightened state is called ‘hypomanic.’ But if you can bring some rationality into this powerful state of mind to harness it, you might just stand a chance of making a difference. Keep writing poetry!”
These vivid moments became fewer and fewer and soon I felt worse than I had when I’d just ignored my “non-altruistic” impulses. I became confused: Why did none of my old joys rejuvenate me anymore?
I failed to answer this question before I lost the will to live.
And yet I was morally obligated to live: I still needed to fulfill my duties after all. And yet…I could not get myself to fulfill them. Not only could I not work, but also it took me hours each day to get out of bed. There was no one to talk to about this: I thought my parents would freak out if I told them – they like to see me happy. Therapists? They dealt with my pursuit of effective altruism as a pathology, so I stopped seeing them. Friends? I’d been out of touch with my old friends for years. My new friends all doubled as colleagues who I dared not weigh down with my problems; they were working on saving lives. Disrupting their work would make me a murderer.
I quit my role at the earn-to-give startup I’d cofounded, Reserve, mostly by failing to show up. A controversial organization called Leverage Research, which was full of similarly hardcore EAs, rented me a relatively low-cost room. (Edit: Much more accurate to say this instead: I was receiving a salary from Paradigm, a Leverage affiliate that incubated my company, Reserve, and part of that salary went to renting a room.) I participated in a few of their experimental therapies, telling myself that I wasn’t burdening them, because at least they were learning something by helping me.
The techniques they used were actually impressive (I still use many of them). But the culture behind them made my problem worse: their aim was to help people remove psychological blocks to working on the world’s biggest problems. At this point, returning to working on the world’s biggest problems meant I’d just remold myself into a Terminator meat machine. I’d begun to associate the prospect of recovery with personal obliteration.
The very use of my will felt dangerous, because I would use it to become a numb instrument, a being whose only purpose was to work. But what was the alternative? What was my life worth if I could no longer work? What use were life’s joys? Of what value were sex, dancing, or strumming a ukulele if they did not help me fulfill my purpose?
I had no answer. From 2018-2021 I spent most of my time lying on mattresses while accepting unemployment checks and not much else. I started playing video games again for the first time since high school and hated myself for becoming addicted to such uselessness. I stopped responding to emails and messages (“Hey Tyler, haven’t heard from you in a while. How have you been?”).
I didn’t have much experience with mental illness, and I remember feeling shocked at how bad it is possible to feel. I decided the best thing I could do was to not burden my network with my untimely death…unless I could figure out some way to make it look like an accident. But all the ways I thought of required more competence than I was capable of at the time, like amplifying a hilarious theory that several friends and family had for my absence: that maybe I’d been recruited for a secret and dangerous project. Thanks to EA’s connections to government officials and billionaires, and the still-living legend of my competence, it seemed plausible to them.
During brief and infrequent windows of lucid energy, I tried all the standard ideas for beating depression: therapy, SSRIs, NDRIs, exercise, diet, routines, nature walks, psychedelics, meditation, good sleep, journaling, seeing friends, etc etc etc. All these solutions shared the same problem: they had a chance of actually working. And if I got better, my purpose would require me to instrumentalize myself again. I wasn’t going to do that.
Finally, I even tried giving up on my purpose.
Guess what: I couldn’t! My sense of purpose wasn’t just a social identity. (This aspect I could drop, and – eventually, thankfully – I did.) It was a core part of me, as much as my love of music. Dropping my impulse to help in a big way would be as hard as dropping my love of music. Both of these things were sources of inherent meaning, ends-in-themselves – things I engaged with for their own sake.
It took me years to unpack the implications of these thoughts. But when I finally unpacked them, I found a reason to live.
I now believe the root of my suffering was in a philosophical mistake: I’d supposed there existed some external source of moral authority – in particular, one which imposed a totalizing obligation to help.
The word “obligation” probably means different things to different people. The way I’d been (unconsciously) using it was like this: An obligation is that which – if I don’t fulfill it – I become Bad.
When I took the EA logic of opportunity costs seriously, my moral obligation became rather extreme: Sure, my basic survival needed to be covered. But any resources I had beyond that, I was Obligated to spend on The Most Impactful Thing, because – if I failed to do so – people would suffer and die. That would make me Bad.
I didn’t want to be Bad. So I needed to spend all my time becoming Good. There was no time for other seemingly meaningful pursuits. Art, relationships, and so on – these apparent ends-in-themselves would need to be cast aside, or become means to serve my moral obligation, like coal that feeds a furnace. I could not bear the thought that someone might die because I mindlessly enjoyed a movie instead of working on the Effective Altruism movement. This subjugation of my “non-altruistic” ends to moral ends was what led to my depression.
I found the reason to live again through contemplating the question: Where does my moral obligation come from?
I didn’t believe it was mandated by a god. Nor did I believe it was somehow written into physics. Nor did I believe that it came from society: There were plenty of societal norms that I didn’t care about. Furthermore, effective altruism itself was often considered weird or repellant when I first got into it, in 2013.
Perhaps I could locate the source of my moral obligation by asking questions like, “Who or what would discipline me, or confer Bad Person status upon me, if I gave up my obligation?” Alternatively: “Who or what would compel me to return to the Moral Way if I strayed?” Imagine that I did give up on moral ends, and decided to live a nice normal life as – I don’t know – a sunglasses-wearing, Ferarri-driving management consultant who donates $0 per year and has 0 altruistic projects.
Would God strike me down or send me to a hellish afterlife? Doubtful.
Would a physical law force me back to altruism? No.
Would an abstract, imaginary, perfectly rational being disapprove of me? Unclear. Rationality enables agents to pursue their ends. Where did the moral ends of a perfectly rational being come from? This was essentially the question I was trying to answer.
Would society put me in jail or ostracize me? No. In fact, I might become higher status being a management consultant instead of a guy who illegibly moves between projects, betting on their potential impact. In particular, most of my friends and family would be happy because I’d have more time for them.
So where did my moral obligation come from? Rereading Singer’s drowning child thought experiment was clarifying:
To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.
I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do.
I ran a different version of the thought experiment without language around obligation: “Imagine that – somehow – the universe has deemed me unalterably Good regardless of whether I help. Do I still want to rescue the child?”
My answer was “Yes” – and, incidentally, so was that of 96% of 697 people who took my Twitter poll with similar wording (disclaimer: sampling bias, imperfect wording, etc etc).
After rewording Singer’s thought experiment, it dawned on me that I’d been using the frame of an “obligation” as a psychological whip to get myself to do what I already wanted to do. Weird.
When I went looking for the force or deity outside of myself that held the whip, there was nothing there. I was the one holding the whip. This was a revelation. The thing underlying my moral “obligation” came from me, my own mind. This underlying thing was actually a type of desire. It turned out that I wanted to help suffering people. I wanted to be in service of a beautiful world. Hm.
Suddenly the words of my moral vocabulary took on new meanings. Was I obligated to save the drowning child? Did I have a responsibility or moral duty? Was it something that one should or ought do? This language seemed misleading. These words seemed to replace my natural impulse to help with an artificial demand imposed by…nothing and no one.
It made me angry. I felt like I’d drunk the kool-aid of some pervasive cult, one that had twisted a beautiful human desire into an internal coercion, like one for a child you’re trying to get to do chores while you’re away from home.
There’s this scene in the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once where a cop tells the villain, “Ma’am, you and your pig can’t be here.” She replies, “See, I can physically be here. But what you meant to say is you’re not allowing me to be here.” Similarly, I started translating moral terms: “One is obligated to help others,” now meant either “Someone wants me to help others,” or else, “I personally want to help others.”
What would happen if I put down the whip of obligation? What would happen if I stopped threatening myself with Bad Person Status? Would I stop pursuing my own desire to help? It seemed scary that I might.
On the other hand, it was clear that if I kept using the psychological whip of obligation, I would have little joy, burn out again, and thus fail to help anyone for more than one strenuous sprint. But I believed myself to be in a marathon. It was time for me to try a different way. I would reckon with my intrinsic desire to help.
The puzzle of having many ends
To quote a philosopher friend, Jesper Östman “…Morality is only relevant to us because we care deeply about it. But we care deeply about other things too. So we should try to make all these things go well, and not sacrifice some of them. At least if we are rational agents.”
And so the first thing to reckon with was this: Now my moral desires had become commensurable with other sources of meaning – those things I engaged as ends-in-themselves. These other ends were the ones I’d been ignoring or turning into means to feed my all-devouring obligation…an obligation I could no longer locate in external authority. Ends such as: Listening to music for sheer enjoyment. Hanging out with non-EA friends. Helping a random mom carry her stroller down the subway stairs, even if the time doing so would trade off with more effectively altruistic endeavors. An action done for the “warm fuzzies” alone. (Gasp!)
I’d already learned a hard lesson: My life goes poorly when revolves around one end only. What would happen if I failed to partake in a well-rounded life of ends, eudaemonia, in other words? The real punishment of giving up on making art or serving a flourishing world was not that a god strikes me down or that society punishes me. The punishment was that I would start to feel empty, depressed, weak, irritable, or brain-foggy, as if I was missing some vital spiritual nutrient. And the reward of pursuing my ends was simply that I would feel healthy, energetic, wholesome, content, alive.
But the prospect of pursuing all of my ends was overwhelming. How to balance a lover’s cheek, mom and dad, the writing of poems, and the aid of sufferers across oceans and time? Well, I had to ask: had I ever really reckoned with the problem, with the same dedication I’d applied to just one ends in the EA movement? In truth, I hadn’t. I, like many EAs I know, had only decided it was an unsolvable problem.
These days, I think it’s just a practical problem. I have faith that the tradeoffs we presume are not what they seem – but I must admit that this is the part of the essay where I’m still figuring things out for myself. Below I outline some proposals for not simply balancing one’s various ends, but integrating them, like adopting a diet that not only gets you healthy proportions of nutrients, but also incorporates delicious combinations. In fact, similar principles seem to apply to food diets and what you might call “meaning diets.” For instance:
Partial substitution is possible (multiple foods contribute Vitamin C; dancing and making art might both contribute some [ineffable spiritual nutrient]).
Different portions are required for different nutrients; it’s helpful to understand your dietary requirements.
Some nutrients have harmonies, they mutually enhance one another.
But whereas food nutrients are absorbed through largely involuntary processes, the absorption of spiritual nutrients seems to happen through quality of engagement, a special type of attention.
This returns me to the problem of turning ends into means. In practice, when I turn ends into things that are primarily instruments for other ends – rather than engaging them for their own sake – I engage them in lower-quality ways.
Back when my team was planning the first EA Global, I started hosting dance party breaks in between Pomodoros. These energized us during our days of processing applications, emailing speakers, contacting vendors, and so on. But if I danced only to feel alive enough to work on EA Global, it wouldn’t have properly nourished me in practice. What made this dancing nourishing was that we turned our room in the CFAR & MIRI office into a rave and went all in.
By analogy, imagine (a) reading your favorite book for its own sake vs (b) reading the same book only to get an A+ on a test. You can feel what’s different about these experiences. What is it?
It takes serious care to harmonize spiritual nutrients without subjugating one to the other. But one of the most simple ways to change one’s life is to ask: of all activities I currently engage as means, how can I find elements in them to engage as ends? Even doing the dishes can be miraculous when it’s not just about an empty sink, but regarded as an immersive activity where one enjoys the sensations of scrubbing and water over one’s hands, or more abstractly, enjoys the exercising of excellence in one’s own attention to detail, finding the marks and stains that few others would have noticed. Hell, even using Microsoft Excel can be marvelous if it’s not solely about getting the budget done – perhaps you’re someone who, like me, enjoys the practice of systematization. The key is to lean into these ways the activities are already meaningful for their own sake.
This doesn’t imply discarding the useful outcomes of activities. In fact, I find that when I engage something for its own sake, I’m far more likely to produce virtuosic work. At a meeting of the rationality community, Anna Salamon once argued that to use truth-seeking as solely a means to fight existential risk (x-risk) would compromise the activity of truth-seeking – for instance, by cutting corners while rushing for an answer. So she proposed an alternative: “Rationality for rationality’s sake…for x-risk’s sake.”
It seems that engaging activities as ends is important for not only the absorption of spiritual nutrients, but also – paradoxically – for their usefulness as means. This can be bewildering for a consequentialist to wrap their head around. It may take mental practice to make this shift if one has ported consequentialist patterns to other parts of one’s life, viewing life’s activities as instruments, mostly good for other things rather than as containing good in themselves.
At this point, I’ll drop the diet metaphor, and stop speaking of individual nutrients, because the dissociation of nutrients leads to things like existential Soylent, an artificial lifestyle that theoretically gets you all the things you need, but which, in actuality, are unlikely as such to be healthy or enjoyable over the long-term, since it likely doesn’t contain the same harmony of nutrients as a whole food or broader cuisine.
For supporting eudaemonia, a better metaphor than a diet is probably something like a regional cuisine, prepared by you and others who share many of your spiritual needs. A good cuisine is nutritionally complete and evolves amidst a local way of life, including nutritional harmonies that come together over time through a community developing dishes via trial and error. Community is the medium that affords harmony amidst ends, weaving disparate parts of the good life into a whole.
The ideal community is like a shared garden, growing all the ends for a regional cuisine, i.e., the particular composition of ends enjoyed by your people. In my ideal community, for instance, infrastructure for enjoyable parenthood would be grown alongside support for effective altruist projects. Tending to the growth of one another’s ends not only involves reciprocity (“I benefit you so that benefit me.”), but also mutuality, symbiosis, alignment (“I benefit both of us at once, by tending to shared ends.”).
This truly isn’t a new idea. Mutual dedication to one another’s ends seems like a thing commonly present in religious and ethnic communities. But it seems quite uncommon to the demographic of secular idealists, like me. Such idealists tend to form and join single-focus communities like effective altruism, which serve only a subset of our eudaemonic needs.
If a mutualist community were to include EA-inclined people like myself, effective world-scale service needs to be supported in conjunction with other ends. A parsimonious idea can be applied to a community that supports flourishing at the level of the self, the neighbor, and the world. For this, I’ve been trying on the term “fractal altruism.” This is simply where similar principles of effectiveness and altruism are applied across scales.
In such a fractal altruistic community, tradeoffs between ends would, of course, be a matter of active research and debate. There is still an important sense in which a unit of effort that the community spends on a tango class could have been spent on a local conference for alternative meat entrepreneurs.
However, I expect fractal altruists to become experts in dissolving tradeoffs in the same way that effective altruists became experts in finding top interventions. For instance, perhaps the tango class may benefit from having fresh dance partners while the entrepreneurs are in town. Meanwhile, the conference may benefit by giving its participants a fun and memorable way of growing closer. Or perhaps – as the community grows and its members specialize – “units of effort” lose fungibility altogether. Older grandparents in the community might be well-placed as a team to run a daycare, but not to work on artificial intelligence policy. Synergy, specialization, and many other strategies can minimize tradeoffs. Strategies can be borrowed from religious communities that have already been attempting altruism across the scales of self, neighbor, and world for hundreds of years, regardless of whether you agree with their premises.
I doubt the template for such a community would be communes or isolated ideological enclaves. These typically fail to be self-correcting and demonstrably don’t last very long. I don’t know what the right template is. I suspect it would be something quite normal and informal, maybe even boringly traditional: a tight-knit neighborhood inside a broader municipality (see, for example, Chinatown in New York).
Such a tight-knit neighborhood might come about like so: A loose, nonideological network of people who already look out for one another – mostly friends and family – slowly move to the same part of a town or city. There probably needs to be some excuse to move there and root long-term. This excuse might be shared parenthood infrastructure to help the modern undersupported parent. Or it might be a new university that employs the majority of community members. Like many tight-knit neighborhoods, it might lack a centralized governing body, simply consisting of many overlapping close personal relationships and activity groups.
How then would this be different from a normal tight-knit neighborhood? The only added ingredient might be demographic: a substantial subset of people who are devoted to world-scale service (ideally the effective kind). Provided that this subset is supported, not everyone needs to identify with a fancy ideology like “fractal altruism.” Fractal altruism would simply describe the community’s emergent activity, one which springs from its members’ natural inclination to tend to one another’s ends, which happen to include – for some – intense moral ambition. Here are examples of friends building things close to what I’m suggesting: The Neighborhood SF, The Neighborhood NYC, and some parts of The Embassy Network. (My own particular approach would focus more on young families, for reasons I discuss elsewhere.)
But hey, this whole fractal altruism thing is just one proposal for cultivating our ambitious moral projects inside a garden of our other ends. I wish to hear about others.
I’ll leave you now with three other wishes:
For young entrants to movements like EA, bursting with revelation and ready zealotry:
I wish that you pursue your newfound revelation with vigor, with the aliveness of one who holds firmly, and uncompromisingly, to all that is dear to one’s spirit. I wish that you hold to these things – whether they fit the movement or not – until some synthesis can occur. I wish that you never need a dark night at all, that there is tenderness rather than violence to the internal revolutions you are likely to endure. From where you are now, you might look at the old guard and think “They are smarter than I.” In many ways, they probably are, and yet they may have forgotten the wordless truths that you remember. Let not the fire which brought you here be quenched. I wish that you remember, remember, remember.
For those in the midst of their dark night:
If you find yourself lying on the floor for more than a month, I wish that you speak with someone who likes or loves you, to admit your pain to them (even if it seems they couldn’t possibly understand), and to ask their support (even if you couldn’t possibly know what that could look like). If you’re a consequentialist, I wish that you read chapter five of Mill’s autobiography, the part where he discusses his return from depression. (I’ve linked some excerpts below.)
Moreover: I wish you the death of the stance which destroys you. And when that worldview withers to the ground, I wish you the equivalent of bacteria and fungi, to metabolize and repurpose those raw ingredients which compelled you to the worldview to begin with. Here is a spell written by the ancient Egyptians. And here are some things I’ve written on depression, in case they help.
For those beyond the dark night:
I wish you hard-earned cousinhood. I wish that you find each other, inspire each other, fight and refine each other. I wish that you grow and share the garden of ends, and from it, grow something new, a fruit we’ve never seen. I wish that you find shared pride in having been humbled, and faith that more humbling is sure to come, breaking us over and again, until fuller truths are found, ones to bring the world – and the aspect that is you – to flourish.
Edit: ps – if you’re a moral antirealist, like most EAs I know, I strongly recommend this post that Spencer Greenberg sent me. I wish it had existed in 2013; it probably would have saved me a lot of the confusion and suffering I described in this essay!
E.g., Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and forthcoming work on “valuism” by Joe Edelman and Ellie Hain for ideas around ends-in-themselves as being the valuable things. Buddhist ideas and the beautiful work of Simone Weil for the idea that quality of attention differentiates ends and means. Also…Confucius (?!) for ideas very similar to fractal altruism.
Here are 10 forum posts on burnout and self-care:
This might only apply to EAs who believe that improving the world is a marathon rather than a sprint. Those with short x-risk timelines might still endorse burning out the most dedicated people until we’ve reached the long reflection or the like. You cold cold benevolent bastards. 😛
“Letter from Utopia” by Nick Bostrom
Said article on dead children as currency.
I still love you guys.
Spencer Greenberg has a great essay on this confusion if you’re a moral anti-realist: Tensions between moral anti-realism and effective altruism
In reality, my pursuit of EA probably decomposed into multiple ends, including – separately – the alleviation of suffering, being of service to a beautiful world, engaging in systematic thought, and other.
This is changing, especially as coliving grows more popular. However, shared gardens take time and care, and our demographic is typically too mobile to make one prosper. I think the demand for parenthood infrastructure will cause the next revolution here, causing friends and colleagues to settle down together for the sake of their children.
Here’s a Twitter thread I wrote with a regrettably overbold tone and misuse of the term “village,” which made people think I wanted to build a rural commune rather than something more like a neighborhood.
From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object. The personal sympathies I wished for were those of fellow labourers in this enterprise. I endeavoured to pick up as many flowers as I could by the way; but as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance was placed on this; and I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed, through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment. This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence. But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream.
In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate, kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good. Thus the cloud gradually drew off, and I again enjoyed life; and though I had several relapses, some of which lasted many months, I never again was as miserable as I had been.
I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action.
I had now learnt by experience that the passing susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided. I did not, for an instant, lose sight of, or undervalue, that part of the truth which I had seen before; I never turned recreant to intellectual culture, or ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement But 1 thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it. The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties now seemed to be of primary importance. The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed. And my thoughts and inclinations turned in an increasing degree towards whatever seemed capable of being instrumental to that object.
I now began to find meaning in the things, which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture. But it was some time longer before I began to know this by personal experience. The only one of the imaginative arts in which I had from childhood taken great pleasure, was music; the best effect of which (and in this it surpasses perhaps every other art) consists in exciting enthusiasm; in winding up to a high pitch those feelings of an elevated kind which are already in the character, but to which this excitement gives a glow and a fervour, which, though transitory at its utmost height, is precious for sustaining them at other times.
In most other countries the paramount importance of the sympathies as a constituent of individual happiness is an axiom, taken for granted rather than needing any formal statement; but most English thinkers always seem to regard them as necessary evils, required for keeping men’s actions benevolent and compassionate. [Boooooo! - Tyler’s commentary.]