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Semi-EA: don’t be numb, but you don't need to take it all

By Andy Lee

The EA community is so energetic and I see many thoughtful ideas of how to do good effectively here. I don't know if anyone else feels the same way, but as I read more and more relevant posts, I started to feel a little bit overwhelmed and ashamed knowing the mistakes I made before, especially when I compare myself to those excellent practitioners of EA.

An indictment of myself

  1. I used to be that uncaring of those who suffer far away (I felt bad for the kid who was accidentally hit on the road but didn’t care that children in Africa are dying of malaria)

  2. I enjoyed meat products so much, but was totally unaware of how cruelly those farm animals were raised and killed.

  3. I always chose to close my eyes and pretend not to know about others’ suffering when I think I can do nothing to help, and I did so just to make myself feel better.

  4. When I face things that “have nothing to do with me”, I used to convince myself that doing nothing and avoiding making a choice is already the best I can do.

  5. I would like to spend $200 to get new sneakers but didn’t know that just $5.19 can buy an AMF-funded insecticide-treated bed-net which can protect African children from malaria for years and those children are no different than you and me.

  6. “What more can I do?” was my favorite excuse to dismiss any judgment

  7. etc, etc…

No more excuses

These accusations hit the nail on the head about my past omissions and mistakes (whether intentional or not). They're all real and they're all actual mistakes that I've made before I learned about EA. This post is definitely by no means meant to gloss over or diminish them. Instead, I should face all the omissions squarely and acknowledge them soberly, reminding myself over and over again what I should do in the future. Don’t be numb when you realize that you have made so many mistakes. There are no more excuses.

The scale of egoism and altruism

OK, now I’m starting to do things like an effective altruist. I began to learn about effective donation and read relevant books. I’ve been joining EA groups and chatting with people. I’m getting advice from experts and thinking about how to maximise my impacts with my career. I’m joining research groups about AI Safety and learning about alignment and interpretability.

All of these seem cool and not that hard!

However, at some point, I was devastated to realize that my enjoyment of all of these altruistic acts is also because they can also benefit myself and fulfill some of my selfish purposes. For example, I can get valuable research opportunities when I participate in AI Safety communities so that I can apply for some better PhD programs. Although I do think AI Safety is an important problem, egoism is truthfully a very big reason why I keep applying to these research positions. I enjoy doing so just because the interests of the two, egoism and altruism, do not conflict.

What if they were to conflict? I personally have no idea about whether I will still enjoy helping others when I have to sacrifice my own interests a lot.

This makes me feel really awkward and confused. When I talk about doing good, I feel hypocritical because some root reason of why I do so is totally selfish. I tell myself, “Maybe I'm just using these noble sayings to cover up my shallow and pragmatic designs.”

Semi-EA: take time to tilt the scale

People in the EA community are familiar with the four core values:

  1. It’s important to help others

  2. Everyone is equal (impartiality)

  3. Helping more is better than helping less

  4. Resources are limited, so effectiveness matters.

Once we think we agree with these four points, it’s okay to call ourselves effective altruists. However, I feel ashamed to call myself an altruist even though I totally agree with the four ideas above. The reason is that I still take a lot of selfish considerations into account when making decisions and there are a lot of things I can't do as well as the great EA pioneers. For example, I cannot fully get rid of meat products and I’m probably not going to donate my organs after death.

When I asked Anthony, the EAHK lead organizer, “Should EA focus on outcome or process?” I liked his answer:

From my own perspective, EA is probably 80%+ driven by consequentialism [the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its consequences] and utilitarian reasoning [maximizing well-being/ other non-well-being values for the greatest number]. Meanwhile, as Holden Karnofsky suggested, there is a need for us to embrace moral pluralism, instead of applying a dichotomous relationship between different ethical theories.

I realized that I had been so obsessed with the dichotomy of defining myself as an EA or a non-EA that I had fallen into the trap of "maximizing efficiency", expecting all my actions to serve altruism. (A similar example would be choosing not to have children in order to spend more money on donations, mentioned in the “’Bad’ EAs, caught in a misery trap” section of this post.) This helped me realize that I don't need to think all the time about whether or not every action I take is maximizing efficiency or whether or not I'm being considerate of others.

If I’m following an academic career track in AI, I probably need to gain a high GPA, get some internships and earn a Ph.D., all of which will require me to put much time into building up my own capital and being in the top 5% (especially when it comes to selection and competition). If I can achieve these, I will have a better chance of securing a relevant position after graduation and doing meaningful work in my life (e.g. as a research scientist at DeepMind).

However, if I cannot, all visions are just illusions, so from this perspective, improving myself and winning in competitions seem to be the most “effective” thing to do, which ensures that I will have enough capital and time to support EA in my subsequent career.

Here are the four most important posts that I think have helped me move past the self-doubt and disordered thought pattern. Check below to get more ideas:

  1. You Don't Need To Justify Everything

  2. Purchase fuzzies and utilons separately

  3. You have more than one goal, and that's fine

  4. Aiming for the minimum of self-care is dangerous

As a supplement to the 4th post, I want to emphasize again: maximizing altruism ≠ minimizing self-interest. When you try to help others, first make sure that your own world is orderly and not chaotic. Being miserable all the time couldn't be sustained for me, so I would like to make some room in my life for some frivolous and non-effective hobbies. When you feel that helping others or calculating effectiveness is already stressing you out, go get a little “ice cream” if it’s really important to your happiness. It’s just like an investment portfolio; one good strategy might be to spend some portion of your resource on altruism and also some portion on buying warm fuzzies.

To close this post, allow me to shamelessly call myself semi-EA. I just need more time to tilt my scale.

Author’s note: Forgive me for expressing myself in a didactic form in some parts. Please keep in mind that I am in no way trying to tell anyone what you should do, and if you think there is something wrong with my ideas, please feel free to point it out.

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