On being accidentally rational

It’s funny how most people come upon effective altruism, or at least how they have done so up to this point. A huge swath of us are philosophers – myself not included – or worked in the nonprofit sector before. We’re often young, usually in the undergrad to PhD age range with a standard deviation of five years or so. These things – minds that like puzzles, hearts that like helping, and youth that likes new ideas – make us susceptible to the ideas of effective altruism.

We do some heuristics and determine that helping people abroad or in the future, or animals in factory farms, is 100 to 1000 times more cost-effective than helping those living here and now in our own communities. And it doesn’t bug us, really. Those who it bugs don’t join, for the most part, and it’s easy to deem them irrational for not hopping on the bandwagon. But I’ve always cared about those far worse off than me, and had an instinct for animal suffering before I found the movement. Although I’m wary of speaking on behalf of others, it seems that many people who think protecting ourselves against unfriendly artificial intelligence or bioweapons already had a penchant for technology and the sciences, and those who opt for advocacy or meta-work already had the blood of an activist running through their veins. I’m by no means claiming that we are intentionally over-prioritizing our personal areas of interest, but merely suggesting that we may be wrought with confirmation biases and permitted to cling to our area of preference by the lack of research and agreement on, say, the degree to which we should weight animal sentience against that of humans, or the tractability of addressing ‘unknown unknowns’ facing far future generations. My areas of interest, while honed by EA criteria, by no means radically changed course since I discovered the movement, and I feel it would be naïve to claim that the contrary is true for many current EAs. I liked the cost-benefit analysis part of EA from the get-go, but would I have been so receptive had my first exposure been to research on anti-aging or colonization of the stars? I doubt it. I liked the rationality because it made my emotional decisions seem as if they were more rational at their inception than is warranted. I’ll hazard a guess that others would have had a similarly disinterested reception had their primary exposure to what works best been counter to their previously vested interests. I’m by no means suggesting that people drop their EA cause of focus; since there really is a lot of guessing and assumption-making at the infantile stages of the movement, I think it’s crucial that we keep our cause options diverse so as to attract more and greater minds to the movement, and to develop strong arguments for and against different paths.

We believe a large part of our inclination to effectiveness is by virtue of a chance predisposition to EA-relevant causes. I therefore call this into the wind so that we may become more understanding of those who cling ‘irrationally’ to their causes of choice.