Use “care” with care.

Cross-posted to the Effective Altruism Forum

I’m an employee of the Centre for Effective Altruism, but my thoughts are not necessarily those of my employer.

As someone who frequents the EA community in the Bay Area, there’s a verbal habit that I’ve heard a lot and of which I think we should be wary. In discussing what they are focusing on, people often say things like “I primarily care about existential risks” or, more cringingly, “I don’t care about global poverty.” I use this example given the existential risk-oriented disposition of many Bay Area EAs, but don’t expect that they are exceptional in this type of language misuse. While this may be little more than a verbal misstep, I think it hints at other problems we may face.

I know what they mean. In most cases it’s not that they actually primarily care about just making sure humans continue to exist, period, and don’t care about the quality of life of billions of people who exist today. It’s that, given the high level of implicit understanding between the conversationalists, “care” actually means something closer to “prioritize” or “think is the best use of my resources to address.” That being said, I still think this shorthand is dangerous for the EA brand, the EA community, and our EA goals.

The brand risk needs little explanation. A newcomer to the community would be really weirded out, if not horrified, to hear that a person “doesn’t care about global poverty” or whatever other cause they’re disavowing. Coupled with the often-cavalier tone in which this comment is made, EAs certainly stand to shock someone who might otherwise be inclined. Sure, some people might be intrigued by the boldness of these statements, but… would you have been more intrigued, or turned off? What about the other EAs you respect, back in the infancy of their involvement? (Perhaps you would have been intrigued. At least I know I would have been turned off.) Should a large media outlet, social justice-oriented group, or charity in our network catch wind of such language, there’s no telling what sort of negative ramifications this could have for the movement.

It also serves as a quick way to create a rift between one’s self and their potential allies in the community. People who are really involved in EA and focus on public health, factory farming, better science, etc. have chosen that cause because they think it is the one with the most promise. It’s certainly not because they don’t care about other causes that hinder the wellbeing of creatures they deem relevant. Particularly on an emotional level, vocally not “caring” about a person’s cause selection seems to imply not caring about those whose whom the cause impacts. Maybe the cavalier EA doesn’t care about the cause, but I’ve only really found this to be the case amongst people who don’t think that animals have morally relevant suffering. The cavalier EA probably does care about young African children, at least intellectually, and risks alienating the very people with whom they should be collaborating by speaking in this way.

Finally, and in my perception most detrimentally, one risks coming to believe that they do not, in fact, care about e.g. global poverty. Yes, it’s really draining to have your heartstrings tugged every which way, to feel the opportunity cost of all of the things one is foregoing by focusing their efforts. If you’re like me and tried to help people before finding the community, the EA approach to doing good was a bit of a relief, giving you emotional permission to block out some of the endless charitable asks. Maybe you instead come to EA from a place of excitement at the opportunities for influence and power, or intrigued by the complexity of the problems at hand. For those types, not caring about anything except The Goal may feel compromising and antithetical to the classic advice for career or startup success. And yeah, it is, but only in the short run. The horse-blinder focus is only good when you are pushing to make progress on a pre-determined instrumental goal. This shouldn’t stay stable for long, given the nature of rapid change of most problems one might address. In the long run, as one evaluates their fundamental goal and path to achieving it, emotional openness is likely to be essential for cognitive openness to being wrong and changing course. This isn’t to say that you should start from Square 1 every time you check your plans; this is to say that you probably were wrong, in some way, and keeping in mind the reason you’re here in the first place (because you care) will make you less prone to personal bullshitting. Nothing like an occasional stare into the void to keep your other motives in check.

I’ve also found that intentionally remembering that I do care reinvigorates my resolve to do the best I can. I periodically reaffirm my compassion for those whose afflictions fall outside my priorities. I find it enraging that people can be incarcerated for years for petty crimes or crimes they didn’t commit. I am sickened by the nonchalant treatment and killing of lab animals. I ache for teenagers mired in deep depression and suicidal thoughts. I remind myself of their plight not as a form of self torture but as a means of self humbling, to remind myself how simplistic my characterizations of the world can become. This leads me to reevaluate my cause priorities, as well as reminding me why its important to resist the lure of other motives.

Perhaps this blows this offhanded choice of words out of proportion. It’s just a word, after all; we have far bigger things to tackle. But if, as it seems, this hits on larger risks about how we perceive and are perceived by the world, it behooves us to use “care” with care.

Footnote: I’m pretty uncertain about this post, and expect it to seem kind of melodramatic. It feels like I’m pointing at a real problem, but hey, I may just be pedantic. Please call me out on it if so. One of my goals for this year is to get more feedback on my thoughts, since it’s easier to be self-deceived without it.