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Questions to Ask Yourself
Here are three questions I think are worth asking yourself, as well as my answers to them.
What’s the most plausible way in which you could do a lot of harm over the course of your life?
I think there are a few answers for me here. One possibility is that I could become an influential writer/academic/whatever and spread ideas that are harmful, either because I don’t realise they’re harmful (more likely) or because I stop caring about spreading harmful ideas and know that they’ll get me attention and/or money (less likely, I hope). One other thing that could happen is that I could become influential and fail to promote donating money to effective causes as much as I could, or underestimate my potential reach. For instance, I could stop talking about AMF, when it turned out that if I had talked about it more, I would have saved a significant number of lives. That isn’t exactly doing harm, but it could result in lots of lives not being saved, which seems pretty bad.
I’m also interested in starting a non-profit at some point in my life, and it seems possible that I could get funding that otherwise would have gone somewhere much more effective. A nightmare scenario is that the funding I received (for a non-profit that ends up failing) would have gone to the next GiveWell or something. Given that funding non-profits is a bit like venture capital in that a lot of failures are compensated for by a few huge successes, this would be a real disaster. (Note: I’m not claiming that it’s likely that I become some influential writer or a non-profit founder, these just seem like ways in which I could potentially do a lot of harm).
If you discovered that in fifty years, people close to you will consider your life a tragic waste of potential, what is the most plausible reason that that happened?
Again, I think there are a few possibilities here. The most obvious one is that I just try to do a load of different interesting and useful things, and none of them pan out. Maybe I’ll start a non-profit that fails, then spend a few years trying to get a writing job and fail at that too, and then settle into some job that doesn’t seem particularly useful or important to anyone. It could also be the case that all these failed projects lead to a lacklustre social life, and I end up friendless and alone with not much to show for it. God, this is a mildly depressing exercise!
Another (similarly depressing) possibility is that I end up inheriting some of the problems that family members have had. My uncle has paranoid schizophrenia and lives in a mental hospital, and while at 25 I’m probably past the age where it’s likely that I develop schizophrenia given I’ve never had any symptoms, it’s not impossible. A side-note: watching footage of my uncle as a young man talk intelligently about philosophy is possibly the most affecting example of a tragic waste of potential that I’ve come across, and probably why I’m so interested in this question. There is a history of alcoholism in my family too, and while I don’t think there’s a high risk of me becoming an alcoholic (he says, as he sips a pint of Amstel), it’s worth keeping an eye on.
What is a view that you have that people who know you well might not expect you to have?
This is basically the same question I asked Sam Bowman, and I think it’s one I actually struggle the most to answer. I’m not exactly sure how readers of this blog perceive me, but I’d describe myself as a fairly standard sort of EA-aligned, centre-left, university-educated male. I think I’m much more ambivalent about the morality of abortion than most people would expect, although that may apply to people in my personal life than to readers of this blog. It seems plausible to me that if most fetuses that get aborted would have had lives worth living, then a huge reduction in the number of abortions would fairly obviously be a good thing. I suspect the best way to actually reduce the number of abortions would be to increase child benefit rather than make abortions harder to access, so I’m not pro-life in the traditional sense, more just dubious about the claim that an increasing number of abortions is good per se. I’m sympathetic to Elizabeth Bruenig’s argument that a large number of people who choose to abort probably do so because of financial pressures rather than an actual desire not to have a child, and this seems bad. I’m interested in the case for giving people direct monetary incentives to have more children. Suppose that we could have an extra person alive for $2,000 in direct cash transfers, this seems like it could be fairly cost-effective if it is the case that the child would have a life worth living.
Another half-baked thought about this is that I would probably vote for the UK to join the United States as the 51st state if there were a referendum on it (which would never happen, obviously). The electoral votes that the UK would get would be sufficient to make the Democrats win Presidential elections forever, which seems desirable to me given how much better the Dems are on climate change. If the Republicans got their act together to win over UK voters and ended up becoming much more supportive of action on climate change, that also seems like an extremely good thing. The ability to move to the US for UK citizens sounds very good too.
I’d encourage you to put your answers to the question(s) you find the most interesting in the comments (if you can be bothered), or email them to me if you’d rather the answers remain private. Alternatively, send me other questions you think people should be asking themselves!