The BBC investigates Effective Altruism

A friend sent me a link to a BBC radio episode about Effective Altruism (28 min).

Interesting, though frustrating. There are valid critiques of EA, but the program didn’t present them well at all.

It’s Holly at the end (26:40) who best represents EA, I think, with balance and an acceptance that both heartfelt personal decisions and rational decision-making play a part in her actions. Holly’s EA is nothing like the monstrosity that the presenter has conjured up. Peter Singer too, of course, though he gives more attention to edgy philosophical dilemmas and is more easily misrepresented by presenter Giles Fraser and the philosopher John Gray (neither of whom showed much understanding of the movement as it actually is).

To address a few points, from the episode description:

“Giles discovers that, if you’re going to be an Effective Altruist, you have to toughen up and not allow sentiment to get in the way – you can’t prioritise causes close to your family or communities and your heart.”

Aaagh, this is annoying and I have no idea where he “discovers” this, which is in fact untrue. I reject the dichotomy, and was glad that Holly had the chance at the end to do the same.

John Gray: “If you’re a real effective altruist you should feel guilty about loving your children…”

Aaaagh, philosopher who hates effective altruism tells EAs what they “should” do (but don’t), then berates that strawman version of EA as monstrous. It’s appalling that the presenter let him get away with that garbage. Makes good radio, though, I guess, and that kind of sums up most of the episode.

And what’s with the guilt stuff as something that effective altruists are somehow supposed to feel? Guilt helps no one. Yes, it’s something that individuals have experienced, as in many other movements, and the responses that I’ve seen within the community (emphasizing balance, self-care, acceptance, seeing the big picture and trying to let go of personal guilt) have been healthy.

The presenter continues with this nonsense, implying that he is superior to EA because his straw version of EA “denies love”. I wanted to slap him. But I wouldn’t actually slap him because that wouldn’t be loving.

Natalie Quinn, the development economist, is more reasonable, pointing to the real challenge of hard-to-measure impacts which are nonetheless important. The short snippet included in the program overlooks the fact that the movement is well aware of this, gives attention to it, and certainly doesn’t demand that we ignore such impacts. That misrepresentation is on the programmers’ heads rather than Quinn’s.

(I gather that there are some in the movement who don’t think we should care about anything we can’t measure accurately – or at least give that impression – just like there are people elsewhere who, like Mr Spock, think that emotion is bad and leave it out of their calculations.)

The concept presented here, of some kind of imperative to be coldly calculating, doesn’t match my experience.  What I have experienced within EA is closer to its tagline of “head and heart”.

Procrastination self-prescription (that works for me every time)

I have work to do, but constant low-grade pain from a shoulder strain is killing my concentration and will to work these last 24 hours. I’ve distracted myself with social media and I’m letting people down because of it. If only I knew an anti-procrastination coach.

Oh, wait!

Okay, here’s my self-prescription:

  • 5 minutes of work by the timer (because I can bear almost anything for 5 minutes, even in this state). Of course I can do more, but I permit myself to break anytime after 5 minutes (and definitely before 15 minutes, because of the shoulder).
  • Then 5 minutes of something nice for my shoulder – a spiky ball on the scapula, gentle range-of-motion exercises, some tense-and-release or a pain meditation. (I’ve found all of these things helpful in the past, but neglected them in favour of short-term distraction.)
  • Repeat for one hour, then reassess.

I’ve used this before, and it works for me.

You may notice that there is no time allocated for social media. That is not an oversight.

Time flowing like a hundred yachts

These words always caught my attention:
So Time, the wave, enfolds me in its bed,
Or Time, the bony knife, it runs me through.
flowing like a hundred yachts

Fiumanka Regatta, CC0 Public Domain.

I saw them frequently beginning in my first year at university, 1989, while hurrying between lectures. Two lines of verse spray-painted on the back of the University of Sydney’s chemistry building.

They stimulated my imagination (though not enough to think about transferring from engineering to literature). Whose words were they? (This was before the world wide web.) And how should I understand their grappling with time and mortality?

Looking back, I can see why those lines grabbed the attention of my younger self. Time passed, and I had no clear sense of it. I knew that time was coming for me like a bony knife (flowing relentlessly, like a hundred yachts), yet it seemed unreal, outside my world, like a monster from a scary story. I’d not yet lost a loved one, and had no intuitive sense of time bringing death and decay.

Many years later, after the words had been removed, recited the words to a friend, who said “That’s Kenneth Slessor.” And so it is, from the poem Out Of Time, which contains the later lines:
Time leaves the lovely moment at his back,
Eager to quench and ripen, kiss or kill
Further on, absorbed in the beauty of a moment, the poet declares:
The moment’s world it was; and I was part,
Fleshless and ageless, changeless and made free.
‘Fool, would you leave this country?’ cried my heart,
But I was taken by the suck of sea.
The gulls go down, the body dies and rots,
And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts.

Most of the work that I do – with myself and with clients – comes down to moments. In particular, being to some degree present and engaged with this moment, rather than swept along by time. And while my approach involves awareness, techniques and exercises (to help clients stop procrastinating and begin acting), Slessor uses the beauty of language to make vivid our relationship with time.

Perhaps over time my coaching work will include more poetry.

Kenneth Slessor (1901 – 1971) was an Australian poet, journalist and official war correspondent in World War II. Wikipedia