I've been thinking of maybe writing a book about effective altruism.
I've been blogging about these ideas for a long time, but a book would
offer the opportunity to go into more depth and to be more thoughtful
about some concepts I originally wrote up quickly and casually. Many
of these ideas are also worth revisiting; I've learned a lot in the
Looking back over my EA
writing I've touched on many aspects, but the bit I've covered the
most and would be most excited to expand on is integrating EA ideas
into your life:
How should you decide whether to donate? Change careers?
Volunteer? Go vegan? Live more
frugally? Not have kids?
Avoid flying? Which
options are basically never worth it, and which are dependent on what
you value? Some sacrifices people commonly consider are shockingly
poor tradeoffs. You'll usually have the largest impact if you
focus your altruistic efforts, but our culture generally encourages a
people to take on a wide range of smaller things without considering
How does our family put these ideas into practice? Where does
our time, money, and
attention go? How did we handle the intense pull to do unsustainable
amounts, and how has this changed over the years with getting older,
having kids, and lifestyle creep? How much does EA influence what we
do outside work?
I'd also include a short introduction to EA, key ideas from my other
posts (ex: The
Privilege of Earning to Give, Responsible
Transparency Consumption, Milk
EA, Casu Marzu EA), and concepts from related EA blog posts (ex:
Fuzzies and Utilons Separately, Cheerfully).
I would want to stick to the "nonfiction" genre and not "memoir", with
the focus on EA and only using our family's experience to the extent
necessary to illustrate the application of these ideas. I could also
see chapters on how some specific other EAs have applied these ideas,
interviewing them and writing it up as prose?
There are already several books aiming to introducing EA to a general
audience, and if I thought that everything I wanted to say had already
been said I wouldn't be very interested in this project. Looking over
these books, however, I do think there's a place for what I want to
write. The main EA books (Doing Good
Better, The Precipice, What We Owe The Future) are
primarily moral arguments. While they do get into the more practical
side (ex: chapter 10 of WWOTF) I think there's a lot to expand on,
especially by connecting EA concepts to specific decisions EAs have
needed to make. There's also Strangers
Drowning, which does consider how altruists have put their beliefs
into practice, but only two of the chapters are about EAs and it
covers a time when no one had been an EA for very long yet.
Existing EA writing is also generally aimed at an elite audience. I
see why some people have decided to take that approach, but I also
think it's really important to have a presentation of these ideas
grounded in common sense. If we ignore the general public we leave
EA's popular conception to be defined by people who don't understand
our ideas very well.
One question is whether I'm the best person to write this. Advantages
include that I've been thinking about this for a long time, understand
EA ideas well, have a lot of relevant personal experience, have lots
of practice at being public about things, and expect to be relatable
to many readers (mid-career parent, etc). Disadvantages are that I
don't have relevant credentials (not a philosopher or social
scientist), am demographically similar to authors of other EA books,
and have written enough publicly that almost anyone
could find something to dislike. Overall, I think EA would benefit
from a less centralized public representation, and adding someone
writing from a non-academic perspective would be good.
Co-writing with Julia would be
better, but I suspect it wouldn't go well. While we do have
compatible views, we have very different writing styles, and I
understand taking on projects like this is often hard on
relationships. I could see co-writing with someone else? Let me
know if you'd be interested!
There's also the question of opportunity cost: what would writing
trade off against? A lot of this depends on how I approach it: is
this something I should work on after the kids go to bed, when I
typically write blog posts? Or should I consider trying to go
part-time at work, take leave, or quit? I haven't yet talked to
people at work about this, but I would lean towards taking leave or
going part time: if this is worth doing it's probably worth focusing
on. That I think what I'm currently doing is valuable, though, means
that there's a higher bar than just "does this seem like a good book
Is this a book you'd be interested to see? Advice on the
nonfiction industry? General feedback?
If you wrote a book about many different ways to feel about being a parent in a world of x-risk, I think that would get a lot of bites. Write about what it's like for everything to seem normal and boring and safe, but being a parent means you have to live your life while knowing that it isn't. "I changed my career because it's more important to me that my kids are alive in 20 years than inherit a lot of money in 40 years" or something like that.
Writing about life as a parent in a world of x-risk would get a ton of interest, easily, and you could easily pull it off. Gently touching on society's moral confusion is harder, especially mixing that in with being a parent in a world of x-risk, because people would be picking up in the first place to read about being a parent in a world of x-risk. You might be able to pull it off by writing about being a parent in a world where society is generally confused, including morally confused, with the existence of x-risk being the first big point that demonstrates that the world is confused (e.g. "being a parent in an insane world, where another pandemic could be thousands of times worse"). The Viliam-Valentine debate describes how today's math education is utterly deranged, and ~5 pages on that would be the perfect amount, parents would feel very grateful to have read that. Tons of parents are already anxious about the world going bad by the time their kids get married, both the left and the right thing that totalitarianist elements are at large domestically (blaming eachother of course, but the fear is real), vague lab leak claims, climate change etc, and talking about a second pandemic within 20 years would be the perfect hook into the obviously realer world of x-risk and thinking about winning strategies/results. Many of them have children who are teens or in college or early career, and replacing their anxiety with a crystalline, logically coherent/consistent understanding of the risks would be an interesting conversation topic with the kids at thanksgiving/winter break and also with other parents who have vague anxiety. Just describing life as a parent would make couples feel like having kids, and describing life as a parent in a world of x-risk would make couples feel like not having kids, so if backers/funders are concerned about the book making more people have kids, then let them decide on a balance that they find suitable.
There's a ton of other things related to community building that I suspect you're uniquely capable of writing some really great stuff about, but it would require galaxy-brain thinking to find safe ways to fit them into the book, such that the info benefits EA more than harms. But x-risk parenting, on the other hand, is a simple, consistent, solid foundation that you can build a lot of thinking on top of.
I'm writing a book. Here's how I think about it and fit it into my life:
Maybe this is because of my vantage point (as your friend and someone who has deliberately distanced themself somewhat from EA as a whole), but I tend to think of you and Julia as relatively central figures in EA. Like, I’m not sure if you’re among the very most centrally-connected circles of that community, but I’d also guess that you’re not really more than about one rung out from there. In that case, I’m unsure how much you as an author would contribute to “de-centralizing” author representation?
That said, I do think that EA would absolutely benefit from raising some more approachable / less academic voices to a higher public profile. I’d certainly enjoy reading a book from you about the topics you describe, even though that book would be unlikely to shift my personal skepticism about the wisdom of EA as a movement. Your other listed advantages as an author do make sense to me, and I think that your “relevant credentials” disadvantage isn’t meaningful given the desire to focus on a less philosophical lens and to diversify the types of centrally-public EA voices.
I’m unsure how much you as an author would contribute to “de-centralizing” author representation?
I’m unsure how much you as an author would contribute to “de-centralizing” author representation?
Sorry, I primarily meant 'decentralizing' as in just more individuals. Right now EA's author representation is mostly one person (Will McAskill) or maybe two (Peter Singer) and while I like both of them I'd rather see a world where there were, say, ten authors with a range of perspectives, approaches, and audiences.
Do it! You've always been a better spokesman for EA than any of the people with the big audiences and big platforms. I think your book would, correspondingly, be a better book than any of the ones we've seen published so far. Less prestigious, probably, but higher quality.
And hopefully it might push EA back toward an equilibrium of having individuals who are dedicated and well-spoken but basically ordinary in-the-trenches EAs being the face it presents to the world, rather than people who make it their job to be spokespeople. That was better for EA internally, and given the whole FTX debacle and PR-focused mistakes, probably better for the world as well.
A lot of this depends on how I approach it: is this something I should work on after the kids go to bed, when I typically write blog posts? Or should I consider trying to go part-time at work, take leave, or quit? I haven't yet talked to people at work about this, but I would lean towards taking leave or going part time: if this is worth doing it's probably worth focusing on. That I think what I'm currently doing is valuable, though, means that there's a higher bar than just "does this seem like a good book to exist."
I wonder if it would make sense to write it as a series of blog posts (like the sequences, HPMOR, and "Wait But Why Year One: We finally figured out how to put a blog onto an e-reader"), at least for the first few chapters.
It seems it could provide the usual advantages of agile development, and get you some quick (self-)feedback in a lower-stakes environment (even though as you mention this has many downsides).
As someone who's trying a bit of community building, I would love more books, and the topics you are suggesting are super interesting in terms of helping many people do more good.