Five (Short) Things for Absolutely Everyone to Read/Watch

Stephen Casper
Jul 9, 2019 · 3 min read

Euconoclastic blog series

Stephen Casper,

Out of everything that I’ve ever come across, here are the six things that I think are the best (all are short). For each, I’ll share a few thoughts which are NOT meant to be a substitute for actually reading/watching them. One quick note: I know that the authors/speakers featured here aren’t very diverse, and I wish they were more so, but I think their messages speak for themselves. Let’s go!

1. Same Deere: Four Ideas You Already Agree with (That Mean You’re Probably on Board with Effective Altruism)

Spoiler alert: the four ideas are that (1) it’s important to help others, (2) people are equal, (3) helping more is better than helping less, and (4) our resources are limited. I think that Effective Altruism can sometimes be surprisingly hard to explain because it’s a complex community, multidisciplinary field, and marketplace of ideas. But this article does a great job of showing how fundamentally, EA is the simple, obvious conclusion of a few almost universally-held ideas.

It’s crazy to think that for thousands of years, humans have built countless organizations, companies, societies, communities, religions, cults, and tribes. dedicated to a vast spectrum of causes. Some of those include curing some disease, spreading some ideology, advancing some political agenda, etc. Many of these causes have been very noble and have done great things, but virtually all of them have been cause partial. That is, until one point in the early 21st century when Effective Altruism came along, dedicated simply to doing as much good as possible. How did something so simple take so long?

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2. Nate Soares: On Caring

This is the most important reading of the five. Soares argues for a unique paradigm for what it means to really care about something.

3. Peter Singer: One World Now, Chapter 5, One Community

Did you know that:

~3,000 people died in 9/11.

~6,700 US soldiers died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

>244,000 Afghani civilians died from the war.

>182,000 Iraqi civilians died.

The US spent ~2.4 trillion on those wars.

2.4 trillion could mostly end global poverty (estimated to cost 175 billion per year for 20 years)

The US spent 696 billion on military spending in 2018.

Today, 4.4 million children under the age of 5 die preventably each year due to poverty-related causes.

But every year on September 11, it’s those ~9,700 US civilians and soldiers that US citizens hold a moment of silence for.

4. Josh Green: Beyond Point and Shoot Morality

Josh Green is a philosopher and psychologist. Here, he explains how an intuitive approach to morality is insufficient for the challenges that the modern world poses. I’ve written about a similar theme in a few blog posts as well: feelings are a bad guide to moral action.

5. Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Sometimes people watch this/look at the title and think that Harris is saying that morality is an empirical science. No — he’s not saying that observing the physical world can tell us what to value. However, once we adopt a value system (Harris proposes that we see the good as pertaining to the “welfare and flourishing of conscious beings,” a.k.a. hedonism), science can tell us how to achieve it. And this isn’t so strange — systems like science and math are build upon axioms too. This approach isn’t complicated, but it gives us so much clarity on how to resolve moral questions. If we see the question “is X moral” as being equivalent to “will X result in more wellbeing and happiness than alternatives,” then morality becomes a matter of actual fact which scientific methodology can be applied to.

Bonus — Eliezer Yudkowsky: Circular Altruism

This article discusses an extreme case (I won’t spoil it) in which, for most people, intuition and reason diverge. It goes to show just how strong and mistaken our moral impressions can be. See also a post from me about this article here (you might find my explanation easier to follow).

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