This is a quick, personal piece. The TL;DR here is: trying to, "do the most good" is a simple idea that immediately gets complicated. Putting all complexity aside for a second, I thought about how the idea first made me feel—and how it still makes me feel today. 

When I was seven years old, I created my own belief system so I could feel safer. I conceptualised a kind of cosmic energy referred to as the Universe. The Universe was only a little powerful with limited control, but as its defining feature, it really cared about me. I was a favorite. It would try to nudge things in my direction. It would check on my thoughts often and with intense interest. It would rush in when I was sad, feel awful, and try as hard as possible to help.

As far as magical cosmic entities go, this is a pretty low bar. Reading minds and encompassing the entire world is hard, but trying to nudge towards something better? Caring? I could do that. This thing I clung to as a little kid was like, really achievable. I wasn’t searching for some incredibly far-reaching, life-changing meaning that would click the whole world into place. Mostly, I just needed help.

This frame has informed much of how I orient towards doing good. If I had to list three beliefs I’ve regarded as true throughout my whole life, they’d be: suffering is real, I don’t want conscious life to suffer, and the totality of what I’ve felt in my heart on this Earth has been the greatest gift and too much. And for the too much, I needed help. That’s all The Universe was meant to be. 

Even as a kid making up a vague religion, I never imagined a kind of mystical world where help was always coming. It isn’t, we all know that—at least not right now. I’ve sat on the bathroom floor alone for broken days, I’ve missed a friend’s call because I was asleep. And completely beyond what I know are experiences of pain, every minute, in people and animals. And too often help won’t come.

A five year old will die of malaria and no one will have stopped it. Humanity could just end one day and no one will have stopped it. But we can try. We can try to use our resources; and not only can we try, but we can try as hard as we possibly can. We can even be incredibly smart about it; rigorous; principled; creative; excited; ambitious. We can, in some ways, do much more than the Universe I talked to before bed every night for 10 years. I’ve never felt much pressure in that, just a lot of aching hope. And even when I start to feel bogged down in the complexity and uncertainty that shrouds any attempts to look at the world’s most pressing issues, this central hope is something I return to. We can try. And to someone, maybe even to many, maybe even to somewhere around as many as possible, it might matter.

When I think about why I love the idea of trying to help the most people possible, that’s what comes to mind. An opportunity. In expanding moral circles and pages of research on global health interventions and pages of schemes on preventing advanced AI from wrecking the world. And of course, tons of other things I don’t know about. I’ve never seen good be done perfectly or “right”, by me or anyone else (at least not at scale), but I would like to continue trying in the “most” way I’ve found so far. And I’d like to continue coordinating around the attempt; learning how others try. For those I love and also those I will never know. And thank you to those who try for me, for the ones I love, even if you can’t know.





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"I’ve never felt much pressure in that, just a lot of aching hope." I think that's my new goal; I sometimes feel a lot of pressure. Thank you for sharing!

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