Maslow First and the World Second| 652 words
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization.
One of my friends once told me that you had to first finish Maslow to be a committed effective altruist. This seems right to me, so I want to talk a bit about what I think it means.
People become who they are meant to be by doing what is right. But the world is not kind enough to make this easy. Often, doing what is right is very hard. Currently, I work to prevent existential risks because I think humanity could grow to be extremely good if we can survive for the next few centuries. Some salient features:
- It is not emotionally rewarding. There are much less compelling narratives surrounding existential risk reduction than work in other areas. The work is primarily aimed at helping people who do not yet exist.
- I don’t know what I’m fighting for. The broad shape of the future (should we get there) will be determined by future thinkers, who (hopefully) will be better equipped to determine the proper shape.
- The local value of any given action is unclear. Donating money has a simple story for impact. Thinking for an additional hour has a much more unclear story for impact. It is difficult to stay motivated when you’re doing research you think has better than even odds of being mostly useless, and the goal is ten to twenty years from now.
To do what is right, it must be possible for you to do hard things. This means that you have to fix all the small things in your life. You have to consistently be well-rested and fed, have financial security, close relationships, and a strong sense of self. You must be thriving. You have to be comfortable finding out that the project you’ve been working on for ten years is useless. You have to be comfortable with failing to get something that you desperately want. You have to be able to build yourself back up from wreckage absolute.
Sometimes I see people barreling into effective altruism. They encounter the ideas, take them seriously, and get to work. I admire such people immensely, but there’s a part of my brain that’s continuously shouting “too fast too fast too fast.” I encountered the core arguments behind EA approximately four years before I started seriously acting. I consider this to be abysmally slow and one of my most considerable failures, but I don’t think that I would have wanted to take less than a year. I wasn’t done yet, you see? My social life was shallow. I didn’t know enough. There was still so much I want to do. It wasn’t yet easy for me to do hard things.
Even now, there are a billion things that I don’t have time to do: learn physics, get good at computer programming, learn every human language, learn to draw, make my handwriting better, figure out how computers work, learn more about significant historical events, etc. There is so much I want to do and so little time to do it with and so many more important problems. But at least I’ve done a fraction. At least I’ve had a taste.
Carl Jung: “Modern men cannot find God because they will not look low enough.” So look lower. Are you getting food, water, warmth, and rest? Do you have safety and security? Do you have meaningful relationships? Do you have high self-esteem? Do you really? Could you have more?
“Fix yourself before you fix the world” sounds cliche. Take it seriously. The world depends on it.