The moral responsibility of the collective
by Ema Esrat Farjana and Avinash Bharwaney
There is an interesting concept in Hinduism that resonates with us, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which translates into “the world is one family”. Ironically, this contradicts some of “secular” India’s most obvious forms of prejudice and discrimination, namely the increasingly strong right-wing Hindu anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as the caste system, which sorts people in classes based on their birth parents and skin color. It is clear that though religion showcases some notion of unity, there are inherent legacy conflicts present within a religion and between religions which leads to selective concern for particular types of people. Our learning from EA is that it is a powerful philosophical complement, providing the necessary collectivist qualities for moral expansion, that allow for all of society to move forward, uniting people across common goals regardless of race, class or creed.
It is important to disclaim that we are not positing EA as a direct substitute for religion, but rather supporting individuals across varying backgrounds to form consensus and unity by targeting a common enemy: global issues. One may argue that EA’s core purpose is more than just connecting top researchers together to work on solving these global issues, but rather building the foundation for a more united, future-driven humanity; for we cannot possibly do anything if we are divided. For example, the obvious issue of nuclear weapons as an existential threat is a difficult one to resolve directly. However, if nations with these weapons are run by individuals that share an EA or equivalent belief system, they would a) be educated (or work towards being educated enough) to understand the risks and severity of these threats, b) have the competency and technical expertise to mitigate these threats and c) be willing to forgo other benefits for the greater good to prevent the misuse of these weapons.
This argument is not entirely substantiated and is more conceptual based on our experiences - if EA continues to attract top performers and specialists that end up in lead roles, the concept of global unity on a scientific and logical basis will succeed. For example, determining that climate change is adverse and acting on it swiftly, instead of kowtowing to major oil and gas companies and supporting climate change denialism. There are obvious nuances that we have abstracted from this argument to simplify our point; however, the fundamental argument holds true. By cultivating a moral responsibility for the collective, EA and its equivalents are powerful drivers that encourage desired behaviors that are likely to benefit humanity on a global scale.
However, one concern with EA as a method for this “unity” is the focus on the theoretical. We are arguing the need to leverage this perspective to see the wider picture, to see the homeless, our neighbors, the blue-collar workers, the elderly, all as people that we are connected to and that we are meant to support. The meticulous focus on optimizing the EA formula, through whether certain issues are overinvested in or operating under triage when providing support, does sometimes siphon away the humanity of it all.
Another concern is that our expectation of EA being able to wield this global unity may not be entirely possible in all communities. Akin to transplant rejection where the body’s immune system rejects an organ transplant, so too will EA have difficulty integrating in certain communities. It may come under fire or scrutiny from existing philosophies or cultures, particularly those with protectionist views about the world and prevention of external ideas coming in. Furthermore, EA may have difficulty being accepted for the sheer complexity in its literature, diction and rigor. Religion is quite simple to grasp and most rituals are simple to follow. EA, on the other hand, may have a higher barrier to entry. The current affinity for EA of the educated class may be due to the predominance of intellect and theory instead of on-the-ground execution effort. This prevents EA principles from being communicated and distributed through alternative means, i.e. grassroots initiatives targeted at individuals that are not as educated.
However, even if EA were to adjust its communication strategy, individuals that lack sufficient education (either via continuous self-education or through educational institutions) may not even have the financial means to care — in other words, those that are cognizant of EA principles and strive to act on them are more likely to be financially well-off. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs establishes this well - before self-actualization (the realm in which EA most likely sits) come necessities, security, and social well-being. For one to understand the threat of AI alignment, one must be able to put food on the plates of their loved ones.
Though there are impediments in the adoption of EA, the fundamental need for global unity in an era where populism and fragmentation roam free is very much validated. There is a need and EA, alongside other movements (such as the Flag of Planet Earth), can be further honed and aggregated to serve this directive. The current alternative to service humanity’s ever-growing appetite for inspiration and direction are the swathes of self-help books, Instagram pages and influencers focused on hustle, grind, and cold showers for individualistic satisfaction. They are certainly effective, achieving their purpose of driving people to follow their mantras by providing easy-to-understand methodologies to become cash-rich and productive members of society. We don’t intend to belittle these philosophies as many people, including ourselves, have benefited from them. Nonetheless, we have directly felt the impacts of these philosophies which are driven to take care of the “I” and not the “we” in many cases. Seldom is emphasis placed on social good and overall unity as EA hopes to achieve. Our hope is that EA and its equivalents continue to help provide an alternative philosophy on how we should lead our lives, and get people to think about others for once, like it has for us.