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decision-making effective-altruism mit moral-machine sonder

Effective Altruism, Sonder, MIT Moral Machine & Yourself

Image was created by the author

A few weeks back, I stumbled upon an interesting word. A word that carried great meaning as well as a slightly sophisticated connection to some of the concepts that I will address in this article. This article was written to show how deep we can think & discuss even the most regular random thoughts if we give enough attention.

Part I — Sonder

Noun. sonder (uncountable) (neologism) The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it. Source — Wiktionary

“What is it with everybody?”. Every time I took the bus back home from high school & tuition, I used to observe everyone I see on the way & ponder upon the above question. I used to wonder what sort of a person he/she is (One can argue that I was being captious to a certain extent). In the meantime, I used to observe their emotions & wonder what could be troubling this person right now. The famous quote, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about, therefore be kind to everyone” is closely related to what I’m about to tell you.

Our brain is a real paradox. With the deep roots of consciousness and the Neurons — Glia, it’s so easy for someone with a thing for philosophy to get lost in the wonders of psychology, evolution, biology. If I asked you, “What do you see when you meet someone? Their beauty? Shape? Ethnicity? Gender?”, what would be your answer? It is interesting to see the answers people give and it could be fascinating to contemplate if we could see something more than that…Something more than the way a person is judged by their looks in the eyes of the common society. If you do it right, it can be one of the best teachers you have ever seen. Observation is very important. Everyone you know has brain & DNA structure which is very different from yours. How they turn out to be the people they happen mostly due to that structure & the environment they grow up. What we do, how we think & react, solely depends on those factors, and the set of principles that we build for ourselves over the years. This set of principles is of great importance on how our lives are going to unfold with time. Now, let’s take a turn & think about how these small lessons categorized and interpreted in society.

Talking about the life lessons & principles, you & I both know that a lot of our experiences and the teachings do not really support the concept of being your “most supportive & kind” version you can be at all times. I have only come across a handful of interpretations where it teaches you to be the good person “at all times”. A lot of teachings give out the message that we should be mean and harsh from time to time to gain respect and to live without being a pushover. Being rude to other people from time to time for small reasons to make sure you don’t get deceived is a technique used by many of us because it creates this illusion that ignorance, lack of responsiveness, rudeness are traits of leadership. That is true sometimes because when you are being nice people, they might try to take advantage of you. That is when you must use force to overcome that situation and not silly arguments to show “authority” over everyone else by being a condescending prick. Les Brown once said, “Live your life with passion, live to represent an idea & its possibilities”. I have always been a person who tried to follow the above saying and tried to represent the idea of trying nonviolence and kindness to solve problems. I.e the ideology of being the best version of you all the time & follow some simple principles such as trying not harm or deceive anyone even if you know that it is not going to be in your favor — still doing “what’s right”, all the time. A quote I love by John Wesley explains this mentality really well.

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

John Wesley

This brings us to the second part of this article. Even if you try to be the good gentlemen all the time How can you choose what is right depending on the situation and what makes you qualified to accurately decide what is right?

Part II — Effective Altruism

One day I was asked a set of interesting questions about the above quote from one of my friends which led me to learn about Effective Altruism.

Image created by the author based on a real conversation

When someone says “ I did what’s right”, “I did what was best for all of us”, “I did what I had to do”, they all justify and give validation to their actions. But just like everything else, the justification of someone’s actions is also subjective. What seems right for one person might not seem right to another at first and that creates a diversion. Effective altruism is a way of identifying and choosing what is “actually” the best option available among few and how to execute. If I were to explain furthermore, imagine you have given multiple options as solutions to a problem and you are expected to make an executive decision on what to do. The important part is that each of these options have their own serious disadvantages or advantages. Therefore, by choosing one, you are creating chaos in another dimension. So how would you choose what is the best option? How can you ensure that you are being the best person you could be?

“Most of us want to make a difference. We see suffering, injustice and death, and are moved to do something about them. But working out what that ‘something’ is, let alone actually doing it, can be a difficult and disheartening challenge.”

“Effective altruism is a response to this challenge. It is a research field which uses high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible. It is also a community of people taking these answers seriously, by focusing their efforts on the most promising solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” — Source

Let’s take an example…

Imagine you have $10000 & you are given an opportunity to fund two very bright but financially inadequate students (who have the potential to create new inventions that will benefit the humankind) to go to college or to fund for food and fulfil the essential needs of an extremely poor village of people for a substantial amount of time who are in dying need of aids to survive in Africa. What would you do? (Given that these two methods are the only ways that you can spend the $10000). How can you choose? What criteria do you follow to make the decision? This is where we face a question of how can we be the best we can be and do the best we can do because choosing any one of those will change the lives of a large number of people for the better and for worse. Even though I mentioned that we must be the best we can be and always be kind and forgiving, how would you feel when you decide to let a whole village to starve or let two highly talented individuals lose their last opportunity to do something vital for the society?

Now imagine a common problem you face in your day to day life. This is where the quote “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about, therefore be kind to everyone” must be reminded once again. What other people do in the face of different phases of their lives is none of our business because everyone has their right to do what they feel right and what is best for them. That is why it is important not to judge anyone at once. What you do not see is far greater and deeper than what you see because until you walk in someone elses’ shoes you can never give meaning to the phrase, “I understand your situation”. But that doesn’t justify ones’ destructive actions towards another group just for the benefit of another willingly and under the knowledge of both parties. Harming someone in the face of making some other group comfortable and raising standards, is not acceptable at all. That is why we must choose everything wisely. So what is the solution?

  1. Effective Altruism is one way to go. If the situation is a pretty serious one, you can analyze everything you know and everything that is out there for you to know and make a decision carefully. You can even take the help and advice of someone worthy of listening to in such a situation.
  2. “Aththuupanaayika Dhamma” is another method that we can follow. This is a Buddhist concept which suggests that we must apply the concerning situation to ourselves and try to think about the whole situation & its consequences as if the sole party which is affected by the result is us. This is a highly efficient method because sometimes we don’t understand how our actions are troublesome to someone else until we try to look at things the way other people do.
  3. Another Buddhist concept that can be applied in such a situation comes with three steps. The first is to check whether our actions can harm ourselves. The second is to check whether our actions can genuinely cause pain to someone else. The third is to check whether our actions can genuinely cause pain to all of us including everyone related to the given scenario. If at least one of these steps does cause friction or distress, not doing the intended operation is of the best interest to everyone.
  4. Taoism or Stoicism — These two are philosophies (Chinese & Greek) that teach us how to cope with our emotions in a way that teaches us to enjoy everything we face in life, even the bitter sides. I suggest you check these two concepts more as they contain important teachings that can give you a rare insight into the roller-coaster called Life.

Part III — Moral Machine — MIT

Screenshot source — www.moralmachine.net

Speaking of what’s right and wrong, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Moral Machine is one of the most interesting projects/tools I found on the internet. It is a collection of few games which leads you through a series of hypothetical scenarios where you have to make hard decisions based on what you “feel” is right. I am not going to tell you a lot about what it is spoil it for you, so check those links below if you are interested. They are simple games so you would probably enjoy it and will get more intuition on the concepts I tried to address you from this article.

Moral Machine Publication

Screenshot source — www.moralmachine.net
MyGoodness game — (Screenshot source — www.my-goodness.net)

So this article stared from a simple word and led us into a series of valuable concepts on how we should make our decisions and how important it is for us to identify even the small implications of our actions. You can find the links for the above tests below and I hope you were able to gain something out of this somewhat unorthodox, unconventional article and check my other articles for more bizarre, engaging content.


Effective Altruism, Sonder, MIT Moral Machine & Yourself was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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