There are a few things that keep me busy: reading, writing, teaching, and rock climbing. Reading and writing have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I studied literature in school, but I have, in the last few years, made it a point to read more nonfiction as well --- from history and philosophy to science and social-issue focused works. I also write and self-publish science fiction.
For me, it is important that I continually try to stay flexible in mind and continue my own, personal education. I have found teaching to be a part of that process. I have worked with students of one sort or another for over a decade now, first as a kids' climbing instructor and guide, then as an elementary substitute teacher, and, most recently, as a community college instructor. I also spend much of my time climbing, specifically bouldering. This has taken me around the world, and I find the physicality of it to be a good balance to my more intellectual pursuits. Climbing has also taught me discipline, something that I find to be a very important tool in my life.
I was raised in a Christian church, though I am no longer a Christian and am not entirely happy with some of the service I conducted in that capacity (often motivated more by evangelism than altruism). Still, my experience as a Christian taught me that giving, either through work or money, can be a regular part of my life. I have since come to question the effectiveness of the work we did, but the broader lesson remained with me.
Later in my life, through interactions with the men who worked for my father, who is an immigrant, and through travelling and reading, I became aware of how much of my life depends on the labor and work of others. I learned that, often, those people's contributions to society are not properly recognized nor rewarded. Initially, my response was to try to minimize my economic involvement; I wanted to make as little money as possible throughout my life and to live as simply as possible. This is still something I hold to (for multiple reasons), but, as my academic interests have pushed me to continue my education, my earning potential has increased. I realized that, as a professor, I am going to make more than I personally need. Then 2020 hit. Through a combination of reading, thinking, and listening, I have found the effective altruism movement and have come to see my earning potential as an opportunity to help more.
I give because I have seen enough suffering. I have many things I do not need, and I wish to share my luck with others if possible. I also understand --- and this is something I learned at a young age through my family --- that much of the good in my life was made possible by others. My parents raised me and so many others worked very hard so that I could have food, medical care, education, clothing, goods, etc. Given this reality, I find it impossible to reconcile the difference between (a) my quality of life and (b) the quality of life of others, whose labor I benefit from. I became a teacher to try to give back, and I give for the same reason.
I have long looked for a way to formalize my commitment to giving. I heard about the Giving What We Can pledge on Sam Harris's podcast, and it immediately made sense to me.
I care about education, income inequality, and the environment. For me, education has truly been a saving grace. Reading is what opened my world when I was young, and literature helped me make sense of that world. I do not think anything else could have been as effective. My education, both formal and personal, is what helped me escape the fundamentalist thinking I was raised to engage in. Income inequality is also important to me, though perhaps this is more of an emotional response to poverty. I simply find the differences in quality of life between the rich and the poor to be impossible to live with. Finally, the environment is very important to me. As a climber, I spend much of my time outside. Indeed, I have spent the last four years living outdoors in an attempt to have a closer relationship with nature.
I give to the Long Term Future Fund and the Global Health and Development Fund on EA Funds and to GiveDirectly. I also donate some money to political organizations and art groups, and I offset my carbon emissions, but I do not count these in my pledge.
Not especially. I prefer to give my money to those who need it rather than use it for things I don't need.
I consider my teaching to be a social act, and I work hard to remember that I am not trying to influence my students. Rather, my job is to give them the tools they need to make the world they want. That said, I do hope they learn that the life of the mind is a special one and can be balanced with a life of adventure. I also have a small online presence in the climbing community. The climbing community is very focused on fitness and is becoming mainstream enough to start falling into some of the pitfalls of commercialization. I try, in my small way, to inspire others in the community to read more, give more, think more, and create more art. Finally, I think storytelling can be an important way to create cultural change, and so I try to tell stories with characters worth looking up to, and I am trying to move into Cli-Fi stories and filmmaking.
I try to think of my giving the same way I think of my car insurance: it is necessary and automatic. I find this helps.
I have a rhetorical trick I sometimes use on students who I think are nearing a place in their lives where they want to focus more of their efforts toward discovering what it means to live a good life. I tell them: there are essentially two ways of looking at your existence (I acknowledge the false dichotomy here, but explain this is just for rhetorical purposes). Either: (1) you were created by an intelligent being --- a god --- who, in its infinite goodness and wisdom saw fit to make you exactly as you are, or (2) you are the result of billions and billions of years of creative chaos, of trial and error, of life and death. Billions of years of unimaginable change and evolution have led to you, now. Either way you look at it, how amazing! How glorious! But now, I say, the question is this: what are you going to do with this incredible stroke of luck? What are you going to do in the short amount of time that the cosmos has somehow graced you with?
Sam Harris's podcasts with Toby Ord and William MacAskill have been very influential to me. This will sound silly, but Star Trek has also been an inspiration to me. I think stories matter. I am a latecomer to Trek, but its optimistic outlook for humanity has helped me to believe.
I would like to see a world in which our human activity can be conducted in a way that does not threaten the environment and other people.
This post is part of the “People of Giving What We Can" series which profiles a selection of the Giving What We Can community. The Giving What We Can is a community of people from all walks of life, with different perspectives and motivations for giving – all united by their desire to make a significant commitment to use their income to effectively helping others. Read more member stories. Share your effective giving story to help inspire others to give more, and more effectively.