The Battle For Ideas
The world we live in is the frontline in an ongoing war of ideas that has been waged since Homo sapiens first began to communicate. There are many battlefields in this war. It is a complicated, ever-changing picture where the realities of victories and defeats play out over years, decades and centuries of human existence. And even today, certain ideas reign supreme in some parts, have a foothold in others and have been all but defeated in other parts. These ideas seep into us and inform how we act, live and treat others, but equally as importantly, they inform how the world allows us to act, live and treat others.
Ideas really matter. And it is vital to ensure the ideas influencing you have firm foundations for belief. However, for too many of us, ideas are taken on board far too readily. They may be inherited, they may provide social kudos, or they may just feel right. However, a look through human history reveals that none of these is sufficient reason for believing something.
Without delving into the realm of moral relativism, most of us would agree that certain ideas are better than others at ensuring human progress and increasing positive mental states. For example, if the views of the Japanese suicide cult Aum Shinrikyo were to be taken on board widely, the world would soon be a much worse place. Those persuaded by these ideas would view the group’s founder Chizuo Matsumoto as a modern Christ, and would be committed to bringing about the world’s destruction to free us all of future bad karma.
The above is an extreme example, but there are deadly and destructive ideas that radicalise people all the time. Recent examples include the ideologies of organisations such as the IRA, ISIS or ETA. Ideas can be seductive, they can play on our insecurities, they can tap into our innate desire for social networks, and they can lie to us. Therefore, it is imperative to be robust when interrogating our own ideas and when feeling persuaded by new ones.
Testing Our Own Beliefs
It is also true that when we look back at past eras, we are often appalled at the status quo beliefs of the day. We should have the same scepticism around the views and ideas that are commonplace now. This isn’t to say that they are all wrong, but they require some degree of scrutiny. The future will be a better barometer for what ideas are of value than today ever will be. If the opinions and beliefs you hold deviate from the status quo norm, then this is no reason to abandon them, but it is a reason to ensure they are rooted in firm foundations.
And there is no better tool to test out the validity of our ideas than to use our innate capacity to reason and form logical judgements about them. Furthermore, we can use the scientific method to test the practical effectiveness of certain ideas and use that data to decide which ones to pursue and which to ignore. This, crucially, allows us to remove the Ego from our ideas – to fully interrogate them we need to remove them from our identity and objectively assess them. This method is at the foundation of the Effective Altruism movement. In simple terms, Effective Altruism is concerned with using reason and evidence to do the most good. And it is the movement's unifying idea that I believe is one of the most simple, beautiful and important ones that we have created as a species.
Almost as important as creating good ideas is the ability to communicate them and encourage others to take them on board. As mentioned, ideas matter enormously, and they will go on to shape our future. If you have a vision of a reality you want to make happen, learning how to effectively persuade is critical. The ideas behind effective altruism have convinced me that they will make the world a much better place, and I am confident they will convince many more people also. I can help these ideas spread more rapidly, or I can hinder that aim by communicating them poorly, preaching to people or making them feel attacked. The latter techniques, unfortunately, are all too common in much of discourse today both on and offline.
Persuasion is an essential weapon in this war of ideas, but ironically it is here where the metaphor of battle and wars holds us back. A disagreement in views too often evokes the desire in us to ‘win’ the argument, not back down, not ‘lose’. Yet this hinders progress – we should all be open to the idea that we are wrong about everything, and equally the possibility that other people are right. When discussing ideas with others, we should do so as partners in trying to get closer to the truth. Ask questions that helped you reach your conclusions, listen and take counterpoints seriously, don’t expect to change someone’s mind or have your own mind changed, right away. Sometimes sowing a seed is enough.
A wealth of evidence shows the vast progress we have made in so many areas of life. The Effective Altruism movement distils what helped us achieve this progress: people’s desires to do good and their use of reason to achieve that goal. The prosperity many of us now enjoy means we are blessed with the opportunity to donate portions of our incomes to this cause and help speed progress. I am confident the ideas inherent in the Effective Altruism movement will hold up to scrutiny, and I also firmly believe this is an idea worth sharing. We can be part of a period in history where progress increases exponentially, and vast amounts of people today, as well as those yet to be born and other sentient creatures, will have happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives. For me that is an idea worth believing in and an idea worth spreading.
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