nothing is mere

Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

This is a shorter version of a post for Miri Mogilevsky’s blog, Brute Reason.

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But it’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do, and I’ve come to notice that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ, not just in their philosophy and tactics but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals. Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. At an extreme, people’s happiness is seen as a tool for achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your drives being a tool to help others. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room, muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle. One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest. A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies. Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

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In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that surprising, because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, or would you like to? Do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

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3 Comments

  1. I’m driven mostly by Slytherfuzzies on a daily basis, but I’ve never felt them as strongly as my strongest Gryffinfuzzy experiences, and it’s those that have managed to shift the course of my life. Gryffinfuzzies well up from deep within me and make me feel like I’m on fire and could burn down the whole world. Slytherfuzzies are more bubbly, cold, safe, and predictable. Maybe what’s going on is that I can’t emotionally afford to be a Gryffindor day-to-day even though that completely overpowers the Slytherin with no struggle whatsoever when I let it out. I’ve started thinking of it as my Mysterious Light Side.

  2. I am absolutely filled to the brim with Hufflefuzzies. However, I also identify strongly with the Hero’s Journey elements of Gryffinfuzzies, so perhaps the most accurate formulation would be a motivating force of the former within a paradigm of the latter.

    I feel Hufflefuzzies when I see a loving couple look into each others’ eyes, or young children helping each other build a block of towers. I find that I never feel them when donating money to a cost-effective charity or enhancing my own productivity.

    Gryffinfuzzies come when something happens that, maybe similar to Brienne’s experiences, I feel changes the entire course of my life. My most recent Gryffinfuzzy experience was at the 2013 Effective Altruism Summit, when I updated on AI risk. I felt like I was just waking up out of a dream to see the world as it truly was.

    • “I find that I never feel them when donating money to a cost-effective charity or enhancing my own productivity.”

      That’s less surprising if there really is something fundamentally social about the kind of feeling I’m gesturing at here.

      I think hufflefuzzies (perhaps lightly seasoned with gryffinfuzzies) are what Eliezer had in mind when he wrote Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately. If your personal goals are well-matched to humanity’s needs, then there’s no need to purchase slytherfuzzies and utilons separately. (If your moral framework is well-matched to humanity’s needs, then the same is true for gryffinfuzzies.)

      That’s part of why I wrote this post; if some people can avoid the problem of purchasing fuzzies and utilons separately, then those people could be incredibly valuable to EA, and we should be attentive to that fact both to reward it when it occurs and to be on the lookout for new recruits.

      The danger is that most people’s personal ambitions, intellectual interests, etc. probably don’t track our collective long-term needs well. And, perhaps unlike hufflefuzzies, they don’t even track our collective short-term needs well. If people by default are terrible at altruism, then the fuzzies (or, more generally, personalities) we’re looking for may be the ones that are easiest to use for bootstrapping our way to better decisions. For instance, it could well be that ravenfuzzies are in themselves the worst of the four motivators for altruism, but happen to go hand in hand with character traits that make it easier to mindhack one’s way into effectiveness.

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