By now, you have presumably had your first encounter with the Socratic method. Regardless of your thoughts on it as a pedagogical tool, however, I encourage you not to consign the spirit of rigorous self-examination to the classroom, and to instead apply it to your beliefs on how to benefit your fellow creatures.
Socrates was, of course, famous for quipping that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. He would seek out those who claimed to know, and show them that they, in fact, did not. When I was in your place, I thought I knew how to do the most good with my law degree. I subscribed to the public interest orthodoxy that doing the most good after law school meant working for a public interest organization, or perhaps government, to advance Americans’ civil rights. Inspired by the legal heroes whose portraits adorn this campus, I dreamt of one day fighting the many injustices that still plague the United States, thereby bending the arc of the moral universe ever more slightly towards justice.
I imagine many of you share similar dreams. That is understandable and admirable, given both our society’s proper reverence for those who dedicated their lives to those fights and the uncertain trajectory of our nation. But I encourage you to, as I did, think carefully about whether your dream aligns with the beliefs I assume we all hold: helping others is important, people are equal, helping more is better than helping less, and our resources are limited.
Suffering and injustice still pervade earthly life. Although this is tragic, it also gives students like us many opportunities to do good. Yet, for a number of reasons, the subset of issues that consume our news feeds and attention spans is narrow and often fails to adequately reflect the true scope and severity of all the world’s problems. Purported solutions to these problems often fail completely or differ vastly in effectiveness. Thus, even our most well-intentioned plans often fail to accomplish as much good as possible.
Although as inheritors of the Socratic tradition we cannot claim to have the answers to all moral questions, we at HLS Effective Altruism aim to provide a reasonable framework that avoids these mistakes and thereby maximizes the good we do for others. If you agree that evidence and critical thought should guide our efforts to do the most good we can, then I encourage you to join us. We have open board positions, and especially need enthusiastic, altruistic 1Ls to help us help the HLS community to do good better. If you would like to learn more about our movement, you should peruse our website, join our mailing list, or come to our Introduction to Effective Altruism lunch event this Friday.
In three short years, you will exit this school with one of the world’s most powerful tools: a JD from Harvard Law School. It is never too soon to start thinking carefully and critically about how you will use that tool to improve the lives of others.