Doing good is as good as it ever was

Sum­mary: most effec­tive in­ter­ven­tions to do good are still roughly as high im­pact as they were a few years ago. [1] Un­for­tu­nately, some peo­ple in the EA com­mu­nity don’t feel as happy about the amount of good they can do as they did in the past. This is true even when the amount of good they are do­ing or can ex­pect to do hasn’t de­creased. While I think there are other sources of un­hap­piness with do­ing good, I am go­ing to dis­cuss adap­ta­tion to an in­creased ex­pec­ta­tion of the amount of good we can do as a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to this prob­lem.

The origi­nal prompt to do good from the EA com­mu­nity was: did you know that with just giv­ing 10% of your in­come you can save a life or even mul­ti­ple per year? But long-ter­mism and the as­tro­nom­i­cal waste ar­gu­ment have shifted the com­mu­nity to­wards ex­pect­ing to per­son­ally be able to ac­com­plish a much larger amount of good. Any­thing less feels in­suffi­cient to many. The com­mu­nity and the in­di­vi­d­u­als within have adapted to this higher ex­pec­ta­tion. For the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple, this ex­pec­ta­tion to do an ex­is­ten­tial amount of good does not ma­te­ri­al­ise, and so they feel dis­ap­pointed.

But that’s silly. As a first ex­am­ple, we can still save lives with only a small frac­tion of our in­come. Sav­ing lives has not be­come any less tremen­dously im­por­tant. Over 200,000 chil­dren un­der 5 still die of malaria each year. I am con­cerned that as peo­ple have be­come dis­ap­pointed with not liv­ing up to their hopes of pos­si­bly sav­ing billions of lives or fun­da­men­tally shap­ing the far fu­ture, they be­come dis­ap­pointed with their abil­ity to do good in gen­eral and give up. No­body should give up for this rea­son. You can still do an amaz­ing amount of good by sav­ing lives.

The same is true for other ways to do good. Fac­tory farm­ing is as big an is­sue as it was a few years ago, with dozens of billions of an­i­mals liv­ing in fac­tory farms un­der dread­ful con­di­tions. Be­com­ing veg­e­tar­ian still saves over a dozen land an­i­mals in ex­pec­tancy per year from suffer­ing and death. The same is true in ar­eas out­side of EA’s tra­di­tional causes. If you have been a reg­u­lar blood donor or work­ing on so­lar pan­els, your efforts pro­duce roughly as much value as they did in the past. Hav­ing learnt tools from the EA com­mu­nity to quan­tify these efforts doesn’t change the bot­tom line of ac­tual im­pact, it just helps pri­ori­tis­ing be­tween op­tions.

This equally ap­plies to work on long-ter­mist prob­lems. Peo­ple work­ing on AI Safety or biorisk might have had the hope to make crit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions that might fun­da­men­tally shape the fu­ture, but re­al­ity shows these prob­lems to be very hard. Most peo­ple work­ing on them will only make a small con­tri­bu­tion to­wards solv­ing them and that can feel dis­ap­point­ing. But many of these small marginal con­tri­bu­tions are nec­es­sary.

Re­mem­ber that the ar­gu­ment for long-ter­mism is that peo­ple might be able to have more im­pact by fo­cussing on global catas­trophic risks or by shap­ing the long term fu­ture in some other way. Whether you agree with this premise or not, the ar­gu­ment for long-ter­mism is not that you will have less im­pact in to­tal by sav­ing lives or other in­ter­ven­tions now than pre­vi­ously as­sumed. This means that fight­ing fac­tory farm­ing and other do good­ing efforts are as good and im­por­tant as they ever were.

In some sense, this is ob­vi­ously true. Yet I do not have the im­pres­sion that this feels true to peo­ple. If sav­ing lives and other do good­ing efforts now feel less good to you than they did when you first heard about EA, that prob­a­bly means you have adapted to ex­pect­ing to do a lot more good now. That’s ter­rible!

Par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the EA com­mu­nity should make you feel more mo­ti­vated about the amount of good you are able to do, not less. If it makes you feel less mo­ti­vated on bal­ance, then the EA com­mu­nity is do­ing some­thing fun­da­men­tally wrong and ev­ery­body might be bet­ter off some­where else un­til this is fixed.

If you have adapted to the be­lief that you can per­son­ally pre­vent lots of as­tro­nom­i­cal waste, it is time to go back to hav­ing more re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions.

I am not sure how to re­vert this adap­ta­tion on a com­mu­nity wide level. I hope that re­mind­ing peo­ple of op­por­tu­ni­ties like most of us be­ing able to save dozens of lives in our life­time is a good start.

On an in­di­vi­d­ual level, you can also try the or­di­nary weapons against adap­ta­tion like keep­ing a grat­i­tude jour­nal.

Think about all the ways you can have an amaz­ing im­pact that are ac­tu­ally available to you per­son­ally. There are quite a lot. Sav­ing lives via dona­tions still trumps many other op­por­tu­ni­ties in terms of im­pact, but there are yet more ways of do­ing good worth con­sid­er­ing, some of which are harder to quan­tify. Most ‘di­rect work’ op­tions fall in this cat­e­gory—work­ing on im­por­tant prob­lems in gov­ern­ment, academia or the non-profit sec­tor. You can also do the more effec­tive forms of vol­un­teer­ing.

It is not clear to me to what ex­tent the rise of long-ter­mism in the EA com­mu­nity is why peo­ple in­suffi­ciently ap­pre­ci­ate the high im­pact they are already able to have, whether that is via donat­ing or work­ing di­rectly on im­por­tant or less im­por­tant prob­lems. I’m not sure the an­swer mat­ters. Maybe there are other peo­ple who are able to have an even higher im­pact than you. But that doesn’t change the amount of good you can do.

Don’t for­get to still aim for as much good as you can. This post is re­mind­ing you to do the most good you can per­son­ally do and tel­ling you about ways to feel bet­ter about this par­tic­u­lar amount, not tel­ling you to aim for any­thing less.

Try to have re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions about how much good you can do and get satis­fac­tion from that. There are lots of im­por­tant prob­lems left. There are as big and as im­por­tant as they ever were, and the world needs your con­tri­bu­tions just as much as be­fore.

Thanks to AGB for helpful sug­ges­tions for this post.


  1. This post dis­cusses the fact we can still do as much good as we could a few years ago. Please note how­ever that this is only true to a first ap­prox­i­ma­tion. Global efforts to tackle im­por­tant prob­lems have been work­ing and many prob­lems have ac­tu­ally be­come a bit smaller in the past few years, just not enough to change the main ar­gu­ment. ↩︎