Altruistic Motivations

Link post

(Re­posted un­der Nate Soares’ ac­count, with Nate’s per­mis­sion, by Fo­rum ad­min aarongertler. Nate gave blan­ket per­mis­sion to cross-post his old es­says, and this is one of my fa­vorites.)


I count my­self among the effec­tive al­tru­ists. (In fact, I’m at an effec­tive al­tru­ism con­fer­ence at the time of post­ing.) The effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment is about figur­ing out how to do good bet­ter, and there are a num­ber of differ­ent ways that mem­bers of the move­ment at­tempt to mo­ti­vate the idea.

The first camp de­scribes effec­tive al­tru­ism as a moral obli­ga­tion. If you see a drown­ing child in a pond near you, you are morally obli­gated to jump in and save them. If a child is dy­ing halfway around the world and can be saved with a dona­tion, then (they ar­gue), you’re morally obliged to do that too. This camp talks fre­quently of “oughts” and “shoulds”.

There is an­other camp which pre­sents a differ­ent view. They talk of effec­tive al­tru­ism as an ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­nity to do lots of good with very lit­tle effort. We live in a world where $100 can make a differ­ence, they say, and they sug­gest look­ing at un­der­funded effec­tive char­i­ties as a unique op­por­tu­nity to do lots of good.

I re­ject both these mo­ti­va­tions.

I re­ject the “al­tru­ism is an obli­ga­tion” mo­ti­va­tion be­cause I agree with mem­bers of the sec­ond camp that guilt and shame are poor mo­ti­va­tors, and that self-im­posed obli­ga­tions are of­ten harm­ful. Be it not upon me to twist your arm and shame you into helping your fel­low be­ings.

I re­ject the “these are ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties” mo­ti­va­tion be­cause I find it dis­turb­ing, on some deep level.

Imag­ine a stranger comes up to you and says “Hey! I have great news for you! A mad sci­en­tist has rigged up a bomb that will de­stroy Tokyo, and they’ve linked it to your bank ac­count, such that the only way to disarm it is to wire them $500. Isn’t this a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity?

Some­thing is dras­ti­cally wrong with that image.

Yes, lives are cheap: it costs on the or­der of a few thou­sand dol­lars to save a life, last time I checked. But I can­not bring my­self to say “Lives are cheap! Sale! Every­thing must go! Buy buy buy!” — be­cause lives are not lawn or­na­ments. I’m not a life-col­lec­tor, and I’m not try­ing to make my “lives saved” score high for its own sake. I save lives for their sake, and if sav­ing a life is ex­tremely cheap, then some­thing has gone hor­ribly wrong. The vast gap be­tween the cost of a life and the value of a life is a mea­sure of how far we have to go; and I can­not pre­tend that that grim gap is a cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

At most, I ac­knowl­edge that there is some thrill to be­ing part of the era where peo­ple can still elimi­nate en­tire dis­eases in one fell swoop, where peo­ple can still af­fect our chance of ex­pand­ing be­yond our home­world be­fore it’s too late. We have available to us feats of benev­olence and al­tru­ism that will be com­pletely un­available to those who fol­low, who are born in a grown-up civ­i­liza­tion where no­body has to die against their will. If you get your kicks from ad­dress­ing civ­i­liza­tion-level ex­tinc­tion threats(col­lo­quially known as “fate-of-the-uni­verse level shit”), then this cen­tury is your last chance. But even then, I hes­i­tate to call this an “ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­nity.” It is ter­rific, per­haps; but only in­so­far as the word “ter­rific” shares a root with “ter­ror.” It is ex­cit­ing, but only in the sense that poker is ex­cit­ing for the player who has put ev­ery­thing on the line. This is real life, and the stakes are as high as stakes can go. Lives hang in the bal­ance. The en­tire fu­ture hangs in the bal­ance. To call this an “ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­nity” rings false, to my ears.

The mo­ti­va­tion for effec­tive al­tru­ism that I pre­fer is this:

Low-cost lives are not some­thing to cel­e­brate. They are a re­minder that we live on an in­jured planet, where peo­ple suffer for no rea­son save poor luck. And yet, we also live in a world with­out any ex­ter­nal obli­ga­tions, with­out any ought­thor­i­ties to or­dain what is right and what is wrong.

So drop your obli­ga­tions. Don’t try to help the world be­cause you “should.” Don’t force your­self be­cause you ought to. Just do what you want to do.

And then, once you are freed of your obli­ga­tions, if you ever re­al­ize that serv­ing only your­self has a hol­low­ness to it; or if you ever re­al­ize that part of what you care about is your fel­low peo­ple; or if you ever learn to see the dark­ness in this world and dis­cover that you re­ally need the world to be differ­ent than it is; if you ever find some­thing on this pale blue dot worth fight­ing for, worth defend­ing, worth car­ry­ing with us to the stars:

then know that there are those of us who fight,

and that we’d be hon­ored to have you at our side.