It’s Supposed To Feel Like This: 8 emotional challenges of altruism

tl;dr If your efforts to do good ever challenge you in the fol­low­ing ways, know that you’re not alone: a “do no (sig­nifi­cant) harm” lifestyle; ma­te­rial com­fort and fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity; ca­reer and spare time; fac­ing what you’re not giv­ing, and what you’ll never be able to give; so­cial ap­proval and con­nec­tion; figur­ing out how to do good bet­ter; other val­ues; life it­self.

Read­ing time: 10 minutes

No fa­mil­iar­ity with Effec­tive Altru­ism re­quired.

I wrote the fol­low­ing on Medium and shared to Face­book a few months back (as I wanted to ad­dress all al­tru­ists and I’d mis­in­ter­preted the fo­rum mod­er­a­tion notes). There are some good ad­di­tions to this list there from oth­ers.

CN: Refer­ence to suicide in sec­tion 8.

You should try to do more good in the world be­cause it’s the right thing to do.

Un­for­tu­nately, this isn’t always suffi­cient mo­ti­va­tion for peo­ple to act ac­cord­ingly, so al­tru­ists[1] of­ten tell non-al­tru­ists about the per­sonal benefits of al­tru­ism — the ev­i­dence that giv­ing makes you hap­pier, the friendly and sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ties of al­tru­ists you can join, the sense of mean­ing al­tru­ism can bring to fill the void left by an in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar world, and so on.

But lead­ing an al­tru­is­tic life is not always plain sailing, and I think it’s im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge that from time to time. And not only to ac­knowl­edge that times get rough, but the spe­cific ways in which they get rough. Other­wise your words are in dan­ger of be­ing dis­missed as just an­other mo­ti­va­tional quo­ta­tion peo­ple have be­come numb to, or as ad­vice that ap­plies to other peo­ple (“but my prob­lems are prob­a­bly differ­ent”).

One of the most valuable things I’ve heard in the past cou­ple of years is a string of en­trepreneurs ad­mit­ting that steer­ing your own course is hard and ex­plain­ing some of the rea­sons why. There’s no map. You take re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­cid­ing where you and ev­ery­one else on board is head­ing. Most of the time you feel like you don’t have a clue what you’re do­ing and you mar­vel that you so of­ten find the mo­ti­va­tion to have a go any­way and look like you know what you’re do­ing.

And so with the cur­rent char­ity that I’m run­ning, I find my­self per­sist­ing much more eas­ily than I have in the past be­cause I recog­nise that it’s sup­posed to feel like this. If I’m tempted to crum­ble un­der the stress of think­ing on Mon­day that we should be go­ing left and Tues­day that we should be go­ing right, I don’t write my­self off as use­less. “No,” I tell my­self, “this is lead­er­ship, re­mem­ber? Carry on.”

Every life re­quires lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing al­tru­is­tic lives. But some challenges are more spe­cific to al­tru­is­tic lives, and those are the challenges I wish to start to ad­dress in this ar­ti­cle. I’ll be­gin by recog­nis­ing some of the difficul­ties most com­monly as­so­ci­ated with al­tru­ism, and then move on to some less ob­vi­ous challenges.

It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber with each of the fol­low­ing ar­eas that even an en­tirely al­tru­is­tic per­son shouldn’t give to the point that they burn out. You may agree with my ten­ta­tive opinion that most peo­ple in the world could give a lot more than they cur­rently do — and a great deal more than they think they could — with­out a sig­nifi­cant risk of burn-out if they take things slowly, thanks to the un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated he­do­nic tread­mill. But since it’s difficult to pre­dict the point at which you’ll burn out, it is wise to slow down a safe dis­tance be­fore wher­ever you ex­pect that point to be[2].

8 ar­eas where al­tru­ism has asked some­thing of me

1. A “do no (sig­nifi­cant) harm” lifestyle

The al­tru­ist tends to set them­selves higher stan­dards of day-to-day eth­i­cal be­havi­our in an at­tempt to avoid caus­ing harm through e.g. con­sumer habits or per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions.

The most sig­nifi­cant change for me has prob­a­bly been ve­g­anism, but some peo­ple of course go much fur­ther for much longer and it can take a lot from you.

2. Ma­te­rial com­fort & fi­nan­cial security

Who­ever has two tu­nics should share with him who has none (Luke 3:11)
[I]f it is in our power to pre­vent some­thing bad from hap­pen­ing, with­out thereby sac­ri­fic­ing any­thing of com­pa­rable moral im­por­tance, we ought, morally, to do it. (Peter Singer, 1972)

It doesn’t take long for the al­tru­ist to re­al­ise that even if they don’t have much money by some stan­dard, they usu­ally should still be giv­ing some­thing to those who have less, mean­ing less dis­pos­able in­come for ma­te­rial com­forts, en­joy­able ex­pe­riences, sav­ings etc.[3] Per­haps more sig­nifi­cantly, it can mean ac­cept­ing a lower stan­dard of liv­ing than that of their peers.

And it’s not just money. I’m hon­oured to know some­one who told him­self “Who­ever has two kid­neys should share with him who has none” and bloody did so for a stranger.

3. Ca­reer and spare time

Many al­tru­ists go so far as to choose, change or ex­tend their ca­reer in pur­suit of greater pos­i­tive im­pact, but at sig­nifi­cant cost to them­selves e.g. do­ing a job that’s more stress­ful, for lower pay, that’s fur­ther away from fam­ily and friends and/​or that eats into their re­tire­ment.

Altru­is­tic side pro­jects can also con­sume evenings, week­ends and holi­days, crowd­ing out hob­bies and fam­ily/​so­cial/​love lives per­haps to the point of non-ex­is­tence.

4. Fac­ing what you’re not giv­ing, and what you’ll never be able to give

Giv­ing some­thing means tak­ing your head out of the sand.

You give be­cause you’ve taken the brave step of fac­ing the prob­lems in the world and ad­mit­ting that you should be do­ing some­thing…and now that you’ve given up your ex­cuses for not helping at all, you may be out of rea­sons for why you should stop helping where you have.

Cue po­ten­tially even more guilt than when you were giv­ing noth­ing.

Fac­ing the world’s prob­lems also means fac­ing up to the fact that you will never solve them all. Your con­tri­bu­tion will at most be a drop in the ocean, and the more you con­tribute, the big­ger you’ll re­al­ise the ocean is. Most days I’m en­couraged by ask­ing my­self “What if that drop was my daugh­ter?”. But some days that’s not enough to keep the feel­ings of hope­less­ness at bay.

5. So­cial ap­proval and connection

On the face of it, al­tru­ism at­tracts so­cial ap­proval. I don’t dis­pute this, but al­tru­ism can also lead to a good deal of so­cial dis­ap­proval and dis­con­nec­tion in less ex­pected ways. To name a few:

  • Your fam­ily and friends may feel ne­glected or un­ap­pre­ci­ated.

  • You may feel more dis­tant from fam­ily, friends and col­leagues who don’t share your ded­i­ca­tion to do­ing good, both as a re­sult of an in­abil­ity to bond over some­thing that’s im­por­tant to you, and as a re­sult of see­ing peo­ple you’re close to speak and act with what may seem like such cal­lous­ness from where you’re stand­ing.

  • You can be looked down on in “ma­cho” or in­di­vi­d­u­al­is­tic cul­tures, or even by other al­tru­ists — I some­times get fel­low al­tru­ists look­ing at me like there’s some­thing wrong with me when they re­al­ise how much I try to op­ti­mise my life for so­cial good.

  • If you’re par­tic­u­larly pub­lic about your giv­ing (ar­guably the most im­pact­ful ap­proach to take), a lot of peo­ple will in­ter­pret it as smug self-righ­teous­ness.

  • If you’re com­mit­ted enough to ac­tively try to per­suade oth­ers to join you in try­ing to make the world a bet­ter place, peo­ple will gen­er­ally be ir­ri­tated by such at­tempts.

  • Even when you’re not be­ing par­tic­u­larly pub­lic or ac­tively try­ing to per­suade oth­ers, many peo­ple will as­sume that you’re im­plic­itly judg­ing them and dis­like you all the same (ever seen a meat-eater de­liver a monologue defend­ing their dietary choices, pro­voked only by the ob­ser­va­tion that some­one else pre­sent is a veg­e­tar­ian?).

  • You’re go­ing to have to form some eth­i­cal opinions, which are the most di­vi­sive kind of opinions to hold (no dis­cussing re­li­gion or poli­tics at the din­ner table).

  • By do­ing some­thing but not ev­ery­thing, you open your­self up to the charge of hypocrisy.

  • The worst at­tacks may in fact come from your oth­er­wise po­ten­tial al­lies as a re­sult of in­fight­ing.

6. Figur­ing out how to do good better

A com­mon rea­son peo­ple don’t make any at­tempt to help is that they don’t know how to. Bingo! Un­be­knownst to them, they’ve just iden­ti­fied the first step in helping: Put­ting some (more) effort into figur­ing out how.

Un­for­tu­nately, peo­ple seem not to re­al­ise this is an op­tion to a sur­pris­ing ex­tent, as­sum­ing that “helping” has to be di­rect. If you avoid sup­port­ing a be­reaved friend be­cause you don’t know what to say, that doesn’t get you off the hook — helping in this case just means do­ing some re­search into helpful things to say in such situ­a­tions and then talk­ing to your friend.

And it doesn’t always mean more work. If you’d be pre­pared to spend your holi­days vol­un­teer­ing if only an op­por­tu­nity you trusted to make a differ­ence fell in your lap, con­sider spend­ing the first day of your holi­days vol­un­teer­ing in the form of re­search­ing valuable vol­un­teer­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharp­en­ing the axe. (Com­monly at­tributed to Abra­ham Lin­coln)

So far, so easy. But some­times figur­ing out how you can help is a lot of work, es­pe­cially as you move from “mak­ing a differ­ence” ter­ri­tory into “mak­ing the most differ­ence” ter­ri­tory, and as you be­come in­creas­ingly aware of what you don’t know.

Mo­ral­ity is a dis­ci­pline with few ex­perts, who very few peo­ple defer to, and many of whom un­helpfully claim that ethics is all rel­a­tive any­way.

It’s a pur­suit in which there is no feed­back to tell you if you’ve ever ul­ti­mately done the right thing.

And it’s a world where sooner or later you’re go­ing to come across the Effec­tive Altru­ism crowd who’ll im­plore you to bring philos­o­phy, de­ci­sion the­ory, psy­chol­ogy, physics, com­puter sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics, data anal­y­sis, eco­nomics, poli­tics, his­tory, an­thro­pol­ogy, so­ciol­ogy, biol­ogy, chem­istry and Defence Against the Dark Arts[4] to bear on your bright-eyed ques­tion, “How can I do the most good?” (Don’t get me wrong — I gen­er­ally find the Effec­tive Altru­ism com­mu­nity to be hugely in­sight­ful, in­spiring and sup­port­ive, but the in­tel­lec­tual challenge it rises to can feel over­whelming.)

7. Other values

Many al­tru­ists dis­t­in­guish (al­though per­haps not clearly) be­tween their “world-sav­ing” val­ues and their “per­sonal” val­ues, which are of­ten in con­flict. Ex­am­ples of per­sonal val­ues that in­fluence my own be­havi­our in­clude: spiritu­al­ity, art, fam­ily, truth, au­then­tic­ity (in­clud­ing self-ex­pres­sion), pu­rity, and even par­tic­u­lar forms of char­ity that I don’t think have much im­pact but are close to my heart.

Choos­ing ac­tions that are more in ac­cor­dance with one’s world-sav­ing val­ues rather than one’s per­sonal val­ues might be con­sid­ered a form of sac­ri­fice that cuts par­tic­u­larly deep, but per­haps “sac­ri­fice” is the wrong way to think about such choices. Either way, and re­gard­less of the even­tual choice one makes when these val­ues con­flict, we can at least ac­knowl­edge the stress caused by such ten­sions.

8. Life itself

Some peo­ple give their lives for a cause. Some peo­ple I know give their deaths. By this I mean: they think they would have ended their own suffer­ing by now were it not for their com­mit­ment to im­prove the lives of oth­ers.

You may con­sider this a per­sonal benefit of al­tru­ism if you be­lieve that suicide is usu­ally/​always a mis­take — a harm to one­self — and that there­fore any­thing that pre­vents one from fol­low­ing through on suicide ideation must be a good thing. But even so, it is an act of hero­ism to find the strength to con­tinue liv­ing for the greater good when one’s own life is so full of pain[5].

Feel free to add other ways that al­tru­ism has challenged you in the com­ments[6]. Or let me know if you think I’ve gen­er­al­ised too much any­where or have said some­thing you think I shouldn’t have (anony­mously if you pre­fer).

I should add that I partly wrote this for you and I partly wrote this for me. I think I would benefit from hear­ing oth­ers say “It’s not just you” with re­spect to some of the above. And the next time — or the first time — any of you en­counter one of these challenges, re­mem­ber that it’s sup­posed to feel like this. Not ev­ery al­tru­ist will feel the force of these challenges of course, but enough do that you shouldn’t think that this is you failing or that this is an un­ex­pected, un­sur­mountable hur­dle — this is all part of the jour­ney, and many find a way for­ward. There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fight­ing for. The fight can get ugly and I wouldn’t blame any­one for sur­ren­der­ing. But you’re not in this alone, and I fuck­ing love you for fight­ing alongside me.

[1]Who I’m defin­ing as “peo­ple cur­rently try­ing to make ‘do­ing good’ a se­ri­ous part of their lives”. Please ex­cuse the pi­ous-sound­ing black-and-white short­hand and the use of a word that tends to dis­tract peo­ple with de­bates about whether “true” al­tru­ism “re­ally” ex­ists.

[2]In such situ­a­tions, you may worry that you’re just mak­ing ex­cuses to your­self — that “avoid­ing burn-out” is just a dis­guise for self­ish be­havi­our that harms your al­tru­is­tic goals. An ex­er­cise I of­ten find re­veal­ing here is to imag­ine that I have a (com­pe­tent) man­ager who has the re­spon­si­bil­ity of us­ing me as effec­tively as pos­si­ble to make the world a bet­ter place. Would such a man­ager en­courage me to try harder or to take a break right now? I am less dis­mis­sive of this hy­po­thet­i­cal ad­vice than I am of the ad­vice of friends, who un­der­stand­ably have more em­pa­thy with my well-be­ing than my al­tru­is­tic goals.

[3]A cou­ple of tricks here:

  • It’s eas­ier and of­ten just as im­pact­ful to re­sist the temp­ta­tion to in­crease spend­ing as your salary in­creases than it is to de­crease spend­ing (h/​t Toby Ord, 2010).

  • We live to our means. When you have the mind­set of never hav­ing quite enough, re­gard­less of how much money you ac­tu­ally have, you’ll never feel that you can af­ford to give much away. So ad­mit to your­self that you don’t need in­finite money, start to put num­bers on what you con­sider rea­son­able amounts of spend­ing and sav­ing, and donate any­thing you earn above that. If you’re lucky enough to earn above the me­dian salary in your coun­try, that can be a good bench­mark — if half the coun­try can man­age on less than that, per­haps you can too.

[4]Not even kid­ding.

[5]If you ex­pe­rience suici­dal thoughts, I strongly en­courage you to seek im­me­di­ate sup­port as well as to try more long-term pro­fes­sional help (and to try sev­eral differ­ent ther­a­pies/​ther­a­pists/​med­i­ca­tions if the first does not help).

[6]I do also want to ac­knowl­edge that, luck­ily for me, I haven’t yet felt called to make the kind of ex­treme sac­ri­fices that the heroes in the sto­ries we tell have made. But I don’t gen­er­ally find that tel­ling some­one they could have it much worse helps them to feel any bet­ter. Oc­ca­sion­ally, but usu­ally not. So, if you’re read­ing this and think­ing, “Oh my heart bleeds for you…you have no idea what some peo­ple go through for the greater good”, then I apol­o­gise — I can see how posts like this can be ir­ri­tat­ing — but I still think it’s worth ad­dress­ing how difficult peo­ple find the kind of sac­ri­fices I’ve men­tioned.