Many people see effective altruism as a cold and calculating practice, pursued out of duty rather than passion. In this post on GiveWell’s blog, Holden Karnofsky explains that this needn’t be the case.
Some people refer to this view of effective altruism as the “opportunity” frame: rather than seeing EA as a (perhaps burdensome) moral responsibility, we can see it as something that we are actively passionate about. Some people think this frame is at odds with the “moral responsibility” frame, exemplified by the Peter Singer essay featured earlier.
Many people in EA prefer one frame to the other. However, individual views are nuanced and complex (often involving a mix of both frames, or different frames altogether) and every person has their own approach to doing good.
Critics of effective altruism worry that we’re trying to choose causes based on calculations about how to help the world as much as possible, rather than based on what causes excite us. They worry that we therefore won’t be fully engaged in, or committed to, the causes we pick.
I think such people fundamentally misunderstand effective altruism. I think they imagine that we have passions for particular causes, and are trying to submerge our passions in the service of rationality. That isn’t the case. Rather, effective altruism is what we are passionate about. We’re excited by the idea of making the most of our resources and helping others as much as possible.
This post focuses on my own attitude toward effective altruism, though I believe it is broadly shared by many others in the movement.
In a nutshell: trying to maximize the good I accomplish with both my hours and my dollars is an intellectually engaging challenge. It makes my life feel more meaningful and more important. It’s a way of trying to have an impact and significance beyond my daily experience. In other words, it meets the sort of non-material needs that many people have.
Effective altruism does not prioritize intellect over emotion
When considering which particular causes I find interesting, I can’t answer the question “How excited am I about the cause?” without asking questions like “How important is the cause?” and “Is it already crowded with other funders?” Throughout my life, how excited I’ve been to work on a problem has been directly related to how “neglected” the problem seems (relative to its importance). I’d have trouble sustaining interest in a cause if I felt that I could do more good by switching to another.
I’m not describing how I “should” think or “try to” think. I’m describing what excites me. The causes I find most under-invested in, and the general process of finding them, is what gets me out of bed in the morning, excited to go to work. This excitement is what drove the all-nighters that started GiveWell, and I believe I couldn’t be as motivated or put in as much effort on any other project.
Effective altruism is not about sacrifice
I’m always a bit put off when I see effective altruists being characterized as “selfless” or “sacrificing.” Speaking for myself and Elie [Hassenfeld, co-founder of GiveWell]: We don’t consider ourselves unusually “selfless,” and there has been no sacrifice whatsoever involved in our starting GiveWell. Compared to when we worked in finance, we find our work more interesting, more exciting, more motivating, and better for meeting people whom we have strong connections with, all of which easily makes up for pay cuts that haven’t much affected our lifestyles. I can’t speak for people like Jason Trigg or Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, but Julia Wise’s most recent post implies that she sees altruism as a source of joy, not something for which joy is traded.
To anyone who’s tempted to respond, “I just don’t believe that people can get excited about something like that,” I’d respond that there is a very wide range of things people are known to get excited about, many of which seem strange to outsiders. This is true of casual interests (bird-watching, stamp-collecting, spectator sports, fantasy sports) and of more serious interests, including a very wide variety of religious and spiritual values and practices.
Some see effective altruism as more like a hobby, while others see it as more like a religious or spiritual value (or as implied by their religious or spiritual values); in all cases, effective altruists are engaging in the very common practice of having an interest that goes beyond their everyday lives and immediate needs. There’s absolutely nothing unusual about caring a great deal about such an interest; giving up some tangible things for the sake of such an interest; and using intellectual reasoning in pursuing such an interest.
Athletes sometimes talk about “giving 110%” or “leaving it all on the field” – they can’t be satisfied with their effort if they feel they held anything back. I feel similarly about strategic cause selection. If I passed up an opportunity to do good because it didn’t appeal to my pre-existing personal interests, or because it involved too much abstract reasoning, I’d feel as though I’d failed to “leave it all on the field.”
Note that this doesn’t mean I’m willing to give up everything else I value and enjoy for effective altruism — I’m not. But when I’m engaged in altruism-oriented activities, I want to be fully engaged.
I expect the effective altruism movement to grow
So far, I’ve been somewhat surprised at how few people seem to share my interest in effective altruism. Many people want to help others, and many apply a great deal of both intellect and passion to doing so, but few seem to be asking the question: “What issue should I work on in order to have as much positive impact as possible?”
But my guess is that more people will be asking this question as time goes on. I believe that there are fairly robust trends in each of the following areas:
The world is becoming wealthier. More of us are securely able to satisfy our own material needs.
The world is becoming more unequal. The differences between the privileged and the disadvantaged are reaching levels that seem to compel action.
The world is getting better at transmitting information. More than ever before, we have the tools to learn just how privileged we are, to learn what actions are available to us, to sort through the available information, and to make informed decisions. We also have the tools to transfer our resources across the world with high efficiency and precision.
Today, anyone with a spare $100 has the ability to learn how relatively fortunate they are, to learn about their many options for making a difference, and to take truly meaningful and impactful action. In such a world, I expect a growing number of people to be asking the question “How can I make the most of this opportunity?” And I hope they’ll ask it not from a place of guilt and obligation, but from a place of self-actualization and excitement.