Excited altruism

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.

The ver­sion of this post fea­tured in the EA Hand­book has been lightly ed­ited. You can find the origi­nal here.

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.