Can my self-worth compare to my instrumental value?

A personal reflection on how my experience of EA is similar to my experience of religious faith in that it provides a sense of purpose and belonging, but that I miss the assurance of my own intrinsic value and how that can make it difficult to maintain a stable sense of self-worth.

Note: I realize that my experience of religion and faith is probably different from that of a lot of other people. My aim is not to get into a discussion of what religion does right or wrong, especially since I am no longer religious.

I grew up with a close connection to my local church and was rather religious until my mid-late teenage years. I am now in my thirties and have been involved with the EA movement for a couple of years. To me, there are similarities between how I remember relating to faith and church and how I now relate to the EA philosophy and movement.

For me, both provide (provided) a strong sense of purpose and belonging. There is a feeling that I matter as an individual and that I can have an important mission in life, that I can even be some kind of heroine. For both, there is also a supportive community (of course not always for everyone, but my experience has been mainly positive in both cases) that shares my values and understands and supports how this sense of mission affects many of my important life decisions. This is something that I find very valuable.

However, in comparison to what my faith and church used to offer me, there is something lacking in the case of EA. I miss the assurance that I as a person have an intrinsic value, in addition to my instrumental value as a potential world-saviour. With faith, you are constantly reminded that God loves you, that God created you just as you are and that you are therefore, in a sense, flawless. There is a path for everyone, and you are always seen and loved in the most important way. This can be a very comforting message, and I feel it has a function to cushion the tough demands that come with the world-saving mission. The instrumental value you have through your mission to do good is in a way balanced by the assurance that no matter what, you also have infinite intrinsic value.

With EA, I don’t find any corresponding comforting thought or philosophy to rest in. If I am a well-off, capable person in the rich world, the QALYs I could create or save for others are likely to be much more than the QALYs I can live through myself. This seems to say that my value is mostly made up of my instrumental value, and that my individual wellbeing is less important compared to what I could achieve for others.

I believe that if community members perceive that their value is primarily instrumental, this might damage their (our) mental well-being, specifically risking that many people might suffer burnouts. The idea that most of the impact is achieved by a few, very impactful people could also make the people who perceive themselves as having potential for high impact particularly vulnerable, since the gap between their intrinsic value or self-worth and their instrumental value would seem even wider.

If the value of our work (the QALYs we can save) is orders of magnitude greater than the value of ourselves (the QALYs we can live), what does that mean? Can we justify self-care, other than as a means to improve ourselves to perform better? Is it possible then to build a stable sense of self-worth that is not contingent on performance?

I have read several previous posts on EA’s struggling with feelings of not achieving enough (In praise of unhistoric heroism, Doing good is as good as it ever was, Burnout and self-care), and to me this seems closely related to what I’m trying to address here.

I’m not sure what can be done about this on a community level. As an individual, I believe it will be important for me to find a way to maintain a stable sense of self-worth, while still staying intellectually honest with myself and committed to the EA ideals. If there are others who have also thought about or struggled with this, I would greatly appreciate your input.