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.