Keeping Absolutes in Mind

As effective altruists, we often focus on the relative value of the different ways we could be helping others. We focus on particular charities being more effective than others, or particular jobs being more impactful than others. That makes a lot of sense: there are big differences in effectiveness between interventions, so satisficing could lead to us losing a lot of value. But at the end of the day what really matters isn’t relative: it’s the absolute value our actions bring about. What matters is the number of children who are actually dewormed and the actual increases in global security caused by improvements made to technology policy. Keeping that in mind can be important for keeping ourselves motivated and appreciating the work others are putting in.

It might appear that focusing on relative value is unproblematic, even if it isn’t what ultimately matters. But doing so neglects one of the most exciting things about effective altruism: the fact that each of us can actually have a remarkable amount of impact in improving the lives of others. Thinking only about the comparative impact of actions can lead us to overlook that fact. Say I apply for the job I think will have the highest impact but fail to get it. Later, I dwell on how much less impactful my current job is than the one I first went for, instead of on the impact I’m actually having. Or maybe I work on trying to decrease pandemic risk. While I succeed in reducing pandemic risk, the reduction feels tiny compared to the massive reduction in risk the President could effect. In both cases, I’m likely to feel demotivated about my job. Similarly, were it other people in these roles, my attention being on the comparisons might prevent me from properly appreciating the work they’re doing.

Focusing on relative value might also lead us to neglect possible costs. When buying houses, people tend to switch into a mode where saving an extra £100 seems less important than it would under ordinary circumstances. Similarly, in large organisations (such as universities) where the costs of activities are high, there may be an assumption that additional overhead costs are unimportant as long as they’re small relative to core activities. Yet in absolute terms, these costs may be thousands of pounds.

In cases like those above, it might help to think more about the absolute benefit our actions produce. That might mean simply trying to make the value more salient by thinking about it. The 10% of my income that I donate is far less than that of some of my friends. But thinking through the fact that over my life I’ll be able to do the equivalent of save more than one person from dying of malaria is still absolutely incredible to me. Calculating the effects in more detail can be even more powerful – in this case thinking through specifically how many lives saved equivalent my career donations might amount to. Similarly, when you’re being asked to pay a fee, thinking about how many malaria nets that fee could buy really makes the value lost due to the fee clear. That might be useful if you need to motivate yourself to resist paying unnecessary overheads (though in other cases doing the calculation may be unhelpfully stressful!).

In cases where impact is harder to cache out, like the case of someone working on pandemic preparedness, it might be helpful to make the impact more concrete to yourself. That could be by thinking through specifically how the future might be better due to you, or could be by thinking about ways similar historic work has improved the world.

For effective altruism to be successful, we need people working in a huge number of different roles – from earning to give to politics and from founding NGOs to joining the WHO. Most of us don’t know what the best career for us is. That means that we need to apply to a whole bunch of different places to find our fit. Then we need to maintain our motivation even if where we end up isn’t the place we thought would be most impactful going in. Hopefully by reminding ourselves of the absolute value of every life saved and every pain avoided we can build the kind of appreciative and supportive community that allows each of us to do our part, not miserably but cheerfully.