You have more than one goal, and that’s fine

Ju­lia Wise is part of the com­mu­nity health team at the Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism. In that role, and in her work as an or­ga­nizer of the Bos­ton EA com­mu­nity, she’s helped many peo­ple learn to bal­ance their com­mit­ment to effec­tive al­tru­ism with the other things they care about. This es­say frames one way in which to pur­sue this bal­ance.

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

When peo­ple come to an effec­tive al­tru­ism event for the first time, the con­ver­sa­tion of­ten turns to pro­jects they’re pur­su­ing or char­i­ties they donate to. They of­ten have a sense of ner­vous­ness around this, a feel­ing that the harsh light of cost-effec­tive­ness is about to be turned on ev­ery­thing they do. To be fair, this is a rea­son­able thing to be ap­pre­hen­sive about, be­cause many youngish peo­ple in EA do in fact have this idea that ev­ery­thing in life should be gov­erned by cost-effec­tive­ness. I’ve been there.

Cost-effec­tive­ness anal­y­sis is a very use­ful tool. I wish more peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions ap­plied it to more prob­lems. But like any tool, this tool will not be ap­pli­ca­ble to all parts of your life. Not ev­ery­thing you do is in the “effec­tive­ness” bucket. I don’t even know what that would look like.

I have lots of goals. I have a goal of im­prov­ing the world. I have a goal of en­joy­ing time with my chil­dren. I have a goal of be­ing a good spouse. I have a goal of feel­ing con­nected in my friend­ships and com­mu­nity. Those are all fine goals, but they’re not the same. I have a rough plan for al­lo­cat­ing time and money be­tween them: Sun­day morn­ing is for mak­ing pan­cakes for my kids. Mon­day morn­ing is for work. It doesn’t make sense to mix these ac­tivi­ties, to spend time with my kids in a way that con­tributes to my work or to do my job in a way that my kids en­joy.

If I donate to my friend’s fundraiser for her sick un­cle, I’m pur­su­ing a goal. But it’s the goal of “sup­port my friend and our friend­ship,” not my goal of “make the world as good as pos­si­ble.” When I make a de­ci­sion, it’s bet­ter if I’m clear about which goal I’m pur­su­ing. I don’t have to beat my­self up about this money not be­ing used for op­ti­miz­ing the world — that was never the point of that dona­tion. That money is com­ing from my “per­sonal satis­fac­tion” bud­get, along with money I use for things like get­ting coffee with friends.

I have an­other pot of money set aside for donat­ing as effec­tively as I can. When I’m de­cid­ing what to do with that money, I turn on that bright light of cost-effec­tive­ness and try to make as much progress as I can on the world’s prob­lems. That in­volves look­ing at the re­search on differ­ent in­ter­ven­tions and choos­ing what I think will do the most to bring hu­man­ity for­ward in our strug­gle against pointless suffer­ing, ill­ness, and death. The best cause I can find usu­ally ends up be­ing one that I didn’t pre­vi­ously have any per­sonal con­nec­tion to, and that doesn’t nicely con­nect with my per­sonal life. And that’s fine, be­cause per­sonal mean­ing-mak­ing is not my goal here. I can look for per­sonal mean­ing in the de­ci­sion af­ter­ward, but that’s not what drives the de­ci­sion.

When you make a de­ci­sion, be clear with your­self about which goals you’re pur­su­ing. You don’t have to ar­gue that your choice is the best way of im­prov­ing the world if that isn’t ac­tu­ally the goal. It’s fine to sup­port your lo­cal arts or­ga­ni­za­tion be­cause their work gives you joy, be­cause you want to be ac­tive in your com­mu­nity, or be­cause they helped you and you want to re­cip­ro­cate. If you also have a goal of im­prov­ing the world as much as you can, de­cide how much time and money you want to al­lo­cate to that goal, and try to use those re­sources as effec­tively as you can.