Excited Altruism

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. (More)

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, my excitement 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: 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 that 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 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.

Comments

Excited Altruism — 24 Comments

  1. Holden,

    You note that there is no disconnect between intellect and passion in your work because what excites you is doing the most good. I wonder if you think you are an outlier in this respect. You alternatively hint that you might be when you discuss how rare it is to find people that share your values, but you also expect the movement to grow.

    My own experience is that the arguments for effective altruism are highly effective, but I am pessimistic that people are motivated to action by arguments.

  2. Kerry, for what it’s worth, I’m another person who has been interested in effective altruism for several years now (long before it was called “effective altruism” and I strongly identify with Holden’s perspective. My impression is that many people involved in the effective altruism movement feel the same way.

  3. Perhaps an additional point to support your conclusion is that we can shift what we are excited about. Our passions are not genetically determined immutable attributes. Not only can you be excited about effective altruism, but you can *become* excited about it. Therefore the goal of effective altruism campaigning is not just to try to get people to engage in it, but to actually move the focus of passions and interests.

  4. The argument that “effective altruism does not prioritize intellect over emotion” rings hollow to me. I find it far more satisfying to help someone in person than to send off money to GiveWell’s top causes. If I wanted to maximize that warm glow, I’d only volunteer and donate to causes where I can directly see my impact, which is what most donors do. My choice to prioritize the wellbeing of many people far away over the wellbeing of a few people I can see and feel is an exercise of reason over emotion.

    I do think the critics are right that effective altruists are far more likely to cut and run if the evidence swings in favor of a new cause. GiveWell, for example, no longer recommends VillageReach as one of its top charities. That’s how it should be. The critics who worry about “engagement” and “commitment” are effectively saying maintaining personal relationships and reputation and conforming to norms about what giving should look like should come at the expense of efficiency (unless they’re arguing lack of commitment and engagement impedes efficiency, in which case I don’t see a compelling argument). They seem to be motivated by a discomfort that being so rational about giving is somewhat unnatural, or inhuman.

    So what? Effective altruists are not like normal people. They do weird things. They believe in weird things. They are cold optimizers in an activity society deems should “come from the heart.” That’s why they’re so rare.

  5. Sam: I think I might find it more rewarding in the present moment to help people directly face-to-face, but the knowledge that I could be helping others even more would more than ruin the extra positive feeling from helping people nearby. In my mind, volunteering at a soup kitchen is a bit like the sugar-soda of philanthropy: It feels good in the moment, but you’d be happier in the long run eating your vegetables instead. (No offense intended for my friends who volunteer at a soup kitchen, I admire your regular sacrifice of time).

    Kerry: I don’t think these ideas are in conflict. People who are interested in effective altruism do seem to be rare, but as they find one another and build a more cohesive message, the movement overall could still grow.

  6. I agree effective altruism is not about sacrifice, but I think it can be either disingenuous or disconnecting to people to suggest it doesn’t involve some sacrifice along the way, so I think that distinction is important. When Jason Trigg is quoted as saying he “wouldn’t know how to spend a large amount of money”, I think most people’s reactions are either “bullshit” or “that’s great for him, but I’ve got plenty of ideas, so I’m probably not set up to get into effective altruism like he apparently is”. Neither are good results.

    There’s some sacrifice, but you gain something for yourself too, and the effect on other people can be massive and very real. It’s worth it. I expect that’s the sustainable message – even though it’s good to make it clear sacrifice isn’t about denying all your passions and making yourself miserable.

  7. Ian, most people don’t see it that way. The arguments for effective giving don’t have emotional resonance. There is no “sugar soda” versus “vegetable” trade off. As far they are concerned, the warm glow of giving is all vegetables–sustainable indefinitely, with few to no ill effects, and lots of positive ones.

  8. Sam: Sure. Most people don’t eat their vegetables, either, and would rather opt for the soda instead.

  9. Sam: I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about what the future could bring based on the still nascent EA movement’s membership. What seems like “cold optimization” today may seem like the bare minimum of research before giving tomorrow. Sure, not everybody is going to stay up until 2 a.m. doing GiveWell-depth research, but I see no reason why giving via GiveWell’s (or a hypothetical competitor’s) recommendation could not be the path of least resistance for donors.

    Giving – an apparently irrational use of money – is already a social norm amongst many Americans and all over the world, so why would giving based on the free recommendation of experts be so improbable? We already do it when buying any number of consumer products (Amazon/ independent reviews), when choosing restaurants (yelp) or when traveling (lonely planet).

    We’ll likely never all be “effective altruists”, but passive, disinterested users’ money buys just as many bed nets.

    (full disclosure: I’m a former summer intern at GiveWell)

  10. I appreciated your article on altruism. In 1998 our family started a Mission Hospital in India. There are no financial rewards for starting the hospital, but there are tremendous rewards in knowing that you are helping the poor and destitute in another society. Just getting the emails. pictures, and letters from individuals from some of the thousands we have helped, is in itself justification for continuing the work.
    We have expanded our work to other countries, beginning with Kenya. Our new organization name is Mission & Welfare International. We are in the process of developing a new website, a preliminary of which can be seen at: http://www.missionwi.org.

  11. Kerry, I do think that my values are unusual, though I’m not sure how unusual. I do think more people can be brought into the movement – not necessarily just by rational arguments, but also by attempts to make it clearer how and why effective altruism can be exciting, as well as through social ties. I see GiveWell’s role as being a resource for the effective altruism movement, not as spreading it through these methods, but I think it’s definitely possible for an initially unusual set of values to become more popular and widespread over time as its proponents get better at advocating (not just logically) for it. I agree with Kris Zyp on this point.

    Sam, Ian and Maxwell: I don’t really resonate with the soda/vegetables analogy; I don’t think it captures all the shorter-term, emotional rewards of the “vegetable side.” I might prefer an analogy to exercise or sports (admittedly things I have very little experience with!) There is certainly a sense in which exercising or playing a basketball game is painful and unpleasant in the moment, and a sense in which “quit and go watch TV” is tempting over “keep exercising/playing.” But continuing brings different kinds of rewards (e.g., pride). There is certainly some sense in which reasoning (“I want to win this game, not quit”) overrides emotions, but that doesn’t mean the decision to keep playing is purely intellectual or constitutes even a partial “sacrifice.”

    I speak for myself, of course. There may be others who do and always will find traditional giving more rewarding in every way than effective altruism, and pursue the latter only because their intellect demands it. But that isn’t how I experience it.

  12. I am new to this site (found it through looking at GiveDirectly.org). I think the Effective/Excited Altruism concept can be explained in simple terms by looking at temperaments of a new generation of donors. Millions of people who are beginning to think about charity/altruism made their money (large or modest sums) in the technology, science and finance spaces. These folks are “data-driven optimizers” in their professional activities and it feels natural to them to test for effectiveness/efficiency/etc. In addition, the Interwebs have lowered the cost of due diligence– so we should expect more of it.

  13. When I think about my own emotional engagement with effective altruism, it comes partly from the satisfaction of knowing that my donated dollars are being put to use effectively and helping to meet important needs, but a big part of it also comes from results reported by the charities I donate to. AMF excels in this area: instead of the usual “thanks for your donation, here’s a link to our annual report,” you get to see where your money goes and how many people are being protected. I think for effective altruism to grow, more charities need to provide this kind of transparency and level of detail in reporting to donors: it makes your donations more tangible and (to me anyway) deepens the level of satisfaction and the sense that you are making a difference. It can be a strong motivator and certainly another source of excitement.

    AMF has also managed to find a small group of donors who fund its operating costs, which allows it to tell all other donors that 100% of their donation will fund bed nets. This is a model that other charities might consider pursuing as well, as it contributes to donor satisfaction and engagement. Furthermore that “small group of donors” has probably achieved enormous leverage by making AMF more attractive to donors who like the idea that 100% of their donation will go directly to the field.

    In my experience, at least, the excitement and emotional engagement I get from effective altruism comes only partly from the knowledge that my donations are being used effectively; the feedback I get from charities plays a big role in sustaining and reinforcing my engagement.

  14. While I identify with the objectives of EA, I never liked the term “Effective Altruism” exactly because of this connotation with selflessness and sacrifice.

    Altruism is defined according to Merriam Webster as:
    1: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
    2: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/altruism

    As long as EA contains the word altruism it will be difficult to avoid any unwanted associations with selflessness and sacrifice.

    Simply renaming “Effective Altruism” into a term such as “Effective Giving” will be less limiting, including also people who would not define their motivation as “altruistic”. It may not only reflect better the motivations of many people involved in EA, but is also likely to facilitate the spread of the ideas of EA and appeal to more potential donors in the future.

  15. @Daniel Spohn: the Webster definition is interesting, especially the second one that refers to altruism in non-human animals as benefiting others “of its species.” The evolution of altruism has been a big topic of research in sociobiology and ethology, because it was initially difficult to explain how such a behaviour could evolve. Eventually it was discovered that most cases of altruism in non-human animals are limited to helping related individuals, and altruism thus evolved through kin selection. I believe there are examples of other species helping unrelated individuals, but it’s more the exception than the rule, except in the case of humans. In our case, if there is any selection pressure that encourages altruism toward non-related individuals it is likely to be cultural selection rather than natural selection.

  16. Giving well is as exciting as it is important and it is important but not necessarily exiting to examine our motives for doing good. It is important to distinguish between how each is important.
    If we give in order to satisfy a personal needs or wants our moral character may be flawed by that motive. This may question and threaten our character and is a reason to question the importance of what we do.
    Our motives for doing well do not necessarily change the effect of the good that we do. When I give a beggar a coin on the street it may be in order to alleviate his suffering or to alleviate the ‘suffering’ I feel from his begging. The difference in my motive will have other influences on both of us because it colours the interaction with regards to friendliness and respect.
    Whether anything I give makes a difference in his life is a question of importance at a different level. Both questions are important and both need to be answered, but they are false opposites as they answer questions in different albeit interlinked aspects of life.

  17. Holden, I think your perspective is unusual because you get to interact with high-quality, like-minded people daily. You’re steeped in the social aspect of the movement. I’m guessing the typical GiveWell donor, on the other hand, doesn’t have many (or any) friends that share his values, and probably doesn’t get to talk about effective giving very often.

  18. Sam, that’s possible, though I felt the same way when GiveWell involved almost no interpersonal interaction (for our first full-time year it was just me and Elie, living in different cities, with very few followers). I think the movement has been growing and becoming more social, and hopefully this will continue.

  19. Holden, what I fail to understand is why you give so much ground to the critics of EA. One of the most wonderful things about EA is that it is exciting to discover the best giving opportunities through data analysis, exciting to do so much more with a single dollar than you did before. In addition, altruism is truly its own reward.
    Having said that, if tomorrow morning you would suddenly become passionate about helping out in a soup kitchen and could find very little passion for your work at GiveWell, what will you do (assume, for the sake of argument, that passion and productivity have 0 correlation)? Also, if you had to make a sacrifice (let’s say your last job was just as interesting and paid triple), wouldn’t you be willing to?
    I guess these are personal questions, and I don’t expect an answer, but it strikes me as extremely odd that saying to someone: “you are following reason rather than passion and are willing to be selfless too” is taken as a negative comment. Of course, just like anything else, radical use of reason and selflessness will probably be harmful, but at just the right amount they are absolutely commendable and we should not be afraid to say that.
    The best response to any critic would be: “show me a better way”, because the EA movement is really willing to listen.

  20. Uri, I haven’t said that “you are following reason rather than passion” is a negative comment. I just think it’s an inaccurate one, and I think it’s important to make that point.

    I think the EA movement will win more people over if it uses both intellectual and emotional/aesthetic arguments. This post wasn’t really intended as either (rather, it was intended to correct a misconception), but I think the kind of thinking in this post may be useful in making emotional/aesthetic arguments. I think one’s odds of getting people to embrace EA would be higher if one tried to help them see how exciting it can be than if one focused exclusively on intellectual reasoning. Doing so doesn’t have to mean conceding the point that “we should do what we’re passionate about”; I definitely think there is something to that argument, but I also think it’s not fully right.

    In response to your questions:

    • I don’t think I’d leave GiveWell for a equally interesting, low-social-value job on the basis of pay (unless, of course, the pay were so high that I thought I could do more good giving it away).
    • It’s a little hard to engage the hypothetical “if tomorrow morning you would suddenly become passionate about helping out in a soup kitchen and could find very little passion for your work at GiveWell” – that sounds like a pretty fundamental transformation – but I think in that case I would have a tough decision and would have a real chance of opting for the soup kitchen.
  21. You say you find EA intellectually engaging. What about those of us who already have a lot on our plates intellectually (e.g. because we have highly-skilled day jobs outside the movement), and who tend to overthink things? Are we, despite our intelligence, the sort of people for whom EA may be too cerebral (at least until it’s mature enough to give us more good rules of thumb)?

  22. In particular, I’m looking at the disagreement between Givewell and GWWC over AMF, and seeing in it more challenge than I’m up for. And that’s just allocating money, not making a career plan in computing research (as I need to do — I’ll be graduating with an MSc in 4-6 months).

  23. Also, are you saying EA is the wrong path for those of us whom (unlike you) it *doesn’t* excite, and who *do* feel guilt and obligation are our only reasons for it?

  24. Chris, thanks for the thoughtful questions.

    I think there’s a lot of value in taking the actions that make one happier, especially when one is below the threshold of “reasonably happy.” That is, I don’t generally feel that someone should choose to be miserable (when they have the option of being reasonably happy with different actions) in order to be altruistic. (I can imagine exceptions to this, but for the average person or even average effective altruist I would stand by this statement.)

    If you’re finding some of these decisions overwhelming, and it would make you much happier to choose arbitrarily, or split your gift or take another shortcut, I would endorse doing that. If you would be happier to put less weight on effective altruism (even despite the associated guilt), I would endorse putting less weight on effective altruism. I think that a pattern of people behaving in this way makes a better world than a pattern of people making themselves miserable in attempts to be altruistic.