[content warning: effective altruism, disordered eating]
Many people wish to behave altruistically . However, it’s important to behave altruistically in ways that don’t hurt you, for a lot of reasons effective altruists have already gone over: altruistic acts that hurt you lead to burnout; they teach people that a life of extreme altruism is inherently a life of suffering, rather than one of joy; and, frankly, they aren’t very fun.
I think a good altruistic action should be healthy, happy, and sustainable.
Healthy. One of the places health comes up most is in being vegan. Of course, some people have disabilities that make being vegan difficult or unhealthy for them, ranging from diabetes to irritable bowel syndrome. But there are subtler ways that veganism can be unhealthy: for instance, some people have difficulties making food, and rely on a few staple easy foods which contain meat. If they don’t eat meat, they can have a hard time eating at all.
But other common EA activities can have health risks as well. Jobs heavy in typing might exacerbate wrist pain. Donating blood might be risky if you have cardiovascular disease.
Mental health is also an important part of health. If being vegan causes you to binge or starve yourself, it’s probably a bad idea to be vegan. If your job makes you so anxious that you have panic attacks and dread getting out of bed in the morning, you should probably look into getting a different job– even if this one involves doing good in the world.
Happy. Acts of altruism make people happier, more satisfied, and even healthier. The normal situation is that your altruism should make you feel like a good person who has a sense of purpose and meaning in life and feels happy about improving the lives of others. Of course, there’s no reason to feel guilty if altruism doesn’t make you happy, and if you have neutral feelings about your altruism and don’t mind them there’s no reason to feel obligated to change. But if you’re thinking “naturally I feel terrible about my altruism! I am nobly engaging in noble self-sacrifice for the good of all beings!”, then I hope this is a wake-up call.
If you dread every moment you spend at your job, if you’re tired of your bland and boring vegan diet, or if you want to scream every time you share a cute story about Make a Wish and someone says “but it’s not effective the way malaria nets are!”, you have a problem! Even if fixing those problems means you’re doing less good in the world, your happiness matters too.
Sustainable. Basically, this question is: can I do this for the rest of my life? If you’re donating ten percent to charity, but the only way you’re managing it is by running up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, or living without health insurance, or not saving any money for retirement, then this is clearly not sustainable in the long term. (Of course, some people wind up in that situation because they are poor and not because they are giving a lot to charity, in which case they are in a terrible situation and also our civilization is inadequate.) Similarly, if doing altruistic activities is draining your emotional resources, making you draw on reserves of inner strength you might soon run out of and forcing you to rely on willpower to get through the day, then you’re setting yourself up for burnout. If you’re neglecting things that you need to do to preserve your long-run happiness, such as (for many people) socializing or exercising, then you’re setting yourself up for problems– even if you’re fine right now.
Just because an altruistic action fails one of healthy, happy, or sustainable does not mean you shouldn’t do it! Instead, think if there’s a way that you can make the action healthy, happy, and sustainable. For instance, maybe if you move into a smaller house or do more comparison-shopping on your insurance, you’ll be able to give ten percent without running up so much credit card debt. Maybe if you make a commitment to trying out a new easy vegan food each week, you can add vegan recipes to your staples. Or maybe if you make an effort to read motivational essays that remind you of the importance of your work to the world, then you’re a lot happier about your job.
If it turns out that you can’t do a particular action in the long term and stay healthy and happy, it’s okay. You don’t have to do it, and there is no reason to feel guilty– you are making a reasonable decision about the allocation of your resources. If something changes, great! If not, there is no reason to sacrifice yourself to improve things for other people.