[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.
Wirehead Wannabe said:
“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.”
What if I’m never happy no matter what I do lol
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Remember that there is a literal greater than zero chance that you are in point of fact the next messiah and ride that arrogance wave to the top of doing whatever the fuck you want. Have you considered wire-heading entirely through meditation?
Off topic: is your WordPress icon a so-zetta-Slowpoke?
//If not, there is no reason to sacrifice yourself to improve things for other people.//
But if I sacrifice myself for two people, that seems like a pretty good trade unless I could have saved 3+ people by not sacrificing myself.
But it’s better to sacrifice 5 utils a year for 30 years than to sacrifice 10 utils a year for 5 years then burn out and give up.
‘It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.’
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What if you reach a point in life, whether through age or infirmity, where you are no longer producing new wealth you could potentially donate, and you aren’t ever going to start again?
//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!”//
I am the malaria nets person in this example.
Let’s say you want to lower the prevalence of malaria in Africa. You can buy malaria nets which may or may not be used for fishing, or you can notice that people who live in air conditioned houses don’t have much malaria while people living in huts do.
Then you can invest your 10% in small and profitable rural businesses. The people you invest in get to build air conditioned houses, the builders get paid so that they can afford to build their own air conditioned house, the brick making factory next village over becomes profitable and so on and so forth.
At the same time, you get a reasonable return on investment that you can use to invest in other small profitable rural businesses.
At least until some despot comes along and starts killing people, but it turns out that the cure for this too is prosperity, so it’s just a question of getting there before the despot does.
This is why I think the current “greedy” Chinese investments are doing more good for Africa than all the “aid” by the west has ever done.
Henry Gorman said:
If you think that this is true, you could start a charitable organization dedicated to doing what you described, gather data on how many lives it saves per dollar, and submit it to GiveWell. If it turns out that you’re right, at least a good chunk of the EA people would switch to supporting your cause.
(Your sneering dismissal of aid spending is ill-founded– aid projects for Africa have recently eradicated falciparum malaria in much of the continent, dramatically curtailed the spread of AIDs, and almost entirely eradicated the Guinea worm. This makes me think that you’re either ill-informed or engaging in motivated reasoning.)
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Not sure about my motivation, but my information stems from having spent five years managing aid projects in sub-saharan Africa. I am aware of some successes, but will still maintain that the overall effectiveness is dismal.
The charity idea is actually quite good, though time will not permit for a while as I have other startups. I have maintained a substantial portion of my investment portfolio in small and medium sized businesses in Botswana for the last decade and it’s been doing well both financially and with regards to local positive impact.
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Effective altruists know that. That’s why we put so much effort into the effectiveness part instead of just calling ourselves altruists.
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