Altruistic motivations

I count myself among the effective altruists. (In fact, I'm at an effective altruism conference at the time of posting.) The effective altruism movement is about figuring out how to do good better, and there are a number of different ways that members of the movement attempt to motivate the idea.

The first camp describes effective altruism as a moral obligation. If you see a drowning child in a pond near you, you are morally obligated to jump in and save them. If a child is dying halfway around the world and can be saved with a donation, then (they argue), you're morally obliged to do that too. This camp talks frequently of "oughts" and "shoulds".

There is another camp which presents a different view. They talk of effective altruism as an exciting opportunity to do lots of good with very little effort. We live in a world where $100 can make a difference, they say, and they suggest looking at underfunded effective charities as a unique opportunity to do lots of good.

I reject both these motivations.

I reject the "altruism is an obligation" motivation because I agree with members of the second camp that guilt and shame are poor motivators, and that self-imposed obligations are often harmful. Be it not upon me to twist your arm and shame you into helping your fellow beings.

I reject the "these are exciting opportunities" motivation because I find it disturbing, on some deep level.

Imagine a stranger comes up to you and says "Hey! I have great news for you! A mad scientist has rigged up a bomb that will destroy Tokyo, and they've linked it to your bank account, such that the only way to disarm it is to wire them $500. Isn't this a wonderful opportunity?"

Something is drastically wrong with that image.

Yes, lives are cheap: it costs on the order of a few thousand dollars to save a life, last time I checked. But I cannot bring myself to say "Lives are cheap! Sale! Everything must go! Buy buy buy!" — because lives are not lawn ornaments. I'm not a life-collector, and I'm not trying to make my "lives saved" score high for its own sake. I save lives for their sake, and if saving a life is extremely cheap, then something has gone horribly wrong. The vast gap between the cost of a life and the value of a life is a measure of how far we have to go; and I cannot pretend that that grim gap is a cause for celebration.

At most, I acknowledge that there is some thrill to being part of the era where people can still eliminate entire diseases in one fell swoop, where people can still affect our chance of expanding beyond our homeworld before it's too late. We have available to us feats of benevolence and altruism that will be completely unavailable to those who follow, who are born in a grown-up civilization where nobody has to die against their will. If you get your kicks from addressing civilization-level extinction threats (colloquially known as "fate-of-the-universe level shit"), then this century is your last chance. But even then, I hesitate to call this an "exciting opportunity." It is terrific, perhaps; but only insofar as the word "terrific" shares a root with "terror." It is exciting, but only in the sense that poker is exciting for the player who has put everything on the line. This is real life, and the stakes are as high as stakes can go. Lives hang in the balance. The entire future hangs in the balance. To call this an "exciting opportunity" rings false, to my ears.

The motivation for effective altruism that I prefer is this:

Low-cost lives are not something to celebrate. They are a reminder that we live on an injured planet, where people suffer for no reason save poor luck. And yet, we also live in a world without any external obligations, without any oughtthorities to ordain what is right and what is wrong.

So drop your obligations. Don't try to help the world because you "should." Don't force yourself because you ought to. Just do what you want to do.

And then, once you are freed of your obligations, if you ever realize that serving only yourself has a hollowness to it; or if you ever realize that part of what you care about is your fellow people; or if you ever learn to see the darkness in this world and discover that you really need the world to be different than it is; if you ever find something on this pale blue dot worth fighting for, worth defending, worth carrying with us to the stars:

then know that there are those of us who fight,

and that we'd be honored to have you at our side.

Milky way image credit ESO/S. Brunier; CC-BY-SA-3.0;

(The easiest way to help immediately is to support the people in the trenches. The organization that I run is raising funds now; there are also many other effective charities with a funding gap. If you want to do more, consider visiting 80,000 hours to learn how you can do great good with your career, or contact the folks at EA Action and solicit their advice.

There is much to be done, and it would be my pleasure to work alongside you building a brighter future.)