Doing good is as good as it ever was

by Denise_Melchin 3 min read22nd Jan 202023 comments

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Summary: most effective interventions to do good are still roughly as high impact as they were a few years ago. [1] Unfortunately, some people in the EA community don’t feel as happy about the amount of good they can do as they did in the past. This is true even when the amount of good they are doing or can expect to do hasn’t decreased. While I think there are other sources of unhappiness with doing good, I am going to discuss adaptation to an increased expectation of the amount of good we can do as a major contributor to this problem.

The original prompt to do good from the EA community was: did you know that with just giving 10% of your income you can save a life or even multiple per year? But long-termism and the astronomical waste argument have shifted the community towards expecting to personally be able to accomplish a much larger amount of good. Anything less feels insufficient to many. The community and the individuals within have adapted to this higher expectation. For the majority of people, this expectation to do an existential amount of good does not materialise, and so they feel disappointed.

But that’s silly. As a first example, we can still save lives with only a small fraction of our income. Saving lives has not become any less tremendously important. Over 200,000 children under 5 still die of malaria each year. I am concerned that as people have become disappointed with not living up to their hopes of possibly saving billions of lives or fundamentally shaping the far future, they become disappointed with their ability to do good in general and give up. Nobody should give up for this reason. You can still do an amazing amount of good by saving lives.

The same is true for other ways to do good. Factory farming is as big an issue as it was a few years ago, with dozens of billions of animals living in factory farms under dreadful conditions. Becoming vegetarian still saves over a dozen land animals in expectancy per year from suffering and death. The same is true in areas outside of EA’s traditional causes. If you have been a regular blood donor or working on solar panels, your efforts produce roughly as much value as they did in the past. Having learnt tools from the EA community to quantify these efforts doesn’t change the bottom line of actual impact, it just helps prioritising between options.

This equally applies to work on long-termist problems. People working on AI Safety or biorisk might have had the hope to make critical contributions that might fundamentally shape the future, but reality shows these problems to be very hard. Most people working on them will only make a small contribution towards solving them and that can feel disappointing. But many of these small marginal contributions are necessary.

Remember that the argument for long-termism is that people might be able to have more impact by focussing on global catastrophic risks or by shaping the long term future in some other way. Whether you agree with this premise or not, the argument for long-termism is not that you will have less impact in total by saving lives or other interventions now than previously assumed. This means that fighting factory farming and other do gooding efforts are as good and important as they ever were.

In some sense, this is obviously true. Yet I do not have the impression that this feels true to people. If saving lives and other do gooding efforts now feel less good to you than they did when you first heard about EA, that probably means you have adapted to expecting to do a lot more good now. That’s terrible!

Participating in the EA community should make you feel more motivated about the amount of good you are able to do, not less. If it makes you feel less motivated on balance, then the EA community is doing something fundamentally wrong and everybody might be better off somewhere else until this is fixed.

If you have adapted to the belief that you can personally prevent lots of astronomical waste, it is time to go back to having more realistic expectations.

I am not sure how to revert this adaptation on a community wide level. I hope that reminding people of opportunities like most of us being able to save dozens of lives in our lifetime is a good start.

On an individual level, you can also try the ordinary weapons against adaptation like keeping a gratitude journal.

Think about all the ways you can have an amazing impact that are actually available to you personally. There are quite a lot. Saving lives via donations still trumps many other opportunities in terms of impact, but there are yet more ways of doing good worth considering, some of which are harder to quantify. Most ‘direct work’ options fall in this category - working on important problems in government, academia or the non-profit sector. You can also do the more effective forms of volunteering.

It is not clear to me to what extent the rise of long-termism in the EA community is why people insufficiently appreciate the high impact they are already able to have, whether that is via donating or working directly on important or less important problems. I’m not sure the answer matters. Maybe there are other people who are able to have an even higher impact than you. But that doesn’t change the amount of good you can do.

Don’t forget to still aim for as much good as you can. This post is reminding you to do the most good you can personally do and telling you about ways to feel better about this particular amount, not telling you to aim for anything less.

Try to have realistic expectations about how much good you can do and get satisfaction from that. There are lots of important problems left. There are as big and as important as they ever were, and the world needs your contributions just as much as before.

Thanks to AGB for helpful suggestions for this post.


  1. This post discusses the fact we can still do as much good as we could a few years ago. Please note however that this is only true to a first approximation. Global efforts to tackle important problems have been working and many problems have actually become a bit smaller in the past few years, just not enough to change the main argument. ↩︎

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