What altruism means to me

by Neel Nanda6 min read15th Aug 2020No comments

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(This is a post I wrote for readers of my blog about the thought process and values that led me personally to EA. I don't think I make any novel points in here, my goal was more to make a "minimum viable case" for EA. Ie, trying to only make points I considered intuitively obvious and emotionally resonant, and to argue that that leads to the important ideas fo EA. Which I thought might be of interest to readers here)

This is a pretty different post from the ones so far. This post is an attempt to outline my personal moral views, where they come from, and how this affects my life. Morality is super, super complicated and nuanced, and I cannot possibly cover all of my views in a short blog post. So I’m focusing more on covering the broad strokes of my views, and the parts that feel most important to me, and skipping over a lot of complex edge cases (damn population ethics). I also think morality is highly subjective, and many of you will disagree with these, but I hope it’s of some interest and resonates with some of you!

One of the core tenets of my view is that human life has intrinsic value. Every life represents a person, someone with a story, hopes, dreams, fears. People who they care about, and who care about them. Decades of history, and memories, leading up to where they are today, and a long potential future stretching out ahead of them. And I think every life is beautiful, and precious, and to be cherished. And, importantly, what matters is that they exist. I think it is important that people exist, as a fact about the world. Often I see people justifying caring as “because it makes me feel good” or “because I’ll feel guilty if I don’t”, and this is not what I am saying here. I care about human happiness and welfare as an intrinsic fact about the world, not as a fact that exists within my mind. Even if I will never meet them, or interact with them at all, I want these people to exist and flourish.

And this is important - I will preserve a human life over many other things. I care about people’s suffering, and pleasure, and a whole host of other things. And when suffering continues for a long period of time, like severe depression, I think it can be comparable to lives in importance. But given the chance to save a life, at the cost of causing someone else some temporary pain and unhappiness, I would consider this an excellent trade. Mental states are important, but far less important than saving a life. And, importantly, this same logic should apply if the temporary unhappiness is caused to me. If there is a way that I can help somebody else, at some cost to myself, then it is morally correct to do so.

So far, I don’t think any of this is controversial. But the conventional notion of altruism is one that I strongly disagree with. There is a big focus on being caring, helping others and doing what feels like the right thing. And I am a big fan of the impulse to care that this represents - I think this is the source of a lot of what I value about people. But often the impulse to care doesn’t result in the action that truly helps the most people. It’s much more satisfying to help those dear to me, or even the people I see in need in my country, and my community. But it’s a sad fact about the world that these impulses do not always lead to the best action. For example, when a an earthquake happens in a poor country, I feel a strong draw to donate money to help people. It’s something big, and attention grabbing, and there are clearly people suffering and in need. Yet, most money spent on disaster relief doesn’t go to good use, and far more lives could be saved by spending that same money on better preparation and infrastructure. So, I have a choice between two worlds: helping a few people and feeling great about myself, or helping many more people but without feeling that same warm feelings. Essentially, I’m trading a large quantity of other people’s welfare to improve my own mental state. I think this is a difficult decision, but not one where there’s really any doubt about the right choice. True altruism is not about doing the right thing because it feels good. It’s about realising that the right thing is not what feels best, and doing it anyway.

The overall point I’m trying to convey, is that morality is not about following your intuitions, it’s about doing the action that will most improve the world. And this is important, because our intuitions are a bad guide to morality. Because morality is about making the world a better place, while our intuitions come from within our own minds. Our intuitions are tools we evolved while living in tribes of hundreds of people, and do not extend well to the complex modern world. A human life is worth the same, no matter where you are in the world, yet people who are close and familiar feel much more compelling. Saving a thousand lives feels about as great as saving three thousand, because my mind never evolved a good intuition for large numbers. But this is a problem with my mind, not with the world - each of those extra two thousand lives is a person, and their life is precious to them. And it is unpleasant and demotivating to actively ignore these intuitions. But by following my intuitions, I’m putting value on the feeling in my head, which is nothing on the scales of moral worth compared to a human life.

And we know that intuitions are a bad guide, in other areas of our life. If I’m investing money, I know it’s dumb to just buy the stocks I have a good feeling about - this is a difficult problem that requires careful thought. If I’m arguing with a friend, and I feel convinced that I’m right, I should ignore this and hear them out. Because their friendship is important to me, and I care about them. Because these are difficult and important problems, and what matters is finding truth and the right answer, and our intuitions are an imperfect guide to this. Doing the right thing is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. And it’s easy to ignore this, because the pain and suffering is somebody else’s problem. But this is a problem with my mind, not with the world. Exactly how to do the right thing is a complex and difficult question, which I am very far from understanding, but it is undoubtedly one that matters.

It’s easy to see questions of morality as something ungrounded and philosophical, or as some external imposition. Something to think about on occasion, and feel guilty about, but ignore in day-to-day life. And this is extremely easy to do. We live in a culture where it’s completely fine to focus on your happiness, rather than the countless strangers who are suffering. There won’t be any consequences to you of not thinking about this question. But this is a question that genuinely matters to me, and I think it has broad implications as to how I live my life. I’m healthy, from a rich country, with good healthcare and infrastructure. I’m fortunate enough to be studying at one of the most elite institutions in the world, with a family able to support me. I have a position of privilege, as do most of the people reading this. I have a lot of resources, and will have a lot more over the rest of my life. I have a lot of potential to improve the world, if I choose to do so. And it would be easy to just ignore all of this, and leave this all as a latent guilt at the back of my mind. I don’t think I have an obligation to do this, and there’s nobody forcing me to. But altruism is about figuring out the right thing to do, realising you don’t need to do it, and doing it anyway.

At this point, it’s natural to start thinking about demandingness. It’s natural to convert this logic into a guilt complex, a feeling of obligation to always do the right thing. And many reject this logic here: it’s exhausting and unsustainable to always care about doing good. And I think this is a really important point! It’s easy to frame altruism as a need to sacrifice, a need to self-flagellate, and I think this is the same error as the caring altruist who never does a cost-benefit calculation. Self-sacrifice is a fact about my mind, not the world, and morality is about the world. There is no inherent need for self-sacrifice and guilt, it is only useful if these feelings lead to a better world.

And a convenient fact about the world is that I will often do more good by doing things I enjoy, rather than things that I hate. Most of the value I can add is over the course of my career, and people are far more productive when they feel engaged and fulfilled by their work. And altruism is something that people find genuinely fulfilling, and can be a source of a lot of happiness. I think some people have a feeling that it’s not true altruism if there’s no element of personal sacrifice, but I think this is wholeheartedly all amazing! If you can do good, and feel awesome doing it, that it strictly better than doing good and it feeling like a harsh sacrifice. Because your feelings are a fact about your mind, not about the world.

Further, guilt and obligation are poor motivators in the longterm. Doing good is a marathon, not a sprint. I will do far more for the world if I spend my whole life trying, rather than burning out in my youth. You get a lot more work done by taking breaks, and time to maintain your mental health, rather than pushing yourself until you break. So I think it’s completely fine to not sweat the small things, to indulge in luxuries and frivolities without a shred of guilt. What matters is ensuring that the big choices are made well. What career you pursue, which causes you value, the places you donate to and how much you donate.

I strongly identify as part of the Effective Altruism movement, though this reasoning is my own path there, and many people in the movement will have different views on these questions. I don’t agree with the movement on everything, and there are almost certainly important questions we are both wrong about. But it’s the one movement I’ve found that seems to really get that doing good is about what happens in the world, not what happens in your head. That you should be unbiased and search for the cause area that does the most good. That you should use the evidence-backed tools that we know work, realise when the evidence shows your treasured beliefs are false, and let go of them. That doing good is a difficult question, but one that is crucial to answer as well as we possibly can.

And if the ideas in this post resonated with you, you would be extremely welcome to join us. The first step to doing the most good is prioritising and figuring out how. And though the thoughts of EA are far from perfect or complete, I’ve found them a highly valuable framework. If you’re a student, I think most of the value you can add to the world will come from what you do with your life post-graduation, and predominantly from your career, and 80000 Hours have a lot of useful thoughts on this. GiveWell do excellent research into some of the world’s best charities.

These are difficult and complex questions, but I think are important to get right. And though I’ve gone far beyond the time I’d set for writing this post, I have many more thoughts than I could fit into here. So if you’re interested in learning more about this, and would find it helpful to talk to me more about it, you are very welcome to book a time in here.

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