I believe altruism itself is one of the most important, neglected, and tractable topics facing the world today.
Altruism is possible at any level of poverty/wealth. When I was working as a pediatrician at a hospital in Afghanistan, we often suffered shortages of antibiotics, due to armed opposition groups blocking our delivery trucks. During one shortage, there were four children in the pediatric ICU who had meningitis. Together, the families would buy the antibiotics in the market and share a vial among their children. Antibiotic dosing by weight meant bigger children received a bigger proportion. On the day the mother of the tiniest baby was to buy the antibiotics, there was also a shortage in the market. I took her aside and explained to her that if she shared the antibiotics she purchased, she would not have enough for her own baby the next day. She was adamant the vial was to be shared.
Meanwhile, there seems to be an unprecedented upsurge in egoism in the world. From all walks of life, people seem to be increasingly motivated to self-serving activities which benefit themselves, or at best, the people of their own community, with little to no consideration to the outcome on humanity, non-human animals, the environment, or the future. There are obvious examples of such activities: nationalism, religious wars, partisan politics, capitalism, elite athletics, consumerism, space tourism, tourism, corporate climbing, and stock trading. Less obvious examples include egoist leisure pursuits, “bullshit jobs,” (David Graeber) the belief that “charity begins at home” (vs other beneficiaries, where the need may be more dire), and even the pursuit of publication over ethical meaningfulness or general usefulness in academia.
I wonder if the effective altruism (EA) community has considered the potential in humanity? It is clear the leaders in effective altruism have given and are giving considerable thought to the most important concerns of our time and of the long-term future and how to address them most efficiently. When I stumbled on the EA organizations, because a favourite author pledged to Giving What We Can (Rutger Bregman), I found a school of thought I have been contemplating for years but could never adequately articulate.
Oddly, however, I think I see a missing piece in the work. I hope I am wrong in this observation, but although I see EA is doing considerable work in research in artificial intelligence alignment, longtermism, animal welfare, reducing existential risk, and other “large scale, neglected, and tractable” concerns, increasing the practice of simple altruism work does not seem to be prioritized.
I would imagine EA would be more effective if there were more people who could be convinced to work, donate, or otherwise support the field of effective altruism, or simply be more altruistic. Additionally, unsurprising to anyone in the EA community, general happiness would improve, both within new EAs, as well as recipients of their efforts.
I understand there are several barriers to behaving altruistically, overcoming which is the foundation of my idea.
I believe it is difficult to redirect a person’s belief from egoism to altruism. One factor in perpetuating egoism is the current common perception of oneself as the underdog, or victim. I think the perception is driven by current media and social media sensationalizing the negative, alarming the viewer/reader into victimhood who then consolidates efforts to protect oneself, one’s people, and one’s property from threat. By threat, I do not only mean existential risks of pandemic, or nuclear war, but threats as mild as “inflation is increasing,” and “pesticide use on food products may be harmful.” Improving one’s self-identity as agent of change, rather than victim, may move people from egoism to altruism.
Another barrier to utilitarian work in altruism seems to be the lack of understanding that we are a global community. This barrier seems nearly insurmountable, with ongoing religious ideology, nationalism, economic disparity, and the unfortunate legacy of racist, patriarchal history preventing the belief that every person’s life is equally worthy. There is some evidence in the contact hypothesis for reducing prejudice between groups. How it could be effective on a global scale could be an area for research.
As indicated, the extreme disparity in privilege, wealth, and power between individuals and between and within nations hampers altruistic pursuits. The “haves” retain what they have and seek more, while the “have nots” continually try to gain what they don’t have. Another danger of social media is the constant barrage of images of people with more, and products we do not have, causing us to believe we are all “have nots.” The benefits of equity are eloquently explained in “The Spirit Level” (Wilkinson and Pickett); however, it does not seem to have garnered a large enough following to effect change. Why?
I do not pretend to know what might improve universal altruism, but I have some ideas. Storytelling has been known to be more motivating than statistics, or even facts, at enticing people to give. Motivational interviewing is a guiding style of communication which may be beneficial in moving people from egoism to altruism. It is well accepted that altruism gives pleasure to the altruist— “warm glow altruism” -- which seems to be an excellent argument for recruitment. Each of these methods might be starting points for EA promotion but scaling up might be the challenge. How to scale up or share these ideas more broadly would also be a good research investment, I think.
As far as I can tell from my (admittedly limited) review of the EA organizations is that the advocacy strategy consists of Toby Ord’s book, podcasts, social media posts, emails, 80000 hours consultation, and the research arising from the Global Priorities, and Future of Humanity Institutes. Is it possible that those who work in EA are so surrounded by like-minded individuals, they think the discipline is adequately served?
What I see missing, is promotion of the universal benefits of equality, altruism, and goodwill. Here I mean simple altruism, not necessarily effective altruism. Imagine if only 20% of the population worked for the greater good. Or if every person spent 20% of their time at it? Convincing more of the world population to do right by each other, the environment, animals, and the future, in whatever capacity possible, seems to me to be the best investment the EA community could make. Working at a local soup kitchen may not be the most effective/efficient altruistic pursuit, but what if everyone did something similar, and maximized their personal fit? I have trouble thinking of a downside, but am open to counterpoint ideas.
I think improving general altruism would require a multimodal approach. Areas of research could include the psychology of altruism in human behaviour, including factors which improve and reduce it, determining features of behaviour change models, and which models are most effective, the effectiveness of certain information sharing methods, such as social media, storytelling, arts and entertainment, academia, famous champions, advocacy, policy, and education. Improving altruism, utilitarianism, and generally working for the greater good could be addressed by increasing altruistic policymakers and advisors to governmental and intergovernmental agencies on the large scale, as well as amplifying small-scale altruistic activities on social media, and slowly improving the social culture of altruism.
What happened to the baby with meningitis? Mercifully, the shipment of antibiotics came the next day. The idea that one poor Afghan mother would risk her own baby for the benefit of all the children strengthens my belief that humanity is deeply altruistic, if given the opportunity.