Effective altruism has been described as many things;  a question, an ideology, a project, an obligation, a passion. However, none of these definitions have ever really felt right to me. After some thought I have decided that the descriptor that best fits the role altruism plays in my life, is that of a central purpose. A purpose can be a philosophy and a way of living. A central purpose transcends a passion; even considering how intense and transformative a passion can be. It carries a far deeper significance in one’s life. When I describe EA as my purpose, it suggests that it is something that my life is built around; a fundamental and constitutive value. 

Of course, effective altruism fits into people’s lives in different ways and to different extents. For many EAs, an existing descriptor adequately captures their perspective. But there are many subgroups in EA for whom I think it has been helpful to have a more focused discussion on the role EA plays for them. I would imagine that a space within EA for purpose-driven EAs could be particularly useful for this subset, while of little interest to the broader community. 

So what do I mean by purpose-driven effective altruism? Firstly, I think it considerably stands apart from the idea of excited altruism. Although most people are excited about things they find to be purposeful and meaningful; a purpose can sustain aspiration and motivation even in the absence of the emotion of excitement, or even personal interest. People’s lives revolve around many different purposes. Some people’s purpose might be to build their family, their knowledge, or their company. For some people their central purpose is to make a difference in the world. A person’s purpose is the reason they get up in the morning and the biggest factor when making a decision.

This framing of purpose based effective altruism can be useful in a number of ways. But it’s important to note, I don’t think you have to make effective altruism your purpose in order to make a difference in the world, or to join the movement. There is quite a difference between someone who occasionally paints or even who loves to paint; and someone whose purpose is to paint. Nonetheless, all of these people can join a painting group. 

If altruism is your central purpose, it leads to different choices than if it's a passion. Identifying in this way can also give people a much better sense of why someone is doing the things they are doing. Sacrificing a personal goal would be a large ask for even the most passionate person, but trivial in the context of a central purpose. Someone might stop working on their passion if it's no longer fun, but few would give up so easily on something they see as their purpose. Switching countries or lifestyles might seem extreme for a passion but can easily happen for a purpose. 

I also think the ‘purpose’ description is more fitting for a large group of EAs who are often described as “obligation based altruists”. Obligation has fairly negative connotations and does not really convey the full experience for people who are highly focused on EA. On the other hand, having a purpose is quite a positive thing. Leading a meaningful life with a clear purpose improves mental health, self-worth, and self-confidence. Finding your purpose is often seen as a goal and can lead to significant happiness. Ultimately, having a purpose is seen as a good thing and having an obligation is seen as a bad thing.

As touched on above, I do not think this label is the only way to be an EA. You can be in the EA movement as an excited altruist, or view EA as more of a question, project, or ideology. I see these definitions as complementary, bringing more nuance to the question of what makes a person an EA.  Like other subgroups, I see these different interpretations of altruism bringing a similar advantage; facilitating conversations that might make sense in a ‘purpose’ framework but not a ‘passion’ one.  

Although the core of effective altruism is “doing the most good”, there’s a lot attached to this – unspoken ethical norms, epistemic habits, and so forth. In this sense, it’s technically an approach more than a purpose. For many in the community, the term “approach” will fit better. But personally, I think that describing altruism as a central “purpose” better encapsulates my experience of effective altruism. I think the concept can add something valuable to narratives around EA and to discussions currently happening in the community. 

If you are keen to connect with others who see altruism as a purpose you can DM me and I will set up a meeting with a few people interested. 

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:04 PM

Thank you for writing - I think it's a useful framing.

Excited altruism can sound like it's making light of the world's problems; while the obligation framing framing sounds too sacrificial / negative / internal conflictly. This is a nice middle ground – capturing an appropriate level of seriousness, while also being a route to an aligned & fulfilling life.

(I'm also not sure it's a good a description of my motivation system, though I've had periods when building 80k felt like my central purpose, and I think it's really valuable to have a vision like this on the table – in fact part of me is a bit envious of people who feel like this.)

See My bargain with the EA machine for the converse perspective

I like it, it’s a nice framing for what I call “hardcore EA’s or hardcore effective altruism” :) I also like this side note “I don’t think you have to make effective altruism your purpose in order to make a difference in the world, or to join the movement”. I usually say about myself “I am part of the Effective Altruism community”, because I don’t identify as an EA, but I want to make a difference in the world, I am part of the movement by my job, I am also a utilitarian-thinking person and animal activist. I think effective altruism is not my purpose but an aspiration. I also make decisions less based on what is popular to do in the community, but more based on my ethical convictions (that are sometimes closer sometimes further from maximizing impact in the way the EA community is doing it). I can see the commitment that the purpose brings... I would say e.g. my core purpose in life, that I am very sure of and I prioritize is making sure my mum does not have to suffer in her life (so I want to be able to provide her any kind of financial or physical support that would be needed, so she has a good life). Then on top of that my purpose would be “make a positive impact in the world” - it can be in many ways, but at the moment it’s realized through my work. But maximizing impact is not my purpose per se... it’s more like aspiration or an effect coming from other purposes. So e.g. I would sacrifice a ton for my mum’s wellbeing, I would sacrifice less for having some kind of positive impact on the world, I would sacrifice even less for following impact maximization e.g. through donations, etc. I can see how this can differ between the people I have seen in the EA community. I think I am lucky to work with at least a few individuals who have effective altruism as their purpose, and you can see that... they take lower salaries, they spend less on pleasurable things, they put more time into work or making decisions about donation options. When offered more money, they would usually redirect them to something effective instead of improving their comfort. That’s why I see it more as an aspiration for me.

Thank you, Joey. This resonated a lot with me and I think this is an important contribution.

I agree that it's important to distinguish between high emotions "fireworks passion" and deeper "compass" passion ~ purpose. A deeply felt sense of pursuing something greater that transcends emotions and personal needs (although they are important too and can easily be neglected. Perhaps, especially by EAs). 

While I'm increasingly talking about this with people around me, I still feel some perceived barrier to doing so in some  EA contexts but this post just expanded my perception of the Overton window. 

"He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."

Thank you for showing us your why. You inspire others to live meaningful lives. 

I'm curious how EA as a central purpose influenced your life. Which big decision did you make differently?

I like this framing and it resonates with me. As an entrepreneur, I derived meaning through my companies but since engaging more with EA this has shifted to effective altruism. Now my company is a means to a bigger end which is more satisfying to me. Similarly, my volunteering in EA community building and EA software development is more satisfying than comparable activities I did before as it aligns with this purpose.

By writing "a central purpose" I assume you to leave open the possibility of people having multiple purposes, perhaps even some ranking higher? It seems that in most societies people derive the primary meaning or purpose from family, with occupation and career coming in second. 

This could be similar for people having careers in cause areas that are important to them. So someone working for an effective animal charity could see their purpose in the research they are doing (but would derive a similar purpose in a less effective academic position) or in the cause of saving animals. However, they could also see the purpose in doing good better, willing to change their job if other cause areas seem more important, tractable and neglected. I would only see the last case as someone who has EA as their purpose but it would be interesting to hear other views.

Thanks for this framework--as someone relatively new to EA, I think it sounds useful, and I appreciate the openness to different ways that people might resonate with EA. This post makes me think about the differences between concepts of happiness that relate to eudaimonia, or flourishing and leading a fulfilling life connected to one's potential, versus hedonic pleasure, which studies show often leads to always searching for the next exciting "hit" of pleasurable, exciting experience. It's very easy to get caught up in excited altruism, but as you pointed out, a purpose-driven approach is likely to create much longer-lasting engagement. I also agree with the statement that "Leading a meaningful life with a clear purpose improves mental health, self-worth, and self-confidence. Finding your purpose is often seen as a goal and can lead to significant happiness," but I was a bit unsure what you meant by "Ultimately, having a purpose is seen as a good thing and having an obligation is seen as a bad thing." It seemed like you were pointing toward a potential re-framing of the idea of obligation here, but I could be misunderstanding what you said--did you mean that we should revise our ideas about obligation being negative and instead understand it as a positive sense of duty akin to the purpose you mention? Or, were you simply pointing out that this word is seen as negative in our culture, and you would also see it as a "bad thing" in relation to EA? 

Thank you Joey for speaking the minds of some. I’m new to the concept and the world of EA but the more I explore it, the more I see similarities to my own moral values and compass.

Personally, I believe the majority if not all of the Effective Altruists who choose to bring impact through their careers, are essentially viewing EA as a “central purpose”.

Can anyone point out the possibilities that someone who chooses to spend their 80,000 hours as an Effective Altruist viewing EA anything less than the “central purpose”?

As I am navigating to understand the mindsets and opinions within the EA communities, I invite and appreciate as many replies and comments on the matter as possible.

Thank you 🙏🏾

More from Joey
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities