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.