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They tell me: eat and drink! Be glad to be among the haves!
But how can I eat and drink when
I take what I eat from the starving and
Those who have died of thirst go without my glass of water?
And yet I eat and drink.

(Bertolt Brecht: An die Nachgeborenen)

Many people in EA at least occasionally struggle with feelings of worthlessness and urgency or have the tendency to self-sacrifice to an unhealthy level. Many other people in EA would like to help them out by outlining how feeling worthless is not strategically good. However, in these discussions, people are often talking past each other, without making any progress on the actual issues.

In this post, I point out why some seemingly motivational fixes on the feeling of worthlessness can actually be counterproductive. I also give some tips on how to better support your EA friends who are struggling with these issues, and say some words to those who are facing the issues themselves.

Examples of counterproductive advice

“It’s actually altruistic to be happy, because happiness makes you more productive”

Most people are in fact more productive if they are feeling at least ok, so at face value, this statement is true. Despite this, it is not necessarily good advice for someone who is not feeling happy and would like to be more productive.

Inside the not-happy person’s head there is a to-do list that looks something like this:

  • do more EA! people are dying
  • also read up more EA to know how to actually do EA
  • I’m so tired but I must hold through and do my EA stuff because if I don’t it means I don’t actually care, and I really don’t want anyone to die

So whenever you tell them to be more happy in order to be more productive, the to-do list starts to look like this:

  • do more EA! people are dying
  • also read up more EA to know how to actually do EA
  • I’m so tired but I must hold through and do my EA stuff because if I don’t it means I don’t actually care, and I really don’t want anyone to die
  • become happier! you cannot actually help when you are feeling like this, so stop it and get on with all the other stuff; people are dying, remember!

Redefining happiness as an instrumental goal for becoming more productive is rarely going to make anyone more happy. It is actually likely to put additional pressure on the person who is already feeling guilty about not being productive enough, thus making them unhappier in the progress

“If you’ve donated $3400 (or $5000 or whatever the current estimate is) you clearly deserve to live”

I haven’t seen this advice much online but several people around me have come up with it independently. This is probably because I occasionally have thoughts about not deserving to be alive and talking about them to people around me sometimes helps.

In this advice, the advisor is trying to debunk a depressed misguided belief by reason and evidence (sort of). The concept is related to climate (or perhaps animal welfare) compensation: “if you think you are not worthy of living, just buy your way out of it by saving another person – tada, you have compensated for your life!”

There are many dangers to this line of thought such as:

  • how do I know that saving one person is a sufficient compensation amount?
  • if I haven’t donated that much, does it mean I deserve to die?
  • if I have donated that much, what does it actually matter that I continue to live – it won’t change anything about my previous donations anyway?
  • if I ever lose my ability to produce impact in the future (for example because I need to stop working due to disability), does it mean I deserve to die then?
  • do all people who have not donated x amount deserve to die?

These questions are all good, because the life compensation logic does not actually make any sense. A person’s right to be alive is not tied to their past or future altruistic impact. 

Things like “accelerating climate change” and “supporting animal farming” are causing harm. This is why some people feel the need to compensate for them. But “being alive” does not cause harm in itself. “Being alive” being a good thing is actually the whole point in “donating to save a life”. 

If you have donated $3400 or are going to do so at some point – was that because you thought the stranger you saved is also going to save at least one person from dying? Or was it because you just wanted them to live?

“Take a break now, and come back later when you feel better”

This is how sick leaves usually work. And a fixed-time break can be a good thing for a person feeling under the weather or having moderate doubts about EA.

 But in some cases, I think it is better to take a break from EA with the possibility of never coming back, or coming back after several years, or coming back but not to the position they originally left. For example, someone might drop organizing activities in their local group but applies for an EA job elsewhere. Even permanently “quitting EA” does not necessarily mean quitting having an impact – for people with a stable financial situation it is often possible to “just” donate to effective causes without engaging with the EA community, if they wish to do so.

It is important to tell people they are allowed back if they want to drop doing EA for a while. But there is an important difference between hoping they’ll come back and expecting it, making their “right” to a break conditional on the eventual return.

This can sometimes be just a phrasing thing, but often it is also connected to expectation of happiness leading to productivity. It is not possible to temporarily leave EA as an act of doing EA, because then you have not actually left EA, you are just doing EA with extra steps (“I’m resting now to increase my productivity over my lifetime because I have calculated/rationalized for it to be the best decision in the moment”).

Towards better advice

Why do people say things like that

Justifying a person’s right to happiness, rest and even life by their impact seems based on reason and evidence. If your friend is experiencing uncertainty on their right to happiness, you feel like can outsmart their worries by pointing at all the impactful things they are doing – you are worthy, science says so! Similarly, if you are yourself feeling unworthy, you can do the math and hope the math tells you to take a well-earned break to feel some happiness – you are not being selfish, it is for the greater good after all.

But using impact as the foundation of your self-worth is building it on sand. There is no point in which your instrumental value becomes so high you magically transcend to a person who has intrinsic value. 

If you want to feel like you deserve to be happy and alive, don’t use utilitarianism for that. Even if you try your best to have an impact and help others, there will always be cases where the best pure utilitarian action is to do something that makes you sad or even kills you. 

I think a lot of people who have the tendency to self-sacrifice are hoping that others will self-sacrifice in their favor, too. That way, they can get their needs met without asking and without feeling selfish, sort of as a gift. In interpersonal relationships, this might work to some extent. But you cannot do this with the universe. There is no point in which utilitarianism tells you: “good job, you’ve sacrificed enough now, now it is time for you to get some rest”.

What to say instead?

I think for many people in EA it is easier to say “you are actually allowed to be happy (it increases your productivity)” and “you should feel like you deserve to live (as is evident from your donation habits)” and “you can take some rest (it’ll help you to do more EA in the future)” than just “hey, you look tired and sad, and to be honest you saying you don’t deserve to live sounds kinda depressed to me, and I wish you’d be happy, energetic and think kindly of yourself, because I care about you”. 

Caring about a friend’s happiness is not impartial and does not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. But caring about other people is not wrong. It is actually the very point of altruism. Caring about your friends in particular is of course partial altruism, or it can even be selfish (for example wanting your friends to be alive because you enjoy their company). But this kind of partial altruism and selfishness is not something you should try to get rid off. Feeling for your friends is good for friendships, and friendships are good for people.

If an EA friend is struggling with the feeling of unworthiness, don’t try to prove them wrong by using reason and evidence and referring to all the good things they have done and are going to do. It is not necessary. Their life and happiness already has intrinsic value, because they are a sentient being. Their good actions can not add to this intrinsic value, and their inaction or bad choices cannot take it away.

What if you struggle with these thoughts yourself?

Then I’d tell you the same thing: you already have intrinsic value as a sentient being, and your productivity and altruistic deeds will not influence it. But if you are having thoughts about being unworthy, you are currently disconnected from feeling into your intrinsic value. Only you can figure out why. Maybe a therapist can help you with that.

I think it can be helpful to appreciate that self-sacrificial tendencies can have psychological benefits in some situations. Maybe you have been in life situations where you had to learn to suppress your needs, for example because expressing them was not safe or did not lead to desired outcomes.

And yet, if you are reading this, you are alive, so there is something in you that is keeping you alive and probably tries to make you occasionally feel happy as well. (If you are the speaker of the poem cited in the beginning of the post, it’s that something that makes you eat and drink, even if you don’t know why.) 

If you have a strong need to self-sacrifice, recognizing this can be scary at first. Some people feel like ideally they should be able to let go of any selfish needs, including “wanting to live”. But wanting to live is crucial for staying alive, and again, if we believe in the intrinsic value of the life and happiness of sentient beings, then it is very good that people want to live.

Regardless of who you are and what altruistic impact you have, if you are sentient enough to read this, I wish you’d be alive and happy.

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Ada-Maaria -- this is generally good advice.

Some evolutionary psychologists such as Randy Nesse and Paul Gilbert have offered some useful perspectives on depression, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal impulses.

A common theme is that our brains evolved to process social cues of our net helpfulness versus burdensomeness towards close family, friends, and clan (NOT towards humanity as a whole, or towards all future sentient beings in the light cone).  

If we feel like a net burden to the people closest to us, we often feel quite low; if we feel useful and like we're adding value to their lives, that's quite protective against depression.

So, it might be quite difficult to 'hack' our mood psychology just by trying to convince ourselves that we've saved X number of lives in the abstract, and that therefore this makes us worthy. Instead, it might be more effective to try to engage more with those closest and most salient to us -- housemates, workmates, siblings, parents, kids, old friends, etc. And often the most mood-lifting thing is not to ask these people for help, but rather to offer them help in whatever specific things they're trying to accomplish.

Great tip, Geoffrey - hadn't heard this before, look forward to trying it.

Interesting perspective! I have definitely noticed how mood-lifting it can be to help others, especially if it is something I can do easily (such as translating a phrase to a coworker from a language they don't speak).

I also notice I am somewhat wary of using helping close ones as a form of emotional regulation because I've seen a fair share of co-dependency issues of different levels. Mostly in the form where someone gets closer to a person who is not doing that well, tries to take care of them and ends up in a space where their own mood is largely dictated by how the loved one feels. I'm wondering if that also has some roots in evolutionary psychology or if it is just "overdoing" the method you suggested.

Great post. EA is a mixed blessing for the many folks who tend toward anxiety. There's always something more to be thinking about, always a career plan to sharpen, always more to donate. Guideposts like this one can help folks manage the firehose and make EA  healthier & more sustainable than other social impact communities. I'm thinking of 2017ish Climate Twitter, which kept saying something like "to exist as a person is a crime against the planet."

One question : "a person’s right to be alive is not tied to their past or future altruistic impact." I agree with that statement but haven't heard much of a philosophical justification for it. Do you know where I could learn more about the idea of intrinsic worth and how it relates to consequentialist morality?

I am not the best person to recommend you readings in philosophy, but I can try to elaborate on how I understand this sentence to refer to some common consequentialist perspectives. I hope I'm not repeating something that is already obvious to you.

  • as I understand it, from the point of utilitarianism this sentence is not true (since it describes a "right" to live and utilitarianism is not a rights-based ethical system)
  • but in (total hedonistic) utilitarianism, the net-positive experience of being alive and happy has value. In this sense, the person being alive and happy is intrinsically valuable, but not because it is their right to live. Seeing moral patients as "containers" of happiness is a common criticism of utilitarianism. (I have also had anxiety over "but since I'm constantly sad does utilitarianism then tell me I should remove myself from the pool of sentient beings, what if the sum of total happiness is getting lower because of me". But realistically my life experience has not been net negative so far.)
  • so I do not recommend basing your (sense of) a right to existence on utilitarianism (you cannot base your right to anything on utilitarianism)
  • but I feel like some people who are strongly drawn to utilitarianism can benefit from reconnecting to the sense of the intrinsic value of their own happiness, not just the instrumental value of it, and I think some people in EA are almost afraid to do so out of fear that this would make them (too) egoistic/partial

Really thoughtful responses, thank you. I tend to think the idea of intrinsic worth popular in the West stems from Christian influence but haven't found defense for it outside Christian frameworks

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/AjxqsDmhGiW9g8ju6/effective-altruism-in-the-garden-of-ends

This post is a deep dive that explores this perspective.

I feel very torn regarding these points because I believe they are fundamentally at odds with my beliefs as a utilitarian. I believe that the vast majority of most agent's value can be instrumental and we probably should primarily, on a bird's eye view, view our happiness as primarily useful toward serving to better the world.

Of course, we are moral patients too, but our consideration is dwarfed by our power.

Yeah. Though for a utilitarian it could still be instrumentally good to believe the points in this post, at least on an emotional level. But lying to yourself is plausibly a bad norm for other reasons, and in any case, this type of reasoning is the exact thing the post is arguing against.

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