Utilitarianism can be a bummer.

The world has so many problems and there's so much you could be doing to help. Donating more. Advocating more. Researching more.

This can make me feel like:

  • I have to keep giving until there's nothing left for me
  • Even then, I can never live up to my moral obligations
  • I am therefore a bad person

But utilitarianism goes both ways. Sometimes the balance is in your favour. Sometimes utilitarianism is ✨Fun✨.

Some examples:

  1. You're hanging out with your utilitarian friends. Alice has a really nice looking muffin. By your best objective estimation, you would enjoy the muffin more. Alice now has to give you the muffin or be sent to 👮 utilitarian jail 👮.
  2. The EAG conference needs volunteers to do a thing. You could do it, but you're already really busy. You happen to know that Bob has a pretty light load and it would be easier for him. Utilitarianism requires you to try and make Bob do it instead of you. "Me? Bossy? Listen, this is out of my hands. Utilitarianism is making me make you do it."
  3. You are depressed. You know that a walk and a swim would cheer you up. But what's even the point? You'd still be a failure and the world would still hate you. Well too bad bucko. Utilitarianism says you have to take care of your mental health. Utilitarianism needs you to be happy and radiating utils, even if you don't see the point right now.
  4. You need help but are afraid to ask for it. Maybe you're down on your luck and need a couch to sleep on. Maybe an important person has some information you need. Maybe you're spiralling and need to unload your troubles. Utilitarianism doesn't care if you're "squeamish about unpayable debts", or "intimidated by status", or "don't want to be a burden". If someone can pay a small price to give you a big benefit, then Utilitarianism requires that you ask for help.
  5. You can increase the total utility by increasing your own utility. In fact there are structural reasons why this might be a high-impact strategy: you have direct access to your own desires and emotional states, and it's easy to run intervention experiments on yourself. So apply the high-powered EA mindset to improving your own life. Think seriously about what you want out of life and how to get it. This can feel self-indulgent, unvirtuous, or even selfish. Doesn't matter. If you can make yourself better off without making anyone else comparably worse off, then utilitarianism says you have to do it. Last night I drank red wine and danced to Taylor Swift in my underwear and it was so much fun. The fact that I had never even tried this before in my 26 years of life makes me think that there’s tons of low-hanging fruit in the Personal Wellbeing Orchard.
  6. For similar reasons, it can also be high-impact to improve the lives of friends and family. Develop a “value theory” for the people around you. What do they most want and care about? You’re allowed to ask them if you’re not sure, but take their reported values with a grain of salt. Look for low-effort, high-utility actions you could take. Be creative. When this works it feels like you’re winning good-will points for free. Example: my dad recently mentioned how much he enjoys being a retired grandparent, and I know he likes having photos of everything, so I took about five minutes over the course of the day to build a Google Photos album of him playing with my nephew, and he loves it. There’s a well of utility in actions which are 1) hard to do by yourself, and 2) not so valuable that you want to ask someone for it and enter an emotionally charged reciprocal transaction.
  7. Compliments! It's nice to get a compliment, and it's fun to give a compliment. Free utility! Spam the compliment button! “Sure, I could probably give more compliments on the margin to close friends and family. But I’m not going to spontaneously compliment random people on the street! That feels inappropriately intimate!” In my experience, you can often get around the awkwardness with comically exaggerated compliments. “I’m sorry for forgetting your name for the fourth time, I was too distracted by how smart and good looking you are.” I actually used that one and it went down amazingly well, even though I was clearly just weaselling out of an awkward situation. Weirdly, obviously insincere compliments can be almost as good as sincere ones. Being told you’re beautiful or a genius feels good even if you know it’s not true. Complimenting with ease and grace is a skill, but if you learn it you can magically conjure utility in social interactions.

What are some more examples?

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:11 PM

Thanks for this post :)
Fun and not fun: sometimes i get out "The book of horrible questions". It's a real book that asks if you would do a certain horrible/digusting action x for an amount of money y. If one is EA and takes into account that you can donate the money, you almost always have to say yes. Like I said, fun to play, though they outcome this way is not fun like you intend it :)

Thanks for writing this! Brightened my day and I put moderate odds it'll improve my impact long term. Adding it to my list of motivational things to look at when I'm feeling down.


You're hanging out with your utilitarian friends. Alice has a really nice looking muffin. By your best objective estimation, you would enjoy the muffin more. Alice now has to give you the muffin or be sent to 👮 utilitarian jail 👮.

This made me laugh. Poor Alice. She's heading straight for👮 utilitarian jail 👮.

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