It's OK to feed stray cats

by Julia_Wise2 min read28th Jan 20206 comments

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Before we had kids, Jeff and I fostered a couple of cats. One had feline AIDS and was very skinny. Despite our frugal grocery budget of the time, I put olive oil on her food, determined to get her healthier. I knew that stray cats were not a top global priority, and that this wasn’t even the best way of helping stray cats, but it was what I wanted to do.

. . . . .

The bike path near where I live has a lot of broken glass on the ground nearby. My family likes to go barefoot in the summer, and a lot of people walk their dogs there. Last summer I started bringing a container when we went out and cleaning a patch of ground each time. Picking up glass gave me something a little goal-oriented to do while the kids were playing. The kids got excited about spotting pieces of glass and pointing them out to me. Neighbors would stop and join me for a while.

. . . . .

I don’t want to hold these up as an example of impact. They’re not, or at least not examples of any important impact. I think there are way too many narratives encouraging people to practice small acts of kindness that produce equally small benefits. Women especially may be encouraged to see their life’s impact as resting on their service to friends, family, and local community.

That’s why I felt kind of worried to find myself engaging in these small acts. I want people to look at the big picture and aim high. If you’ve been taught that “doing your part” meant recycling and a bit of volunteering, you’ll need to find something more ambitious if you want to make a bigger difference.

But it can be painful to stare at the scale of the world’s problems, and I don’t recommend doing it all the time. Not every part of your life will be optimized for maximum altruistic impact.

Some of those small acts can be pretty satisfying. Humans do best when we’re in connection with other humans. And we feel mastery when we have small goals that we can meet. Doing your best for a stray cat, bringing the snacks to a game night, going to a rally, or helping a neighbor restart their car are achievable in a way that “reduce the risk of nuclear war” is not. They also strengthen your relationships with those around you.

(One year when my coworkers and I were preparing for the EA Global conference, one of our speakers went for a walk in Oakland and was gone for a surprisingly long time. It turned out someone had flagged him down and asked him to help move her furniture. He said it was refreshing to spend half an hour doing something so obviously not the best use of his time.)

As Gregory Lewis argues, it’s unlikely that any one action is going to be optimal for all your goals. The food that’s tastiest is unlikely to also be the most nutritious and also the most ethically produced. So you might need to make some tradeoffs, and acknowledge that both chocolate and dark leafy greens are good, but not for the same things.

Prioritize big problems. Spend a good chunk of your money and/or your time working on them.

But in your other time, do what’s refreshing and restorative to you. Some of that will purely hedonic — sleeping in, music, cake. And some might be small acts of kindness that make your day brighter, even though they’re not saving the world.

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I can vouch for the value of this approach. My apartment complex has an informal back path (paved by generations of feet) that people use to get to the nearby university. It also gets some occasional use from the local unhoused population. Over time, lots of litter had built up in a certain patch (you could hardly see the ground).

I noticed that I felt a sense of annoyance every time I walked through the tiny valley of trash (not annoyance at humans, but at the interruption in what was otherwise a nice miniature nature walk). So one day I bought some surgical gloves and trash bags, put on a podcast, and cleaned the path. It took less than two hours to remove 98% of the litter (the rest being things like bottle caps that would have been laborious to track down and collect). 

The result: I got a clean path, a few hundred other people got a clean path, and I got to think of myself as "the kind of person who cleans up the commons," which was more personally satisfying than any donation I made that year (because I am irrational).

Although I agree with the message that fuzzy-feely  altruism can benefit your own well-being and motivation to do high impact altruism, I cringed a bit at the title. Please consider feeding only sterilised stray cats. Thanks ^^'

Otherwise, by feeding a fertile stray cat you contribute to creation of more starving, diseased cats. So even for the fuzzy feely altruism it is important to not just see what you want to see (the one moment of a pleased stray cat you interacted with), but assess relevant (future) consequences to not cause more suffering. 

Actually, sterilising would be the more valuable doing than feeding, but that again may not be a fuzzy feely altruism anymore, as the immediate reaction of the cat certainly will not be gratefulness. And we usually need (immediate) gratefulness of other beings to create the desired improved mental well-being for ourselves and motivation. 

How much should conflicting desires to be locally kind and globally good affect our choices about living in EA bubbles, where our locally kind choices might multiply the effectiveness of effective people? I had previously felt it was a strong reason to live in an EA bubble, but perhaps this was due to stupid reasons.

Those stupid reasons: In my previous non-EA group living arrangement, I felt frustrated by the conflict between being locally helpful and globally effective. But then when I got to the EA Hotel, I felt this conflict was resolved yet still wasn't very locally kind or helpful, so maybe the salience of this conflict only ever existed as a justification for being lazy.

I'm curious to know how other people have experienced the transition to and from EA bubbles with respect to this tension.

If you think a community has a "local kindness gap" that you can fill, and that gap seems to be reducing how well that community is doing at achieving its goals, it's reasonable to think that being a kind person in that community will end up doing more good than you'd expect to do if you were being kind in a random other community.

That said, there are also downsides to strengthening bubbles, and I'd expect (quick thoughts, haven't pondered this much) that a "locally kind person with EA inclinations" would be most effective in place that has a small/new EA community, where the marginal value of extra (dinner hosting/event organizing/grabbing coffee with new arrivals) seems higher than in a place where there are already lots of events and chances for new folks to get involved.

Thank you for writing this. I can relate well to the refreshing and restorative effect of small acts of kindness.

I think there are way too many narratives encouraging people to practice small acts of kindness that produce equally small benefits.

Thanks for helping me notice that I have one of those narratives floating around in my head without being questioned. Questioning it right now feels kind of sad, I really liked the idea that my small acts of considerateness will maybe potentially some day turn out to have been very important for the future of everything.