A word of warning:
This essay’s arguments hinge upon our mortality. If you do not want to think about your death, I just wanted to caution you that this essay is probably not for you right now.
“How can I do the most good?”; that is the question at the heart of Effective Altruism (EA). In other words the movement strives to figure out “how can someone have the biggest and best impact possible?” or “how can you make your altruism most effective?”
However I have tried and failed to find a good response, from EA or anyone else, to the question those invite: "Why should one someone try to do the most good (especially if it gets in the way of other desires such as wealth, popularity, or clinging to preconceived notions)"? 
Although it’s impressive that EA has not needed an answer to this question so far, I think it is ultimately imprudent not to offer logical justification for those who could use it. So I’d like to suggest some by arguing that trying to do the most good for others is one of the best, safest ways ways to serve your own self-interest.
I am sure my rationale won’t appeal to everyone, for example I think my argument becomes less compelling the more certainty that someone has in a religious ideology or atheism, but I am afraid this answer may be the best one presented to EA so far.
I would like to offer a summary of my best reasons why someone should strive for maximally effective altruism, although I’m sure the question is better than my answer. I will then eloborate upon the parts of my argument that I think are uncertain and/or unclear. Then I will address some questions you might have (e.g. Why take religion seriously?) and invite you to offer more.
If you’re concerned certain objections could undermine my entire essay, feel free to read that section first. If you’re not bothered by any or all the questions I bring up, then feel free to skip them. And I’d like to preface this discussion with some information about my credibility and reasoning, but without further ado:
My arguments touch upon religion, which I have studied for about five years mostly through resources online (and partly by immersing myself in religious communities). However, I have had almost no formal education on the topic, and I acknowledge I am far from an authority on even a single religious ideology. So, I would like to stress my ideas are tentative (especially before they have been subjected to the scrutiny of great minds like many in EA).
I’d really like to be corrected if I’m wrong and will do my best to fix any mistakes in this post as soon as I discover them. Feel free to try to shore up my arguments, but also do not hesitate to let me know if you think they are misguided to the core. If these ideas are unsalvageable, I would like to find out as soon as possible.
The argument expounded
Defining the self, altruism, and major religions
Although are multiple conceptions of what constitutes the “self”, I will employ common presuppositions, chiefly the self is an “individual human being that persists from birth to death”.
In this essay altruism is defined as behavior “motivated by a desire to benefit [or abstain from harming] someone other than oneself for that person’s sake." I will be using it synonymously with selflessness. Its opposite is selfishness: “behavior that is motivated solely by the desire to benefit oneself."
By “major religions” I mean religions with the greatest longevity, influence, and number of current adherents. Most experts I’ve encountered concur that the following are major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.
During your lifetime, being as altruistic as possible will make you happiest (50% credence)
There is research that indicates that pursuing altruism is usually more fulfilling than indulging in personal pleasures. However it doesn’t follow that altruism can’t be taken too far i.e., maybe at some point selflessness runs contrary to personal happiness. I am far from an expert on the topic, but I have failed to find any attempts to study the happiness of people that strove to be as altruistic as possible.
I also think it’s plausible the truth may be something like “different strokes for different folks” i.e., what makes someone happiest in life varies. For example, simpler people may be more affected by helping tangible folks in their community than by donating to alleviate remote suffering, even if the latter is ultimately more beneficial.
Please let me know if I’m mistaken or if I’m missing something important and feel free to share anecdotal evidence and your own experience. For example, the truth is I’ve never been happier than when I have tried to act as altruistically as possible. And I can’t be the only one since Gandhi wrote “all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy."
However, it currently seems to me like there is not enough evidence to extrapolate this for everyone else, but I’m not sure there is good evidence to the contrary either.
If 2b is true consciousness will persist forever or for a (very important) while (85% credence)
It is no coincidence that a belief in the afterlife is popular and that a large majority of people adhere to a religion.Major religions claim that human sentience (the ability to feel pain and pleasure) usually persists forever (or at least for a while) after our bodily death.
I have not heard of any contemporary ideologies that assert people are destined for an afterlife that is not a big deal. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee such ideologies don’t exist or are incorrect and I hope you’ll let me know if I’m missing something.
We can prepare for this by striving for utmost selflessness (among other things) (70% credence)
Although I have not found an exception to this rule in all the material on the topic I’ve surveyed, I’d like to get this proposition factchecked by people with more expertise than I. In the meantime I’m confident that although different religions place different premiums on how selflessness should be channeled, virtually all really value striving away from selfishness. There are almost limitless examples but to name just two:
Mathew 25:31-46 speaks of the eternal import Jesus attached to caring for the impoverished and oppressed:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"
The passage goes onto warn of dire consequences for those that neglect the needy. Although Gandhi considered himself an Orthodox Hindu he similarly stressed:
“All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end [which is “self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha”] for the essence of religion is morality… If found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realization. I had made the religion of service my own, as I felt that God could be realized only through service."
And I think it’s safe to say that virtually no religious ideology claims you will be penalized for trying to be as selfless as possible, and many affirm you will enjoy eternal rewards for aiming for maximum altruism, or at least reap unimaginably good fruit.
To see other advice shared by major religions, share check out the Appendix.
Trying to do the most good is either by far one of the best ways… (65% credence)
If 3b turns out to be true and you stay sentient (able to feel pain and pleasure) after death than it looks like lot of religions weren’t completely mistaken. Surely most religious ideologies are wrong about plenty, but this does not mean there is no exception to the rule. If there is a single religious ideology that is mostly correct, chances are that it claimed there are ways to prepare for life after death including 4b (and what's in the Appendix).
On the other hand, if 2a is true and bodily death is the last time you’re conscious, then all the time that follows won’t affect you. So even if it turns out maximum altruism wasn’t your cup of tea (i.e., you weren’t as happy as possible for the century or so you were alive) you will have eternity to take a break from it. And you can rest assured there was nothing you could have done differently to better prepare for your final destination.
Addressing questions you might have
Is this appeal to self-interest unnecessary or counterproductive for genuine selflessness?
My answer is a work in progress and for now rooted mostly in my own firsthand experience and reflection. I’d love to hear your answers or criticism of mine.
I doubt it’s ideal to help others purely out of self-interest, but this need not be the only (or even the main) motivation for altruism. For me, this argument does not get in the way of other motivations (e.g. I am very bothered by unnecessary suffering of others, it usually feels great to make a difference, I’d love to part of the EA community, etc.).
Instead, this argument has strengthened my resolve to do the most good (and has not harmed anyone). In fact, I think the more motivation the better; especially when it comes to something as difficult as striving to do the most good.
If that’s true than it’s counterproductive for aspiring effective altruists to leave any well of motivation for altruism untapped. And for those not yet aspiring to maximum altruism (i.e. ostensibly most people) this may make for a good first step on the journey to reaching their potential for selflessness.
I think this argument is probably not for everyone, but I see no reason why this argument shouldn’t be made available for those who could use it. For example, I don’t always need to remind myself of this argument, but when my natural inclination for altruism is challenged (e.g. I have to admit I was wrong and change course) I am grateful I have a reliable rational argument to fall back on.
In sum, here’s an analogy of how I view this argument:
Let's assume for the sake of argument that it’s intrinsically good to be altruistic and intrinsically immoral to murder people, even if you never get caught and penalized. Surely this would not mean that laws that levy punishments on murderers are unnecessary.
For example, if someone is tempted to murder or does not believe it's intrinsically wrong, surely it would be preferable that they refrain out of fear of retribution (i.e. self-interest) rather than proceed?
Why take religion seriously?
To put the question another way: Isn’t it obvious ideologies rooted in the Medieval or Iron Age are more outdated than what contemporary philosophers and modern scientists could come up?
It’s not obvious to me, or most people. Even in our relatively secular age, most of the world is at least pretty religious i.e., probably find an ideology rooted in antiquity plenty plausible. I think it's safe to say that a lot of these people are not simply stupid or brainwashed, so this view probably has some merit, even if I can’t see it.
However I’ve tried to see it, and although I'm not trying to speak for religious people (or even defend them (in fact I’m ultimately quite critical of religion (for more info see the section below entitled Why not take most religious ideologies seriously? ))), if I had to try to explain this position from scratch, it would go something like this:
1. It's possible the universe had a creator and humanity had a designer
2. It's plausible that humanity's designer would understand our needs and could foresee solutions to our problems.
3. I see no reason that humanity's designer could not communicate its advice to people.
4. And this advice could be better than what people can come up with on their own.
The above wouldn't apply to all religions, particularly many Eastern ones, but is it illogical to propose that people thousands of years ago could have made some serious progress answering questions people still face (e.g. how to best handle the unavoidable pain inherent to virtually any human life) perhaps with hidden supernatural aid?
If you’re curious what I think it would take to be sufficiently justified in rejecting (or subscribing to) a religious ideology, I cover that in this essay. Long story short, I think reaching justification for that is not easy and perhaps not currently possible. However it’s not my intention to convert anyone to agnosticism, because I’m confident that most if not all religion may be fatally flawed and here’s why:
Why not take most religious ideologies seriously?
Most religious ideologies are at least somewhat mistaken, since most are mutually exclusive, and none are in the majority. In my experience most religious people claim that other religious ideologies are sorely mistaken or at least missing something important, which is why their particular religion had to come along and set the record straight.
Also “religions differ in what they consider essential and what negotiable. Hinduism and Buddhism split over this issue, as did Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" so I am currently confident that most religious ideologies are largely malarkey. However, it doesn’t follow that there is no exception to this rule, and it doesn’t seem obvious to me that naturalism is the exception.
“The fact that men have had stupid and obviously incorrect ideas about God does not justify us in trying to eliminate God from out of the universe. Men have had stupid and incorrect ideas on almost every subject that can be thought about.” – Aldous Huxley
Are you pushing any religious agenda here?
Not even a little, unless you count trying to do the most good. But honestly, I’m just an agnostic that’s confident there are much more pressing issues than spreading agnosticism like figuring out how the most good is done.
Your argument is missing something important: how can I to do the most good?
This question is better than my answer, though I think the answer depends on if you are certain there isn’t an afterlife you could prepare for.
If you’re unsure that most people are mistaken in their belief in an afterlife then I think it’s worth finding out for sure because the stakes of being wrong about this could not be higher. I elaborate why in this essay followed by suggestions on how to face this challenge.
If you’re certain there is no afterlife (or none we can influence) or no way to figure that out, you could still accomplish a tremendous of altruism if you focus on where the world needs you most. “While many attempts to do good fail, some are enormously effective. For instance, some charities help 100 or even 1,000 times as many people as others, when given the same amount of resources.”
An organization called 80000 hours (which is the number of time spent in the average career) has distilled a lot of information about the world’s pressing problems and what you can do to solve them. They even offer free career counseling. They are part of the Effective Altruism movement which is filled with bright people eager to help you answer the great question of how you can do the most good.
Appendix: More advice most religions share
It’s a common refrain that “every religion has some version of the Golden Rule” and I bet that includes prohibitions on hurting people unnecessarily (e.g. don’t murder, steal, etc.). For example, the Talmud (i.e. Jewish tradition) states “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation."
However, there is also more controversial advice. I’m about 70% sure most, if not virtually all, major religions also advise people not to have sex outside out of marriage though in many cases “advise” is putting it lightly. And I must admit masturbation is usually not recommend either, especially for males.
On the bright side religions also offer advice that is probably easier to follow.
On reaching out
I’m 80% sure that according to all major religions, it’s usually a good idea (and never harmful) to reach out to whatever lies beyond humanity. This includes but is not limited to praying to God since some Eastern religions think that other deities are happy to help supplicants (e.g. Buddhist bodhisattvas). For example, Psalms 145:18 asserts “The LORD is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity.” 
However even if all religions are mistaken i.e., there's not much beyond humanity, trying this advice requires very little time and resources (when done in moderation). In fact productivity expert Chris Bailey states that prayer is one of the top ten best ways to relieve stress and generate energy.
I’m afraid it would be criminal negligence if I did not to mention I'm currently 85% sure that reaching out has worked wonders for me. I don’t mean that it’s affected me on a personal subjective level. In fact, I usually don’t feel anything too special after reaching out but, I’ve seen plenty of evidence that it can change objective reality for the better in an outsized way that I can’t take credit for or even explain right now.
For more information see the footnotes, although I think it is more important to stress that there is no need to take my word for this (or rely on expert opinion) if you can try reaching out with an open mind. And if you don’t want to misremember noteworthy events (which happens more often than most people realize) I recommend documenting them shortly after they happen.
If you are unfamiliar with EA, in a nutshell “Effective altruism is a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice. It’s both a research field, which aims to identify the world’s most pressing problems and the best solutions to them, and a practical community that aims to use those findings to do good.” – source: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism Accessed September 1, 2022
For example see https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/FpjQMYQmS3rWewZ83/effective-altruism-is-a-question-not-an-ideology and https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism which states “Effective altruism is a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice” emphasis added.
The latter is a core value of Effective Altruism according to The Centre for Effective Altruism:
“Open truthseeking: Rather than starting with a commitment to a certain cause, community or approach, it’s important to consider many different ways to help and seek to find the best ones. This means putting serious time into deliberation and reflection on one’s beliefs, being constantly open and curious for new evidence and arguments, and being ready to change one’s views quite radically.” Emphasis added.
Source: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism Accessed September 1, 2022
I argue this in the section entitled Is this appeal to self-interest unnecessary or counterproductive for genuine selflessness?
Definition lifted from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism/ which elaborates further (in Section 1) on how I will employ this term. Accessed August 25, 2022.
Definitions lifted from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism/ which elaborates further on how I will employ these terms. Accessed August 25, 2022.
For example, "Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, proposed that one group of students spend a day amusing themselves and another group take part in a volunteer activity (helping the aged, handing out food in a soup kitchen, and so on). Each group was given the same amount of money and asked to write a report for the class.
The results were conclusive: the satisfaction procured by personal pleasures (eating out, going to the movies, having an ice cream, shopping, etc.) was much less than that produced by altruistic activities. The students who had taken part in volunteer activities noted that they were more enthusiastic, attentive, easygoing, and even appreciated by others on that day…
Since then, the psychologists Elisabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, & Michael Norton have amply demonstrated this phenomenon, first in North America, then in many other countries.”
Source: M. Ricard’s Altruism published 2015, Chapter 13 which lists more information.
Source: Gandhi’s Autobiography; Translated (from Gujarati) by Mahadev Desai. Accessible at:
For example, only 17% of US adults "do not believe in any afterlife at all." Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/11/23/views-on-the-afterlife Accessed August 30, 2022.
About 84% of the world adhered to a religion in 2010. Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/#:~:text=A%20comprehensive%20demographic%20study%20of,world%20population%20of%206.9%20billion Accessed August 30, 2022.
For example, Eastern religious ideologies often assert that humans have souls that can get reincarnated into a different body after death. However, many claim the intervening time can be incredibly long and intense. For more information look up Naraka which is roughly the Eastern equivalent of Hell. Although, naraka is ultimately temporary it purportedly has the potential to be unimaginably more grueling than an individual lifetime.
I have yet to see an exception to this rule, only confirmation. Although I don’t have a good single source for this broad claim, I thought this would be better than nothing: Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Gale, 2003. (Accessible online at https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/how-major-religions-view-afterlife) accessed August 29, 2022:
“all the major faiths believe that after the spirit has left the body, it moves on to another existence”
For more info about my expertise, or lack of it, see the Preface
I don’t have a good single source for this broad claim, but I thought this quote was better than nothing:
"religious commitment and effective altruism are united in telling us we should not serve mammon. They are united… in thinking that people who are not part of our everyday social group should occupy a much larger part of our concern. They are united in thinking that our focus should be on others rather than on ourselves, not just part of the time, but as a way of life."
Source: “Effective Altruism and Religion Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue” edited by D. Roser et. al; published 2022; accessible at https://philarchive.org/archive/RIEEAA-3
Although I am far from an authority on biblical exegesis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites this passage when affirming the Christian duty to care for the “disadvantaged” (see more at http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c2a3.htm accessed September 2022) and an international Christian humanitarian aid organization called Mathew 25 was ostensibly established to fulfill these words (see more at https://m25m.org/about-us/)
Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2025%3A31-46&version=NIV accessed September 7, 2022
Source: Mishra, Ravi K. “Gandhi and Hinduism.” Indian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 65, no. 1, Mar. 2019, pp. 71–90 https://doi.org/10.1177/0019556118820453
Source: Gandhi’s Autobiography; Translated (from Gujarati) by Mahadev Desai. Accessible at: https://www.mkgandhi.org/autobio/autobio.htm
I don’t have a great source for this claim, but my understanding emerged from studying conceptions of the afterlife in differing religions.
In a nutshell that’s because most religions, and ideologies in general, give contradictory answers to important questions and none are currently in majority, so if a correct ideology exists, it is in the minority.
For more info see the section entitled Why not take most religious ideologies seriously?
For more information, check out the section entitled Why take religion seriously?
Again, I had trouble finding a good single source for this claim, but I thought this was better than nothing.
“All the major world religions hold the belief that how a person has conducted himself or herself while living on Earth will greatly influence his or her soul's ultimate destiny after physical death.”
Source: Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Gale, 2003. (Accessible online at https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/how-major-religions-view-afterlife accessed August 29 2022)
About 84% of the world adhered to a religion in 2010. Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/#:~:text=A%20comprehensive%20demographic%20study%20of,world%20population%20of%206.9%20billion Accessed August 30, 2022.
I am afraid I don’t have a good single source for this but could bring examples from individual religious ideologies upon request.
Source: “The World’s Religions” by Huston Smith
I am defining naturalism as the view that “The natural world is all that exists, or at least all that should be of concern to us when deciding how to act.” This was lifted from Fodor’s https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/uxFvTnzSgw8uakNBp/effective-altruism-is-an-ideology-not-just-a-question This view is often opposed to religious ideologies which claim the natural, material world doesn't contain all of reality.
I define the term afterlife and elaborate above in section 3b
Source: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism#introduction For more information I recommend the book “Doing Good Better” by Prof. William MacAskill
Find out more here: https://80000hours.org/
Source: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith Chapter X. A Final Examination
Tractate Shabbat 31a. The translation courtesy of sefaria.org and the text is accessible at https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.31a.5?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
However, I’m sure that specific religious ideologies have different nuances and exceptions. For example, some allow/allowed concubinage and polygamy though that is far from standard religious practice.
Translation from Abu Amina Elias’s https://www.abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2017/06/01/if-he-comes-walking-i-come-running/ accessed August 21, 2022 .
Also accessible at https://sunnah.com/muslim:2687a
By moderation I mean something like a few minutes a day as opposed to dedicating most of your free time to prayer.
"Chris Bailey was recently described by TED as possibly “the most productive man you’d ever hope to meet”. He is the international bestselling author of Hyperfocus and The Productivity Project, which have been published in sixteen languages [actually it’s currently nineteen languages according to his website] Chris works with organisations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.
To date, Chris has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity, and has garnered coverage in media as diverse as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, The Huffington Post, Harvard Business Review, TED, Fortune, Fast Company, and Lifehacker."
Source: https://www.tedxmanchester.com/speakers/chris-bailey/: Accessed August 27, 2022
Source: Bailey’s website https://alifeofproductivity.com/10-ways-to-make-your-next-work-break-as-refreshing-as-scientifically-possible/ accessed September 1, 2022
Bailey’s purported source is the American Psychological Association, but I haven’t found the original source and I’m not sure this applies to people that don’t already believe in what Bailey calls “a higher purpose”
My 85% credence doesn’t stem from my upbringing (which was almost entirely secular) but mostly from written records of events that followed experiments with prayer. I’ve also studied and tried to account for cognitive biases that could cloud my judgement in this area. For example, I’ve considered I’m just falling for pareidolia, the human tendency for people to construe meaning in meaningless data i.e., people often see patterns where there are none.
I also doubt dumb luck is the best explanation of the data I’ve collected from firsthand experience. I think I'd have to be wretched not to share these records with people who are interested (and not just because I’d love to be corrected if I’m interpreting the data wrong).
“Your memory probably isn’t as good as you think it is…. What’s worse, we’re often guilty of changing the facts and adding false details to our memories without even realising.”
Source: https://theconversation.com/are-memories-reliable-expert-explains-how-they-change-more-than-we-realise-106461 by Psychology Prof. Robert Nash. Accessed September 1, 2022
For a great Ted talk on the topic see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB2OegI6wvI&t=1s