Hello!

I am relatively new to the EA community, and in learning about EA, I was blown away by the ability to quantify how much positive impact an action can have. However, I have now come to realize that most of the time EA frames doing good in terms of how many lives have been saved or physically improved (see the unit of DALYs or Disability-Adjusted Life Years).

While saving lives does feel to have a generally positive impact, it is not the only way, and quite possibly not the most effective way to impact causes.[1] To work more effectively at causes, more people contributing their ideas and perspectives are needed, and to widely spread altruism, those who are currently in need of aid will need to become secured enough so they can contribute to causes as well.


 

Impacting one can be impacting many

Similar to the concept of one person being able to make a greater impact by indirectly saving exponentially more people, our impact doesn’t have to stop at the people we (or our inventions) directly help. Say, for instance, we have helped out one person and this prompts that person to help another, and them to help another, and so on. In this way, we have made an exponentially broader impact than just the initial individual we helped through a sort of ripple effect. However, this type of long-term impact is something that is not accounted for in any unit of measurement I have come across so far. [2]


 

Psychological quality of life is vital

A person alive is not necessarily a person thriving or in any position to continue on the ripple effect of doing good. Or, on the other hand, helping someone in a way other than saving their life could have just as much of an impact. Decreasing DALYs is what seems to be the most common method to quantify positive impact; however, emotional, intellectual, financial, or social aspects are underrepresented in the DALYs equation. These factors are greatly impactful to quality of life and have the ability to transform the ability of individuals to become agents of positive impact themselves.

 

An example of a lacking intellectual quality of life could be a person who doesn't have access to the education they desire. They might have the drive to learn and do good in the world, but there are aspects of their life that prevent them from achieving their potential. These roadblocks might be rooted socially through discrimination (such as in women not being given equal access to education in some areas of the world) or due to financial difficulties. But whatever reason, although their life isn’t necessarily in danger (and their DALYs score has not been increased) they aren’t able to fulfill their dreams or potentially contribute to causes in the way that they could have. 

However, should this person have the structure of support and aid given to them, personalized in understanding their personal roadblocks and the ways to overcome them, then this individual could create a great positive impact in the future. But how are we supposed to know the roadblocks for every individual in need of aid to reach their potential? This is where the power of community comes in.
 

[Many of the issues that put people in the position of requiring aid—or in the position of not being able to prioritize altruism—are persistent due to systemic inequalities and do require larger changes in financial structures and governing policy. There are critiques that the EA movement neglects systemic change, and while the discussions around systemic change are important, it is not central to the point I have here.]


 

Community can enhance impact

A critique of the EA community is that it is often spreading western ideas of what actions are valued in doing good. While internationalization is occurring modernly, there are key cultural differences across groups that I believe are valuable in maintaining an individual’s sense of belonging. This concept of belonging is something that is supported in practice within the EA community, as they promote meeting other EA members and creating social circles around the movement. However, from what I’ve seen, these ideas don’t seem to translate into the charity aspect of the movement.

 

Communities are vital for the mental and emotional well-being of people. Renowned relationship expert Esther Perel is known for her theory that the absence of community can put a strain on intimate relationships in one’s life. With an absence of community, an individual cannot have feelings of belonging or abundance. And it is having that fulfillment that often leads people to think of spreading that abundance, especially if altruism is already a practice in their community. However, if someone isn’t happy and so focused inward on ways to fix that, how can they even have thoughts of giving happiness to another? With this lens, community becomes a foundational requirement for psychological altruism altogether. 
 

Additionally, when it comes to offering non-material aid, stepping into communities or cultures that you don’t belong to can be greatly ineffective. As in the experience of Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist in Zimbabwe, working with the community can often have a much greater impact than simply operating as professionals or official aid-givers. He created the organization the Friendship Bench, which is a community-driven way of helping individuals with mental health struggles by training elderly women in the community to guide individuals towards resources or simply listen and offer support in tackling problems themselves. Creating support systems within a community builds a sense of belonging that Perel has highlighted as important, and the same belief is reflected in what Chibanda says:

This work gave the grandmothers a profound sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, and this is why they do this work. It’s a win-win. They are not only reaching out and helping people but it’s helping them too.[3]

With these impact benefits in mind, it lends more weight to giving aid within your own community, rather than only giving in terms of where the most cost-effective material aid can be offered.[4] The concept of mutual aid in communities emphasizes giving what one can, whether that be financial or material support, and instills values of altruism in what is modernly (in many places) a very individualistic society. The impact of community is especially prominent in forms of aid that are immaterial, or that help with specific individual or group roadblocks. 

 

As a general thought, I believe that the EA community could benefit from shifting away from viewing people as either offering aid or accepting aid. Those denominations are fluid, and people currently in need of aid have just as much potential to be altruistic as you do.

 

 

How to improve the EA measurement of good doing?

EA organization Happier Lives Institute has begun the work on quantifying the level of happiness through subjective well-being (SWB). I greatly admire and support their ongoing efforts. 

Looking forward, what can be optimized and popularized is the use of these metrics in predicting the impact particular actions might have on an individual’s or group’s wellbeing. An additional step would also be incorporating the change in impact when participants share a sense of belonging through community, or the impact of community building as a whole.

Although I don’t know exactly how to quantify these aspects of indirect good-doing, my idea of impact ripple effects—and the potential to optimize them through community building—align with the efficient aspect of EA community values, so I believe it is a valuable avenue to explore further. 

 

I encourage readers to comment their thoughts or any further supporting or countering information on this topic below, I am always interested in hearing more perspectives.

  1. ^

    I would like to acknowledge that your stance on this may differ based on what direction you see humanity heading in ideally and your opinions on population ethics, Longtermism, and Person-affecting views. However, I would like to state that I'm not trying to discount saving lives here, only that I believe there is a wider range of options that fall under the "doing good" umbrella of improving quality of life.

  2. ^

    If anyone knows of work being done to quantify this, please let me know!

  3. ^

    The Science of Connection podcast episode from A Slight Change of Plans

  4. ^

    As a clarification, I think there are still circumstances where material aid is needed and valuable. However, I do not think that it is the most efficient method of aid for every situation, and unlike monetary-based aid, other types of community aid are not as finite and do not have the same fundamental limitations.

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