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tl;dr: Deliberate consumption of media that trigger our emotions could help increase motivation to do good. Implementing it in a way that does not harm EA is important.

This is a rather ‘exploratory’ post. I am not convinced this is a good idea, though I might try it out in a limited way some time.

Emotions as motivation to do good

Effective Altruists are great at finding the motivation to do good through reason alone; emotions as a motivator are discussed less frequently.

The mark of a civilized human is the ability to look at a column of numbers, and weep. - Attribution unclear

is a great ideal. (I mean, who doesn’t want to be called civilized by approximately Bertrand Russel.) But I believe we can also usefully employ emotional content to motivate us to do good.

I will use the phrase 'charity porn' (in analogy to poverty porn) for such content, though I'm not sure it's the most fitting/appropriate term.

Charity porn (CP): media that vividly show suffering to be alleviated, well-being to be created, or the moral status to be recognized

CP tries to trigger a large emotional response in people (like empathy, compassion, guilt, shame, disgust, anger, outrage, love, recognition of moral status) to cause them to behave charitably.

Examples of our emotions helping to convince us of good actions are all around us. Fund-raisers for example spotlight individual fates instead of citing statistics. Graphic reports by holocaust survivors can deepen our commitment to fighting intolerance and authoritarianism. Drastic factory farming documentaries cause many people to become vegetarians or vegans.

I want to find out: Can we put our emotions in service of our reason to increase our motivation and commitment to doing good? Can we do this in an ethical way?

More concretely: Could we create a media product that helps us live by the values and convictions that we arrived at through rational thought? I am thinking, for example, of an app that shows us images of animal factory farming or of happy animals before we go shopping so we buy less meat.

Such a product would not aim to give an accurate emotional representation of the ethical structure of the world. Rather would it supply an additional push when trying to build new habits or follow through with a plan.

In this post don’t consider many of the details of how such a product would look. It would be important to find out which emotions are particularly effective and harmless to employ and how frequently and strongly they should be triggered. I assume that many of the answers will also be highly personal depending on each person’s goals and struggles in leading an ethical life.

Possible applications

The most obvious place for me to apply CP is in reducing animal suffering. Personally, I try to reduce my meat consumption, but I think I could increase my success if I looked at images/videos of factory farming before entering the supermarket. Another option is looking at happy animals and animals showing intelligent behavior and emotions. The last two links especially I would count as ‘moral status’ porn. Images like this could help us include animals back into our moral circle that they might have slipped out of during last weekend’s BBQ...

Content related to global poverty and health can be more dicey (see objections below), but by sourcing it carefully and selecting an appropriate medium it could be done in an ethical way in my opinion. One simple option is to deliberately consume the content that charities produce themselves, like personal stories.

Another cause area where CP could potentially be applied is existential risk/longtermism since the happiness created/suffering avoided can be quite abstract/distant in time. Making these things more tangible for people in an emotional sense could increase motivation to work hard on these issues or change habits detrimental to the climate for example. Possible contents could be depictions/descriptions of natural or human-made catastrophes like extreme weather events or nuclear bomb explosions. Fictional writings about a positive long-term future of humanity or dystopian futures like in Orwell’s 1984 could also be effective.

Objections to CP

(Most of these objections mainly apply to depictions of suffering.)

The following list of arguments against/limitations upon CP are condensed from various sources, charity and journalist ethics codes, political organizations, discussions with the EA Göttingen local group and some of my own ideas.

They are grouped in the categories: political harms, harm to depicted/described persons, harm to the cause area, harm to the person consuming the media, harm to EA.

Political harms.

CP could harm international relations, increase racism & xenophobia if depictions contain

  • archetypally colonial imagery
  • simplified view of the suffering person’s culture
  • simplification of circumstances
  • simple victimization of suffering persons
  • representation of suffering persons as incompetent, objects rather than subjects, etc.

Harm to depicted persons.

  • Violation of depicted person’s privacy & autonomy rights, dignity
  • Photographer’s/reporter’s involvement/motives can be questionable
  • Risk of exploiting the suffering people through trade of their imagery

Harm to cause area.

  • Can lead to worse help/solutions if depictions simplify the situation or represent it incorrectly.
  • Can cause push-back against the cause if potential givers feel resentment for being pressured/guilt-tripped into helping.
  • Can lead to charitable behavior that is less sustainable if motivation is largely due to short-term emotions, social pressure, guilt etc.

Harm to consuming persons.

  • Inundation with images of suffering could lead to jadedness, caring less, feeling overwhelmed or helpless. (Maybe downloading the suffering of the entire world onto your smartphone is not the best idea...)
  • “Gaming” of own emotions could have adverse psychological effects.

Harm to EA community

  • Use of CP in the EA community could be seen as sick and perverted by public. Could lead to accusations of
    • gaming of own emotions, psychopathy
    • either masochism (torturing oneself) or sadism (enjoying looking at suffering of others)
    • commodification of suffering, personal profit from other people’s suffering

Answers to objections

The ethical sourcing of the content (considering how it was created & by whom, privacy rights and dignity of depicted persons etc.) is crucial in making this practice acceptable.

Some of the other objections to the use of such material become void if one consumes the content privately only as opposed its use in mass marketing campaigns. Guilt-tripping oneself is okay. However, people who make the personal choice to adopt this practice need to consider negative effects it could have on their emotional well-being.

Which medium to use is also important if putting this into practice. Texts, especially fictional writings, carry less risk of violating people’s privacy rights or dignity. When using images, consent of the depicted persons is important to consider, but not a problem for depictions of animals in my opinion. The images should create realistic impressions of the situation to make sure that emotions are not getting in the way of the most effective ways to address the problem.

To protect against possible harms to EA's image marketing/presentation of such a product/practice needs to be carefully designed (maybe using the term 'porn' isn't the best idea in this context...).

Questions for the comments

Would you consider using such a product? Under what conditions?

Do you have other arguments/considerations against CP that I have missed?

Do you have other ideas for cause areas where it could be applied?

What contents specifically could be used to minimize the harms?

Looking forward to a fruitful discussion. :)

Thanks to the backfeeders from the Effective Altruism Editing and Review facebook group and the EA local group Göttingen!





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When I was 18 I watched a lot of videos of animal suffering, eg linked from Brian Tomasik's list of distressing videos of suffering (extremely obvious content warning: extreme suffering).  I am not sure whether I'd recommend this to others.

As a result, I felt a lot of hatred for people who were knowingly complicit in causing extreme animal suffering, which was basically everyone I knew. At the time I lived in a catered college university, where every day I'd see people around me eating animal products; I felt deeply alienated and angry and hateful.

This was good in some ways. I think it's plausibly healthy to feel a lot of hatred for society. I think that this caused me to care even less about what people thought of me, which made it easier for me to do various weird things like dropping out of university (temporarily) and moving to America.

I told a lot of people to their faces that I thought they were contemptible. I don't feel like I'm in the wrong for saying this, but this probably didn't lead to me making many more friends than I otherwise would have. And on one occasion I was very cruel to someone who didn't deserve it; I felt more bad about this than about basically anything else I'd done in my life.

I don't know whether I'd recommend this to other people. Probably some people should feel more alienated and others should feel less alienated.

I watched those videos you linked. I don't judge you for feeling that way. 

Did you convert anyone to veganism? If people did get converted, maybe there were even more effective ways to do so. Or maybe anger was the most effective way; I don't know. But if not, your own subjective experience was worse (by feeling contempt), other people felt worse, and fewer animals were helped. Anger might be justified but, assuming there was some better way to convert people, you'd be unintentionally prioritizing emotions ahead of helping the animals. 

Another thing to keep in mind: When we train particular physical actions, we get better at repeating that action. Athletes sometimes repeat complex, trained actions before they have any time to consciously decide to act. I assume the same thing happens with our emotions: If we feel a particular way repeatedly, we're more likely to feel that way in future, maybe even when it's not warranted.

We can be motivated to do something good for the world in lots of different ways. Helping people by solving problems gives my life meaning and I enjoy doing it. No negative emotions needed.

I don't think the focus here should be only on suffering. Sometimes, I seek out art/media that depicts human flourishing, out of a desire to increase my altruistic motivation by reminding myself just what it is that we're working to protect + create.

Obviously a ton of art/media contains "people being happy," but when I'm looking for this, I look specifically for depictions of people who are very different from each other and from me, that show these people as being unique and weird and not at all how you thought they would be. Good examples are the tv show High Maintenance and the documentary In Jackson Heights. It's a certain aesthetic that increases my altruistic motivation because it reminds me, by showing me more of it than I normally see, of what a vast expanse human experience really is.

(For animals, it's more socially acceptable to just watch them intently for long periods of time.)

The novel "A Thousand Splendid Suns" was an example of this for me - depicting how people could have meaningful lives and happiness despite terrible circumstances, which I found really unintuitive beforehand. (I'm wary of generalizing from fictional evidence but it seems not totally crazy to treat this as a window on what other people can at least imagine experiencing.)

This is a tricky subject, because people who would be willing to use this kind of content on themselves are probably people who already have a lot of good EA habits (though maybe said content could help with general motivation).

More interesting to me is content that can help get people over the line of starting to have good charitable habits in the first place. Which video about veganism or effective giving is really most convincing? Is it better to start with the Drowning Child argument, or something less abstract?

Personally, the most motivating content experiences I can remember from my pre-EA days were:

a) Watching Life in a Day, the YouTube-produced documentary about how people live out a day all around the world. Gave me a deep appreciation for my place in the human species in a way no other piece of media has equaled.

b) Reading a critical report on a charity I had supported and realizing that I hadn't really thought carefully about their work; hence, my money had gone to waste (and worse, I'd solicited money from relatives that had also likely gone to waste). This experience is part of why I paid such careful attention to GiveWell when I first heard about it.

Yea, I think so too. If you have the motivation to look at a video of factory farming before entering the supermarket every time, you likely also have the motivation to just buy what you really want to buy anyway. So it would be more effective if the content is presented automatically through smartphone notifications, background images on your laptop, printed out versions around your house, etc. In any case, it could be the critical extra push for some people.

Figuring out how best/most convincingly to convey the basic EA arguments around expansion of our moral circle, realities of income distributions around the globe, disparities in effectiveness among charities etc, is also an important topic. Doing Good Better as a whole did a great job for me.

I think that this is a very important, and under-thought-about-in-EA, topic. Visual images have *huge* power, and are proven to be able to mobilise participation and money at scale. For example, their use in charity fundraising. Visual images and video footage seem to have been important in igniting the recent BLM movement in the US. The concept of moral shock has been discussed as a potent driver of participation in social movements.

I suppose one risk is that reliance of visual images might bias us towards beings with whom we have greater gut empathy - eg humans, cute/charismatic animals, etc.

I feel like there is a lot more to be said about this broad topic, and potentially a lot more that the EA community could consider doing in terms of optimising the use of visual images in support of its objectives. Thank you for kicking-off a discussion on it.

I thought this recent Netflix documentary which talks a lot about Bill Gates' charity work was fairly inspiring (and informative). I haven't tried watching videos of suffering... I doubt it would be very motivating for the sort of study/brainstorm/write EA work I most want myself to do.

I like the idea of coming up with some kind of practice to retrain yourself to be more altruistic. There should be some version of that idea that works, and maybe exposing yourself to stories / imagery / etc. about people / animals who can be helped would be part of that.

One possibility is that such images could become naturally compelling for people (and thus would tend to be addictive or obsession-producing, because of their awful compellingness) -- for such people, this practice is probably bad, sometimes (often?) a net bad. But for other people, the images would lose their natural compellingness, and would have to be consumed deliberately.

In our culture we don't train ourselves to deliberately meditate on things, so it feels "culturally unrealistic", like something you can't expect of yourself and the people around you. (Or perhaps some subtle interplay of environmental influences on how we develop as "processors of reality" when we're growing up is to blame.) I feel like that part of me is more or less irrevocably closed over (maybe not an accurate sentiment, but a strong one). But in other cultures (not so much in the contemporary West), deliberate meditation was / is a thing. For instance people used to (maybe still do) meditate on the death of Jesus to motivate their love of God.

OK, this person on the EA subreddit uses a kind of meditation to reduce irrational/ineffective guilt.

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