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In this paper, we argue that utilitarians who try to act on utilitarianism in the real world face many psychological obstacles, ranging from selfishness to moral biases to limits to epistemic and instrumental rationality. To overcome the most important of these obstacles, utilitarians need to cultivate a number of virtues. We argue that utilitarians should prioritize six virtues.

  • Moderate altruism - to set aside some of their resources for others.
  • Moral expansiveness - to care about distant beneficiaries.
  • Effectiveness-focus - to prioritize the most effective interventions.
  • Truth-seeking - to overcome epistemic biases to find those effective interventions.
  • Collaborativeness - to engage in fruitful collaboration with other utilitarians, as well as non-utilitarians.
  • Determination - to consistently act on utilitarian principles with persistence and deliberation

In addition, we argue that utilitarians should normally not engage in harm for the greater good, but should stick to common sense norms such as norms against lying and stealing. 

So in our view, real-world utilitarianism converges with common sense morality in some respects. Utilitarians should follow common sense norms and should not feel that they have to sacrifice almost all of their resources for others, in contrast to what it might seem at first glance.

But in other ways, real-world utilitarianism diverges from common sense morality. Because some opportunities to do good are so much more effective than others, utilitarians should cultivate virtues that allow them to take those opportunities, such as effectiveness-focus and moral expansiveness. Those virtues are not emphasized by common sense morality.

Some of our suggested virtues are commonly associated with utilitarianism. Moral expansiveness is maybe the clearest example. By contrast, virtues such as truth-seeking, collaborativeness, and determination do not tend to be associated with utilitarianism, and are not conceptually tied to it. But empirically, it just turns out that they are very important in order to maximize utilitarian impact in the real world.

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Great paper! Though I believe one particular value ought to be cultivated above all though it only gets a passing mention in the article.

Kindness (Agape love).

Summary: Practicing "uncalculated" "less-impactful" goodness in frequent, small ways, should prove very helpful in the practice of larger-scale impactful calculated goodness .

  • It is common and "easy" to practice/cultivate 
  • I posit that a greater level of kindness leads to much greater ease of overcoming the psychological obstacles to cultivating the listed utilitarian virtues. Conversely, someone unkind by nature will have a much harder time to cultivate them
  • The IMPACT of becoming kinder thus can affect all other areas, and therefore is likely to be a highly -effective- way of increasing global well-being.
  • Increased Kindness has a ripple effect not simply on ourselves and our ability to do more good, but on others as well in ways that are difficult to quantify. 
  • Kindness applied daily, by a large segment of the population (or even a small one, arguably, if they are otherwise effective), with minimal effort, could dramatically impact the world, in ways that a similar effort in any one of the other virtues are unlikely to approach.

Which leads to a counter-intuitive hypothesis: 

Kindness, cultivated in daily life, applied to causes that may appear/be less-effective, but that come to us/that we come across during the daily bustle, could actually have the greatest impact on the world. 

I expect there are diminishing returns, and only a (small?) portion of one's resources ought to be dedicated to the effort. Anecdotal evidence however (EDIT: Actually I believe there is research on the topic presented in 80 000 hours?) seems to indicate that at least the emotional energy resource level increases significantly through acts of kindness, providing additional returns on the investment. 



Practicing "uncalculated" "less-impactful" goodness in frequent, small ways, should prove very helpful in the practice of larger-scale impactful, calculated goodness.

Great! I broadly endorse the above virtues and can't say much on the object level. On meta-level, I am curious about how do you think about the impact of this paper. I have certain guesses:

  • The paper's conclusion says: "We hope that it should inspire a debate among philosophers and psychologists about what virtues utilitarians should prioritize the most." Is that it?
  • Or are you aiming at figuring out recommendations for EAs to follow (akin to CEA's Guiding principles and Lucius Caviola's talk Against naive effective altruism)?
  • Or maybe you want to re-associate utilitarianism with nice/warm virtues because it appears cold to some (like Bleeding Heart Libertarians was reframing libertarianism)?

Thanks for your comment. The comparison to Bleeding Heart Libertarians is good and instructive; thanks for that. Yes, one goal of our paper is to show that utilitarianism as practiced in the real world isn't about breaking rules and similar. Instead, when you actually apply utilitarianism, you need virtues that most people would feel positively about - like truth-seeking and collaboration. And yes, we do hope that that gives a different and more positive image of utilitarianism.

We also want to give recommendations to people who already believe in utilitarianism inside and outside the EA community, yes.

We are also at the early stages of an empirical project focused on getting a better psychological understanding of these virtues.

Interesting work, thanks for posting.

One very minor point:
I see that you use the term "Truth-seeking." I've heard this term used before in the extended community, and I generally like it, but my impression is that it's "primary" definition is particular to political situations. See:

Have you found any existing discussion here? Do you think it's fine for us to use the word in the way you do in this paper, in all settings, without this causing confusing?

Thanks, good question. I'm not quite sure how strongly the word "truth-seeking" is associated with this political usage (related to truth and reconciliation commissions, etc.). My intuition would have been that you can use it in the wider sense that we use it in here without risk of misunderstanding, but I haven't thought about it before and am open to input.

the way you used it seems a lot more normal to me than the political usage

Personally, I don't feel like I understand it's regular use much. My (brief) investigation has made me fairly confused on the matter.

If anyone else reading this feels like they have a better impression here, I'd be curious.

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