Should altruism be selfless?

byBitton4y22nd Mar 20158 comments


This is my blogging carnival submission for this month. The topic is: "selflessness".

Some moral philosophies emphasize consequences and outcomes at the expense of intentions. Other philosophies (including, I would say, common sense morality) place high value on good intentions even if those intentions happen to lead to bad outcomes.

I don't often see effective altruists talking much about intentions. Data from the recently published 2014 EA Survey suggests that roughly 75% of EAs are consequentialists. Common EA rhetoric focuses on doing the maximum good, choosing the best possible cause, or perhaps donating as much as you can.

But another common occurrence is for EAs to profess how much joy earning to give brings them, how fulfilling they find it, how little their donations disadvantage them because of the declining marginal utility of money, or about excited altruism more generally.

The Maximum Philanthropy effective altruist lifestyle doesn't seem to be coming from a place of Maximum Selflessness. In some situations, it even seems to come from a place of outright self-benefit. Presumably (obviously?), the decision to achieve self-benefit via earning to give is at least in some part motivated by altruism but EA is very open about the existence of other powerful motivators: the "warm glow" of philanthropy and the benefits that come from perceived selflessness.

Does this matter at all? What if I openly proclaimed that I was going to donate all my money for 100% selfish reasons? Should I be docked points? It seems that EA benefits from being viewed with a "consequentialist gaze" in that the philosophy generally attempts to achieve the best outcomes, although it is arguably no better than other popular viewpoints when it comes to intentions.

To what extent does/should selflessness matter for being an effective altruist?

Does anybody perceive any PR problems related to EA's closer relationship to Maximum Philanthropy than to Maximum Selflessness?