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Is laziness immoral?

by JacobPhilosophy1 min read28th Mar 20217 comments

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So I have just read Peter Singer's book "the life you can save", and I can't stop thinking about effective altruism as a moral obligation in everything that I do. Singer's drowning child analogy refers to money, but also time, as things that must be sacrificed in order to be moral. Greed and Gluttony I can manage, but Sloth? The pressure in knowing that I can't sit around and do f**k all - that I am a bad person for doing so - leads me to doing it more!

Some insight: I am 17, live in the UK, am anxious and struggling to get a part-time job due to the pandemic and college work, and my household's annual income is <£30,000. After reading TLYCS, I feel that I ought to get a job, otherwise I am wasting the privilege that I have, that puts me above those in developing countries who, at my age , have to work to earn pitiful amounts of money to survive: It would be wrong for me not to get a job so that I can donate.

How should I approach this effectively?

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4 Answers

Hi Jacob, this kind of stress is very relatable for a lot of us. Many of us handle it by thinking about our time and finances once a year, deciding how much is for effective charity and how much is for us, and then sticking with that for the rest of the year.

For example, I donate 10% of the money I make to charity, and I use weekends and evenings to relax. Some people have a different standard - for example, donating everything above what they need for a basic life and only taking one day a week fully for themselves. Ultimately it's up to you, but setting some limits for yourself can hopefully make these decisions less stressful for you!

One further thought: you're very young. It would be great if you could get a part time job and donate £1000 this year - you could make a huge difference for someone! - but it's probably better to spend this year setting yourself up for a good career later on. Doing well on your A-levels and getting into a good university or trade program, so that you can earn a good salary when you're in your 30s and 40s, will probably allow you to help others more overall than working part-time now.

I also thought you might be interested in this blog series which a lot of us have found useful, called Replacing Guilt: http://mindingourway.com/guilt/

Hi Jacob,

I think you might really enjoy and benefit from reading this blog by Julia Wise. While it's great that you have such a strong instinct to help people, we're in this game for the long haul, and you won't have a big impact by feeling terrible about yourself and feeling guilty if you don't make sacrifices.

In particular, it's very likely that focusing on doing well in college and then university is going to make a much bigger different to your lifetime impact than whether you can get a part-time job to donate right now.

It seems like the core issue here is that even though in a certain sense it would be good if any time you were sitting not doing anything, you were instead going off to improve the world in some way, in practice, endeavouring to do this would not be possible and/or would be counterproductive. For one thing, you need rest, so if you were to always (or just too often) try to do something productive rather than sitting around, you'd eventually fail/become less productive overall. More generally, it seems like, in the long run, you may well do more good by focusing on the highest important things (e.g. college work and your long-term career), rather than spending all available time now on direct impact.

Even more generally, it seems like the approach of worrying about whether, at each specific moment, you could be doing a higher priority thing, is stressing you out to a clearly counter-productive extent (i.e. you explicitly note that worrying about this is making you less likely to do anything productive). If so the best thing to do from a utilitarian perspective is not to try to calculate what the best thing to do in each given moment is and try to do it, but to take a more meta- approach of working out what kind of strategy will work to maximise the utility you produce in the long-run (see discussion of two-level utilitarianism). People face analogous issues in the context of deciding how to spend money rather than time: many aiming for a high level of frugality find that trying to work out for every small purchase whether it's utility-maximising (even allowing considerations like "If I don't buy myself an ice cream on this occasion, I will go mad with unhappiness in the long run, so I will buy the ice cream") is too stressful for them to maintain in the long run, so they establish a more fixed rule that they will donate X, and everything left over they can just spend however they like.

A couple of likely-imperfectly-organized thoughts:
I also have gone through relatively similar experiences where I felt like if I knew what was optimal, I felt like it was wrong for me to not do it. However, I want to really echo what some of the other people said in the answers by also saying that I came to recognize that as humans, we face an is-ought fallacy with our psychology/physiology: we can think "I shouldn't get tired of doing good, I ought to not get tired of self-sacrifice, etc." but we can't perfectly control our bodies'/brains' chemical and electrical processes: at some point, if you push yourself too hard physically or berate yourself too much psychologically/mentally, you will likely break/suffer under stress (which will undermine your ability to and/or likelihood of doing good in the long run). I can't tell you what the perfect balance is, and I know I struggle with overcoming my akrasia/I should be doing more in certain ways, but I also think that it's better to err on the side of "not mentally snapping". You can try to push your mental limits, but you also have to be seriously and truly honest with yourself in answering questions (not just at a single point in time) like "Will I actually be able to keep up this ascetic-altruistic lifestyle for the next few years?" Personally, I can -- and I try -- to do better, but I am confident that I can comfortably keep up the lifestyle and donation % I am planning for the coming years.

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Thanks for all the answers guys, this is encouraging and I especially appreciate the meta-utilitarian approach. How do you guys approach gift giving and recieving? The latter is easier to eliminate or reduce but the former may be at the sacrifice of family and friend's positive relationships. Thanks

I think gift giving and receiving are very positive and worth doing! It's good to make an effort to show you've been paying attention to what the people in your life enjoy and that you want to make them happy.

Yesterday I was gonna buy some vegan B&Js but I thought about how little I needed it and how fat I am and it made me sick to think that the fat man struggles NOT to have too much!