Finding it hard to retain my belief in altruism

by oriooctopus 10mo2nd Jan 20195 comments


Hey everybody,
Recently, I've found it hard to retain my belief in altruism. I'm really hoping that one of you has something to say that might turn me back, because I don't want to lose my belief in this wonderful thing.
Ever since I was very young, I've found a utilitarian style of thinking very natural. I've always wanted to maximize happiness. I also decided that other people's happiness ought to matter, and because in my thinking I'm very logical, I tried to roughly arbitrate how much more valuable my own happiness is than that of a strangers. This was the question that I thought of:
If you have to die to save x number of random Americans (or whatever nationality you happen to be) your age, what would the minimum number be?
I've asked this question to maybe 200 people over the years. It doesn't come up all the time, but every now and then I find it an interesting topic. About 80-90% of people will say an amount between 1-10, and the rest will say some very high number such as 10000000. My number was somewhere between 3-15 (I know a big range, but the question is kind of hard to really decide on anyways).
This definitely made me more passionate about altruism. If you really believe that your life is worth about a dozen lives, then you should dedicate your life to helping others. The reason being that there are so many ways to save/help far, far, far more people than that and still live a good life.
I'm only 20 right now, and although this was one of my core beliefs, it was for sure one of those 'easier said than done beliefs' and I knew that. I was always very worried that I would get reject this belief later on in life in favor of selfishness. This seems to be what's happening now.
Recently, I have really put this belief to the test. In short, I never went to college and am a self taught programmer, a pretty successful one. After reading 80,000 hours career guide, I realized that working in the field of artificial intelligence would be much, much, much more beneficial then working as a web developer and donating like 20-30k a year. So, I started studying for the SATs and applying for colleges.
This period went on for about 2 months. During this period, I was on an around the world backpacking trip, and paused it to do this work. Still, I was staying in a hostel, and so many people would go up to me and ask me why I was studying. I used this as an opportunity to have a discussion about effective altruism with them.
While having these discussions, I would ask the question mentioned above about dying to save x number of people. I realized though, that the answers I was now getting were much higher than before. This probably had to do with the fact that I was prefacing it with a discussion of effective altruism instead of discussing it afterwards. Something as small as that was radically changing the answers to this question, one which was a core belief of mine for altruism.
So, I dug deeper. This is where I had a truly depressing realization. Upon talking with people, it now seems to me that people don't intrinsically value the happiness of a stranger. That is, they'll do something because they follow their heart (as do I), but ultimately they're doing it to not feel bad, to feel good, or to help a loved one. Even though before they very often answered something between 1 and 10 to the question, the question is very flawed because it's too arbitrary. People were being more optimistic than realistic with their answers I think.
Because of the nature of belief, we find it very easy to belief what everybody else think and very hard to belief something that practically no one else thinks. The beliefs of others support ours, and when that support is gone, it's easy to find our own belief crumbling. After realizing that other people didn't intrinsically value the happiness of someone they didn't know, I questioned my own passion for helping strangers. Now, I have a hard time thinking of why I should value intrinsically the happiness of strangers, and so my logical belief for altruism has mostly gone away.
In my heart, I still care about helping others. I've always looked at effective altruism as being reached from two different paths. One, the logic that the approximate ratio for how important your life is vs others is not super super high, and that you can help a number of people much higher than whatever your ratio is through effective altruism (this is what I was talking about above). Two would be that your heart wants to help people and that effective altruism is a great way to do that. I view the first belief as a much stronger belief. Following your heart more often leads to selfishness for yourself than it does selflessness for a stranger. This is why so many people are not donating effectively and why so many people would choose careers that make them feel good about helping the world but don't actually help very much: these people aren't being altruistic out of logic, but out of emotion. Because the nature of emotion is selfish, they don't really have that much of a desire to care about how to maximize their help for people; caring in itself is enough to make them feel good, even if it helps 1% as much as they could otherwise. The heart will help strangers, but it rarely will it sacrifice a lot for strangers unless the decision is impulsive.
Even though my logical belief towards altruism (stemming from no longer valuing intrinsically the happiness of a stranger) is gone, my heart will always want to help those who really need help through effective altruism. I don't think that's good enough though and really hope somebody can reconvince me to belief logically in altruism instead of just emotionally. If this doesn't happen, I'll still donate 10-20% of my income to charity, but I won't want to make the big 10 year sacrifice of going to college, studying to get a PhD in machine learning, in order to finally work in artificial intelligence. I would actually enjoy working in artificial intelligence, but I would hate the 10 years of studying involved. This is really bad I think, because I could be helping far, far more people with this path, even though it would make me less happy. When I logically believed in altruism I was willing to do this, but now I just don't care enough.

Hopefully you were able to follow that, I'm sorry if the reasoning is a bit messy, it was a bit hard to explain over writing!