This version of the essay has been lightly edited. You can find the original here.
When people come to an effective altruism event for the first time, the conversation often turns to projects they’re pursuing or charities they donate to. They often have a sense of nervousness around this, a feeling that the harsh light of cost-effectiveness is about to be turned on everything they do. To be fair, this is a reasonable thing to be apprehensive about, because many youngish people in EA do in fact have this idea that everything in life should be governed by cost-effectiveness. I've been there.
Cost-effectiveness analysis is a very useful tool. I wish more people and institutions applied it to more problems. But like any tool, this tool will not be applicable to all parts of your life. Not everything you do is in the “effectiveness” bucket. I don't even know what that would look like.
I have lots of goals. I have a goal of improving the world. I have a goal of enjoying time with my children. I have a goal of being a good spouse. I have a goal of feeling connected in my friendships and community. Those are all fine goals, but they’re not the same. I have a rough plan for allocating time and money between them: Sunday morning is for making pancakes for my kids. Monday morning is for work. It doesn’t make sense to mix these activities, to spend time with my kids in a way that contributes to my work or to do my job in a way that my kids enjoy.
If I donate to my friend’s fundraiser for her sick uncle, I’m pursuing a goal. But it’s the goal of “support my friend and our friendship,” not my goal of “make the world as good as possible.” When I make a decision, it’s better if I’m clear about which goal I’m pursuing. I don’t have to beat myself up about this money not being used for optimizing the world — that was never the point of that donation. That money is coming from my "personal satisfaction" budget, along with money I use for things like getting coffee with friends.
I have another pot of money set aside for donating as effectively as I can. When I'm deciding what to do with that money, I turn on that bright light of cost-effectiveness and try to make as much progress as I can on the world’s problems. That involves looking at the research on different interventions and choosing what I think will do the most to bring humanity forward in our struggle against pointless suffering, illness, and death. The best cause I can find usually ends up being one that I didn’t previously have any personal connection to, and that doesn’t nicely connect with my personal life. And that’s fine, because personal meaning-making is not my goal here. I can look for personal meaning in the decision afterward, but that's not what drives the decision.
When you make a decision, be clear with yourself about which goals you’re pursuing. You don’t have to argue that your choice is the best way of improving the world if that isn’t actually the goal. It’s fine to support your local arts organization because their work gives you joy, because you want to be active in your community, or because they helped you and you want to reciprocate. If you also have a goal of improving the world as much as you can, decide how much time and money you want to allocate to that goal, and try to use those resources as effectively as you can.
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