An experience this week suggested to me that, far from alienating me from suffering closer to home, the ideas of Effective Altruism have an important interplay with the way I respond to those in need who I encounter in my everyday life.
Somebody somewhat-near-me* suffered an incredible tragedy this week, with the loss of a child who was only a few months old. Her boy suffered congenital heart disease. He had been lucky to be born in a country where his condition was recognised at birth, and where he could be treated by experts. He and his family were lucky to live in a country with universal health care, so that they were not forced to decide between open heart surgery for a child and the shelter or feeding of the rest of their family. But despite luck and expertise his life was cut very short.
It’s hard to comprehend the suffering of his parents. I can’t encompass it. The urge to ‘do something’ is swift and strong. After some thought I decided to do the only useful thing I could think of: since I don’t know them well enough to be a big emotional support, I prepared a few nourishing meals and a cake, and made a doorstop drop of food and beer.
I did this because I thought it would help them a tiny bit not to have to put a meal together, and because I hoped it would help them feel not alone. I did this because it helped me to feel that by rallying in someone’s distress I was helping hold back the sense of despair that confronted us in the wake of such a loss.
When I reflected today though, I realised that these same motivations are an important part of why I continue supporting charities like AMF and SCI. As Julia Wise writes, those other mothers love their babies just as hard. Those babies have the same enchanting smiles of promise that my baby flashes in the morning, and their deaths are just as awful as this boy's passing. And for a relatively small sum I can help - not just to take the edge off a day of grief for that other mother, but to keep her baby alive.
For me, it strengthens and fosters my compassion – my literal feeling with – families far away, to offer support and care to those who are physically close to me. There is no dissonance about it: the feelings come from the same place.
*We are in a large music group together, and also are both part of a small online parents group started by a mutual friend.
I imagine commenters will find it hard to know what to say, and this isn't the occasion for abstruse intellectual discussion about the importance of having local as well as global compassion. But I'm sure everyone will find it good to be reminded of the relationship between and importance of the two. Thank you for the post, and I hope it doesn't sound banal or insincere to say that my thoughts are with your friend.
Thanks for the kind thoughts.
I'm Not sure what if any discussion I was looking to prompt, but it does strike me that emphasis on things that can be codified and argued over probably means that fora like this don't encompass important aspects of EA, such as the forces that motivate many of us.
Yes the tendency to spend all our energy on ("abstruse"?) intellectual battles which I'm guilty of myself has other problems besides.
Beautiful post. Peter Singer has written that EAs use reason over empathy, but I think this post reminds us that while we deliberate with reason, we often need to motivate ourselves through empathy.
Thank you. For myself at least I don't see it as reason over empathy, but a reasoned response to what empathy prompts.
I would consider empathy to be my core motivator, and reason to be my vehicle for doing as much good as I can in line with my empathy.
Great post, thank you for sharing.
This reminds me, a friend of mine recently introduced me to "philanthrolocalism', which sometimes frames itself as opposed to the global poverty orientation of effective altruists.
After thinking about how to frame in utilitariany, consequentialisty terms as to why this idea might be correct, I realized that there is probably a comparative advantage in local giving. A clear example is when a parents care towards a child has more impact than an abstract government's entity's aid towards a child.
I think the advantage comes from two things:
1) Privileged Information Edge:
You probably don't know much about malaria net minutia, but you are certainly in the tippity-top 0.01% of well informed people concerning the troubles of your neighbor.
You are specially positioned to identify those key moments when 5 units of personalized, highly targeted effort from you might outweigh 500 units of blunt effort from an abstract entity. Perhaps those same 5 units might do more good in an absolute sense if you sent it overseas, but few other people's 5 units of effort would be more effective than yours within the local scenario. (As in, your $5 might buy 2000 utils globally and 1000 utils locally, but your $5 might be the only $5 which can buy the local utils so cheaply.)
(As an aside, I think this is why GiveDirectly and other forms of putting power directly in people's hands end up being on the EA radar. The place where this Privileged Information Edge is strongest is when you are helping your own self.)
A secondary consideration is that you can be more certain that you are doing good. As effective altruists we trust our meta-charity organizaitons to be as certain of this as possible, but historically, misguided and corrupt charity is a thing, and the reason it's a thing is because people are too detached from that which they are trying to help. I personally do trust the meta-charities so this isn't a factor for me, but it's worth raising.
2) Self-investment, strong communities, and reciprocal altruism.
If you give locally, there's a higher chance you'll later get a return on investment which is equal or greater to what you put in, kicking off a virtuous cycle. Just like it doesn't do any good for an individual to "burn out" and give everything to charity in such a way that they hinder their earning potential, a community should also not "burn out" and try to maintain these virtuous cycles within itself.
The church is a good example of this in action - it draws funds from a source that probably wouldn't go elsewhere in the absence of the church to perpetuate itself, and seems to give back to its members more than it takes, with additional good on the side.
We sometimes dismiss these considerations as "warm fuzzies", implying that they are primarily egocentric and focused on making us feel good. While donating to, say, surgeries for puppies or something would rightly be considered "warm fuzzies", helping your neighbor is much more than that. It's quite possible that no one could or would help them the way you did, and it's also very likely that your neighbor helps you back in kind...and if they do, you've essentially just done good for free, or possibly even for net personal profit. I'd say that's actually extremely effective altruism. (If you're trying to get the most good for your effort and opportunity cost, you really can't beat free.)
Ultimately, I'm still not a philanthro-localist. I'd still be one to strongly recommend prioritizing global poverty over local soup kitchens. However, if there are any charitable opportunities that one happens to be intimately connected to (or has the opportunity to become more intimately connected to), especially one that ignites virtuous cycles and reciprocation and pays dividends back to you in some way...especially given that it often costs you nothing in opportunity costs and possibly even helps you, I'd consider it to be a very effective form of altruism.
Which is a very long winded way to agree: If you consider yourself an effective altruist, then being extra-nice to your neighbor or family members or other near-people really is a part of that. It's not a separate category of thing: It's altruism, and it can be pretty effective. Just don't forget how to multiply!
Never underestimate the ripple effect of something as simple as a smile or a few kind words. Larger acts of personal kindness can be more powerful still.
I agree - we live our lives in communities, and we are often better placed to help people we know. (That's an excellent reason to make sure that any interventions acting far away are well backed up by data that measures what is important to the recipients, not to the donors or those intervening).