Finding a balance

by Aaron Gertler1 min read27th May 2020No comments


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We all have needs, and there are limits to how much we can do. 

Ignoring those limits doesn’t help anyone, and movements that don’t respect those limits rarely flourish. The EA movement likely won't live up to its potential unless it supports finding a balance between altruism and personal concerns.

Thus: We work, and we play. We worry about extreme poverty and the potential collapse of civilization; we also worry about our friends and family, our local volunteering, and our favorite sports teams. We find balance. 

And when the world’s problems seem too heavy to bear — too extreme to respond to in moderation — we support one another in maintaining that balance.

Perspectives on balance

Cheerfully (Julia Wise, 2013)

Test your boundaries, and see what changes you can make that will help others without costing you too dearly. But when you find something is making you bitter, stop. Effective altruism is not about driving yourself to a breakdown. We don't need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully through the world, or at least do their damnedest.

Both/And Philanthropy (Leah Libresco, 2015)

When I have the opportunity to do something for someone close to me (e.g. defraying a friend-of-a-friend’s medical costs, donating to a cause they favor, or sending flowers to someone I care about) I usually make a matching donation to one of the causes that [Will] MacAskill favors.

I don’t focus so much on the good my money can do that I let myself treat what I can do with my time and with my love as a rounding error. Instead, I let my empathy fuel two good deeds — one for the person I love, one for someone I won’t have the opportunity to meet and love.

Nobody is perfect; everything is commensurable (Scott Alexander, 2014)

Nobody is perfect. This gives us license not to be perfect either. Instead of aiming for an impossible goal, falling short, and not doing anything at all, we set an arbitrary but achievable goal designed to encourage the most people to do as much as possible. That goal is ten percent.

Everything is commensurable. This gives us license to determine exactly how we fulfill that ten percent goal. Some people are triggered and terrified by politics. Other people are too sick to volunteer. Still others are poor and cannot give very much money. But money is a constant reminder that everything goes into the same pot, and that you can fulfill obligations in multiple equivalent ways. Some people will not be able to give ten percent of their income without excessive misery, but I bet thinking about their contribution in terms of a fungible good will help them decide how much volunteering or activism they need to reach the equivalent.

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