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Excited vs. obligatory altruism

Excited altruism and obligatory altruism are two contrasting views about the reasons for engaging in effective altruism. According to obligatory altruism, we should act altruistically because this is what morality requires of us; failing to do so would be morally wrong. By contrast, excited altruism stresses that being able to make a significant difference in the life of others is an exciting opportunity. On this approach, emphasis is given to the fact that altruistic actions can have a large positive impact on others, as well as improving the altruist’s own life.

Holden Karnofsky offers a clear articulation of the excited altruist perspective:[1][2]

Critics of effective altruism worry that we’re trying to choose causes based on calculations about how to help the world as much as possible, rather than based on what causes excite us… I think such people fundamentally misunderstand effective altruism. I think they imagine that we have passions for particular causes, and are trying to submerge our passions in the service of rationality. That isn’t the case. Rather, effective altruism is what we are passionate about. We’re excited by the idea of making the most of our resources and helping others as much as possible.

Peter Singer,[3] perhaps the most prominent exponent of obligatory altruism, wonders what would Karnofsky do

if he were to wake up one morning and find he has a passion for working in a soup kitchen and little passion for his work at GiveWell. Would he go and work at the soup kitchen, even though he would do much more good if he continued to work at GiveWell? In response Holden said he found it difficult to engage with a hypothetical question that involved such a fundamental transformation, but added, “I would have a tough decision and would have a real chance of opting for the soup kitchen.” Why, though, is this even a tough decision? Why does Holden not say simply, “Yes, of course, then I would work at the soup kitchen”? Because, I suggest, reason is playing a role in his decision making, as it should.

Excited and obligatory altruism, however, need not be mutually exclusive: one may regard the prospect of improving the lives of others as both a moral obligation and an exciting opportunity. Nor are these two perspectives jointly exhaustive. Nate Soares rejects obligatory altruism because "guilt and shame are poor motivators, and that self-imposed obligations are often harmful", but he also rejects excited altruism because "Lives hang in the balance. The entire future hangs in the balance. To call this an 'exciting opportunity' rings false."[4]

Even if one thinks that there is ultimately a requirement to help others effectively, the motivation to act on this requirement may derive from a feeling of excitement more than from a sense of duty. Conversely, some effective altruists may find the sense of duty deeply motivating despite judging that there is ultimately no reason—besides personal inclination—to engage in acts of altruism; Brian Tomasik is one effective altruist who exemplifies this approach.

Data about the relative prevalence of excited and obligatory altruism in the effective altruism community is scarce. An informal Facebook poll (n = 68) from 2015 found that 57% of effective altruists viewed EA primarily as an obligation, whereas 43% viewed it primarily as an opportunity.[5]


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