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You Don’t Have to be a Moral Saint to be an Effective Altruist
A common objection to effective altruism is that it will completely consume your life. In his insightful post, “Notes on Effective Altruism,” Michael Nielsen shares this comment from a former EA: “My inner voice in early 2016 would automatically convert all money I spent (eg on dinner) to a fractional ‘death counter’ of lives in expectation I could have saved if I’d donated it to good charities. Most EAs I mentioned that to at the time were like ah yeah seems reasonable.”
But a commitment to effective altruism doesn’t require you to skip a nice dinner out. We can draw a distinction between the quantity of help you’re obligated to give and the quality of help you’re obligated to give. Very plausibly, the quantity of time and income that you should dedicate to effective altruism is less than 100%--you can spend a week and a paycheck on a vacation rather than malaria relief. However, effective altruists will insist that the quality of help you give should be as high as possible. If you donate 10% of your income to charity, make sure that the charity offers the most bang for your buck. (What follows is a version of the argument given by Theron Pummer in his terrific piece, “Whether and Where To Give.”)
To motivate this idea, imagine that you live in a tiny beach community surrounded by dangerous, sometimes deadly, waters. You probably shouldn’t spend 100% of your spare time serving as a lifeguard to ensure the safety of the community’s swimmers. Why not? Because the cost to you is unreasonably high. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy time with your family, read a book, or go to the movies.
Still, you should spend some time serving as a lifeguard—say, every other Saturday. That’s not an unreasonable demand. Now here’s the key point: when you’re serving as a lifeguard, it’s wrong to not provide the most help possible. Suppose that you hear two simultaneous calls for help. The first is from an Olympic-level swimmer who would simply like to be spared the effort of swimming to shore herself. The second is from a young child who is drowning. It would be wrong to help the Olympic-level swimmer instead of the drowning child. The cost to you of helping either is the same, so you have no excuse not to allocate your help to where it’s needed most.
Let’s apply this point to effective altruism more generally. You probably shouldn’t spend 100% of your time and income on altruistic projects. The cost to you is unreasonably high. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy time with your family, read a book, or go to the movies.
Still, you should devote some of your time and income to altruistic projects. The distinctive claim that an effective altruist can make here is that it’s wrong to not spend your “altruism budget” on the most effective forms of help. Donating $1,000 from your altruism budget to an opera house instead of to malaria relief is wrong. As in the lifeguard case, the cost to you of either form of help is the same, so you have no excuse not to allocate your help to where it’s needed most.
Nielsen wonders whether a move like this renders effective altruism indistinguishable “from the common pre-existing notion many people have, ‘live well, and try to do some good in the world.’” I don’t think it does. A six-figure earner does some good by volunteering at a soup kitchen. But the EA argument implies that they’re doing something wrong by not spending that time earning to give to life-saving charities. The view, then, is more like the following: live well and, insofar as you do good, do as much good as you possibly can.
Postscript: Am I really a utilitarian?
Bryan thinks that I’m not really a utilitarian (he means this as a compliment!) because no-exceptions utilitarianism implies crazy moral demands that no one, myself included, lives up to. For instance, I don’t donate all of my spare income to GiveWell’s Maximum Impact Fund. But the argument above illuminates how someone can be a utilitarian and still spend money on tickets to a Philadelphia Eagles game.
In her article “Moral Saints” (one of my all-time favorites), philosopher Susan Wolf argues that you can believe that utilitarianism (for example) is the correct moral theory while at the same time reject the notion that you must organize your entire life around the demands of utilitarianism. Morality matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Sometimes morality conflicts with other values and it needn’t always win. This conflict could arise because a morally perfect person—a moral saint—would have character traits that are incompatible with other valuable character traits. Larry David wouldn’t be as funny if he were a moral saint (according to this study, “people with high moral standards were less likely to make jokes or laugh at other people’s jokes”) and Michael Jordan wouldn’t have been the basketball GOAT if he was as nice as Mr. Rogers (I doubt Mr. Rogers would be so competitive that he’d punch Steve Kerr during practice). Or the conflict between morality and non-moral goods could arise because simply because time and money spent on malaria relief is time and money not spent on valuable non-moral projects like watching the Eagles and throwing snowballs at Santa Claus during halftime (we have our reasons).
Consider that we don’t think that non-moral goods should dominate our lives—this is simply an argument for treating morality the same way. Take physical fitness. I grant that Tom Brady’s diet and training regimen is better than mine. I’ve been known to eat a potato chip and skip a morning lifting session. Does this mean that I don’t really believe that Tom Brady’s diet and training regimen is athletically optimal? Not at all—it just means that there’s more to life than being in optimal athletic condition. I sincerely believe that eating a slice of cake on my birthday is nutritionally suboptimal, but it’s optimal for a life well lived on the whole. Tom Brady is a monomaniac and that works for him. But it doesn’t work for everyone.
Similarly, I think that the morally optimal life is one lived as a monomaniacal no-exceptions utilitarian. But there’s more to life than doing what’s morally optimal. Both Tom Brady and the moral saint will decline the crème brûlée, but that doesn’t mean you should. To borrow from Wolf, it’s not “always better to be morally better.” (I grant that this argument doesn’t fully address Bryan’s objections, but that’ll have to wait for another post.)