Response to “Universal Love is a Myth”

Honestly, what I’ve seen in the world hints that there is too much focus on the individual, the small group; that the things in the world that bring unhappiness – selfishness, greed, ignorance – come from the lack of care of others outside your “kith and kin”. When your child doesn’t have new shoes, can you remind them there are those less fortunate, those who have no shoes at all? Will that not strike in you (and hopefully your child, someday) perspective? With the ability to look outside your inner circles, you derive a contextualization that leads to a greater sense of love and personal contentedness and peace.

I understand your concern in the bare realities of a lack of, in my understanding, sheer emotional energy, to cry at every sad story on the news that day. I also understand your point that, when facing society-pressured expectations that we must give to every less-fortunate on the planet, it is frightfully overwhelming and objectively impossible. But keep in mind that not every Christmas commercial or charity-ad is asking us to give to every single organization we see – oftentimes they are asking us to give to only their circles – after all, who runs these charities? Oftentimes, it is the kith and kin of victims of domestic abuse, cancer, war-victims, refugees, etc. They are the kith and kin of someone. Universal love is not being able to cry at every one of their causes. People cannot physically give to every cause in the world, like you said, financially or emotionally. But we can also cultivate, not rebel against, the need of a basic sense of responsibility and respect to others who need help (even if charity ads may make you want to  rebel when they try every cheap trick in the book to tug on your heartstrings and make you cry). We may not know personally those groups in need but we recognize that they think like us, they feel fear like us, they feel sadness and pain like my own family. In fact, it is the love of family and friends that make us want to help outside circles.

In the grander scheme of things, I also want to point out an interesting fact – it seems in your claims that you are taking the “underdog role”, the defensive stance for a supposedly marginalized position that universal love is impossible in response to a “deeply engrained assumption of Western liberalism.” However, theoretically, your perspective comes from another strain of dominating Western thought – over-biological. In other words, overly concerned with science – with the chemicals and matter that makes up the human body.  Too often we get so wrapped up in atoms and molecules we find we cannot step back. This is a failure to see another side of things, another set of reasonings, a more holistic viewpoint. I think the holes some people saw in your argument was your inability to address this other viewpoint. Even the examples you used to “support the other side” – namely Rifkin and Singer – are limited in their ability to only see universal compassion and love with math and science, with overly-intellectual, “ivory tower” logic. Your real-world example to reject Rifkin’s point (the new shoes for your child) was incredibly limited in its scope – maybe because so was Rifkin’s? However, when it comes to love and compassion, these happen on such an individual basis, are so deeply embedded in the personal: personal thought, personal reasoning, and to your point, personal emotions. So much so that we cannot claim such a radical statement such as “Universal Love is a Myth”.

As a personal example – I love the Dalai Lama in a sense different from the way I love my mentors, my family, and my friends. Why? He isn’t a family member, I don’t know him personally. Maybe it’s more than my oxytocin and opioids and other brain chemicals that so easily slip off the tongue of a neurologist. I don’t love him with my head, but with… what? Maybe my heart? Is it too unthinkable to stop there? Do we really need to over-rationalize love or empathy or compassion?

It is not discovering the function of a new microscopic particle that has inspired phenomenal acts of selflessness and compassion in the past. I cannot cite a single neurologist that I adore with that un-graspable sense of loyalty, devotion or – for lack of a better word – love (sorry, neurologists!). It is spiritualists (Mother Theresa), idealists (Martin Luther King, Jr.), even politicians (only a few, anyways…) that I can name off-hand who have commanded that degree of influence on a great number of others, including myself. And it cannot be denied they have made the world a better place. This is why we can’t all think like lab technicians when it comes to universal love. We must see someone suffering, and know it is wrong. We can’t overly-emphasize the quest to mine the brain for its hidden secrets as to why some people do this and others don’t; and we can’t disvalue that feeling that makes us cry when we discover a cause that touches us and inspires a desire to help. In the end, I simply cannot agree with the statement that universal love is nothing but a myth.

Other People’s Even Better Thoughts:

Give and do what you can, where you are, with what you have. It is the best most of us can do. -Barbara (Reader’s Pick)

Care and empathy, he contends, are more like a muscle that needs to be exercised rather than limited resources… Compassion fatigue does exist, and emotion is key in giving, but it seems to me the argument here doesn’t recognize the need for Sandel’s sort of exercise and underplays the notion of big ideas. Individuals cannot right every wrong on earth, but if they transfer the emotion they feel towards their own tribe to the larger picture, if they treat those around them with respect, if they work for social justice, it all adds up. We are like the proverbial grains of sand on the beach. Sometimes there is real truth in proverbs and cliches like, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” In that respect, caring about universals can make us more caring of those around us. The grand idea cannot be realized if we neglect it in our smaller lives. Knowing our small actions contribute to the realization of a grander idea can make those actions more meaningful to us, more important, and perhaps, then, we are more likely to exercise good will towards all and avoid mere tribalism. -Elizabeth Fuller (Reader’s Pick)

The Dalai Lama, when asked about what religion he practiced, replied, “kindness”. That’s not a bad start. Lance (Reader’s Pick)

Meh…I guess I am not intellectual enough to go this deep. To me you have presented an all or nothing morality. Almost as if, to care you have to give to the point of deprivation. But you don’t. Here is an example; UNICEF asks for 15 dollars a month in a new ad they are running. For living in the west 15 dollars a month would deprive us of very little. What would happen if every single person living in the first world were to give 15 dollars a month to UNICEF, or Doctors Without Borders? (I stipulate that many can’t afford it, but I speak of most). There would be a sea change. And you don’t need to deprive your child of decent clothes to do so. You don’t need to love the dying children in other lands. You only need to know it is wrong to have too much and not give anything, nor even a thought, to the many who know the kind of deprivation that means a few short years on this earth, filled with misery, pain, sickness and starvation. And I think that’s a thought, not an emotion. – Catherine (reader’s pick)

Giving examples where unconditional love is absent is a far cry from showing that it does not exist. -Polymath (NYT pick)

…it isn’t impractical or utopian to adopt a wider circle of, if not friendship, at least peaceful cooperation. On the contrary, this has been forced on us by circumstances. Modern weapons have made war a loser’s game for all concerned. Modern challenges – particularly global warming – simply demand that we hang together or we will surely hang separately. -OD (NYT pick)


Persuasion 101: Jedi Mind Tricks

My thoughts: “Boss, on a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to give me a promotion?”               But still, his tricks were brilliant.

Final Project Preparation #5: Flaws in Effective Altruism Movement

<Effective Altruism has Five Serious Flaws> by Hank Pellissier

FLAW #2: EA’s Stance that “Earning High and Giving Big” is Morally Superior

A crudely seems to regard CASH DONATED as containing the highest moral value. The EA-promoted essay “To save the world, don’t get a job at a charity; go work on Wall Street” by William MacAskill says, “while researching ethical career(s)… I concluded that it’s in fact better to earn a lot of money and donate a good chunk of it…you’ll have made a much bigger difference.” Doing good deeds in your vocation, claims MacAskill, is probably inferior: “if you decide to work in the charity sector, you’re rather limited.”

His reasoning – supported by EA – proclaims it is ethically superior, for example, to take a $200,000 annual income job on Wall Street, and donate 50% to charity, than it is to, for example, teach High School Math in the inner city for $50,000 and donate $5,000 to charity. He’s wrong in this inhumane assessment, for two reasons:

1. The happiness of the individual funder is disregarded. Of course it is wonderful that the additional $95,000 gained is perhaps curing malaria, but its callous to suggest that everyone in the developed world is ethically required to to devote themselves to high-salaried occupations, that they might hate. The giver’s life and need for happiness also contains value. Mandating that developed-world people should labor for others in occupations that might make them miserable is self-righteous and unethical.

2. EA disregards the “human value” of an occupation. The math teacher is unable to donate $95,000 annually to charitable causes, but he is, every school day, conveying information on an important topic and serving as a role model and support for young adults. He is in a position to touch, change, and improve lives. Maybe he will inspire his students to quite drugs, leave gangs, go to college. Wall Street sharks aren’t doing that; they’re usually just helping the 1% maintain their privileged status. Is the math teacher’s contribution to helping humanity less than the Wall Streeter, as MacAskill asserts? No. I believe the math teacher’s contribution is greater.

FLAW #3: EA’s Too-High Consideration for Animal Rights

Yes, I’m an omnivore, and Yes, I’m a “Speciesist.” I’m a Humanitarian not an Animalitarian. My priority is helping humans first; I think its the ethical and sensible stance. I deplore factory farming but it is below human slavery and genocide on my list of concerns.

Singer/EA, not surprisingly, puts Animal Causes on the list of most-ethical concerns. Animal Rights NPOs even have their own evaluator.  I don’t support this position; I find it misguided. Hundreds of millions of dollars are already donated to beast-centric concerns that pamper orphan tigers, for example, so they can return to the wild and slay ungulates. I feel a wee bit of compassion for these creatures, but the vast majority of my empathy is reserved for homo sapiens who are hungry, diseased, and uneducated.

Truth is, I don’t think its ethical to donate thousands of dollars to furry-friendly organizations like Maddie’s Fund in San Francisco, where waiting-for-adoption felines recline on comfy furniture, licking their lips while watching song bird videos on their own television set. Meanwhile, right outside, homeless humans dig through dumpsters looking for slabs of cardboard to use as a mattress for the night.

Helping Humans First is central to my moral code. Singer elevates animals to a level that is unacceptable to me; this promotion detours money away from needy people. I find that crazy and shameful.

Final Project Preparation #4: The Harrison Fund


<I Wish My Son Was a Dog>

Man vs. Dog. Can I make a *better choice* next time I donate my happy beans? Is there such thing as a better choice? According to effective altruism model, there is. For example, a given sum of money does much more to reduce suffering and save lives if we use it to assist people living in extreme poverty in developing countries than it would if we gave it to most other charitable causes. But does it mean that I was NOT doing the “most good”, when I chose to donate my beans to a local animal charity? Would I be making a better choice, if I chose to donate my money to the Harrison fund and save Harrison from his rare disease because enough money is being given to animal charities, people starving in developing companies, or people struggling from cancer? (There’s another ad by the Harrison fund: “I wish my son had cancer.”) 

  • Let’s just say this out loud: Harrison’s Fund does not hate dogs. We don’t hate any animals. In fact, two kittens have just found a loving home at the Smith household (although, if I’m honest, I think Harrison likes them a bit more than I do). I recognise that our new ad is controversial, but we’re pretty confident that it won’t adversely affect donations to animals’ charities. The UK is a nation of animal lovers and that’s something to be proud of. It’s just that sometimes the distribution of charitable donations seems, well, a bit bizarre. Put it this way, The Dogs Trust, who do excellent work, raised £71 MILLION more than Harrison’s Fund in 2014 (Charity Awareness Monitor figures). But, it’s hard to draw direct comparisons so we did our own test, running two identical digital ads for a week, one featuring a picture of a dog we found on the Internet and one featuring Harrison. Irritatingly but unsurprisingly the dog ad was clicked on twice as much as the one featuring my beautiful son. And the tragedy is that medical research to develop a cure for Duchenne is the only hope our kids have. In short, we’re desperate.

Final Project Preparation #3: Effective Altruism=Extreme Utilitarian Logic?

<How Much Is Enough?> by Rose Rheingans-Yoo

How Much Is Enough?

Suppose you want to do a little good in your local community, so you pay a few hundred dollars to order sharp new uniforms for the local Little League team. New uniforms, you figure, will boost their self-esteem and lead others to think better of them, too!

A week later, you get a call from the coach. The team really appreciates your donation, she explains, and the uniforms were really great, but they had just received a donation of new jerseys the year before; what they really needed were new bats and balls to practice with—which they could have bought with a few hundred dollars. And as you hang up the phone, you ask yourself: “Have I done something wrong here?”

The team is not worse off than if you had made no donation at all, but they certainly could have been better off if you had taken the time to figure out what they needed most. Or maybe if you had done your research, you would have realized that the team across town doesn’t have any uniforms—or bats or balls—at all.

But: Have you done anything wrong?


“Effective altruism” is a social movement grounded in the idea that when we aim to do good, we should consider who needs our help most—and what sort of help they need. Most recently, Eric Posner of Slate has opined against this idea on the grounds that children living in other countries are almost always more needy than First-World Little-Leaguers, and “[d]onating to Little League [should] not make you a moral monster.” And while I agree with his quip, I think he has fundamentally misunderstood effective altruism, at least as it is practiced by the people I know.

Posner’s critique comes in two parts. First, he is pessimistic that any altruism can be effective, concluding, “The most good you can do may turn out to be—not much.” He cites several studies critical of aid and references a recent New York Times story about insecticide-treated bednets (intended to be hung over beds to deter malaria-carrying mosquitoes and often touted as one of the most cost-effective public-health interventions) being misused as fishing nets, poisoning lakes and rivers.

But these failures of aid highlight the importance of institutions like GiveWell, whose rigorous research avoids Posner’s pitfalls. Long before the Times broke their story about bednet misuse, GiveWell researchers investigated whether bednets were actually hung up properly 6, 15, and 24 months after distribution; in fact, one of the reasons GiveWell recommended the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) over other net distributors is that the AMF relies on in-person, unannounced checks, instead of self-reported surveys to gauge net use. (The AMF, through malaria-education programs and these unannounced checks, achieves proper-usage rates of 80 to 90 percent, with misuse rates half those of other net distributors.)

Posner makes further arguments about the efficacy of aid that certainly merit empirical discussion, but in many ways, the more interesting critique in his piece is the moral one. To quote:

Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball?

This, of course, was the point of the story I began with, in which a person chooses to remove garbage from the pond rather than save the child. If we think that person is a monster, then we should regard nearly everyone as monsters. All of us who donate money to Little League baseball, environmental causes, schools, universities, and art museums are moral monsters because we don’t use that money to provide live-saving health care to the poorest people in the world.

Posner disagrees and is convinced that this tendency toward scrupulosity is enough of an issue that we should abandon the concept of effectiveness in altruism entirely. His critique, though, is not a new one—several effective altruists are also concerned about scrupulosity, and many of them have shared stories from their own lives about balancing giving effectively against more personal cares. For me, these stories are important because they demonstrate that caring about effective opportunities to do good is not mutually exclusive with making the world better in other ways you choose.

First, Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of GiveWell, writes:

[S]uch people fundamentally misunderstand effective altruism … [T]hey 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…

[T]his doesn’t mean I’m willing to give up everything else I value and enjoy for effective altruism—I’m not. But when I’m engaged in altruism-oriented activities, I want to be fully engaged.

“There’s absolutely nothing unusual,” he writes in the same essay, “about caring a great deal about such an interest; giving up some tangible things … and using intellectual reasoning in pursuing [it].”

Kaj Sotala, writing on the Effective Altruism Forum, a community blog, also sees the central message of effective altruism as one of opportunity, not of obligation:

Growing up … the message I got from society was: one person just can’t do much. The problems in the world are huge and structural, and naive reformers will eventually just become disillusioned and burn out. We can try to make small efforts in our personal lives, but they’re tiny and won’t scale.

Effective altruism says that this doesn’t need to be true! Yes, some of the problems are huge and structural, but that doesn’t mean that individuals can’t have a big impact. The average person working in an ordinary job can potentially save several lives a year, just by donating a measly 10% of her income! That would already be amazing by itself.

A year ago, I volunteered to co-coach an afterschool robotics club in an inner-city Boston middle school. It was an enormously rewarding experience—but at times, I did find myself asking whether I was really going to have any lasting impact on those eight students’ lives. By contrast, when I decided to donate ten percent of my summer internship’s salary to GiveWell’s top recommended charities, I felt less of a warm glow, but was much more sure my choice had actually changed the lives of the people it touched. And that, it seemed, was closer to the real point of altruism—after all, was I in this to help other people, or to make myself feel good?

Is there something wrong with donating uniforms instead of balls to the Little League, since you are more likely to feel a swell of pride when you see them take the field wearing the gift you gave them?

Or, assuming you do have passions and connections in your local community, does effective altruism leave a way to balance the personal with the effective? Is there any time to, say, bake cookies for a friend, if that time could instead be spent in the office, earning money to donate to those in need? Are you morally monstrous for not abandonning your friends entirely for the more needy?

Leah Libresco, an effective altruist, blogger, and news writer for FiveThirtyEight, asks this very question, and explains where she finds her balance:

I also care about offering an icon of the world I want to build. On the day that malaria joins smallpox and rinderpest in the graveyard of eradicated diseases, I’ll be happy, but not satisfied. I want people to have freedom from disease and crippling poverty so they have more freedom to live with and for others. I want to put some, but not all of my resources to building up the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, but I want to reserve something to build up and live the kind of life I want people to have.

Elsewhere, Libresco says of her decision to donate to a friend’s medical fundraiser:

I gave to their fundraiser and then matched the donation with one to Against Malaria—GiveWell’s top ranked charity—so that the need of people I already know and care for can be a spur to give to people I don’t (and won’t) know personally.

And most effective altruists, whom Posner would stereotype as sacrificing everything in life to blindly maximize their ability to donate, turn the same philosophy of balance to life’s largest decisions as well. Julia Wise, an effective altruist blogger and social worker, describes her choice with her husband to have a child, even knowing that the expense would leave them less able to donate to the causes they support:

Immediately after we gave ourselves permission to be parents, I was excited about the future again… And I suspect that feeling of satisfaction with my own life lets me be more help to the world than I would have as a broken-down altruist.

So 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 [, as in the traditional Quaker saying,] “walk cheerfully over the world,” or at least do their damnedest.

Elsewhere, Wise explains how motherhood has given her new ways to think about caring for those whom she can help and strengthened her commitment to effective altruism.


Effective altruism, for Karnofsky, Solata, Libresco, Wise, and for me, is an opportunity and a question (I can help! How and where am I needed?), not an obligation and an ideology (You are a monster unless you help this way!), and it certainly does not demand that you sacrifice your own happiness to utilitarian ends. It doesn’t ask anyone to “give until it hurts”; an important piece of living to help others is setting aside enough money to live comfortably (and happily) first, and not feeling bad about living on that. Obviously, if you are aspiring to do good, you shouldn’t throw your money away thoughtlessly (since $10 saved can buy bednets to protect a family of four), but every effective altruist I know does set aside some piece of their personal budget for no other purpose than keeping themselves—and those around them—happy. And since giving money away is one of the best ways to buy happiness, then yes—that includes donating to the Little League!

Random Writing #1: After Halloween

Below is something I posted on my Naver blog, approximately 1 year ago. Even still, I get paranoid when surrounded by a bunch of party monsters. But as long as the party is fun, I don’t really mind getting paranoid. Last year’s party was not particularly fun, and here’s what I wrote regarding the event:

   It is Halloween and I am sweating. Everyone around me is laughing and talking. With pizza slices and soft drinks in their hands, students seem to enjoy the party. The first-graders talk to their seniors, exchange silly jokes and share common interests. In five minutes, they have become best friends. People mix, mingle and make memories. This is high school, and for me, sometimes, it is upsetting. After a long day of chatting with people in classes, going to club meetings and working in groups, I— as an introvert— am absolutely exhausted. I am ready to watch Sherlock and reflect on my day. An extrovert would probably want to go out to dinner with friends or talk on the phone, but that is not the way I work. I replenish my energy by spending time alone. I am alright with that, but society — and the extrovert-driven high school system — imply that I should not be.

Last year, I went to an English camp in California. All participants were in family units. Every end of the day, I was exhausted and I wanted nothing more than to return to my hotel room, get room service, and watch TV. I mentioned this to an another family group one time, that I did not want them to think I was being rude if I turned down a dinner invitation, that I just needed to recharge my brain for the next day. When I showed up the next morning, two participants approached me and asked to shake my hand. They wanted to thank me for giving them “permission” to go back to their rooms and not feel guilty about it. They noticed that I did not apologize or put a label on my behavior– it was just me. And they both described the “luxury” of an evening alone in their hotel room with just the TV and a good dinner. Isn’t it interesting that people feel they need permission to be themselves?

     Statistically, 75% of the population is extroverted. Extroversion is the norm and is encouraged by society, regardless of where you are born, your culture, religion etc. This attitude – that one is ‘normal’ only when one is extroverted – is common throughout the world. Introverts, on the other hand, are a minority. Statistics vary, but about 25% of the population are considered introverts. (Nancy Ancowitz, Psychology Today) A quiet person is asked why she is quiet as if she has a medical condition. An outgoing person is not asked why she is outgoing. It is only the quiet, introverted person who has to explain herself to everyone, justify her actions. In our current society, it is common to hear teachers and parents prodding young children to “come out of their shells”. We tend to forget the fact that some animals carry shells with them wherever they go, permanent shelters of sorts. Some humans are naturally inclined to be the same way, though such humans are often treated as having a personality defect. I understand some people think they are “helping” with “bringing me out of my shell” by asking questions like “Why are you so shy?”, but it just makes me feel as if others view me as flawed and broken. But the truth is, this is who I am and introverts do not need to come out of their shells unless they are willing to do so. Discrimination not introversion is what should be overcome.

     Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments. Psychologists categorize people into four quadrants of personality types: calm extroverts, anxious extroverts, calm introverts, and anxious introverts. In other words, you can be a shy extrovert, like Barbra Streisand, who has a larger-than-life personality and paralyzing stage fright; or a non-shy introvert, like Bill Gates, who by all accounts keeps to himself but is unfazed by the opinions of others.(Susan Cain, “The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking”) In my case, I am an introvert. But I am usually the leader of a group, or a host. But I am not talkative. But I like public speaking. But I do not like meeting strangers. These only seem like contradictions to those who go through a hard time understanding basic human psychology. 

I love ideas, I like people who love ideas, and for this reason I hate small talk. I hate it with a blinding passion. Small talk exists simply to cannibalize silence, and I cherish silence because it is the best environment for thinking. Nowadays, we seem to be under the simplistic impression that the “friendliest” people are the ones who say the most. If that is the case, I guess the best musician is the one who plays the loudest, and the greatest painter is the one who uses the most paint. Introverts might not enjoy parties, but that is not because they are afraid of them. It is because they are bored by them. They would rather take their drinks into another room and read something, or write something, or think about something. They are not hiding from human interaction, they are doing the thing that energizes them and brings them fulfillment.


All people are unique. Extroverts, however, seem to exhibit their uniqueness a bit more effectively than the introverts. The way modern societies are built, especially in the western world, benefit people who stand out in workplace, education, as well as in every social interaction. But introverts have complementary things to contribute just as extroverts, often better quality ideas and insights. Charles Darwin was an avowed introvert. Albert Einstein was an introvert. These men are two of the most influential scientists in history. They preferred to work alone. They spent long periods of time in silence. Mahatma Gandhi was a shy introvert. President John Quincy Adams was one of the few introverts ever to hold the office. President Barack Obama is another.(Arnie Kozak, “The Everything Guide to the Introvert Edge”)

I am not saying all introverts are towering geniuses — I am the living proof that it does not always work that way — but, still, introverted people might have beautiful intellectual gifts that do not include being naturally outgoing. Who cares? She would not make a great salesman, so what? Her personality is an asset in so many ways, even if the world says otherwise. The world does not know what it is talking about. The world does not know that it has been shaped and transformed by stereotypes. No, there is not anything defective about those quiet kids in class. But there might be something brilliant about them. They might be able to think and create incredible things in their quiet mind, inside that “shell,” up in that mysterious head of theirs.

     In conclusion, you may be an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in the wide middle ground. The point is this: If you are an introvert, don’t rush your questions or force small talk. Don’t try to become more outwardly confident or instantly decisive. Instead use what you know about yourself to advance a new kind of leadership, one based in observation, empathy, contemplation, and pioneering insight. Introverts might not light up the room, but they can change the world. *cheesiness overload* Yikes.

Final Project Preparation #2: The ‘Do-gooders’ and Effective Altruism

<Why Overly Altruistic People Makes Us Uncomfortable>

  • How often, in action movies, do we see the hero, with the supervillain finally at bay, forced to surrender his advantage after the bad guy reveals that he has the hero’s girlfriend or kid at his mercy? It makes no sense for the hero to drop his gun and put up his hands to prevent the villain from killing his wife on the spot, especially when the villain clearly intends to wipe out everyone who opposes him, or even the entire human race, once he’s regained the upper hand. But part of what makes a hero a hero is that he cannot bear to see someone he loves murdered as a result of his own actions. On the brink of saving the world, his personal feelings trump his nobility.

<The Surefire Formula for Doing Good?>

  • In the past few years, the “effective altruism” movement has entered the fray to help nascent do-gooders make this decision by ranking charities according to how much good they do, measured by “quality-adjusted life years” saved per dollar. Not surprisingly, the movement has proved particularly popular with those in the earn-more, give-more camp, whom MacFarquhar identifies as mostly “well-educated young, white men of technological background and rational disposition.”
  • Yet for many of us, effective altruism’s urge to assign a calcuable value to human life feels alien, and the scientific rationalism so beloved of tech-minded young, white men seems reductive at best. We are not rational, perhaps, when we prefer to donate to a cause in our neighborhood rather than to more urgent disaster relief overseas. But there’s a value in community that most of MacFarquhar’s do gooders seem, quite painfully, not to understand. Although many of them have partners, with whom they plunged at young ages into relationships dominated by debates about how to save the world, few are connected to a wider human group. They do not pursue political or collective solutions to the world’s ills, but are weighed down by an almost unbearable sense of individual responsibility. In several cases, despite MacFarquhar’s sympathetic storytelling, that individualism starts to sound a lot like narcissism. Of those profiled, a pastor, a nurse and a Buddhist priest come closest to doing the type of good that doesn’t merely save a life but tries to improve it, too, in its fullness. It’s a complicated business that does not fit easily into a utilitarian schema, but it’s what most of us know instictively to be true: Saving a life is just the beginning.

<The Logic of Effective Altruism>

<Forget Your Dreams and Follow the Money If You Want to Help the World>

  • In the book, MacAskill writes: “Taken literally, the idea of following your passion is terrible advice.” Partly he’s being practical. People tend to be passionate about sports, music and the arts, and there aren’t a lot of jobs there. More than that, though, MacAskill and his colleagues at 80,000 Hours – named for the number of hours people will spend at work during their lives – argue that passion does not lead to job satisfaction. That tends to depend on other elements, including the degree to which your job provides autonomy, variety and the opportunity to complete tasks, as well as how you get on with colleagues and the extent to which you’re good at what you do.  Most important, at least for effective altruists – those who define themselves as using reason to do the most good they can – is that passion won’t lead to impact. Nor, necessarily, will the most obvious career choices open to a socially-concerned college student or young graduate, like working for a nonprofit.

<Donating to A Little League Does Not Make You A Moral Monster>

  • Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball? This, of course, was the point of the story I began with, in which a person chooses to remove garbage from the pond rather than save the child. If we think that person is a monster, then we should regard nearly everyone as monsters. All of us who donate money to Little League baseball, environmental causes, schools, universities, and art museums are moral monsters because we don’t use that money to provide live-saving health care to the poorest people in the world.
  • The logic can be taken further. It might feel good to volunteer an hour a week in a soup kitchen, but if you can earn money during that hour, you should instead work and then donate your pay to starving people in drought-stricken Kenya. The starving people in Kenya benefit more from your money than the denizens of a First World soup kitchen benefit from your time. If you can, you should also find employment as an investment banker rather than as a schoolteacher or social worker. You can earn a lot as an investment banker, and send even more excess income to poor people in Bangladesh. Your earnings help those poor people more than teaching or social work does. Teaching or social work in the United States, even when it benefits poor children or families, does a lot less good than earnings from the investment bank position being sent to the world’s poorest people.