At this year’s CFAR Alumni Reunion, Leah Libresco hosted a series of short talks on Effective Altruism. She now has a post up on an issue Anna Salamon brought up, the disorienting nature of some EA ideas:
For some people, getting involved in effective altruism is morally disorienting — once you start translating the objects and purchases around you into bednets, should you really have any of them? Should you skip a gruel diet so you can keep your strength up, work as an I-banker, and “earn to give” — funneling your salary into good causes? Ruminating on these questions can lead to analysis paralysis — plus a hefty serving of guilt.
In the midst of our discussion, I came up with a speculative hypothesis about what might drive this kind of reaction to Effective Altruism. While people were sharing stories about their friends, some of their anxious behaviors and thoughts sounded akin to Catholic scrupulosity. One of the more exaggerated examples of scrupulosity is a Catholic who gets into the confessional, lists her sins, receives absolution, and then immediately gets back into line, worried that she did something wrong in her confession, and should now confess that error.
Both of these obviously bear some resemblance to anxiety/OCD, period, but I was interested in speculating a little about why. In Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, he lays out a kind of factor analysis of what drives people’s moral intuitions. In his research, some moral foundations (e.g. care/harm) are pretty common to everyone, but some (sanctity/degradation or “purity”) are more predictive in some groups than others.
My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a “purity” decision than other modes of thought people have used to date. You can be inoculated against moral culture shock by previous exposure to other purity-flavored kinds of reasoning (deontology, religion, etc), but, if not (and maybe if you’re also predisposed to anxiety), the sudden clarity about a bestmode of action, that is both very important, and very unlikely for you pull off everyday may trigger scrupulosity.
EAs sometimes seem to think of the merit of an action as a binary quality, where either it is obligatory because it has the “bestness” attribute and outweighs the opportunity cost, or it is forbidden because it doesn’t. You’re allowed to take care of yourself, and do the best known thing given imperfect information, but only if it’s “best.” This framing is exhausting and paralyzing because you’re never doing anything positively good, everything is either obligatory or forbidden.
It doesn’t have to be that way; we can distinguish between intrapersonal and interpersonal opportunity cost.
I’m not a public utility, I’m a person. If I help others in an inefficient way, or with less of my resources than I could have employed, then I’ve helped others. If last year I gave to a very efficient charity, but this year I switched to a less efficient charity, then I helped others last year, and helped others again this year. Those are things to celebrate.
But if I pressure or convince someone else to divert their giving from a more efficient to a less efficient charity, or support a cause that itself diverts resources from more efficient causes, then I have actually harmed others on net.