Peter Singer’s message is a powerful one. So powerful, in fact, that it makes many people feel that there is no limit to what they should give, and this can either turn them off of the whole idea completely or leave them with a constant feeling of guilt no matter how much they are giving. If this problem sounds familiar to you, let me tell you how I dealt with it.
Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good
In early 2010, I contacted Peter for the first time:
How do you stop the high demands of morality from driving you crazy? […] I want to be a moral philosopher and give lots of money to help alleviate poverty […] but I'm finding it near impossible to make any decisions at the moment because I'm always worried that there's a more moral choice that I could make.
To my surprise, this busy man found the time to send me a response that day:
I know the problem, but after all, if you get paralyzed by the desire to make the very best decision, then you aren't going to do the most good. So sometimes, even for a utilitarian, the right strategy is to settle for something that you know is a good decision - and which may, for all you know, be the best decision.
In other words, there is a cost to trying to do what is always the best thing to do, and so maybe you shouldn't always try so hard to get it exactly right.
Toby Ord tells a story of how, when he first started donating large amounts to charity, he would stand in a supermarket aisle, paralyzed by the decision of which cereal to buy: that one is much tastier but the other is cheaper…if I don’t buy the cheaper option then I’ll have slightly less money to give away…but I really like that tasty cereal… Toby quickly realized that wasting time and energy over such tiny decisions was not the most effective way to help the poor in the long run, and so he decided to simply set himself a budget at the beginning of each year and give everything above that budget to charity.
I already knew that this all made sense – that feeling guilty about every decision was only going to be counterproductive on balance. But I couldn’t help feeling like it was a cop-out – how convenient that I have to be stable and happy myself first if I want to do the most good! However, hearing other people like Peter and Toby assure me that I shouldn’t worry so much, and getting to know others who put on their own oxygen mask before everyone else’s (so to speak) and were more effective for it, was a huge help to me in overcoming that persistent feeling of guilt that I was not doing enough.
I think it is useful to treat charitable giving and effective altruism in general as a kind of game. You face challenges (“My New Year’s Resolution is to stick to Meatless Mondays for a whole year.”). Sometimes you lose, and you feel a bit disappointed about that, but there’s always the opportunity to start that level again (“I had to give in and have a burger today…so close! That’s a shame, but never mind, let’s start again.”). Sometimes you do win, and you congratulate yourself, but then there is another level to complete (“I did Meatless Mondays for an entire year, woooo, go Holly! Right, what next? Vegan Mondays? Meatless Weekdays?”). In this way, you constantly nudge yourself to do more, but never drown in guilt when you don’t meet one of your challenges.
Some people are taking this sort of idea really seriously. A Path That’s Clear encourages people to participate in “Giving Games”, where you collectively get to choose where a real pot of money is donated by examining the effectiveness of different charities. Jane McGonigal has spoken about how we can harness the appeal of gaming to create a better world via prosocial games (we list some such games in our online resources). And we are planning to introduce visually engaging ways to set yourself challenges and track your progress using your personal log-ins to the website.
I know someone who once ranked second in North America for Warcraft III. This expert gamer is also somewhat an “expert” effective altruist. I often wonder if that’s pure coincidence!
Is there no space for guilt in the life of an effective altruist then?
I think that there is in two ways. Firstly, guilt can play an important role in our personal lives. I only know one person for whom effective altruism permeates every single aspect of his life. Good on him, but for the rest of us, I think that is an unrealistic goal, and perhaps even an undesirable one. In addition to my big life project of effective altruism, I have a personal life, full of personal relationships. Some of my poor handling of personal relationships results in my feeling guilty, sometimes very guilty, and I think that this is a good thing for the most part. In a sense, I feel like I owe it to the people I’ve wronged to feel guilty – that’s part of what it is to have a personal relationship with someone.
Secondly, guilt is useful for getting you to start playing the effective altruism game in the first place and for getting you back into the game if you start losing interest. For example, if ever I find myself drifting, I give myself a kick up the backside by watching videos of suffering (poverty, factory farming etc.). And I think that guilt-tripping can have a valuable role to play in involving new people in the effective altruism movement, so long as it is coupled with rational argument. We shouldn’t motivate people with guilt alone, but often rational argument is not sufficient to get people to bother to do what they know they ought to do…in such cases, pulling on heart-strings is warranted! In this way, effective altruism overcomes that age-old struggle between heart and head: we need both.
It takes guts to ration your guilt - to overcome the worry that some people will think that because you’re not beating yourself up about all the extra things you could be doing but aren’t, you can’t really be a good person. Similarly, it takes guts to make a public pledge – to overcome the worry that some people will think that because you’re telling everyone how much you’re giving, you can’t really be a good person. But ultimately, rationing your guilt and making a public pledge are probably going to make the world a better place. People living in extreme poverty don’t care if you end up helping them more by feeling less guilty or by shouting about your giving from the rooftops – they just want you to help them as much as possible!
Holly Morgan is Co-Executive Director of The Life You Can Save.
Notify me of followup comments via e-mail
The Life You Can Save is a movement of people fighting extreme poverty. We hold that an ethical life involves using some of our wealth and resources to save and improve the lives of those less fortunate than us.
Multiply your impact! Every dollar you give to The Life You Can Save will translate into at least $4 delivered straight to the world's most effective charities.
To avoid processing fees, you can donate by check payable to The Life You Can Save at:
The Life You Can Save
c/o Charlie Bresler
10540 NE Morning Lane
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110