By John Yan
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“Reflect on the role of guilt in giving. Is guilt a good motivator for giving more and giving effectively? Are there other ways to feel motivated?”
At the end of Schindler’s List, the eponymous character has exchanged his life’s fortune to save the lives of 1,100 Jewish prisoners. He breaks down in this powerful scene, lamenting that his car, the jewelry on his person, and all the money he’d spent frivolously before could’ve been used to save even more lives. I think of this scene often. It’s undeniable that if you’re reasonably well off in a developed country, you can save a life for far less than the cost of your own, and that can weigh heavily on your conscience.
I once aspired to make my life an optimization to this problem. My ambition was to find exactly the right path: by accruing immense wealth and giving it away — or through some other ingenious solution and industry — I would put the biggest dent I could in the world’s problems. I aspired to live like an ascetic and literally work until I died, and I even disparaged myself for any laziness and mistakes I saw in myself along the way.
I have good friends who’ve similarly grappled with this impossible moral standard, to which any common set of base principles might converge. Likely none of us will attain it, and from a down-to-earth perspective, it doesn’t seem like a sensible way to live.
Last year, our EA chapter at Facebook got Peter Singer to give a talk. I don’t know a lot about his personal life, but I find reassurance in an offhand comment he made during that talk that he doesn’t “live a very basic life” in terms of his own comfort and happiness. In fact, all of my moral idols haven’t necessarily adopted a spartan standard of living. They clearly devote a significant part of their lives to the service of others, but they still allow themselves to enjoy the one life they have to live. And maybe that’s as good an answer as anyone can give to this conundrum.
I no longer singularly frame my life as an optimization problem measured by the moral value I produce. You don’t need self-flagellating beliefs to make yourself a better person. At the same time, this guilt was useful before I unanchored myself from it. It kept me living below my means, giving to those who need it more, and regularly striving to “do good better.” GiveWell estimates it costs between US$3,000 and US$5,000 to save a human life – a calculus harrowingly similar to the one Schindler had to confront. Such a reasonably attainable figure could rack you with guilt, and maybe it should, a little.
I try to reconcile my selfish and altruistic goals by modeling The Ethical Life like an exercise program. You can never attain “peak fitness,” where your body couldn’t be further improved, but you can aspire to it regularly. And the best strategy is to make fitness a part of your lifestyle. You hit the gym regularly. Maybe you hit it a little harder after a night out. But you don’t have to torture yourself, nor compare yourself to some benevolent saints of our time and develop some sort of morality-body-dysmorphia. The most important thing is that you renew your motivation regularly, keep accountable with your peers, and strive to be a bit better every day.
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