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It's not fair to settle for "good"

July 30th, 2013
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Occasionally people will say things like:
  • "What matters is doing good things, and obsessing over exactly what charity is best isn't what altruism is about."
  • "These people are doing their best to help, and they're succeeding. How can you say they should be doing something 'more effective'?"
  • "You must really like maximizing and optimizing to focus so much on finding the best when there are so many ways to help people."
How can I be so arrogant and mean as to put down other people's ways of doing good?

It comes down to fairness. It's not fair to settle for helping one person when I could be helping one thousand. It's not fair to do something I find personally meaningful when that's not what most needs doing. Charity is about helping people, and it's unfair to the people we're trying to help to do anything other than our best.

There are lots of 'good things,' lots of ways to help others and make the world better. When I first started thinking about charity from the direction of effectiveness I was working as a programmer and donating to Oxfam America. Now I've switched to a different programming job where I can afford to give much more, and I've switched to donating to GiveWell's top charities and the Centre for Effective Altruism. What I was doing before was good, but I'm glad I didn't stop there. Both increasing my earnings and switching to more effective charities have dramatically increased the amount I'm helping others, and I got there by looking for the best options and not settling for "good".

This doesn't come naturally to me. In making choices for myself I'm much more of a satisficer, content to stop looking once I find something good enough. But it's not fair to other people for me to take that approach in altruism.

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