When Does Altruism Strengthen Altruism?

January 21st, 2024
Joey Savoie recently wrote that Altruism Sharpens Altruism:

I think many EAs have a unique view about how one altruistic action affects the next altruistic action, something like altruism is powerful in terms of its impact, and altruistic acts take time/energy/willpower; thus, it's better to conserve your resources for these topmost important altruistic actions (e.g., career choice) and not sweat it for the other actions.

However, I think this is a pretty simplified and incorrect model that leads to the wrong choices being taken. I wholeheartedly agree that certain actions constitute a huge % of your impact. In my case, I do expect my career/job (currently running Charity Entrepreneurship) will be more than 90% of my lifetime impact. But I have a different view on what this means for altruism outside of career choices. I think that being altruistic in other actions not only does not decrease my altruism on the big choices but actually galvanizes them and increases the odds of me making an altruistic choice on the choices that really matter.


How motivation works varies a lot between people, but I think both of these models have elements of truth and elements where they lead people in less helpful directions, mostly depending on their current situation.

An analogy: say you need to carry important heavy things. If you only rarely need to do this, then an approach of 'conserving' your strength by avoiding carrying anything but the most important things would work terribly: your strength grows as you use it. You'd do much better to often carry unimportant heavy things, growing stronger, so that when it's important you're in good shape.

On the other hand, if you're carrying important heavy things most of the day and are about as strong as you're going to get, carrying additional unimportant ones can cut into your ability to carry the important ones. And if you overload yourself you can get injured, possibly severely.

This is still a pretty simplified model, and we don't know that capacity for altruism functions analogously to muscle strength, but I do think it fits observations pretty well. Most of us probably know people who (or ourselves have):

  • Dove into altruism, picked up a bunch of new habits (ex: volunteering, donating blood, donating money, veganism, frugality, tutoring, composting, switching jobs, avoiding wasteful packaging, using a clothesline, adopting shelter animals, taking cold showers), and found these energizing and mutually reinforcing. While some of these are far more impactful than others, bundling some together can help build a new self-image as a more ethical and caring person. You can't practice altruistically switching jobs every day, but you can practice taking the bus.

  • Had an altruistic habit expand to take much more of their efforts than really made sense, or even became counterproductive. Like, much less effective at their normally-impactful work because they're unwilling to put money into prioritizing parental sleep, running into health issues around veganism, or exhausted by house drama while trying to save money living in groups.

  • Had altruistic habits that made sense in one situation stop making sense when their situation changed, by which point they were ingrained and hard to change. It's easier to be vegetarian in Delhi than Manila, and generally easier in urban areas than rural ones. Donating a lot makes less sense if you're altruistically-funded. Thriftiness or volunteering make less sense if they're keeping you from more valuable work.

  • Pushed themself too hard, and burned out.

On the other hand, just as there are far more opportunities for carrying heavy things than you could possibly take on, there are also far more opportunities for altruism. Someone who just says 'yes' to every altruistic opportunity that passes their way will rapidly become overloaded, and need to prioritize.

This model doesn't give much guidance for how to do that prioritization. If you don't model the growth of your altruistic muscles then it's relatively simple: do the things that help others the most for the least cost to yourself, at a sustainable level. This is also what, for me, feels consistent and self-reinforcing: to the extent I'm going to make sacrifices I want them to be worth it. Given how far additional funding can go, when I 'exercise' it's usually in thrift (ex: DIY projects or cooking things from scratch). And I find engaging with the effective altruism community and my biosecurity coworkers to be very motivating.

If this isn't the way your motivation works, though, then if you want to be more altruistic it's worth exploring what kinds of activities increase your drive to help others.

One worry I do have with this kind of motivation-building, however, is that it's rarely cause-neutral. If you volunteer in a poor country you're probably going to shift your altruism in the direction of prioritizing global poverty, regardless of whether that's what most needs doing. And the same with going vegan and animal welfare, or protesting AI capabilities work and AI risk. If you're already pretty sure this is where you want to focus this seems fine, just like how when you choose to work in a specific field you trade flexibility for greater impact, but if you're still exploring your options it may make sense to focus on more general altruistic exercise options like comparing donation options to make many small donations.

Humanity has a lot of experience on what works for getting physically stronger, but comparatively little on getting altruistically stronger. Seems worth digging into more!

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