Every dollar I spend on myself is a dollar that could go much farther if spent on other people. I can give someone else a year of healthy life for about $50 [1] and there's no way $50 can do anywhere near that much to help me. I could go through my life constantly weighing every purchase against the good it could do, but this would make me miserable. So how do I accept that other people need my money more without giving up on being happy myself?

For me the key is to make most choices donation neutral. As money comes in I divide it into "money to give to the most effective charity" and "money to spend as I wish". How to divide it is a hard and distressing choice, but it's one I only have to make once a year. Then when deciding to buy something (socks, rent, phone, instruments, food) I know it's money that isn't getting given away regardless, so I don't have to feel constantly guilty about making tradeoffs with people's lives.

Julia and I have been using this system since 2009. [2] It's mostly worked well, but it's needed some additions. The main issue is that declining to spend money on yourself isn't the only way to trade off benefits to other people against costs to yourself. For example you could decide to be vegan, donate a kidney, or cash out your vacation days and give away the money. For ones that generate money directly (cashing out vacation) the solution is simple: that money goes into the pool that can't be given away. For ones that don't generate money you would convert them into money via the good you think they do. Take the most effective charity you know about, figure out how much you would need to give to them in order to have the same positive effect, and then move that amount of money from donations to self-spending. For example, I might estimate that giving $100 to the AMF does about as much good as being vegan for a year, so if I decided to go ahead with being vegan I would decrease my annual donations by $100 and allocate another $100 to spend on myself.

I may or may not decide that having another $X to spend on myself is better than sacrifice Y, but whichever way I decide I'm working to make myself as happy as possible for a given amount of doing good. It's not a choice that has additional lives saved weighing on either side of it.

(This doesn't deal with a potentially important category: things that only make you somewhat unhappy. For example, working a higher paying job you like less, or pushing yourself to host more effective altruism meetups than you'd really like to. I don't see how to deal with this, but I don't think it's been a problem so far.)


[1] Specifically, I can donate to the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes anti-malarial nets. The main effect is averting deaths of children who will probably go on to live around 30 years once you take into account other things they might die from. This comes to about $75 per additional year of life. There are also many other people protected by the nets where it doesn't make the difference between life and death but helps them live healthier lives. That brings the $/DALY figure down to about $50.

[2] I also wrote about this approach in 2010 when it was much younger.

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Have you experimented with the approach of trying to use positive motivation on yourself to donate more instead of negative motivation? In other words, think of life like a computer game where the objective is to save as many lives as possible. You increase the rate at which your score grows by levelling up in your career and finding clever ways to subsist on less money, and you can periodically collect bonuses by hosting effective altruism meetups. You don't necessarily have to stress yourself out trying to eke out the very highest score possible... then the game would stop being fun, and besides, stress will make it harder to get the high score anyway (life is a marathon, not a sprint--and it's very complicated and full of potential shortcuts, so you're probably better off using your mental energy to look for shortcuts than risking being penny-wise and pound-foolish).

There are a lot of people who are trying to figure out what their purpose is and what they want to do with themselves. Making money is an interesting problem, and when it comes to doing good for the world, there aren't many careers whose direct effects compare with donating lots of money.

(These are just thoughts; it may be that your method of motivating yourself tends to be a more reliable way to produce donations in practice. But I do wonder if my method would work better for folks who have heard fungibility arguments and don't seem to take them seriously, at least in terms of framing all donations as points earned even if they donate a relatively small amount and only earn a small number of points.)

Rather than motivating yourself by guilt you could say something to yourself like:

"Because I have identified and donated to high impact charities I have significantly improved the lives of other people. This is something that almost nobody does, and it makes my life a force for good in the universe."

[-][anonymous]9y 8

For certain people, knowing they've done their good deed for the day can make them donate less later on.

[-][anonymous]9y 5

The solution I've found to utilitarian "donation woes" is to cognitive dissonance my way through not actually changing my behavior at all. Don't worry: it's easy, painless, inconsistent with your professed utility function and/or morals, and only makes you feel terrible about once a month. But other than that, it works great!

This strategy can also be used for not signing up for cryogenics even when you have sufficient resources to do so, not pursuing less "safe" goals that would probably make you happier, and generally slowly becoming a more bland and terrible person.

Yep, works great!

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The same approach can, of course, be extended to the problem of optimally allocating leisure time. For every hour you spend doing something fun, you could instead (depending on your abilities) earn to give, do high-impact research, or do advocacy for high-impact causes. The solution to this problem is to allow yourself, in advance, as many hours of leisure as you believe are necessary and sufficient to avoid burnout and other undesirable outcomes (undesirable from the perspective of doing the most good).

That's a good way to look at it. To some extent, though, dividing your time between "stuff I find fun" and "stuff that has a positive impact on the world" may be counterproductive; you can often find ways to spend your time that are equally fun and have some overall positive effect. Could be anything from playing Foldit instead of playing normal video games, to writing open-source software in your free time if you find that fun, to reading interesting nonfiction.

Doesn't mean that those are an optimal way to spend your time in order to do good, but if you can replace some of your 'leisure to avoid burnout' with 'leisure to avoid burnout and do good' without negative consequences, then that seems useful.

I could go through my life constantly weighing every purchase against the good it could do, but this would make me miserable.

You could be weighting less frequently (there is little value in reevaluating essentially the same decision too often), and it's not axiomatic that considering the decision would make one miserable. The tradeoff is real, so if at all possible (without sacrificing the correctness of decisions about it) one should learn to become comfortable with its existence. (I expect it isn't possible for some people, which is where workarounds become relevant.)

[-][anonymous]8y 2

Specifically, I can donate to the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes anti-malarial nets. The main effect is averting deaths of children who will probably go on to live around 30 years once you take into account other things they might die from. This comes to about $75 per additional year of life.

And those life-years have no other financial costs and benefits? Or does the labor market participation of these saved children exactly make up for that?

Also, does the death rate from malaria have no effect on the birth rate? E.g. replacement pregnancies?

It sounds like the decision most consistent with your stated values is to simply make yourself miserable. "Because otherwise I'd be a bit less happy" is an unsatisfactory response to why someone should die.

I think this is a troubling idea but am unaware of any very good response. It seems that, for the conventionalist, there is no such thing as supererogation. Obviously making yourself too unhappy will cause burnout, but I'm not sure that really addresses the core issue.

Obviously making yourself too unhappy will cause burnout, but I'm not sure that really addresses the core issue.

If you're burned out, how are you going to save people?

Yes, obveously you should avoid burning out, on instrumental grounds if nothing else. But it's plausible there is still a wide gulf between what we actually do, and what our values require of us, even after taking that into account. You don't need that many luxuries.

This applies to many altruists, but I don't think it applies to jkaufman. See here.

[-][anonymous]9y 7

You don't need that many luxuries.

Have you actually tried living in the US on as little as Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise while still making as much money as them, or are you just spewing out cached thoughts?

This also applies to (say) the choice of where to live. You can donate more if you earn $60,000 a year and spend $20,000 on yourself than if you earn $30,000 a year and spend $10,000 on yourself. In general, if spending $1 on yourself increases your earning potential by at least $2, you should do so even if you're completely selfless and the only thing you terminally value is how much money gets donated.

Personally, I use the old "tithe" heuristic, with half going to political causes and half to more conventional charity. I doubt it's optimized, but my financial situation is uncertain enough going forward that I don't want to go too crazy with donations - I'm accumulating a lot of savings instead, and those can always be donated later. But I want to work for myself first, mostly out of simple selfishness, but partially because that's the society that tends to do best at actually making people off, and I don't want to wreck that social norm.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

So how do I accept that other people need my money more without giving up on being happy myself?

The 1946 essay Economics in One Lesson talks about the rippling outcome of all economic choices. See also this zen story from antiquity. Finally, spoken somewhere between antiquity and 1946 is this true statement: "Ye have the poor always with you." Unhappiness over things you cannot control or influence is without profit.

Well yes but we're talking about unhappiness over things we can control and influence.

[-][anonymous]9y 5

“But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” -- what, they were already reading Overcoming Bias back then? :-)

So how do I accept that other people need my money more without giving up on being happy myself?

Personally, I've accepted the fact that I'm not perfectly altruistic...even though I might wish for strangers to be perfectly altruistic. Even if you are a utilitarian, that doesn't mean your "utility function" is utilitarian.

I might estimate that giving $100 to the AMF does about as much good as being vegan for a year, so if I decided to go ahead with being vegan I would decrease my annual donations by $100 and allocate another $100 to spend on myself

If you had a utility function (which you don't, really, since you are human) it wouldn't work this way. If Veganism generate positive utils, and $100 donations generate positive utils, you would do both, rather than one or the other...unless there was some weird interaction effect whereby donating $100 made veganism less satisfying or vice versa. I suppose technically guilt alleviation does create an interaction effect...but you created this interaction yourself, by mentally deciding that one good deed makes up for not doing another.

But my point is that if you take messy emotions like guilt out of the equation, "trading" one good deed for another doesn't really make sense. If you instead accept that you are selfish and disregard guilt, the thought process might look more like this:

1) I'm selfish and want resources for myself and my loved ones. However, I'm also altruistic, and there are diminishing returns to spending on myself - once I control at least X resources, it pleases me better to give all the rest of my money to these other people.

2) Eating meat pleases me, but killing animals displeases me more, therefore I will not eat meat.

The utility of each separate action is considered separately - without the confound of guilt atonement, there is no interaction between these two decisions.

Of course, there is no rule saying that you have to behave as if you didn't have emotions such as guilt...I just thought I'd point out how one might balance selfishness against altruism if guilt weren't a factor, since that knowledge might help to encourage altruism without guilt as a motivation.

EDIT: just realized we had this conversation before...oops...