Self-sacrifice is a scarce resource

by mingyuan 4 min read28th Jun 20209 comments


“I just solved the trolley problem.... See, the trolley problem forces you to choose between two versions of letting other people die, but the actual solution is very simple. You sacrifice yourself.”

- The Good Place

High school: Naive morality

When I was a teenager, I had a very simple, naive view of morality. I thought that the right thing to do was to make others happy. I also had a naive view of how this was accomplished - I spent my time digging through trash cans to sort out the recyclables, picking up litter on the streets, reading the Communist Manifesto, going to protests, you know, high school kind of stuff. I also poured my heart into my dance group which was almost entirely comprised of disadvantaged students - mainly poor, developmentally disabled, or severely depressed, though we had all sorts. They were good people, for the most part, and I liked many of them simply as friends, but I probably also had some sort of intelligentsia savior complex going on with the amount of effort I put into that group.

The moment of reckoning for my naive morality came when I started dating a depressed, traumatized, and unbelievably pedantic boy with a superiority complex even bigger than his voice was loud. I didn’t like him. I think there was a time when I thought I loved him, but I always knew I didn’t like him. He was deeply unkind, and it was like there was nothing real inside of him. But my naive morality told me that dating him was the right thing to do, because he liked me, and because maybe if I gave enough of myself I could fix him, and then he would be kind to others like he was to me. Needless to say this did not work. I am much worse off for the choices I made at that time, with one effect being that I have trouble distinguishing between giving too much of myself and just giving basic human decency.

And even if it were true that pouring all of my love and goodness out for a broken person could make them whole again, what good would it be? There are millions of sad people in the world, and with that method I would only be able to save a few at most (or in reality, one, because of how badly pouring kindness into a black hole burns you out). If you really want to make people’s lives better, that is, if you really care about human flourishing, you can’t give your whole self to save one person. You only have one self to give.

Effective altruism, my early days

When I first moved to the Bay, right after college, I lived with five other people in what could perhaps practically but certainly not legally be called a four-bedroom apartment. Four of the others were my age, and three of us (including me) were vegan. The previous tenants had left behind a large box of oatmeal and a gallon of cinnamon, so that was most of what I ate, though I sometimes bought a jar of peanut butter to spice things up or mooched food off of our one adult housemate. I was pretty young and pretty new to EA and I didn’t think it was morally permissible to spend money, and many of my housemates seemed to think likewise. Crazy-burnout-guy work was basically the only thing we did - variously for CEA, CHAI, GiveWell, LessWrong, and an EA startup. My roommate would be gone when I woke up and not back from work yet when I fell asleep, and there was work happening at basically all hours. One time my roommate and I asked Habryka if he wanted to read Luke’s report on consciousness with us on Friday night and he told us he would be busy; when we asked with what he said he’d be working.

One day I met some Australian guys who had been there in the really early days of EA, who told us about eating out of the garbage (really!) and sleeping seven to a hallway or something ridiculous like that, so that they could donate fully 100% of their earnings to global poverty. And then I felt bad about myself, because even though I was vegan, living in a tenement, half-starving myself, and working for an EA org, I could have been doing more.

It was a long and complex process to get from there to where I am now, but suffice it to say I now realize that being miserable and half-starving is not an ideal way to set oneself up for any kind of productive work, world-saving or otherwise.

You can’t make a policy out of self-sacrifice

I want to circle back to the quote at the beginning of this post. (Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers for The Good Place). It’s supposed to be a touching moment, and in some ways it is, but it’s also frustrating. Whether or not self-sacrifice was correct in that situation misses the point; the problem is that self-sacrifice cannot be the answer to the trolley problem.

Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that me jumping in front of the trolley will stop it. So I do that, and boom, six lives saved. But if the trolley problem is a metaphor for any real-world problem, there are millions of trolleys hurtling down millions of tracks, and whether you jump in front of one of those trolleys yourself or not, millions of people are still going to die. You still need to come up with a policy-level answer for the problem, and the fact remains that the policy that will result in the fewest deaths is switching tracks to kill one person instead of five. You can’t jump in front of a million trolleys.

There may be times when self-sacrifice is the best of several bad options. Like, if you’re in a crashing airplane with Eliezer Yudkowsky and Scott Alexander (or substitute your morally important figures of choice) and there are only two parachutes, then sure, there’s probably a good argument to be made for letting them have the parachutes. But the point I want to make is, you can’t make a policy out of self-sacrifice. Because there’s only one of you, and there’s only so much of you that can be given, and it’s not nearly commensurate with the amount of ill in the world.


I am not attempting to argue that, in doing your best to do the right thing, you will never have to make decisions that are painful for you. I know many a person working on AI safety who, if the world were different, would have loved nothing more than to be a physicist. I’m glad for my work in the Bay, but I also regret not living nearer to my parents as they grow older. We all make sacrifices at the altar of opportunity cost, but that’s true for everyone, whether they’re trying to do the right thing or not.

The key thing is that those AI safety researchers are not making themselves miserable with their choices, and neither am I. We enjoy our work and our lives, even if there are other things we might have enjoyed that we’ve had to give up for various reasons. Choosing the path of least regret doesn’t mean you’ll have no regrets on the path you go down.

The difference, as I see it, is that the “self-sacrifices” I talked about earlier in the post made my life strictly worse. I would have been strictly better off if I hadn’t poured kindness into someone I hated, or if I hadn’t lived in a dark converted cafe with a nightmare shower and tried to subsist off of stale oatmeal with no salt.

You’ll most likely have to make sacrifices if you’re aiming at anything worthwhile, but be careful not to follow policies that deplete the core of yourself. You won’t be very good at achieving your goals if you’re burnt out, traumatized, or dead. Self-sacrifice is generally thought of as virtuous, in the colloquial sense of the word, but moralities that advocate it are unlikely to lead you where you want to go.

Self-sacrifice is a scarce resource.