Most of us want to make the world a better place. But what should we do if we want to generate the most positive impact possible? It’s definitely not an easy problem. Lots of smart, talented people with the best of intentions have tried to end war, eliminate poverty, cure disease, stop hunger, prevent animal suffering, and save the environment. As you may have noticed, we’re still working on all of those. So the track record of people trying to permanently solve the world's biggest problems isn’t that spectacular. This isn’t just a “look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here next year”-kind of thing, this is more like “behold the trail of dead and dying who line the path before you, and despair”. So how can you make your attempt to save the world turn out significantly better than the generations of others who've tried this already?
It turns out there actually are a number of things we can do to substantially increase our odds of doing the most good. Here's a brief summary of some on the most crucial considerations that one needs to take into account when soberly approaching the task of doing the most good possible (aka "saving the world").
1. Patch your moral intuition (with math!) - Human moral intuition is really useful. But it tends to fail us at precisely the wrong times -- like when a problem gets too big [“millions of people dying? *yawn*”] or when it involves uncertainty [“you can only save 60% of them? call me when you can save everyone!”]. Unfortunately, these happen to be the defining characteristics of the world’s most difficult problems. Think about it. If your standard moral intuition were enough to confront the world’s biggest challenges, they wouldn’t be the world’s biggest challenges anymore... they’d be “those problems we solved already cause they were natural for us to understand”. If you’re trying to do things that have never been done before, use all the tools available to you. That means setting aside your emotional numbness by using math to feel what your moral intuition can’t. You can also do better by acquainting yourself with some of the more common human biases. It turns out your brain isn't always right. Yes, even your brain. So knowing the ways in which it systematically gets things wrong is a good way to avoid making the most obvious errors when setting out to help save the world.
2. Identify a cause with lots of leverage - It’s noble to try and save the world, but it’s ineffective and unrealistic to try and do it all on your own. So let’s start out by joining forces with an established organization who’s already working on what you care about. Seriously, unless you’re already ridiculously rich + brilliant or ludicrously influential, going solo or further fragmenting the philanthropic world by creating US-Charity#1,238,202 is almost certainly a mistake. Now that we’re all working together here, let's keep in mind that only a few charitable organizations are truly great investments -- and the vast majority just aren’t. So maximize your leverage by investing your time and money into supporting the best non-profits with the largest expected pay-offs.
3. Don’t confuse what “feels good” with what actually helps the most - Wanna know something that feels good? I fund micro-loans on Kiva. It’s a ridiculously cheap way to feel good about helping people. It totally plays into this romantic story I have in my mind about helping business owners help themselves. And there’s lots of shiny pictures of people I can identify with. But does loaning $25 to someone on the other side of the planet really make the biggest impact possible? Definitely not. So I fund a few Kiva loans a month because it fulfills a deep-seated psychological need of mine -- a need that doesn’t go away by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist. But once that’s out of the way, I devote the vast majority of my time and resources to contributing to other non-profits with staggeringly higher pay-offs.
4. Don’t be a “cause snob” - This one's tough. The more you begin to care about a cause, the more difficult it becomes not to be self-righteous about it. The problem doesn’t go away just because you really do have a great cause... it only gets worse. Resist the temptation to kick dirt in the faces of others who are doing something different. There are always other ways to help no matter what philanthropic cause you're involved with. And everyone starts out somewhere. 15 years ago, I was optimizing for anarchy. Things change. And even if they don't, people deserve your respect regardless of whether they want to help save the world or not. We're entitled to nothing and no one. Our fortunes will rise and fall based on our abilities, including the ability to be nice -- not the intrinsic goodness of our causes.
5. Be more effective - You know how sometimes you get stuck in motivational holes, end up sick all the time, and have trouble getting things done? That’s gonna happen to everyone, every now and then. But if it’s an everyday kind of thing for you, check out some helpful resources that can get you unstuck. This is incredibly important because the steps up until now only depended on what you believed and what your priorities were. But your beliefs and priorities won’t even get you through the day, much less help you save the world. You're gonna need to formulate goals and be able to act on them. Becoming more capable, more organized, more well-connected, and more motivated is an essential part of saving the world. Your goals aren’t going to just accomplish themselves the first time you “try”. If you want to succeed, you’ll likely have to fail a bunch first, and then try harder.
6. Spread awareness - This is a necessary meta-strategy no matter what you’re trying to accomplish. Remember, deep down, most people really do want to find a way to help others or save the world. They just might not be looking for it all the time. So tell people what you’re up to and if they want to know more, tell them that too. You shouldn’t expect everyone to join you, but you should at least give people a chance to surprise you. And there are other less obvious things you can do, like join networking groups for your cause or link to the website of your favorite cause a lot from your blog and other sites where they might not be mentioned quite so much. That way, they can consistently turn up higher in Google searches. Or post this article on Facebook. Some of your friends will be happy you shared it with them. Just saying.
7. Give money - Spreading awareness can only accomplish so much. Money is still the ultimate meta-tool for accomplishing everything. There are millions of excuses not to give, but at the end of the day, this is the highest-leverage way for you to contribute to that already high-leverage cause that you identified. And don’t feel like you’re alone in finding it difficult to give. Most people find it incredibly difficult to give money -- even to a cause they deeply support. But even if it’s a heroically difficult task, we should still aspire to achieve it... we’re trying to save the world here, remember? If this were easy, someone else (besides Petrov) would have done it already.
8. Give now (rather than later) - I’ve seen fascinating arguments that it might be possible to do more good by investing your money in the stock market for a long time and then giving all the proceeds to charity later. It’s an interesting strategy but it has a number of limitations. To name just two: 1) Not contributing to charity each year prevents you from taking advantage of the best tax planning strategy available to you. That tax-break is free money. You should take free money. Not taking the free money is implicitly agreeing that your government knows how to spend your money better than you do. Do you think your government’s judgment and preferences are superior to yours? and; 2) Non-profit organizations can have endowments and those endowments can invest in securities just like individuals. So if long term-investment in the stock market were really a superior strategy, the charity you’re intending to give your money to could do the exact same thing. They could tuck all your annual contributions away in a big fat, tax-free fund to earn market returns until they were ready to unleash a massive bundle of money just like you would have. If they aren’t doing this already, it’s probably because the problem they’re trying to solve is compounding faster than the stock market compounds interest. Diseases spread, poverty is passed down, existential risk increases. At the very least, don’t try to out-think the non-profit you support without talking to them - they probably wish you were donating now, not just later.
9. Optimize your income - Do you know how much you should be earning? Information on salaries in your industry / job market could help you negotiate a pay raise. And if you’re still in school, why not spend 2 hours to compare the salaries of the different careers you’re interested in? Careers can last decades. Degrees take 4-6 years to complete. Make sure you really want the kind of salaries you’ll be getting and you know what it will be like to work in your chosen industry. Even if you’re a few years into a degree program, changing course now is still better than regretting not having explored other options later. Saving the world is hard enough. Don’t make it harder on yourself by earning below market wages or choosing the wrong career to begin with.
10. Optimize your outlays - Cost of living can vary drastically across different tax districts, real estate markets, commuting methods, and other daily spending habits. It’s unlikely you ended up with an optimal configuration. For starters, if you don’t currently track your spending, I highly recommend you at least try out something light-weight like Mint.com so you can figure out where all your money is going. Remember, you don’t have to scrimp and sacrifice your quality of life to save money -- a lot of things can be less expensive just by planning ahead a little and avoiding those unnecessary “gotcha” fees. No matter what you want to do to improve the world, having more money to do it makes things easier.
11. Look into matching donations - If you’re gonna give money to charity anyway, you should see if you can get your employer to match your gift. I've done this before and know others who have too. Thousands of employers will match donations to qualified non-profits. When you get free money -- you should take it.
12. Have fun! - Don’t get so wrapped up trying to save the world that you sacrifice your own humanity. Having a rich, fulfilling personal life is a well-spring of passion that will only boost your ability to contribute -- not distract you. Trust me: you won’t be sucked into the veil of Maya and forget about your vow to save the world. So have a beer. Call up your best friend. Watch a movie that has absolutely no world-saving side-benefits whatsoever! You should do whatever it is that connects to that essential joy of being human and you should do it as often as you need; without apologies. Enough people sacrifice their lives without even realizing it -- don’t sacrifice your own on purpose.
This is an awesome post! Thanks, Louie :)
some obvious suggestions:
I don't really like this post. It reads like one of those fake advice websites set-up by companies selling products that target those advice seekers. Like "How To Get Rid of Acne" with not-so-subtle links to an order page for Clearasil. After I get over my exasperation at the tone, feel, and SIAI pitch I don't see anything new here to get excited about. Good collection of links I guess. Everyone else seems to love it though, so I suppose it just rubbed me the wrong way.
Wait. I am? Yikes! Where is this information available? I think I probably just make a lot of comments. You're right though, I've been around here a while I should adjust for that.
Re: Style and tone
I have pattern-match aversions that are stronger than I'd like sometimes (though at other times this is extremely helpful). It's possible that I'm reading things into your post that the you and the people who liked it didn't.
Just to start with, your post includes lots of links to pages that explain your point in detail- but it is so overhyperlinked that the signal/noise ratio is greatly diminished. I don't understand why you linked to the wikipedia page on Ghandi, Code Pink, one.org, the Red Cross, Oxfam, PETA and Greenpeace, the entire Metaethics sequence, wikipedia on axiology, the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative... and that's only halfway through point number two! People will be a lot more likely to click the links you think are important if they're the only links on the page.
Numbers 8 and 10 included some decent, new points.
I think the main issue though was that if you just look at points 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8 (half the post... (read more)
Can someone give or link to a convincing argument, possibly in the form of a lesswrong post, that having fun is beneficial? It seems intuitive, but that intuition doesn't answer:
How much fun should one have? What kind of fun should one have? etc.
if one wants to save the world.
Sex is probably the ideal form. It encompasses social connectedness, physical exertion, flow and physical coordination. Each of those are important, in approximately that order.
What does this mean? I understand the intended affect, but not the denotation.
In such cases, the topic is often the existence of moral arguments against a position. "What? He did S? How could he?" is raw material for constructing moral arguments that allow you to have less of S done, by affecting either the person in question, or others with influence over that person. But in this particular case, it's not apparent to me what kind of moral argument is to be constructed (apart from using empathy of others t... (read more)
So, this is a fantastic exposition of how to be a rational altruist -- but it still left me a little disappointed, because the title suggests that you will teach us how to "save the world," i.e., how to accomplish some really epic-level quest like ending hunger or disease. You don't actually do that here.
Instead, you argue that the most good we can realistically hope to accomplish is to educate people and to donate to efficient charities on a modest scale and to have fun, and so you set about teaching us how to do that.
Even assuming that you're c... (read more)
Can you unpack this sense of "respect"? It seems to me that it must necessarily be influenced by properties like this, I don't know how to define the word so that it isn't.
(Of course, the sign of the influence is not a given, depending on one's epistemic situation respect could well go down in you learn that the person believes X, even if you're pretty certain X is the correct thing to believe. And the extent of the influence could well be small in most cases, but again depending on what other things the person knows.)
Very good post Louie! I agree with all the points, pretty much.
Number 11 seems especially important - it seems like a common trap for people in our crowd to try to over-optimize, so for me having an enjoyable life is a very high priority. A way of thinking that seems to work personally is to work on the margin rather than trying to reorganize my life top-down - to try to continually be a bit more awesome, work with more interesting people, get a bit more money, invest a bit more energy, etc, than yesterday.
In contrast, if I started out trying to allocate the resources I had access to / could gain access to in an optimal manner I suspect I would be paralyzed.
I take issue with this. Many nonprofits are not so smart. Some are idiotic. Always do due dilligence.
I think this is missing the primary advice of "work on instrumental rationality." The art of accomplishing goals is useful for the goal of saving the world - and still useful if you change your goal later! (say, to destroying the world, or moving to a new one :) )
So while this is a great list of ways to be instrumentally rational specifically for philanthropy, I think the general tools of instrumental rationality are also useful too (like: have concrete goals, hypothesize how to achieve them, try methods, evaluate them and change based on resul... (read more)
Good post, though I thought that it is a little too focused on money. It could say (more explicitly) what types of charity are best, and what types of action... and other ways to help that aren't money.
In my opinion, some of the most efficient ways to achieve a positive difference are, foremost: (these are strategic priorities with more positive potential than all the rest) human genetic engineering and intelligence augmentation, artificial intelligence, and reduction of existential risks. In second order of importance: (these are ways to increase utility... (read more)
I came up with that nickname at the age of 16 (in the year 2000). It is supposed to be a random sequence of letters that is pronounceable in German. A search gave no results, hence I naively suspected it to be unique. Only much later I learnt that many sequences of letters humans are able to pronounce do also bear a meaning in some language. Last year I learnt that xixi means piss in Portuguese. Some native English speakers also asked me if it is supposed to mean sexy dude. But I can assure you that I never intended my nickname to signal a sexy dude who takes a piss and casually tries drugs. I was rather annoyed that many nicknames were already taken when I tried to register with various services. I also wanted to be uniquely identifiable. It pretty much worked, as almost all of the 46.100 results of a Google search for xixidu are related to myself.
Considering my recent personal experience (which I mentioned here) with removing a huge hidden negative motivation from my life I'd say that the absolutely most critical thing is to find out why you want to save the world.
If you find out that it's actually because you feel some kind of SASS threat if you don't try to save the world, I'd strongly suggest trying to directly remove that feeling anyway. The risk here is of course that after you've done it, you might find out that you never actually wanted to save the world to begin with. However, considering h... (read more)
Love almost all of this. I worry that (3) is making the common rationalist mistake of basing a strategy on the type of person you wish you were rather than the type you are. (Striding toward Unhappiness, we might call it).
So, you wish that your passion for a cause were more strongly correlated with the utilitarian benefit of that cause, and game the instinct to work on what feels good with small gifts while putting most of your effort towards what you think is optimal. But if the result is working on something you aren't as passionate and excited about,... (read more)
A random thought:
If you donate less than 10% of your income to a cause you believe in, or you spend less than one hour per week learning how to be more effective at helping a cause you believe in, or you spend less than half an hour per week socializing with other people who support the cause... then you are less instrumentally rational than the average christian.
edit: shokwave points out that the above claim is missing a critical inferential step: "if one of your goals is to be charitable"
edit: Nick_Tarleton points out that the average christia... (read more)
Can anyone offer a single example of a major, longstanding problem that has been solved by this kind of approach?
Another obvious suggestion:
Most people reading this are probably well aware of the awesome power of wikis. LW's own wiki is awesome, and LW would be a whole lot less awesome without its wiki.
What we need is a wiki that lists all the people and groups who are working towards saving the world, what projects they are working on, and what resources they need in order to complete these projects. And each user of the wiki could create a page for thems... (read more)
Thank you for this post! One thing:
If GiveWell's cost-benefit calculations are remotely right, you should downplay matching donations even more than just making this item second-last. I fear that matching donations are so easy to think about that they will distract people from picking good cha... (read more)
This. I can overstate how often I find myself going with what feels good instead of actually doing the best to help. Its a horribly addicting habit.
Does this count as an entry to the $100 efficient charity challenge?
Enjoyed most of this, some worries about how far you're getting with point 8 (on giving now rather than later).... (read more)
I'm uncomfortable with patching my moral intuition with math. Wouldn't that imply that we should be willing to use violence to shut down promising AGI labs who don't take friendliness concerns into consideration?
If your moral system leads you to do things that make your moral intuition queasy, you should question your moral system.
Biting bullets is an overly simple solution to moral dilemma. You find yourself making monsters without much effort.
Though I won't be curing AIDS, designing cheaper solar panels, or searching for the Higgs Boson, seeing as I haven't chosen a career in the sciences, I am preparing for law school which should put me in a career that fairly well optimizes my income, while giving me a chance to use some of the rational argument skills on this site. Also, I live in Kansas, which, if I prove good enough at law, could provide me good opportunities to be on the front line against religious ignorance and bigotry here in the states. It would be a dream of mine to be in court ag... (read more)