HELP! I want to do good

by Giles 3 min read28th Apr 201156 comments


There are people out there who want to do good in the world, but don't know how.

Maybe you are one of them.

Maybe you kind of feel that you should be into the "saving the world" stuff but aren't quite sure if it's for you. You'd have to be some kind of saint, right? That doesn't sound like you.

Maybe you really do feel it's you, but don't know where to start. You've read the "How to Save the World" guide and your reaction is, ok, I get it, now where do I start? A plan that starts "first, change your entire life" somehow doesn't sound like a very good plan.

All the guides on how to save the world, all the advice, all the essays on why cooperation is so hard, everything I've read so far, has missed one fundamental point.

If I could put it into words, it would be this:


If that's your reaction then you're half way there. That's what you get when you finally grasp how much pointless pain, misery, risk, death there is in the world; just how much good could be done if everyone would get their act together; just how little anyone seems to care.

If you're still reading, then maybe this is you. A little bit.

And I want to help you.

How will I help you? That's the easy part. I'll start a community of aspiring rationalist do-gooders. If I can, I'll start it right here in the comments section of this post. If anything about this post speaks to you, let me know. At this point I just want to know whether there's anybody out there.

And what then? I'll listen to people's opinions, feelings and concerns. I'll post about my worldview and invite people to criticize, attack, tear it apart. Because it's not my worldview I care about. I care about making the world better. I have something to protect.

The posts will mainly be about what I don't see enough of on Less Wrong. About reconciling being rational with being human. Posts that encourage doing rather than thinking. I've had enough ideas that I can commit to writing 20 discussion posts over a reasonable timescale, although some might be quite short - just single ideas.

Someone mentioned there should be a "saving the world wiki". That sounds like a great idea and I'm sure that setting one up would be well within my power if someone else doesn't get around to it first.

But how I intend to help you is not the important part. The important part is why.

To answer that I'll need to take a couple of steps back.

Since basically forever, I've had vague, guilt-motivated feelings that I ought to be good. I ought to work towards making the world the place I wished it would be. I knew that others appeared to do good for greedy or selfish reasons; I wasn't like that. I wasn't going to do it for personal gain.

If everyone did their bit, then things would be great. So I wanted to do my bit.

I wanted to privately, secretively, give a hell of a lot of money to a good charity. So that I would be doing good and that I would know I wasn't doing it for status or glory.

I started small. I gave small amounts to some big-name charities, charities I could be fairly sure would be doing something right. That went on for about a year, with not much given in total - I was still building up confidence.

And then I heard about GiveWell. And I stopped giving. Entirely.

WHY??? I can't really give a reason. But something just didn't seem right to me. People who talked about GiveWell also tended to mention that the best policy was to give only to the charity listed at the top. And that didn't seem right either. I couldn't argue with the maths, but it went against what I'd been doing up until that point and something about that didn't seem right.

Also, I hadn't heard of GiveWell or any of the charities they listed. How could I trust any of them? And yet how could I give to anyone else if these charities were so much more effective? Big akrasia time.

It took a while to sink in. But when it did, I realised that my life so far had mostly been a waste of time. I'd earned some money, but I had no real goals or ambitions. And yet, why should I care if my life so far had been wasted? What I had done in the past was irrelevant to what I intended to do in the future. I knew what my goal was now and from that a whole lot became clear.

One thing mattered most of all. If I was to be truly virtuous, altruistic, world-changing then I shouldn't deny myself status or make financial sacrifices. I should be completely indifferent to those things. And from that the plan became clear: the best way to save the world would be to persuade other people to do it for me. I'm still not entirely sure why they're not already doing it, but I will use the typical mind prior and assume that for some at least, it's for the same reasons as me. They're confused. And that to carry out my plan I won't need to manipulate anyone into carrying out my wishes, but simply help them carry out their own.

I could say a lot more and I will, but for now I just want to know. Who will be my ally?