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Effective Altruism is Not a Competition

In the past, some people have suggested that we “gamify” effective altruism some more, and create points for doing altruistic-y things, like donating our money or volunteering our time. I think this could be a good idea, but rather than seeing individual scores, I’d much rather see a collective team score for EA. We’d compete as a group to beat our past group selves (make March better than February, for example) rather than compete amongst ourselves as individuals.

There are several problems with the individual competition model, but the biggest problem is the most fundamental – effective altruism is not (and shouldn’t be) a competition. Rather, we are a team. A community. We all have one common goal.

I know some effective altruists who see EAs like Holden Karnofsky or what not do incredible things, and feel a little bit of resentment at themselves and others; feeling inadequate that they can’t make such a large difference. This is an important feeling for generating a desire to improve, and keeping a growth mindset in the face of this could lead to great things for you. However, it’s even more important not to let this get you into depression, simply because Holden’s success is also your success.

All effective altruists care about is making sure that the world is a better place. It doesn’t matter who is doing the better-ing. If Holden, Bill Gates, and Dustin Moskovitz each have 1 billion EA points and you only have five, you should be celebrating the fact that the EA community is collectively at 3 billion and five EA points and that you’re helping. You shouldn’t feel bad that you’re not doing as well.

We all have different skills and abilities. Growth mindset does say that we each have an ability to be incredibly effective and altruistic, but we still all start with different places. It’s simply not the case that all of us, right this year, could be making seven figure donations to GiveWell or be putting in 80 hours a week at a top non-profit. But we all can do our best and try a little harder.

Let’s start seeing ourselves more as a community where everyone has something to offer and celebrate our collective success, not despair over who is or is not the most effective. Effective altruism shouldn’t be a competition (at least, among individuals).

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I originally wrote this post on my defunct personal blog two years ago and wanted to repost it here. It was inspired by pieces by Brian Tomasik.

Comments (5)

Comment author: Linch 10 January 2017 01:07:59AM *  11 points [-]

I think this is an important article, and underlies a critical nontrivial distinction between altruistic and for-profit work. However, I also think seeing everything completely globally misses an important part of what incentivizes individuals to do good work.

Whenever eg. people tell me that after talking to me they've donated to an effective charity, or they took the pledge, or they trade their vote, or wrote an article about EA, etc., I feel a large spike of joy that my actions have somewhat possibly produced counterfactual good in the world. (Less joy than if I earned and donated the money myself, but still very significant joy). I do not feel nearly as much of this joy when learning, eg. Will has done the same thing, or Good Ventures investments did slightly higher than the market would suggest.

Now, no doubt part of this problem is just a classic issue of scope insensitivity. You can say that if I should feel happy that I raised $X, I should be even happier that Good Ventures or CEA raised $100X or $1000X that, and it's wrong for me to not update in that direction.

But I think there's a different issue here too. My second-order preferences for myself is that my own emotions should not serve just as an objective observer, looking from outside to get an impartial view of the world.I am also an agent upon the world, and it's very relevant to me that my own emotions accurately and acutely inspire me to do the most important/impactful things.

Thus, it makes sense for me to feel, on a visceral, System One level, directly moved by my own opportunities to have a personal impact, in a way that the work of Good Ventures or CEA is less directly relevant to my own space of actions.

I am open to the idea that seeing myself as a coherent and individual agent is silly (esp. in light of the late Derek Parfit's great works). But most people see themselves as agents, so I feel like the presumption should be that this is a useful approximation. Likewise, perhaps other people (including yourself, Peter) are not significantly inspired to act by their own past and predictions of future emotional state, and can do good work regardless of whether they're happy or sad. In that case, I commend you and am working towards being more stoic generally. But ultimately I don't know anybody else's motivations as well as my own, and I know that my own happiness is a very relevant reinforcement and feedback mechanism on my own ability to be altruistically impactful.

TL;DR: while I agree with you that a)seeing the general progress of the EA movement is a good motivational factor and b)interpersonal comparisons are very suboptimal for inspiration, I disagree with the larger thrust of this argument, which seems to imply that I should be inspired more by the efforts of Team EA than my own counterfactual impact. This seems to closely imply that the primary use of S1 emotion is to accurately reflect the world, whereas I would argue that it's more important for my own emotions to be used to train my behavior.

Comment author: Richard_Batty 05 January 2017 11:16:56PM *  10 points [-]

I know some effective altruists who see EAs like Holden Karnofsky or what not do incredible things, and feel a little bit of resentment at themselves and others; feeling inadequate that they can’t make such a large difference.

I think there's a belief that people often have when looking at successful people which is really harmful, the belief that "I am fundamentally not like them - not the type of person who can be successful." I've regularly had this thought, sometimes explicitly and sometimes as a hidden assumption behind other thoughts and behaviours.

It's easy to slip into believing it when you hear the bios of successful people. For example, William MacAskill's bio includes being one of the youngest associate professors of philosophy in the world, co-founder of CEA, co-founder of 80,000 Hours, and a published author. Or you can read profiles of Rhodes Scholars and come across lines like "built an electric car while in high school and an electric bicycle while in college".

When you hear these bios it's hard to imagine how these people achieved these things. Cal Newport calls this the failed simulation effect - we feel someone is impressive if we can't simulate the steps by which they achieved their success. But even if we can't immediately see the steps they're still there. They achieved their success through a series of non-magic practical actions, not because they're fundamentally a different sort of person.

So a couple of suggestions:

If you're feeling like you fundamentally can't be as successful as some of the people you admire, start by reading Cal Newport's blog post. It gives the backstory behind a particularly impressive student, showing the exact (non-magical) steps he took to achieve an impressive bio. Then, when you hear an impressive achievement, remind yourself that there is a messy practical backstory to this that you're not hearing. Maybe read full biographies of successful people to see their gradual rise. Then go work on the next little increment of your plan, because that's the only consistent way anyone gets success.

If you're a person others look up to as successful, start communicating some of the details of how you achieved what you did. Show the practicalities, not just the flashy bio-worthy outcomes.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 05 January 2017 04:20:21AM 9 points [-]

One thing that helps ground me in this regard is to think about in terms of the individual lives saved. At the end of the day, if you only donate enough to save one life when there are those who donate enough to save so many more, what you did is save a life that nobody else would've saved, or else they would've donated more. It doesn't matter how one relatively compares to others; compare how many lives you saved that you wouldn't have saved had you made different choices. That's what matters.

Comment author: capybaralet 05 January 2017 07:38:16PM 3 points [-]

People are motivated both by: 1. competition and status and 2. cooperation and identifying with the successes of a group. I think we should aim to harness both of these forms of motivation.

Comment author: tobyholland 05 January 2017 06:27:21PM 1 point [-]

Competition doesn't have to be between individuals, though - there could be a level in between that gets the best of both worlds. For instance, getting companies to compete against each other could provide an excellent drive to increase donations - particular amongst rival firms - without singling out individuals. The total amounts would be significant enough that they aren't underwhelming on the national or global scale. Alternatively, a local area authority level. Just because the cause is good doesn't mean that competing is bad or inappropriate - surely XPRIZE exemplifies this?