why not just pay up

Donating correlates with happiness, so I should just pick the charity that currently seems like it’s the most effective, start paying them a decent monthly percentage of my income, and then I’ll feel a lot better about myself.


I can anticipate how I would feel about that and I wouldn’t feel better. I’d like to understand why that is.

Could be selfish desire to hold on to my resources as long as possible. Am I feeling like I lack stability in my life for other reasons?

It could be a desire not to seem crazy, like I haven’t been donating all this long so donating a lot all of a sudden would seem like a crazy thing. This consideration is annoying, because trying to not seem crazy is actually a reasonable strategy if you’re worried you might be going crazy. Certainly making exceptions in the cases where it seems reasonable to you doesn’t make sense, because the whole thing about being crazy is the unreasonable things seem reasonable.

I’m not sure how I can win with that one. But there might still be other hypotheses about my behaviour, why I might not be donating – and haven’t been for a long time, even when the psychosis wasn’t such a big concern.

Why don’t I anticipate feeling any joy, is the more specific question?

Maybe I should take a step back and ask why I have any motivation to be altruistic in the first place.

On some level it’s a desire to avoid feelings of guilt and shame. It’s an idea that pervades our culture, and as far as I know most others, that we’re not supposed to be entirely selfish.

More specifically, my own motivations perhaps come from a desire to be blameless. At around the age when I entered college, it seemed like so many things which I did or didn’t do where in some sense blame-worthy, and I went through a brief phase of trying to fix all of them before losing interest. A utilitarian morality is attractive in this sense, because it lets you do occasional shitty stuff as long as it’s somehow leading to the greater good.

In other ways utilitarianism is really unhelpful with this though. Any strategy which isn’t the optimal one is automatically suspect – there’s no “good enough”, just “the best you can do”.

More sophisticated philosophers of utilitarianism will recognize that even if there’s some sense that might be true, continually telling yourself that your behaviour is not good enough on the basis of not being perfect, is probably unhelpful and actively counterproductive. The effective altruism movement is pretty good at bringing that attitude to life, I’d say. While we’re always criticizing ourselves and each other for various reasons, not being perfect isn’t one of them.

But still. Effective altruism is a social movement not a moral philosophy, and there seems to be a sense in which we like our moral philosophies to look like a set of rules. And “don’t be too hard on yourself, except just sometimes when actually maybe you should” is the sort of thing it’s really hard to codify as a rule.

We don’t really have a good model of how our minds respond to different kinds of pressures and incentives, and it’s probably different from person to person anyway. If we had such a model then maybe we could make up a set of rules – things like “donate 10% of your income”, “don’t eat meat on Mondays” or whatever – that on the face of it don’t make much sense, but can somehow be shown to be, if not optimal, then at least better than not having that kind of rule in place at all (or one which is too strict).

Too strict and you just ignore it altogether, is what I’m getting at.

So with me not donating, it sort of feels like a “too strict and ignore” dynamic than a “too lax to the point that nothing happens at all” dynamic. Weirdly though, it seems to be possible to flip from one of these poles to the other without actually going through the middle ground of “donating lots of cash and being reasonably happy about it”. In some sense this isn’t surprising – it’s easier to change your philosophical justification for things than it is to actually change your behaviour, especially in a way that involves relinquishing a ton of resources. But it’s still interesting to me that “I don’t actually care” and “I care so much I’m paralysed from making any decision at all” seem to have a continuum of positions between them, and that I probably lie somewhere on that continuum, since I can’t really say which end I’m closer too.

What do I mean by that though?

An example position in the middle might be “not donating has been a strategy which has been working well for me – it means I have lots of cash, and am not further excluded from any community than I would otherwise expect to be”.

Actually before I go on, something about the way I phrased that has me confused. I actually do feel excluded from the effective altruism community, since with any kind of frequent interaction I’d feel I’d have to admit to not being a “real” EA yet, or really any kind of A, and people would ask why and I’d have to say I didn’t know.

Anticipating that interaction, it seems like it would be painful.

Also, though, actually starting to donate doesn’t feel like it would help and I’m not completely sure why. Some ideas:

  • There’s still awkward questions that could come, like why I only just started donating or why I chose let’s say CEA instead of one of the other favoured causes
  • I’d feel like I was trying to buy my way into a community. This is somewhat odd, given your status as an EA is almost-but-not-quite defined by giving lots of money to the right organizations. Somehow that “but not quite” feels important. Like even once I started walking the walk, I would feel like not a true EA.
  • There are other social barriers which wouldn’t go away. Maybe not having a thriving EA community in my city is a problem. Maybe general shyness is a problem, or unwillingness to get into conflicts over moral issues.

Anyway, I’ll think some more about that but I guess the main insight for me to come out of writing this was that the issue of donating is intertwined with the issue of my status and interaction with the EA community.

Again this shouldn’t be a surprise but maybe it was more significant than I thought.

When I first got interested in effective altruist ideas, in 2011, I was crying out for some kind of a community. At the time it didn’t seem like such a thing existed, and this was a problem because giving away lots of money without having several people tell you that you’re doing the right thing (and how to continue doing it even better) is really draining. Some people could do that but for me it’s really draining. Now, with such a community very much present but with me way out on the edges, it’s a similar feeling. Most of my interaction is with people who are not EAs and don’t seem like they would be receptive to the ideas either. So it feels like – even if I don’t really – that I’d have to justify any EAish behaviour to those people instead of the ingroup.


It’s worth pointing out that a lot of what I’m writing about social interactions isn’t, on some level, how I think it would really play out. If I were to describe what had been happening honestly to a person involved in effective altruism I think they’d be pretty understanding and encouraging. Some part of me doesn’t believe that though, and if this theory that I’ve been developing over the course of this post is true, that part of me currently holds a lot of power.


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