Monday, January 27, 2020

It's ok to feed stray cats

Before we had kids, Jeff and I fostered a couple of cats. One had feline AIDS and was very skinny. Despite our frugal grocery budget of the time, I put olive oil on her food, determined to get her healthier. I knew that stray cats were not a top global priority, and that this wasn’t even the best way of helping stray cats, but it was what I wanted to do.

. . . . .

The bike path near where I live has a lot of broken glass on the ground nearby. My family likes to go barefoot in the summer, and a lot of people walk their dogs there. Last summer I started bringing a container when we went out and cleaning a patch of ground each time. Picking up glass gave me something a little goal-oriented to do while the kids were playing. The kids got excited about spotting pieces of glass and pointing them out to me. Neighbors would stop and join me for a while.

. . . . .

I don’t want to hold these up as an example of impact. They’re not, or at least not examples of any important impact. I think there are way too many narratives encouraging people to practice small acts of kindness that produce equally small benefits. Women especially may be encouraged to see their life’s impact as resting on their service to friends, family, and local community.

That’s why I felt kind of worried to find myself engaging in these small acts. I want people to look at the big picture and aim high. If you’ve been taught that “doing your part” meant recycling and a bit of volunteering, you’ll need to find something more ambitious if you want to make a bigger difference.

But it can be painful to stare at the scale of the world’s problems, and I don’t recommend doing it all the time. Not every part of your life will be optimized for maximum altruistic impact.

Some of those small acts can be pretty satisfying. Humans do best when we’re in connection with other humans. And we feel mastery when we have small goals that we can meet. Doing your best for a stray cat, bringing the snacks to a game night, going to a rally, or helping a neighbor restart their car are achievable in a way that “reduce the risk of nuclear war” is not. They also strengthen your relationships with those around you.

(One year when my coworkers and I were preparing for the EA Global conference, one of our speakers went for a walk in Oakland and was gone for a surprisingly long time. It turned out someone had flagged him down and asked him to help move her furniture. He said it was refreshing to spend half an hour doing something so obviously not the best use of his time.)

As Gregory Lewis argues, it’s unlikely that any one action is going to be optimal for all your goals. The food that’s tastiest is unlikely to also be the most nutritious and also the most ethically produced. So you might need to make some tradeoffs, and acknowledge that both chocolate and dark leafy greens are good, but not for the same things.

Prioritize big problems. Spend a good chunk of your money and/or your time working on them.

But in your other time, do what’s refreshing and restorative to you. Some of that will be purely hedonic — sleeping in, music, cake. And some might be small acts of kindness that make your day brighter, even though they’re not saving the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

You have more than one goal, and that's fine

When people come to an effective altruism event for the first time, the conversation often turns to projects they’re pursuing or charities they donate to. They often have a sense of nervousness around this, a feeling that the harsh light of cost-effectiveness is about to be turned on everything they do. To be fair, this is a reasonable thing to be apprehensive about, because many youngish people in EA do in fact have this idea that everything in life should be governed by cost-effectiveness. I've been there.

Cost-effectiveness analysis is a very useful tool. I wish more people and institutions applied it to more problems. But like any tool, this tool will not be applicable to all parts of your life. Not everything you do is in the “effectiveness” bucket. I don't even know what that would look like.

I have lots of goals. I have a goal of improving the world. I have a goal of enjoying time with my children. I have a goal of being a good spouse. I have a goal of feeling connected in my friendships and community. Those are all fine goals, but they’re not the same. I have some rough plan for allocating time and money between them: Sunday morning is for making pancakes for my kids. Monday morning is for work. It doesn’t make sense to mix these activities, to spend time with my kids in a way that contributes to my work or to do my job in a way that my kids enjoy.

If I donate to my friend’s fundraiser for her sick uncle, I’m pursuing a goal. But it’s the goal of “support my friend and our friendship,” not my goal of “make the world as good as possible.” When I make a decision, it’s better if I’m clear about which goal I’m pursuing. I don’t have to beat myself up about this money not being used for optimizing the world — that was never the point of that donation. That money is coming from my "personal satisfaction" budget, along with getting coffee with my friend.

I have another pot of money set aside for donating as effectively as I can. When I'm deciding what to do with that money, I turn on that bright light of cost-effectiveness and try make as much progress as I can on the world’s problems. That involves looking at the research on different interventions and choosing what I think will do the most to bring humanity forward in our struggle against pointless suffering, illness, and death. The best cause I can find usually ends up being one that I didn’t previously have any personal connection to, and that doesn’t nicely connect with my personal life. And that’s fine, because personal meaning-making is not my goal here. I can look for personal meaning in the decision afterward, but that's not what drives the decision.

When you make a decision, be clear with yourself about which goals you’re pursuing. You don’t have to argue that your choice is the best way of improving the world if that isn’t actually the goal. It’s fine to support your local arts organization because their work gives you joy, because you want to be active in your community, or because they helped you and you want to reciprocate. If you also have a goal of improving the world as much as you can, decide how much time and money you want to allocate to that goal, and try to use that as effectively as you can.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

No one is a statistic

I’m late to the party, but I've been thinking about the documentary “The Life Equation” about how people use data to decide make life-and-death decisions. The central example is a woman named Crecencia, a mother of seven who lives in rural Guatemala and has cervical cancer. The doctor treating her knows that screening other women for cancer is more cost-effective than treating this woman, and that the community doesn’t have enough money to fully fund both.

The filmmaker writes: “Crecencia’s life depends on decisions made by doctors and donors, decisions increasingly driven by Big Data. It’s a scientific, evidence-based approach that cuts through the emotion and promises to transform the lives of hundreds of millions. But who, and what, gets lost in the number crunching?”

The film is touching, depicting Crecencia’s prayers for healing, her relationship with her children, her fervent wish to stay alive. It asks how her doctor should decide between this individual patient and “statistics.”

Here’s the thing about those “statistics”: they’re all individuals.

The other women who don’t get screened, whose cancer isn’t caught in time? They’re people too. They have families. They want to stay alive too.

We’re more likely to help a person if we can see their face and know their name (sometimes called the “identifiable victim bias.”) People will actually give more money if they’re told it’s going to one child than to two children.

Animal advocates now consider it best practice to communicate about individual animals rather than undifferentiated masses of them. My brain has an easier time thinking about Lily the rescue piglet than about the 769 million pigs being raised around the world.

I think it’s fine to work with this reality of human thinking, and present examples of who will benefit from particular interventions. But we also need to examine our intuitions and realize that, even if we haven’t been presented with an individual example, effective interventions matter because they affect more individual people.

Every person in the world has their own oddities, preferences, and sense of humor. Everyone started as a baby, most with parents who memorized the swirl of hair on their scalp and the scent of their skin. Even people who aren’t born yet - if they come into being, they will have freckles, fears, favorite songs.

I think Christians are onto something in talking about people as “souls” rather than “population.” It helps our glitchy human minds see the worth of the whole by focusing on the worth of the parts.

The multitudes matter because each of us matters. No one is a statistic, but statistics are how we help more irreplaceable individuals.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Two standard donations and one new one

Here are three places Jeff and I are donating this year. The first two are similar to what we’ve been doing for years, and the third represents a change.

Direct work

Jeff and I want to support work that directly makes the world a better place. (Some arguments against falling into a “meta trap” here.) As usual for us, this year we’ve given just over half our donations to direct work. We made these donations to the Against Malaria Foundation, one of GiveWell’s top picks, except for small amounts that were part of a matching fundraiser and a giving game we did at a workshop.


We think helping effective altruism grow will ultimately be very good for direct work. If a new person hears about EA and decides to go into a more impactful career, to donate to better charities, or to start donating more, then a lot more good is getting done! By encouraging new people to do these things, you can multiply the impact that you would have alone. So we give around half our donations to movement-building work.

In the past we’ve typically given to the Centre for Effective Altruism. We still think that’s one of several good choices for people interested in supporting movement growth, but there were a few reasons we leaned away from it this year:

  • I work there, and it’s hard to neutrally evaluate your own employer.
  • There are various complications when staff donate to their employers, and I think it’s probably best to discourage it.
  • We don’t know much about the best breakdown for what the different meta-charity organizations should get, and we’d like to coordinate with other donors. (Imagine everyone thought Meta Org A and Meta Org B were about equally good, but thought Meta Org B needed the money a little more, so everyone donated to them, leaving Meta Org A with nothing. That would be bad.)
  • There may be excellent new meta-charity organizations or projects just starting up that we haven’t heard of, and aren’t likely to hear of in the limited number of hours we plan to put into a donation decision.

So this year we’re donating to the EA Giving Group Fund run by Nick Beckstead, as described in his section of this post. Nick spends a lot more time on charity evaluation than we do, we believe his values are similar to ours, and we have a lot of faith in his judgement. Together with other donors, we’ll be funding a variety of meta-charity organizations and projects that he recommends. This may include CEA or its projects, but I feel better having that decision one step removed from me.

And one more thing

After we had already tallied up how much we expected to earn and then donated half of it, I found a check that I had forgotten to deposit. And I decided to do something different with it, something I’d been thinking about for a while but hadn’t fully made up my mind about. (Jeff thinks differently about this topic than I do, so while our other donations were joint, this one was just from me.)

Since spending more time with people who believe animal welfare is one of the biggest problems of our time, I’m more persuaded than I was that they’re right. Our food system depends on billions of creatures living in horrifying conditions.

If you believe animals' experiences matter, there are a lot of approaches you might take. You could persuade people to stop eating animal products (note that just cutting out meat isn’t necessarily helpful, as eggs cause a lot more suffering than most meats.) You could support work to improve farming conditions. You could support campaigns that aim to change how people view animals and cause them to care more. You could develop better replacements for animal products. Or you could support research on how to do all of this better.

One thing that seems odd to me is that the precursor to any of this seems to be going vegan or at least vegetarian. I don’t think I know anyone who donates to animal causes and also eats meat.

Maybe this is to be expected — isn’t it hypocritical to care about animals and yet still eat their corpses? And yet none of us is perfectly consistent. I care deeply about global poverty, but I don’t make every conceivable change to my lifestyle that would better support the global poor. I think holding ourselves to high standards of consistency can actually be really bad, because it encourages us to give up if we’re not perfectly consistent.

Some people find dietary change relatively easy, but others (for reasons of health, convenience, cost, and/or taste) don’t. I’m one of them. It’s not out of ignorance — I was vegetarian for a decade, lived in a vegan house for two years, and currently cook vegan food on a regular basis for my housemates. I just don’t much like a vegan diet, and don’t want the added hassle of getting my kids a balanced diet while cutting out their main sources of protein and fat. I realize some people will find this morally indefensible, but I don’t have plans to change it.

So I’m donating (not all that much, but something) to make the world closer to what I want to see in this area.

I would love to be able to buy a good replacement for eggs, milk, or meat in my grocery store. (I realize there are attempts at this, but I’m not impressed with what’s currently on the market.) And I have a lot more faith in people’s ability to stop buying animal products if they have good alternatives. So I’ve donated to New Harvest, which is developing ways to grow meat, milk, and egg tissue without animals.

I hope this will encourage others to think about donating outside their usual areas. I don’t want certain causes to only be for certain people — you shouldn’t need to be a computer programmer to care about artificial intelligence safety, and you shouldn’t need to change your diet to help animals. There are good reasons why not everyone will do those things, but it shouldn’t cut them off from supporting those causes in other ways.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Practical steps for self-care

Last week the Boston Effective Altruism group had a discussion on self-care for altruists. I've written about the topic before, but I wanted to share some of the more practical advice people had.

Think beyond day-to-day choices

Self-care isn’t just short-term decisions like whether to make time for yoga tonight. It’s larger life decisions too, like what job to take, where to live, how to budget money, and how to make time for partners, friends, and family.

For me, having children was self-care. I might spend a day doing nothing but 1) work, 2) care for my kids, and 3) sleep. There’s no “me time” there in the sense of meditation or bubble baths. But the two very different kinds of work are a break from each other. After taking care of my kids for a while it’s nice to sit at a desk and have a break from The Cat in the Hat, and after sitting at a desk all day it’s nice to be with my children instead. (Life with kids is not everyone's idea of a good time, and it absolutely does take time away from my other work. I don't want to minimize this.)

Make lists

One person works for an organization that publishes a list of mistakes made by the organization (not typos, but medium-to-large mistakes). They said when they do something wrong at work, there’s some satisfaction in adding it to the list before anybody else catches it. That way when someone else points it out, you at least have the pleasure of feeling that you were proactive in adding it to the collection before someone else caught it.

Several people also said they keep lists of praise they’ve received or accomplishments they’re proud of.

Be careful with comparisons

The effective altruism movement attracts a lot of ridiculously smart people. I find it easy to feel gloomy about not being as smart as I’d like. But as one group member put it last week, “It’s not about whether I can be the sharpest tool out there, but about how I can make myself sharper.” (This post about how basketball is like intelligence was helpful to me; feeling bad for not being smart enough is like feeling bad for not being 7 feet tall.)

Someone else pointed out that different people need different amounts and kinds of self-care, and that using other people's standards isn't helpful. If you need more hours of sleep or more time away from work than your coworker does, that means nothing about how good a person you are. It just means you need something different than they do.

Step out of your own shoes

I also try to act on advice that I would give other people. Several years ago I was emailing with a younger woman who was trying to figure out how to get more involved in effective altruism. It made me think out what general choices I thought were good ones, particularly in terms of balance between change-the-world effort and take-care-of-yourself effort. When I’m trying to decide something for myself (should I go to this conference even though it’s expensive?) I think about what I would advise a young effective altruist to do.

Consider the long term

This cuts two ways. First, think in terms of a marathon rather than a sprint. Make choices that will sustain you in your efforts over the long term rather than giving up after a few years. This may mean treating yourself with more care than you're otherwise inclined to.

But also consider the precedent you’re setting. If you decide to stop work an hour early today, you’ll probably do the same on future days with similar circumstances. Ask if this is actually a special case, or if it’s the kind of thing that’s likely to repeat often. (It may still be the right thing to do if it turns out you need a shorter work day in general to be functional, but see it as a long-term pattern and not just a one-time choice.)

What other practical tips do you have?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why I pledged

Almost four years ago, I pledged with Giving What We Can. Members pledge 10% of their incomes to the best charities they can find (with students and those with no income pledging 1% of their spending money).

In the time since, I've felt good about making this commitment. I like having it as part of my routine, something that I know is part of my plan in the years to come. It's a confirmation of what I value—a safe and healthy life not just for me and mine, but for all families around the world. And I've enjoyed the connections with other people who have made this choice.

I'm also a fan of mini-pledges for people who aren't sure about their long-term plan. For a year, or a month, or a semester, make a plan for how much you will donate. See what it's like. Afterwards, maybe it will feel like a good amount. Maybe you'll realize you want to cut back on giving next time. (Jeff and I did that the year we forgot about taxes when making our budget!) Or maybe you'll decide you want to ramp up to something more ambitious. In any case, you'll learn something about how you handle money, and you'll be acting intentionally instead of haphazardly. If you want, you can sign up for "Try Giving" on the Giving What We Can site.

The pledge.

This year I'll be giving largely to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

An embarrassment of riches

People interested in effective altruism come from many different backgrounds. I know people whose families expected them to become lawyers or businesspeople, and others whose families would be appalled if they went into something so "money-grubbing."

This post is primarily aimed at those of us who grew up in cultures that emphasized a certain style of simplicity. In some cases I think it can be an advantage, for example, because it's easier to live below our means. But in other cases I think it leads us into bad decisions that prioritize our personal purity above the well-being of others.


I'll start with an illustration from history. Jane Addams, the founder of social work, spent her life striving to improve the conditions of poor immigrants and particularly working-class women in Chicago. In 1896, she traveled to Russia to meet with author Leo Tolstoy, whose ideas on solidarity with laborers had impressed her. Both Addams and Tolstoy struggled with how to deal with their privileged backgrounds; Tolstoy was a count and Addams had inherited a fortune as a young woman. Tolstoy, who was living on his family's estate dressing like a peasant and participating in the farm work, began the meeting by criticizing Addams' stylish dress. He urged her to follow him in taking up manual labor rather than spending all her time on administration.

When Addams returned to the large settlement house she ran, she was determined to spend part of her workday in the bakery there rather than in her office. (Reminds me of the Undercover Boss reality show in which CEOs work as janitors for two weeks.)

But she grew frustrated with the inefficiency of spending part of her day as baker rather than director. “The half dozen people invariably waiting to see me after breakfast, the piles of letters to be opened and answered, the demand of actual and pressing human wants—were these all to be pushed aside and asked to wait while I saved my soul by two hours’ work at baking bread?” (Twenty Years at Hull House, p. 197) She decided that she could do more for her neighbors by continuing her administrative work than by sharing in their manual labor.

I think Addams gets at an ongoing problem with tendencies to act or appear a certain way rather than accomplishing anything in particular. (Certainly leftists and liberals are not the only ones to fall into this, but I'll focus on us here.)

Tracy Kidder's book about doctor and humanitarian Paul Farmer cites him talking with other Partners in Health staff about "the goofiness of radicals thinking they have to dress in Guatemalan peasant clothes. The poor don't want you to look like them. They want you to dress in a suit and go get them food and water."

I have a friend who gives away much of his income but realized he needed to spend money on a nice suit to meet with people who care about that sort of thing and influence their giving. "Saving" money by not buying a suit would actually have been a loss for the people he intends to help.


Some of us come from religious traditions that emphasize voluntary simplicity and solidarity with the poor. I'm interested in the ways that this can help or hinder us in actually helping others.

I've enjoyed reading some of the thoughts of a Franciscan friar on voluntary poverty. The Franciscan order was founded largely in response to the opulent lifestyle of the 13th-century Italian upper classes, and material simplicity has been an important part of their tradition ever since. But the writer, Brother Casey Cole, questions whether friars should take solidarity so far as to shoulder the difficulties that come with being involuntarily poor, like buying low-quality appliances that break because you can't afford ones that last longer.

I spent 10 years active in Quaker communities, a tradition which emphasizes simplicity. The main text of each regional Quaker group includes "queries," or questions for reflection, on many topics. One group asks:
  • Is your life marked by simplicity?
  • Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions?
  • Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?
2003 Faith and Practice of Northwest Yearly Meeting

I love this approach to simplicity as freedom. Other than my Apartment Therapy habit, I think Jeff and I have been much happier by not letting media dictate our desires too much. Particularly as a parent, I'm wary of the ways we can be led into "needing" things that don't actually improve our quality of life.

But I've also seen the idea of material simplicity extended farther than I think makes sense. At one point Quakers were going around policing the width of each other's hat brims lest somebody have one that was not "plain" enough. And today I think people sometimes slip into policing material possessions, particularly technology, rather than looking at whether these possessions actually improve our lives.

I know people who still look down at smartphones as an unnecessary luxury. As a person who takes public transit, getting a smartphone has changed the way I travel—there's much less getting lost, less rushing to catch a bus only to find it's running late. This material possession makes my life simpler and better. (I notice Brother Cole, quoted above, said his laptop and iPhone are the material possessions most important to him.)

I've seen articles explaining why so many refugees carry smart phones—far from being a luxury, they are a vital source of information and connection to loved ones. Cell phone ownership even among the very poor in Africa has made it possible for them to do everything from transferring money without access to a brick-and-mortar bank, to tracking cattle gestation periods, to verifying that anti-malarial drugs are real and not counterfeit. The way that technology enriches lives from Syria to San Francisco is something I'd like to embrace, not scorn.


John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, gave his sermon "The Use of Money" many times throughout the 18th century. In it, he advises followers not to reject money, but to use it wisely. "The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it. It may be used ill: and what may not? But it may likewise be used well. . . . By it we may supply. . . a defence for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain."

Wesley urges followers to "gain all you can" without sacrificing their health or engaging in immoral action, "save all you can" by living simply, and then "give all you can." The sermon is the first known proposal of "earning to give."


But those of us who came from traditions emphasizing simplicity (whether via religion or general hippie culture) were often taught to distrust money. "Money is the root of all evil," we heard, rather than the full quotation "The love of money is the root of all evil."

My mother spoke proudly of the low-paying professions her family tended toward: "Farmers, ministers, teachers, musicians—if it pays badly, we've done it!"

When I started to consider earning to give (earning more in order to donate more), I kept noticing a reaction of disgust to the idea of having a high-paid job. I couldn't get away from my vision of "rich people" as bad and greedy people. The idea of being associated with them, for example by going into law and then donating most of my earnings, turned my stomach. That attitude isn't helpful, and I don't want to pass it on to my children.

I think some of this comes from embarrassment about the privilege I have. I grew up in a rich country with parents who could give me everything I needed. I have a college education, I'm healthy, and I'm able to do many things I set my mind to. I got lucky in a lot of ways, and I'm sad that not everyone has these things.

But squandering this privilege by pretending I don't have it would not help anyone except me. It might make me feel better, but me feeling better about my privilege is not the point. I could be a good hippie and spend my days volunteering at the local library and my evenings making pottery in my basement. No one could accuse me of making things worse, but I would hardly be making things better for people in extreme need. I think we should be less like the ascetic Tolstoy barefoot in the woods, and more like Jane Addams using her wealth, connections, education, and skills for the benefit of others.

If we want to make a better and fairer world for everyone, we should use every tool we have—including money—to do so.