Saturday, June 8, 2013

Cheerfully

As a young person, I was extremely struck by the realization that my choice to donate or not meant the difference between someone else’s living and dying. A lot of decisions started to look very starkly wrong.

I remember telling my dad that I had decided it would be immoral for me to have children, because they would take too much of my time and money away from better causes. “It doesn't sound like this lifestyle is going to make you happy,” he said.

“My happiness is not the point,” I told him.

A few years later, I was deeply bitter about the decision. I had always wanted and intended to be a parent, and I felt thwarted. It was making me sick and miserable. I looked at the rest of my life as more of an obligation than a joy.

So Jeff and I decided that it wasn't worth having a breakdown over. We decided to set aside enough for our personal spending that we could reasonably afford to raise a child. Looking back at my journal entries from before and after the decision, I'm struck by how much difference it made in my outlook. Immediately after we gave ourselves permission to be parents, I was excited about the future again. I don't know when we'll actually have a kid, but just the possibility helps me feel things will be all right. And I suspect that feeling of satisfaction with my own life lets me be more help to the world than I would have as a broken-down altruist.

I've attended Quaker meeting for the last ten years. The founder, George Fox, gave his followers this advice in 1658: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing.”

Quakers have tended to emphasize the part about “that of God in everyone,” with its implication about equality: how can it be right to keep slaves, for example, if the slave has an element of the divine in her?

But my favorite part is that word “cheerfully.” Fox was a man who had been jailed and beaten for his religious beliefs – surely he had a right to be bitter. Quakerism later developed a stern and dour style, but George Fox was not about that.

Some things I can do cheerfully. It turns out that giving up children was not one of them. Other people would have no problem giving up parenthood, but I suspect that everyone has something that would cause an inordinate amount of pain to sacrifice.

So test your boundaries, and see what changes you can make that will help others without costing you too dearly. But when you find something is making you bitter, stop. Effective altruism is not about driving yourself to a breakdown. We don't need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post, very interesting. Are you claiming that it is permissible for you to have a child, despite the resources it directs away from effective altruism? Or is it that, as an empirical matter, it's highly likely that refraining from procreating would in fact render you a less effective altruist?

    Also, and forgive me if this is too personal, do you think it would be better for you to adopt, thereby directing your resources to someone who already exists? Or do you consider it basically a wash, and figure that it's important to you to have biologically related children? Perhaps you take a position I haven't considered.

    Again, I apologize if the questions are too personal, I find this particular topic very fascinating and you seem open to discussing it.

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    1. I'm not sure what the difference is between your first two questions. Ideally, I would just be happy regardless and wouldn't have diverted the resources away from helping other people. Practically, it didn't look like that was going to work, because I was miserable. I don't know what would have happened if I had continued down that path - maybe I would have found a way to be okay with it, but I think it's more likely it would have stuck in my mind as a very painful sacrifice and would have affected my will to keep helping others. So given that reality, I think we made the decision that will do the most good.

      We did consider adoption long and hard. International adoption costs $20,000 - $50,000, which was a major strike against it. (If you want to improve the lives of people in other countries, there are cheaper ways.) Domestic infant adoption didn't make sense because there's such high demand, so we would just be displacing another family that wanted the baby. That left adoption from foster care. Children who have been removed from their birth families by the state tend to have some major issues - e.g. in-utero drug exposure, a history of being abused, etc. It takes a lot of extra care and patience to raise a child with those kind of special needs, and we weren't sure we could give that. I can imagine considering foster adoption for a second child, but we're not ready to do it as first-time parents.

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    2. The comment on adoption is on point--in addition, supporting the international adoption market may inadvertently cause harm. Most children up for adoption *do* still have living family members, but poverty and greed intervene. Mother Jones has written several good articles on the topic, including this one:
      http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2009/03/meet-parents-dark-side-overseas-adoption

      Fostering is a wonderful to do, but again, someone has to be ready and willing to "give cheerfully" to do that well.

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  2. It seems to me that joy (and walking cheerfully over the world) is the kind of response one has when encountering the wildness and wonder of a universe that is not, despite initial appearances, zero sum. There is an essential quality of the joy of giving rooted in the same reality, I think. Giving multiplies benefits - to the giver and the receiver. More is generated in output than entered as input. Perhaps something of one's recovered joy in making the kind of decision you made - to be open to a deep desire that seemed to run counter to the demands of a zero sum universe - is a response of the soul to being able to dance freely again in the truth of that wild and wondrous mystery that is a universe birthed in love.

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    1. I agree - there's a sweet spot where you feel fulfilled by the good work you can do. Thanks for the kind words!

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    2. No one's pefect. I had laser eye surgery, which is completely contrary to the EA vision or whatever you want to call it. But acknowledging it for what it is, and not coming up with some rationalization as to how it is consistent with your vision is a great service in itself.

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  3. Oh, and thank you for such a challenging, engaging and beautifully vulnerable post. You write well, and you live well, and it's inspiring to encounter you and your husband through this blog.

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  4. The difference is this. On my initial reading of the post, I had two potential interpretations:

    "I would be so miserable without a child, and this cost to me is so great that it can justifiably override my concern for doing the most good."

    Or:

    "I would be so miserable without a child, and thus I would be a less effective altruist, such that my goal for doing the most good is best achieved, in part, by having a child and making myself happy."

    Both claims are compatible with your claim that it would be better not to have this desire for a child. Based on your response here, it seems to me you're closer to the second interpretation. On this reading, refraining from having a child would be a form of false economy, because while you might think it would give you more resources to spend effectively, in the long run it would undermine your goals.

    Excellent points on adoption. I've long agreed about international adoption.

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    1. Okay, I see. Yes, I was trying to say the latter. I don't think my own happiness is more important than other people's.

      Of course, there's the danger of constantly sabotaging everything by developing new "needs" - "I can't save the world if I don't have a car, and a bigger apartment, and this sweater, and this ice cream cone!" So I try to keep my needs small, but I don't have a foolproof method.

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  5. I think giving without compromise for personal happiness also risks alienating other potential givers. More total good is done if more people give, and people are less likely to join the culture of effective altruism if they perceive it as a lifestyle of unhappiness.

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  6. I made a transition similar to yours, away from fanatical giving to just very substantial giving. For me, I see it as a trade-off between my personal happiness and the achievement of my utilitarian goals. I *do* care about myself more than other people, I've realized. But I still want to make a bunch of money and give it to charity--it's fun having a purpose in life and an objective to optimize and I care about my utilitarian goals quite a bit as well. Additionally, the kind of work I want to do is highly intellectual, and I think that extreme self-denial would likely be counterproductive for it. In general, I try to put more of my energy in to maximizing my income than minimizing my expenses, especially given how early I am in my career (I'm 22).

    I also think there is a pretty good altruistic case for having kids, especially if you wait until genetic engineering becomes available and have genetically enhanced kids. Here are a couple links: http://edge.org/response-detail/23722 http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/11/fertility-the-big-problem.html And consider the fact that since you and your husband likely have a genetic predisposition towards altruistic giving, and your kid will grow up in your home in a culture where that seems normal, there's a good chance they will end up giving altruistically as well, and maybe even having more kids that give altruistically. Yay for spreading alleles for altruism!

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    1. I think the easiest way to spread these ideas is just by talking to people who haven't heard them yet, rather than creating and raising new humans. But of course, like most parents, I hope that our kids will come out just like us, only better :)

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    2. If your child choose to be charitable, it will affect surroundings that aren't near you. For example if your child gets a job, it will be able to affect its colleagues, who probably wont read your blog. Time invested in raising your child might very well be an investment, which result in more lifes saved, better quality of life, better economy in 3rd world countries and so on. It is impossible to tell, what the impact of your decision will be, but I find it just as likely, that it will have a positive impact on the world than a negative impact.
      Just heard about your blog from The Life You Can Save. It is very interesting to hear about people, who meet some of the same dilemmas as me regarding to giving. I am definately planning to check back on your articles and share my thougts.

      Erik

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  7. Hey, you guys are awesome for giving away so much money. Has Jeff thought about trying to negotiate a higher salary? $140-150K doesn't seem that unusual for a senior software engineer in the SF Bay area. I'm making about $110K as a year-long intern (with a lot of independent projects and a solid programming background).

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  8. "$140-150K doesn't seem that unusual for a senior software engineer in the SF Bay area."

    If we moved to the bay area I would probably be able to make somewhat more, even after the increase in cost of living, but I like Boston a lot.

    (I'm currently making $110K plus bonuses, stock, donation matching, etc. Details: http://www.jefftk.com/money)

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  9. I strongly recommend investigating the philosophy of Stoicism.

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    1. I read an overview, but I'm not sure what part of it you mean. Any further guidance on how it relates to this?

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