This is about a personal experience - rescuing a dog on a trip in Mexico - that helped me realize how I wrestle with being effective. 

My girlfriend and me were recently in Mexico. After speaking at a conference, we took two weeks off in Yucatan. We had both been aware that we’d meet a lot of stray animals. We knew that this situation could potentially spoil our vacation – which was meant as a break from our daily involvement in animal activism (and thus animal suffering). So as well as we could, we avoided getting too close to any animal we saw in the streets.

That worked, until it didn’t. Near the end of our trip, I ran into a quite unhealthy looking dog who was riddled with ticks. We spent half an hour taking the ticks out and by the time we were done with him, we knew we wouldn’t let him lie there. I called a few shelters, asking if they could take the dog in, but they were all full. Contacting local activists, we miraculously found a place nearby where he’d be able to stay indefinitely. We brought him there right away, leaving him in a pen (there were other dogs that needed to get used to him). When we went away, it was with a bad feeling. Later that night, we decided we would pick him up again the next morning (our hotel didn’t allow dogs so we had to wait) and would find another place for him.

When we went back the next day, we were told that the dog had escaped. We saw where he had bit through the fence, probably in desperation and fear of the barking of the other dogs. We felt devastated, thinking that instead of helping him, we had put his life at risk. There was a very busy road right next to the property, and the place where we had found him – his home turf – was six kilometers away.

By now we had bonded with this dog – which we called Tlalok, after the Aztec rain god – and mourned for the rest of the day, as if one of our own dogs had just died. We actually had difficulty understanding why this whole situation affected us so much. Maybe it was because Tlalok was such an incredibly friendly, trusting – and at the same time needy – being.

The next day, one day before we’d fly home, we decided we wouldn’t give up on him. I made a Spanish “LOST” flyer that we copied in our hotel and then distributed in the village where we’d found him. The flyer promised a reward of 5000 pesos (250 dollars). We spoke to many people online and offline, contacted vets, shelters and activists…

At one point that day, a vet we were in touch with sent us the picture of a dog that had walked into a hotel where coincidentally a friend of hers was staying. It was Tlalok! We rushed to the village for the second time that day and half an hour later, we felt the relief as we hugged him. We brought him to our hotel and the next night, to a shelter, which was full but agreed to take him in and make sure he got all the necessary care, but only if we agreed to adopt him. We said yes, not having any alternative solution. We’d figure out later what exactly we would do with Tlalok, but the plan was set in motion to have him fly over to Belgium, where we live.

Four weeks later, we picked Tlalok up at Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam – where he arrived a day later than planned so that we had to stay an extra night there. As I’m writing this, he’s in our kitchen with our four other dogs. We’re looking to have him adopted, knowing that with each day that he’s here, it will be harder to part ways.

In the meantime, we also remained in contact with the vet in Mexico and paid her a couple of hundred dollars to spay/neuter Tlalok’s siblings and mother.

 

***


After reading some of this story, which I had posted – with some pictures - on Facebook, an EA friend told me she was sort of shocked and confused. Had I spent all this time on just one dog because he had some ticks? Couldn’t I see that this was not a rational or effective thing to do?

Another EA friend, hearing about the story, went a bit further. He semi-jokingly asked if euthanasia was not an option, and suggested I write some controversial post on my social media:

"I feel guilty for having forsaken rational values and for giving in to primitive instincts and to have saved this one Mexican dog's life for thousands of Euros, but to make up for it, I now pledge to donate the same amount to PETA so that they can euthanize more dogs."

I knew, of course, where these people were coming from. I identify as EA myself; I’ve dedicated my life to changing things structurally for farmed animals. Most of my donations go to effective causes. And since being back from Mexico, I’ve given a couple of talks about EA and included this story as an introduction, an example of ineffective altruism. In my talks, I always include a quote by Paul Bloom, saying that empathy is a poor guide if you want to make the world a better place.

I get it. In Mexico I had experienced how all my empathy and attention had been sucked up by that one creature with whom I had accidentally bonded. We ended up spending over a thousand dollars on him (not thousands, as my friend suggested), as well as a lot of time.

But could I have done differently? Would I have wanted to if I could have?

I don’t have definitive answers here to my conundrum. I don’t have a message. But here are some (perhaps quite obvious) observations :

- I don’t know if my reaction was better than a purely calculating reaction, and I can imagine the world could be made much better and that most suffering could be solved by aligned AIs that don’t feel empathy. But It feels like something would definitely be lost if we’d lose or ignore our ability to react empathically in situations like these (which I guess at least to non EA people will sound entirely obvious).

  • On a personal level, much like my EA friends seemed disappointed in me and puzzled or even shocked about my behavior, I think I felt the same about them: puzzled and shocked that they couldn’t understand what I was doing. That they could be so much more calculating still than I was. I realize that I want people to be very, very rational, but that I also still want to see in them that willingness to care for just one being that crosses their path, even if that is not necessarily entirely rational. I think I’d I trust and appreciate them more if they can than if they can’t.
  • It would have been extremely hard to ignore the appeal to my empathy that Tlalok put on me. I can’t say that I would have been proud of myself if I had ignored it. I can’t say that it would have been the better or the right thing to do.
  • Something I always tell the people in the vegan/animal rights community (which is often not very EA): we need to appreciate that people differ in the ways they practice being vegan, and shouldn’t criticize each other for not being vegan enough. In the same way, very obviously, all of us differ in the degree we are rational and EA
  • Another obvious point that I’m almost afraid to make: maybe the positive effects of helping Tlalok go beyond helping just him. Maybe it inspires other people to help. Or maybe it inspires other people to be less effective, I don’t know.
  • Since this happened during my vacation, one could say that at least the time I invested in Tlalok during that vacation, competed with vacation time, not with work time.


I think that for now I want to do the following:

For my donations, I have a rational/effective budget that is about 80%, and an emotional/impulsive budget that I like to cap at 20%. I want to guarantee these proportions. If during the year I overspend on emotional causes or situations, I want to make sure that my effective budget remains at least four times as big. If my emotional budget increases, so will my effective budget. 

I remain confused about what the right thing to do is. Is my wanting to help Tlalok and my questioning rationality/effectiveness nothing more than the consequence of a moral illusion? I’m curious how others think about this, how you cope with this tension, and if you can imagine spending so much time on one human or animal (who is a stranger to you).


 

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My personal view is that being an EA implies spending some significant portion of your efforts being (or aspiring to be) particularly effective in your altruism, but it doesn't by any means demand you spend all your efforts doing so. I'd seriously worry about the movement if there was some expectation that EAs devote themselves completely to EA projects and neglect things like self-care and personal connections (even if there was an exception for self-care & connections insofar as they help one be more effective in their altruism).

It sounds like you developed a personal connection with this particular dog rather quickly, and while this might be unusual, I wouldn't consider it a fault. At the same time, while I don't see a problem with EAs engaging in that sort of partiality with those they connect with, I would worry a bit if you were making the case that this sort of behavior was in itself an act of effective altruism, as I think prioritization, impartiality, and good epistemics are really important to exhibit when engaged in EA projects. (Incidentally, this is one further reason I'd worry if there was an expectation that EAs devote themselves completely to EA projects – I think this would lead to more backwards rationalizations about why various acts people want to do are actually EA projects when they're not, and this would hurt epistemics and so on.) But you don't really seem to be doing that.

In your position, my response to the question "why spend so much on this one dog?" would be "because I wanted to lol". You don't have to justify yourself to anyone, and you don't have to reconstruct some post-hoc justification as to why you did it.

I understand that's not a satisfying solution, in that it doesn't preclude a slippery slope into "all of my money goes into arbitrary things that tug my heartstrings and none of it goes to the most effective causes". You may be seeking guardrails against that possibility. There are none. Which is okay, because you probably don't need them! You identify as EA for a reason. I'm going to guess it's because the suffering of people and animals tugs at your heartstrings, even when you don't see them. As long as that's true, it seems extremely unlikely that you will fall off this slippery slope.

Moreover, I don't think it's healthy to try to justify all your life choices on EA grounds, a point made best here.

Thanks for sharing! My intuition would be that the behavior of your friends are net negative for the EA movement as they risk demotivating you in your work and making it seeming like EA has standards that many people don’t want to follow. It took me some years to grasp the bandwidth of attitudes and behaviors that are compatible with adhering to the shared values and this delayed my switching to direct work. In that sense I would agree with the parallel you drew from the vegan community. That being said I feel myself self-censoring more what I post online since becoming more active, as I am aware of being judged by some people in and out of the community. I’m not sure if this is a good thing.

Unfortunately when I first joined EA and went vegan I would have been more judgmental but now I think I understand where you're coming from.

My own anecdote: I have an antisocial hamster. He doesn't like being held or pet, and would be happiest with minimal human interaction. There is no reason for me to be so emotionally attached to him — he was given up by his previous owner, but isn't charismatic / affectionate like dogs and cats. Despite this, I adore him. I've built him the best home I can, as large & interesting as possible, for hundreds of dollars. I've taken him to the (expensive) exotic vet ASAP when he needs it so he can be maximally comfortable.

Most people buy hamsters for $20 and let them spend their whole lives in crappy plastic cages. I could have easily have either not sought him out, or after getting him, given him only "standard U.S." levels of care. I don't have a good theory for why he deserves hundreds of dollars worth of herbs and bedding and moss when basically any other use of my money would be more effective at reducing animal suffering. I will accept it's basically unjustifiable. But whatever the me-separate-from-my-morality is — the non-consequentialist bits of squishy human reasoning — that me would be deeply emotionally harmed by harming the little dude.

My best answer is just that my hamster is part of the warm fuzzy budget, not the utilon budget.

Just wanted to chime in with my own random two cents. Lots of empathy to you, and best wishes with Tlalok. Even if it's not maximally moral, I am glad to live in the same world as people like you.

thank you. your hamster situation sounds quite similar. I guess for myself I'm wondering if it can be a bug and a feature at the same time :-)

Perhaps another way to frame it might be to count the time and money outside of the your donation bucket? As in, donation budget is rational/effective, and everything else can be included as part of discretionary spending on personal/wellbeing? eg- same bucket as hobbies, travel etc.

Not sure if this might simplify things mentally and guard against motivated reasoning and slippery slope concerns

I feel like these actions and attitudes embody many of the virtues of effective altruism. You really genuinely wanted to help somebody, and you took personally costly actions to do so. I feel great about having people like you in the EA Community. My advice is to keep the feeling of how important you were to Tlalok's life as you do good effectively with other parts of your time and effort, knowing you are perhaps making a profound difference in many lives.

I feel like many of the other comments here better express my view. But I just wanted to chip in and say that I think your EA friends are wrong and that this post makes me respect you much more, not less. I also really appreciate that you are being so open about your thinking and internal conflicts, even though you are yourself a leader in the space I really look up to. 

Thank you for taking the time to write this post, Tobias. 

It resonated a lot with me and as I've recently been thinking (and experiencing!) how privileged I am. I'm spending the winter in a warm place and there are a lot of homeless people here. One way I deal with this emotionally is that I give them 50ct-1€ every time I see a homeless person. This money does not come out of my normal donation budget and it makes me feel like I can make a slight difference in somebodys day. I know it's not the "EA thing" to do, but as others said in the comments, there is no need to be sticking to EA principles 100% of the time.

I mostly agree with the other commenters here, and thought I might perhaps have an additional perspective: I think both your way of being and EA, as well as how your EA friends chose to live are important to EA. I could, when reading your post, feel the pull to divide EA into the "too much" camp and the "EA light" camp but I think this initial, us vs them reaction is unnecessary and perhaps even counter productive. The more "hard core" among us helps the more "EA light" among us (to which I think I might belong) prevent value drift and encourages us to take helping as much as we can even more seriously. At the same time, I think us "EA light" folks have value to add to the "hard core" faction by making them feel more ok about the occasional "mistake" they might make. I also think us "EA light" folks can help grow the movement as I think it is much easier to recruit "EA light" people to our causes and organizations than the hard core types. 

I really hope you and your friends can come to some sort of understanding like this, where you can both live guilt and judgement free as EAs and feel like you belong in this movement. For what it is worth, I think you are probably being more than EA enough - just the fact that you thought through this and wrote this post seems to demonstrate that to me. In my books it is completely ok that EAs act ineffectively, even frequently! I sure do!

thanks, I've felt this value of light vs hardcore as well...

Here's a few quotes from your post (emphasis added):

I ran into a quite unhealthy looking dog who was riddled with ticks. We spent half an hour taking the ticks out and by the time we were done with him, we knew we wouldn’t let him lie there....

We brought him there [to a shelter] right away, leaving him in a pen <...> . When we went away, it was with a bad feeling. 

When we went back the next day, we were told that the dog had escaped. <...> We felt devastated

By now we had bonded with this dog <...> and mourned for the rest of the day.

A question, riffing off the title:

  • Several people in the same scenario would not have worried about letting that dog lie there, would not have had a bad feeling about leaving a dog in a shelter and realising that the dog wasn't happy there, would not have felt devastated about this, and would not have mourned the outcome...
  • ... do those people need help?

I think it's good you helped the dog and you should get positive reinforcement for it and feel good about yourself for it.

I think it would have been, idk, maybe 20 thousand or more times as good, if you had used the same amount of money on highly cost effective global health interventions, but that doesn't mean it isn't also good that you helped the dog.

I’m curious how others think about this, how you cope with this tension, and if you can imagine spending so much time on one human or animal (who is a stranger to you).

Personally no, not really - I wouldn't spent 1000+ dollars or a day's work on an animal who is a stranger to me, or even any an animal that I know. For a human stranger I might, but there are limits there too. I think to some degree i I can viscerally feel in my feelings as well as my thoughts opportunity costs above a certain magnitude, so it doesn't really feel like cold calculations over feelings to me. It also helps to personally know more people in need than I can realistically help, and so being accustomed to feeling in triage even before taking abstract strangers into account.

But I sometimes do smaller versions of this. For example, last week I tried to catch a mouse and release it in a location where it might survive rather than killing it, even when that costs an extra hour which could be spent doing much more good. I don't think this is a problem at all, it's a more impactful use of my time than scrolling on the internet which I also do sometimes. Why should only good actions be subject to scrutiny? So you helped a dog, instead of buying a fancier car, why should anyone have a problem with that?

When your friend isn't criticizing that you bought a more expensive apartment or laptop than is strictly needed to maximize effectiveness, then why should they decide to criticize your act of kindness to a dog? There are institutions with billions in resources who spend it on nothing useful, or war, who wants to worry that one little dog has gotten some good fortune?

I think it is a big mistake to bring those who are doing a little small bit of good, under more negative scrutiny than if they had done nothing.

what you say relates to the last point I made, I think: what does the behavior (time or money) compete with (or displace). Is that money or time taken from one's charity budget, or from e.g. one's entertainment budget? I guess there's good ways to track that if one is honest with oneself.

Yes! There are so many opportunities to help animals, and some are effective on a really large scale, but what Tobias did means the world to this dog <3

I guess I'm thinking that if A is 20k times as good as B, it's really not very good to do B even if B is a little bit good in itself :-) 

I guess I'm not fully sure I understand why you are thinking that.  Is it possible that you are feeling confused about your feelings because it is a dog and so it is easier to think of its welfare in terms of which number is smaller rather than engaging with the question emotionally?

Imagine it was a human child. Wouldn't it be "very good" to give one human child a caring family and a home? Why does the fact that it would be arguably more good to prevent ten human children from premature malaria deaths take away from that it's good to help one child? 

If everybody with the capability would give serious support to even one other person then almost all these problems would be solved several times over

Or lets imagine a more down to earth scenario. Your friend wants you to help them move. So you help them move. But you instead could have worked extra and made more money, hired movers for your friend, and also on top of that paid for a week of your friend's meals. Haven't you still done a good turn by helping your friend, even if an even more efficient way to help them exists? (Especially when in reality you were never going to put in all those extra work hours and you would burn out if you lived like that)\

A small good deserves a small reward, not a punishment, but it sounds like you are punishing yourself. The purpose of guilt and shame emotions are not intended to punish yourself for not doing enough.Those emotions are intended to stop you from doing bad things, not punish you for being insufficiently efficient about good. If you emotionally punish yourself for doing good in smaller than maximally efficient ways then you'll only train yourself to flinch away from doing good things, don't do that to yourself.  

We want you to work hard at doing good for others for many years, We don't want you to feel guilt and shame about not doing enough until your motivation fizzles out. Small good things count. 

It's not about catering to your emotions at the expense of rationality or anything. When you find a $1 dollar on the street, you are happy to have gotten a little money, not sad that the bill was not $100, right? It doesn't do to not appreciate the small things just because larger things exist. You talked about emotions vs yourf riends being "more calculating" than you earlier, but what your friends said was actually not rational, it is not calculating correctly to not count small good things as good just because an even bigger good is placed next to them. 

If you want to change your behavior to do even more good that's great but there's no sense in which doing a small good should count against you.

Thank you for writing this, Tobias. I can see why you feel confused about this, I think it makes sense to feel so. It sucks your friends made you feel bad about it. 

I can't say what the right thing to do was in that situation, but I can say I am with you that it isn't right to be harsh to ourselves and others for not making the most optimized decision all the time

No one needs help just because they spend their personal time and money on a stray dog, including you. I can see why this might still be hard to accept. Perhaps reframing it like this might help? 

  • Your compassionate colleague, who's incredibly dedicated to improving animal welfare, was on vacation. They're resting from difficult work and making difficult decisions. 
  • They gave themselves rare time to do whatever they wanted to do, to focus on themselves, just enjoying their lives. 
  • And at that time, helping an incredibly friendly and trusting stray dog would make them happy. And so, they did. 

I currently live in a place where there are a lot of suffering people and animals. Most of the time, I can't help them. I try to not ignore them, though; I acknowledge them in ways I can. I think they really appreciate that. When I say no to people begging, I still kindly look them in the eye and smile to say sorry. For strays, I give them small treats.

Since I can't avoid it, I cope by reframing it as a daily reminder of why this work means so much. That I'm helping this many beings who are in need, if not more. 

It hurts that I'm affected, but I see it as an indication that I still care. I think I would actually be really worried if I am no longer affected.

Executive summary: The author wrestles with being maximally effective after bonding with and rescuing a stray dog in Mexico, questioning if that emotional response should be avoided or encouraged.

Key points:

  1. The author bonded with a sick stray dog in Mexico, spent significant time and money rescuing and eventually adopting it.
  2. Some effective altruist friends criticized this as irrational and ineffective, suggesting euthanasia or a controversial social media post.
  3. The author identifies as an effective altruist focused on reducing animal suffering, yet defends the emotional response and questions maximizing effectiveness above all else.
  4. There are positive effects from helping individuals that inspire others, and wanting to retain empathy even in an increasingly rational world.
  5. The author concludes by capping emotional/impulsive donations at 20% while guaranteeing effective donations are at least 80%, increasing both together.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

I think your way of being and EA, as well as how your EA buddies decide to live, are vital to EA. I mainly agree with the other posters here, but I thought I might have something extra to contribute. After reading your piece, I felt tempted to categorize EA into two camps: "too much" and "EA light." However, I believe that this initial us vs. them mentality is needless and might possibly be detrimental. The more "EA light" among us—to which I believe I may belong—helps the more "hard core" among us by preventing value drift and motivating us to take assisting even more seriously.

However, I believe that by helping the "hard core" group feel more comfortable with the odd "mistake" they may make, we "EA light" people may be of benefit. As "EA light" individuals are more simpler to attract to our causes and organizations than hard core types, I believe that we "EA light" people may also contribute to the movement's growth. 
 

Regard

Tiger

Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Many of them sort of reframed my dilemma in different terms, and confirmed my doubts (not a bad thing). And at the same time I was also moved and comforted by the empathy displayed. I remain happy to be part of this community.

I believe it's great that you assisted the dog, and you should feel proud of yourself and receive praise for it. While I believe that spending the same amount of money on extremely cost-effective global health treatments would have produced results that were at least ten thousand times as excellent, helping the dog is still a good thing.
 

Echoing themes of what some other people have said, I think it's important to have space in your life where you are not always optimizing for effectiveness. You were on vacation! Choosing to use some of your vacation time and a significant chunk of money is admirable.

The ONLY worry I would have if I were in your shoes from an EA perspective is "this $1000 I spent, would I have otherwise donated it to a super effective charity?" If the answer is yes then maybe there's some reflection to do about how you are approaching effectiveness. But if - as I'm guessing - that $1000 came out of money that you would have spent to make yourself happy I'm some other way, then it's admirable you decided to use it to help this dog.

How I think about it: I have a effective giving budget, and a guilt-free spending on myself budget. I spend $1000+ per year on things like movies, going out to eat, etc., and don't feel bad about it because I have budgeted for it and can't do an effectiveness calculation every time I make a decision about how to spend my time or money.

Thank you for this post. I have a hunch that your friends' behavior might have a negative impact on the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. It seems that their actions could potentially demotivate you in your efforts and create a perception that EA has standards that many may not want to adhere to. Personally, it took me some time to understand the range of attitudes and behaviors that align with our shared values, and this delayed my transition to direct work. In that regard, I see the parallel you drew with the vegan community.

However, I've noticed a shift in my own behavior since becoming more active. I find myself self-censoring more in what I post online, being mindful of potential judgments from both within and outside the community. I'm uncertain whether this change is ultimately beneficial.