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).