I was moved by many entries in the EA forum of EAs that write openly about their mental suffering which is caused by EA’s utilitarian logic and moral demandingness. That’s why I am surprised that this issue was not addressed yet by leading EA’s such as William Mc Askill or Toby Ord. I made a similar experience that I want to share including possible solutions.
Tyler Alterman (former President of EA Global and Director of Growth at the Centre of Effective Altruism) explains the misery trap as follows when describing his own experience here in the EA forum:
“ I stopped making art, because my art was not worth a child’s life. I swore off emotions that might hamper me. I let go of girlfriends and live music and old friends and calling my mom because these things were now wastes of time in the face of The Big Problems. I stopped dressing in the crazy outfits and bright colors that I’d become famous for; I did not want to harm the respectability of the movement. I gave up my lifelong hope to become a dad. I gave up on love.“
Tyler Alterman was not the only person who had severe mental health issues due to EA’s logic. 218 upvotes speak for themselves.
Nothing seems more relevant than saving a life. That’s why EA’s logic entails the risk of turning humans into money-making machines, so they can donate a lot and thus saving as many lives as possible. EA came up with many great ideas but none of them includes moral reasoning against donating extreme amounts of money or time to charitable causes.
When my parents were splitting up in summer 2014, I became suddenly obsessed with poverty and self-abandonment. Back then, I did not know EA. I looked inside my closet and wondered “how many lives could I have saved, if I donated the money instead of buying all these t-shirts?”. From this point onwards, I started to question everything. I went to summer vacation to Greece with my family. When my dad proposed a boat trip, I replied that we should donate the money instead of using it for a fun activity like this. Everything around me seemed to be wrong. How can any form of consumption or property be justified if the money could be spent on combatting extreme poverty? This logic felt incredibly crippling and paralysing.
On the one hand, I didn’t want to lecture people and I wanted to be able to enjoy life including nice vacations, shopping etc. On the other hand, this kind of pleasure felt morally prohibited. Every consumption I made, felt like murdering someone. I entered the hardest and darkest times of my life where I was surprised about how bad a human being can feel. Before, I was promoting a liberal and independent lifestyle. I had a very positive mindset and found joy in all kind of things. This seemed all gone and replaced by crippling guilt and the feeling that I might never fulfill my personal dreams in life which made me really depressed.
What helped me back then, was opening up to my dad and discussing these thoughts with him. He introduced the idea to me that without consumption, there would be mass unemployment and no one would be able to donate a dime. I realized it’s not consumption vs donating, it has to be both and one is not necessarily better than the other. They should be pursued equally. This gave me the justification to live I want to live and my joy came back slowly.
In the following years, I developed a healthy attitude towards big global problems. My guilt was replaced with curiosity and I started to pursue a Master in Development Economics with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, which I enjoyed. In April this year, when some personal challenges occurred, the guilt came back and I dug deeply into the EA movement hoping to find answers. I didn’t really find the answers I was looking for but I found a lot more guilt because EA misses addressing the following question: how am I ethically allowed to possess anything, if the same money could also be used saving a life?
The leaders of EA such as William McAskill should address this problem openly.
Too often EA spreads the trade-off narrative of your well-being vs the well-being of others. I would love to see a practical philosophical framework that illustrates how your wellbeing and the well-being of others correlate positively instead of trading each other off. This message would be very powerful. Since there is no such thing yet, I built my own framework.
The real problem lies in the concept of marginal utility. If you strictly follow EA’s logic of marginal utility, it would not even be justifiable to have children. It seems impossible to justify to spend ~400k €/ child over a lifetime when I could save over 130 lives with that amount of money, at least according to GiveWell.
However, Peter Singer justified having children by moving away from the logic of marginal utility: he claimed that it’s better for the world if the ones who care about other people have children rather than just the ones who do not care. Instead of applying marginal utility, he applies the rather Kantian “imagine every was doing it this way” model.
Replacing strict marginal utility by “do I wish everyone would live that way”?
I wish to live in a world where everyone fulfills their dreams. Even if they are crazy and costly. Everyone should pursue their very own individual happiness. At the same time, everyone has a responsibility to take care of the ones who lost in the birth lottery. The ideal solution is not that everyone gives up on their dreams to donate money instead. The ideal solution is that everyone lives the life they truly desire and at the same time participate in solving global issues. This what I understand as “the most good”.
Singer’s pond analogy is wrong: You can’t buy human lives.
Nobel Laureate and Development Economist Angus Deaton made it very clear: “you can’t buy human lives like cars”. RCT’s always leave room for uncertainty.
McAskill himself even acknowledges this to a certain extent:
“To be clear: We cannot be 100% certain that AMF is doing more good than harm; nor can we be confident about exactly how much good it’s doing (a fact that GiveWell repeatedly emphasised (GiveWell 2017)). Indeed, there are many issues that remain open. It’s possible that AMF diverts some skilled labour from other areas, so the full costs of bednet distribution are larger than they might otherwise be (this is discussed in GiveWell 2018a). We would be naive indeed if we did not appreciate the fact that development efforts operate in an incredibly complex context of multiple interrelated activities.”
Another neglected factor is that we do not know if our donation would be replaced by an institution, state, foundation etc if we didn’t make it. Imagine governments or larger foundations looking into charities like AMF every year to fill their remaining funding gap. A similar dynamic was observable with private donations to Ukraine: governments from all over the world gave >$100bn to Ukraine and continue to do so. If there was a bigger gap of a few hundred million because private households didn’t donate, the international state community would cover it.
The likelihood to save the drowning child is extremely high in Singer’s pond analogy. No other person is around, so only you can save the drowning child.
You also do not have to give up all your dreams to save the drowning child. You only have to give up a pair of nice sneakers once. In reality, you do not know if you’d really save the child or if you cause more harm than good by trying to save it. Or if another person who is a pro swimmer and only wears swim gear jumps into the pond to save the child.
Your happiness and well-being are the foundation for doing good
If you feel down because you do not use your resources for your own well-being, you won’t have energy to create anything for others. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
Money is created because of consumption
While economic textbooks still teach that central banks create money, the reality is that commercial banks create money when they lend it to companies. Companies borrow money because they assume that there will be a high degree of consumption for their goods & services. If consumption drops significantly, there will be much less money that is created. Fewer jobs and less wealth that can be donated would be the result. So, the starting point always is consumption. It’s the engine that enables everything else (salaries for teachers, aid, doctors etc.)
Whenever these thoughts pop up, I try to reprogramme my mind by writing down the flaws of EA’s logic and replacing them with the thoughts I outlined above. That’s the only thing that really helped me and it works!
I don’t want to live in a world where people turn into maximizing moneymaking machines. SBF illustrated what can happen if you strictly follow this mantra.
I want to live in a world where everyone does what they truly want from the bottom of their heart.
Moving forward, I really hope that EA as a movement becomes more aware of these issues and will address them publicly to avoid causing further harm to its members. EA’s core beliefs are very valuable. I am convinced that a more nuanced view will help EA to gain more public acceptance and thus grow.