Little (& effective) altruism

post by Parmest Roy · 2022-06-02T19:05:17.893Z · EA · GW · 4 comments

In the four months of my interaction with you wonderful people, I have developed a sense of inner comfort within myself. To know that a community aimed at doing good exists in a profit-driven world is profoundly freshening, and more so when you're a part of it yourself. 

It is probably not an exaggeration to state that EA is working for its causes at a significantly larger (& more effective) scale when compared to other existing organizations in this domain. For instance, India, my native place is home to thousands of organizations aimed at altruistic causes. None of them, however, are as effective or financially equipped as EA. This is not because they fail to grow, but because the ones that do, get commercialized and turn into profit-making machines; while the ones which stay true to their values often fail to enrich themselves with the resources required to do good. My experiences with the latter organizations multiply the respect I hold for EA. 

When compared to those little communities, there is a major difference that I have noticed in my time here. To be a part of a community that is literally trying to save the world (thanks to X-Risk mitigation) is an unusual experience. As a result of which, I occasionally have caught myself enjoying a sense of pride in the work of EA without ever having contributed anything to this community. 

My false sense of pride has another tail to tell. One fine day in Feb, I met a friend. To my surprise, he too had joined an altruistically inclined organization. When he introduced me to its work and causes, I felt a sense of superiority. "EA is better" was my immediate reaction. Minutes later, I started to get an idea of how far from altruism I was at that point. 

After days of reflection, I understood what the problem was with me. The big talks on the forum had overshadowed my modesty. This was a profound and important realization for me. I recognized that a sudden jump to the big things was not making me an altruistic human being. Even if I would have managed to make contributions, I would never have become a part of EA. 

I needed a slow route to truly become an altruist. 

A slow route refers to the development of altruistic habits in our daily lives. It can be anything from treating people with kindness to turning off the not-in-use lights. It can be adding limits to the purchase of unnecessary products or helping our families out with the household. I am not interested in going into the statistics of how effective these actions are on the macro scale, because it is not the point of my discussion. All I wish to say is that in order to truly stay uncorrupted and effective as altruists, we probably shouldn't forget the little (& effective) altruism.

I've been Parmest.

And I thank you tons for your time!

4 comments

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comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2022-06-03T08:07:22.647Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This was a nice little post!

One of the biggest draws to the EA community for me — and something that's kept me involved — is how much small-scale altruism goes on here. Unsurprisingly, a movement founded on practical altruism draws a lot of people who enjoy helping and actually care about providing good help. 

This manifests in a bunch of ways. Two that come to mind: EA Global participants swarming me to help carry heavy conference items through a shopping mall when I was at CEA, and a bunch of cases where someone in the community encountered a personal issue and got massive support from their extended social network — here's one example.

*****

I've met people who seem to get by without caring much about small-scale altruism (they are good at fixing their eyes on the biggest problems and attacking them relentlessly). But for many people, I think that small-scale altruism reinforces the bigger stuff. A habit of small good deeds helps you maintain your altruistic character, self-identity, and motivation. 

(Picking up some trash in my apartment complex [EA(p) · GW(p)] was among the most satisfying altruistic things I've ever done, even though my donations do much more actual good.)

That said, there's no reason you can't start working on the big stuff alongside the small stuff. Donations, self-education, career planning, and small good deeds can all be part of a balanced EA diet (no false pride required).

Replies from: Parmest Roy
comment by Parmest Roy · 2022-06-03T08:16:44.392Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the supporting remarks! Glad you enjoyed the post.

comment by rodeo_flagellum · 2022-06-03T12:49:53.263Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you Parmest for writing this post. Shared reflections and experiences such as this one seem to occur somewhat infrequently on the EAF, and I appreciate your perspective. 

Some things came to my when reading this. 

A post that you may find enjoyable and insightful is Keeping Absolutes in Mind [EA · GW]. Here, Michelle Hutchinson writes about altruistic baselines: 

In cases like those above, it might help to think more about the absolute benefit our actions produce. That might mean simply trying to make the value more salient by thinking about it. The 10% of my income that I donate is far less than that of some of my friends. But thinking through the fact that over my life I’ll be able to do the equivalent of save more than one person from dying of malaria is still absolutely incredible to me. Calculating the effects in more detail can be even more powerful – in this case thinking through specifically how many lives saved equivalent my career donations might amount to. Similarly, when you’re being asked to pay a fee, thinking about how many malaria nets that fee could buy really makes the value lost due to the fee clear. That might be useful if you need to motivate yourself to resist paying unnecessary overheads (though in other cases doing the calculation may be unhelpfully stressful!).

which I believe is in line with your idea that local altruism, or the baseline altruism most people unfamiliar with EA think of when they imagine "altruism", is still absolutely good even if it's less good relative to other actions, and might support or drive other, more "macro-scale" altruistic action.

After days of reflection, I understood what the problem was with me. The big talks on the forum had overshadowed my modesty. This was a profound and important realization for me. I recognized that a sudden jump to the big things was not making me an altruistic human being. Even if I would have managed to make contributions, I would never have become a part of EA. 

In most instances, I suspect lowering the bar for noticing, recognizing, or being cognizant of altruistic deeds probably will not detract significantly from the expected effectiveness of the most altruism deeds, so at minimum it wouldn't hurt to care more about and help those around you in whatever ways possible and would likely improve

Again, thank you for sharing these thoughts.

Replies from: Parmest Roy
comment by Parmest Roy · 2022-06-03T13:04:09.782Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for sharing your perspective. It was certainly helpful.