How selfless should altruism be?

When discussing effective altruism or charity in general, most of us have encountered (and/or been) the cynic who points out that no true altruism exists and those who help others do it just to feel good about themselves and gain social approval. The implicit message here of course is that because of this, donating to charity doesn’t make you morally better than anyone else, except maybe if you can somehow prove you do so for the right reasons (which you can’t, so you should stop doing a falsely virtuous thing or at least talking about it, or you’re sending dishonest signals).

Anyway, people who tend to think in consequentialist terms rarely give much thought to this kind of accusations. Unless they create unwanted incentive structures or otherwise affect other people in the future, who cares about the motives behind donated money? Probably not the people whose lives are saved because of it. The habit of donating is good and perfectly moral as long as its consequences are good, even if it’s done to benefit oneself.

However, most people by default act on a colourful mix of non-explicit consequentialist, deontological, and virtue-ethical intuitions and principles, and to those whose consequentialist tendencies aren’t overwhelmingly dominant in cases like this, the matter is more muddled. Why and how much should we care about why people do charity?

Essentially, it seems there are two opposing intuitions competing here: the intuition to praise a person whose actions demonstrably and unquestionably save or better human lives, and the intuition to scold a person who seeks social status by ways that scream hypocrisy and dishonesty – who is “faking” a valuable signal of selflessness and virtue. (Scare quotes because the intuition can be triggered even when the person outright admits they act out of self-interest, and thus isn’t actually even being dishonest about anything at all. In fact, in some hilariously paradoxical way, this sometimes seems to evoke an even stronger dislike towards our fishy altruist: someone chooses to help others because it makes them feel better, and then has the nerve to admit it instead of pretending to hold more virtuous motives, like normal people do. How outrageous can you get?)

If we value saving human lives, the praise reaction is obviously important – we should place positive value on things that have the right consequences. But how should we treat the latter intuition? After all, the reason for our deep-seated ideas about good people and the right motives is that in many situations and social environments, they work: as predictive tools, helpful pointers to where we should allocate our time and kindness. Someone who donates because of a genuine will to do good will pretty likely keep doing good in the future, whereas someone who mostly optimizes for, say, social status, might quit as soon as they find a better strategy to reach their actual terminal goals.
In this situation, however, it isn’t useful. The cynical approach is mostly correct in that only a pretty small part of human motivation consists of components other than increasing social status, and all of the rest are related to feeling personally good in one way or another: even the most self-sacrificing martyr feels good more than they suffer because of their sacrifice. That’s how motivation works. Our intuition regarding selfless people isn’t supposed to find people who are selfless in the absolute sense, it’s supposed to find people who are motivated to be virtuous, who feel good about being virtuous, and who are reliably going to stay virtuous exactly because it’s personally, emotionally important to them. The cynic is fooling our intuitive system into believing these people are selfish in a stronger sense: that they don’t really care, even though they do.

So whenever your friendly neighbourhood cynic wants to end all charity again (or you’re feelin’ unhelpfully cynical yourself), below are some ways to look at the issue. I assume a convergence of virtue and consequentialist ethics: that the things we hold virtuous we do because they tend lead to good consequenses more often than not – perhaps that virtues are basically abstractions from the rules of rule utilitarianism, instead of some new metaphysical category. (There are probably some esoteric forms of virtue ethics where traits are seen as virtuous independent of the consequenses, but since this piece is not intended as a refutation of all virtue ethics forever as much as a suggestion for non-virtue-ethicists to handle a single virtue-ethical-ish intuition, I don’t caaaaaare.)

• Feeling good about doing good is as virtuous as it gets. If someone gets a rush out of donating money and knowing they have alleviated the suffering of strangers, how does that make them less awesome instead of more? I wish more people had motivational systems like that.

• Similarly, seeking social status by donating to charity is better than approximately 100% of other possible ways to seek social status, most of which no one complains about ever. Social approval is a fundamental part of healthy human lives anyway – it’s not like you can do without it. What kind of people seek status by giving some of their money and energy to help out strangers, when they could have made a choice to spend a bit more of it on switching into better cell phones or dying their hair more often? Pretty good people with healthy priorities, that’s who.

• People donating mostly for warm fuzzies and status (instead of some pure desire to do good) does risk shifting the focus of donations towards more charismatic, often less effective charities. This is a valid concern, but I don’t think the only solution to this problem is “don’t be motivated by fuzzies or status”. I think this is, in fact, the worst solution that I’ve heard anyone seriously advocate. The oft-repeated old advice which says that people should purchase fuzzies and utilons separately is better, but also makes it sound like it’s unusual to get, or be able to easily self-modify oneself to get, warm fuzzies precisely from knowing one has donated to effective charities. Likewise, most people who hang around effective altruists, even just in an online community, have a social environment which awards lots of status for smart giving and less for less smart. All in all, this point is something that might in some situations possibly cause problems but which it’s useless to complain about before it actually does.

• Given how human identity building works, even if a person donates almost purely for status, it’s not likely that they will just stop donating on a whim when they think of a more effective way to gain approval. Once you invest a lot of time and effort into something such as effective charity, you also tend to grow towards the direction of it as actions become habits and habits become identity. This effect is especially strong if you participate in a community with lots of people holding EA-ish values: when a great deal of your existing status depends on altruism, it will be less tempting to start doing something entirely different instead. Sometimes, this might actually be a stronger motivation to keep going than just an unemotional conviction to do good on a more abstract morality-based basis, which is vulnerable to value erosion.

Moreover, I’m personally something of a moral naturalist in that I would define morality as a game-theoretical system the function of which is perhaps similar to Hofstadter’s superrationality (long, rambling post elaborating on this can be found here). Altruism, like everything in the realm of morality, is certainly rooted in egoism, but it transcends individual-level selfishness to promote healthy and cooperative communities instead of Nash equilibria where everyone mostly loses all the time due to following simple personal incentives, seemingly self-serving but actually bad for everyone involved.
This works in part through heuristics and hard-wired intuitive constructs such as empathy and other genuine prosocial emotions, which is why it’s a bit unreasonable to accuse people of being selfish when they help others and fel good about it – as I said above, this is just how our motivational systems work and how our species mostly coordinates its cooperation.
We are biological creatures with an evolutionary history who arguably don’t even have access to ontogenetically pure, thoroughly selfless motives, but are still capable of remarkable levels of good. We need to work with the incentives that help us with that.

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