It’s Supposed To Feel Like This: 8 emotional challenges of altruism
CN: Reference to suicide in section 8.
You should try to do more good in the world because it’s the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always sufficient motivation for people to act accordingly, so altruists often tell non-altruists about the personal benefits of altruism — the evidence that giving makes you happier, the friendly and supportive communities of altruists you can join, the sense of meaning altruism can bring to fill the void left by an increasingly secular world, and so on.
But leading an altruistic life is not always plain sailing, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that from time to time. And not only to acknowledge that times get rough, but the specific ways in which they get rough. Otherwise your words are in danger of being dismissed as just another motivational quotation people have become numb to, or as advice that applies to other people (“but my problems are probably different”).
One of the most valuable things I’ve heard in the past couple of years is a string of entrepreneurs admitting that steering your own course is hard and explaining some of the reasons why. There’s no map. You take responsibility for deciding where you and everyone else on board is heading. Most of the time you feel like you don’t have a clue what you’re doing and you marvel that you so often find the motivation to have a go anyway and look like you know what you’re doing.
And so with the current charity that I’m running, I find myself persisting much more easily than I have in the past because I recognise that it’s supposed to feel like this. If I’m tempted to crumble under the stress of thinking on Monday that we should be going left and Tuesday that we should be going right, I don’t write myself off as useless. “No,” I tell myself, “this is leadership, remember? Carry on.”
Every life requires leadership, including altruistic lives. But some challenges are more specific to altruistic lives, and those are the challenges I wish to start to address in this article. I’ll begin by recognising some of the difficulties most commonly associated with altruism, and then move on to some less obvious challenges.
It’s important to remember with each of the following areas that even an entirely altruistic person shouldn’t give to the point that they burn out. You may agree with my tentative opinion that most people in the world could give a lot more than they currently do — and a great deal more than they think they could — without a significant risk of burn-out if they take things slowly, thanks to the underappreciated hedonic treadmill. But since it’s difficult to predict the point at which you’ll burn out, it is wise to slow down a safe distance before wherever you expect that point to be.
8 areas where altruism has asked something of me
1. A “do no (significant) harm” lifestyle
The altruist tends to set themselves higher standards of day-to-day ethical behaviour in an attempt to avoid causing harm through e.g. consumer habits or personal interactions.
The most significant change for me has probably been veganism, but some people of course go much further for much longer and it can take a lot from you.
2. Material comfort & financial security
Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none (Luke 3:11)
[I]f it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. (Peter Singer, 1972)
It doesn’t take long for the altruist to realise that even if they don’t have much money by some standard, they usually should still be giving something to those who have less, meaning less disposable income for material comforts, enjoyable experiences, savings etc. Perhaps more significantly, it can mean accepting a lower standard of living than that of their peers.
And it’s not just money. I’m honoured to know someone who told himself “Whoever has two kidneys should share with him who has none” and bloody did so for a stranger.
3. Career and spare time
Many altruists go so far as to choose, change or extend their career in pursuit of greater positive impact, but at significant cost to themselves e.g. doing a job that’s more stressful, for lower pay, that’s further away from family and friends and/or that eats into their retirement.
Altruistic side projects can also consume evenings, weekends and holidays, crowding out hobbies and family/social/love lives perhaps to the point of non-existence.
4. Facing what you’re not giving, and what you’ll never be able to give
Giving something means taking your head out of the sand.
You give because you’ve taken the brave step of facing the problems in the world and admitting that you should be doing something…and now that you’ve given up your excuses for not helping at all, you may be out of reasons for why you should stop helping where you have.
Cue potentially even more guilt than when you were giving nothing.
Facing the world’s problems also means facing up to the fact that you will never solve them all. Your contribution will at most be a drop in the ocean, and the more you contribute, the bigger you’ll realise the ocean is. Most days I’m encouraged by asking myself “What if that drop was my daughter?”. But some days that’s not enough to keep the feelings of hopelessness at bay.
5. Social approval and connection
On the face of it, altruism attracts social approval. I don’t dispute this, but altruism can also lead to a good deal of social disapproval and disconnection in less expected ways. To name a few:
- Your family and friends may feel neglected or unappreciated.
- You may feel more distant from family, friends and colleagues who don’t share your dedication to doing good, both as a result of an inability to bond over something that’s important to you, and as a result of seeing people you’re close to speak and act with what may seem like such callousness from where you’re standing.
- You can be looked down on in “macho” or individualistic cultures, or even by other altruists — I sometimes get fellow altruists looking at me like there’s something wrong with me when they realise how much I try to optimise my life for social good.
- If you’re particularly public about your giving (arguably the most impactful approach to take), a lot of people will interpret it as smug self-righteousness.
- If you’re committed enough to actively try to persuade others to join you in trying to make the world a better place, people will generally be irritated by such attempts.
- Even when you’re not being particularly public or actively trying to persuade others, many people will assume that you’re implicitly judging them and dislike you all the same (ever seen a meat-eater deliver a monologue defending their dietary choices, provoked only by the observation that someone else present is a vegetarian?).
- You’re going to have to form some ethical opinions, which are the most divisive kind of opinions to hold (no discussing religion or politics at the dinner table).
- By doing something but not everything, you open yourself up to the charge of hypocrisy.
- The worst attacks may in fact come from your otherwise potential allies as a result of infighting.
6. Figuring out how to do good better
A common reason people don’t make any attempt to help is that they don’t know how to. Bingo! Unbeknownst to them, they’ve just identified the first step in helping: Putting some (more) effort into figuring out how.
Unfortunately, people seem not to realise this is an option to a surprising extent, assuming that “helping” has to be direct. If you avoid supporting a bereaved friend because you don’t know what to say, that doesn’t get you off the hook — helping in this case just means doing some research into helpful things to say in such situations and then talking to your friend.
And it doesn’t always mean more work. If you’d be prepared to spend your holidays volunteering if only an opportunity you trusted to make a difference fell in your lap, consider spending the first day of your holidays volunteering in the form of researching valuable volunteering opportunities.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. (Commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln)
So far, so easy. But sometimes figuring out how you can help is a lot of work, especially as you move from “making a difference” territory into “making the most difference” territory, and as you become increasingly aware of what you don’t know.
Morality is a discipline with few experts, who very few people defer to, and many of whom unhelpfully claim that ethics is all relative anyway.
It’s a pursuit in which there is no feedback to tell you if you’ve ever ultimately done the right thing.
And it’s a world where sooner or later you’re going to come across the Effective Altruism crowd who’ll implore you to bring philosophy, decision theory, psychology, physics, computer science, mathematics, data analysis, economics, politics, history, anthropology, sociology, biology, chemistry and Defence Against the Dark Arts to bear on your bright-eyed question, “How can I do the most good?” (Don’t get me wrong — I generally find the Effective Altruism community to be hugely insightful, inspiring and supportive, but the intellectual challenge it rises to can feel overwhelming.)
7. Other values
Many altruists distinguish (although perhaps not clearly) between their “world-saving” values and their “personal” values, which are often in conflict. Examples of personal values that influence my own behaviour include: spirituality, art, family, truth, authenticity (including self-expression), purity, and even particular forms of charity that I don’t think have much impact but are close to my heart.
Choosing actions that are more in accordance with one’s world-saving values rather than one’s personal values might be considered a form of sacrifice that cuts particularly deep, but perhaps “sacrifice” is the wrong way to think about such choices. Either way, and regardless of the eventual choice one makes when these values conflict, we can at least acknowledge the stress caused by such tensions.
8. Life itself
Some people give their lives for a cause. Some people I know give their deaths. By this I mean: they think they would have ended their own suffering by now were it not for their commitment to improve the lives of others.
You may consider this a personal benefit of altruism if you believe that suicide is usually/always a mistake — a harm to oneself — and that therefore anything that prevents one from following through on suicide ideation must be a good thing. But even so, it is an act of heroism to find the strength to continue living for the greater good when one’s own life is so full of pain.
Feel free to add other ways that altruism has challenged you in the comments. Or let me know if you think I’ve generalised too much anywhere or have said something you think I shouldn’t have (anonymously if you prefer).
I should add that I partly wrote this for you and I partly wrote this for me. I think I would benefit from hearing others say “It’s not just you” with respect to some of the above. And the next time — or the first time — any of you encounter one of these challenges, remember that it’s supposed to feel like this. Not every altruist will feel the force of these challenges of course, but enough do that you shouldn’t think that this is you failing or that this is an unexpected, unsurmountable hurdle — this is all part of the journey, and many find a way forward. There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for. The fight can get ugly and I wouldn’t blame anyone for surrendering. But you’re not in this alone, and I fucking love you for fighting alongside me.
Who I’m defining as “people currently trying to make ‘doing good’ a serious part of their lives”. Please excuse the pious-sounding black-and-white shorthand and the use of a word that tends to distract people with debates about whether “true” altruism “really” exists.
In such situations, you may worry that you’re just making excuses to yourself — that “avoiding burn-out” is just a disguise for selfish behaviour that harms your altruistic goals. An exercise I often find revealing here is to imagine that I have a (competent) manager who has the responsibility of using me as effectively as possible to make the world a better place. Would such a manager encourage me to try harder or to take a break right now? I am less dismissive of this hypothetical advice than I am of the advice of friends, who understandably have more empathy with my well-being than my altruistic goals.
A couple of tricks here:
- It’s easier and often just as impactful to resist the temptation to increase spending as your salary increases than it is to decrease spending (h/t Toby Ord, 2010).
- We live to our means. When you have the mindset of never having quite enough, regardless of how much money you actually have, you’ll never feel that you can afford to give much away. So admit to yourself that you don’t need infinite money, start to put numbers on what you consider reasonable amounts of spending and saving, and donate anything you earn above that. If you’re lucky enough to earn above the median salary in your country, that can be a good benchmark — if half the country can manage on less than that, perhaps you can too.
Not even kidding.
If you experience suicidal thoughts, I strongly encourage you to seek immediate support as well as to try more long-term professional help (and to try several different therapies/therapists/medications if the first does not help).
I do also want to acknowledge that, luckily for me, I haven’t yet felt called to make the kind of extreme sacrifices that the heroes in the stories we tell have made. But I don’t generally find that telling someone they could have it much worse helps them to feel any better. Occasionally, but usually not. So, if you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh my heart bleeds for you…you have no idea what some people go through for the greater good”, then I apologise — I can see how posts like this can be irritating — but I still think it’s worth addressing how difficult people find the kind of sacrifices I’ve mentioned.