Beyond the Warm Glow

This is the second of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.


You often hear about the warm glow that comes from giving to those in need. It’s embedded in most of the rhetoric and conventional wisdom about charity. It’s been verified by scientific studies. There are even catchy show tunes about it. It’s probably safe to say that the warm glow is responsible for a great part of all the charitable activity that humans have ever engaged in.

As far as I can remember, I’ve never experienced it in my life.

I don’t really know why. It’s just the way I am.

For someone concerned about altruism, this might sound like a cause for alarm. But it needn’t be. Because the warm glow isn’t the be-all and end-all of charity. Remember, the goal isn’t to feel good—the goal is to do good.

The warm glow is powerful. But it’s also dangerous. The activities and interventions that feel good often aren’t the most effective ones for making the world a better place. Donors seeking the warm glow—and charities seeking those donors—may be lured towards programs that don’t work as well.

This is not a hypothetical concern. Most international charities have this problem to some extent or another. The message has to be optimized to make it sound as though something like a particular family getting a particular cow can be attributed directly to your donation. The truth tends to be more complicated—and after looking past this donor illusion, one might wonder whether a cow is the thing that family needs most at all.

So if the warm glow doesn’t motivate me, what does? Well, that’s really two different questions.

First, why have I donated to charities serving the global poor, and pledged to continue doing so in future? Quite simply, because I looked at the arguments and at the numbers, and concluded that it was the right thing to do.

This is not a very exciting answer. There’s no real emotion in it. But in my particular case, it happens to be true.

I can’t apply this dispassionate moral logic everywhere in my life. It’d be nice if I could, but I’m only human and there are plenty of times when I don’t do the right thing, even if in theory I know what the right thing is. In this particular domain, though, I’ve found that—again, for me personally—it works.

And in the end, as long as you do the right thing, it doesn’t much matter how you get there—so figure out what route gets you there, and then take it.

The second, and more interesting question, is this: What motivates me to advocate for effective altruism? Why am I interested in this idea?

That part is not a matter of dispassionate analysis for me. Quite the opposite—I care passionately about effective altruism. It might be the most exciting idea I’ve yet encountered.

Everyone wants to make the world a better place. And lots of people say they’re making the world a better place. But if you’re a person who’s inclined to be skeptical, the thousandth person asking you to support their pet cause—without demonstrating that it’s really better than the others you might be supporting—starts to wear thin.

But when someone comes along who’s actually waded through the chaos, not seeking to push a particular pet intervention but open to whatever might do the most good? And they’ve actually succeeded at finding opportunities that we could reasonably call the best there are? And they’ve shown their work, so you don’t have to take their word for it? And they’re continuing to actively seek opportunities that are even better than those?

That’s exciting. That’s what makes me believe that we have a shot at actually fixing this messed-up world.

That’s what makes me want to be an effective altruist.

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