In a recent interview with Calvin Ayre’s Lee Davy, poker legend Daniel Negreanu brings up a very important point about the good feeling and emotional connection (“fuzzies”) one gets from helping others. When comparing giving $500 to buy anti-malaria bednets vs. funding a school trip for a particular person, he states:
“There is something about humanity and giving that I want to feel. Writing a check for $500 and not having any connection to it doesn’t have the same allure as seeing with my own eyes the change it could make. Anytime you do something for someone, you also feel good about it, so it’s not a selfless act.”
This observation is spot-on. We do feel more connected with individuals that are closer to us geographically, culturally, and in their physical appearance – and thus usually feel more satisfaction when helping them. These feelings are often what motivates our altruism in the first place, and they guide us to be nice to others in our everyday life.
However, in the modern, globalized world we find ourselves in, our help could benefit the ones further away from us much more than the ones we are close to. As Daniel points out, you get “more bang for your buck” by funding malaria nets than by donating to a local charity. And while we feel more connected to people closer to us, there is certainly also a sense in which we think all human beings are the same and deserve equal care and respect.
The effective altruism movement, which REG is a part of, takes this conviction as the starting point. If all individuals are equally entitled to a life free of immense suffering and premature death, then we should invest our limited resources in a way that helps as many of them as much as possible.
Daniel is right in stating that our feelings, being the main driving force behind our actions, are not always moved by the analytical part of our brain. Knowing oneself and one’s motivations is the most important thing when it comes to avoiding rationalizations and bad decisions. Where should one go from here? The answer is something everyone has to decide for themselves. And perhaps the answer doesn’t have to be either one or the other! In the following, we will present two strategies to resolve this apparent dilemma:
Expanding the Circle of Empathy
First, we can try to expand our circle of empathy. It is one of the main upsides of a more connected world that we can get closer to individuals who would otherwise be anonymous or alien to us. Many people, including REG’s Phil Gruissem, have undertaken journeys to poorer countries to meet potential beneficiaries of our donations who might otherwise stay outside of our usual instinctive circle of empathy. This way, we can “train” ourselves to feel more connected whenever we help, even if the others are thousands of miles away from us.
Secondly, we can strike a compromise between different motivations within ourselves by setting a donation budget and splitting it between different causes. That way we can make sure we get enough “fuzzies” out of our donations, while also using some of our resources to do the most good we can do. This seems intriguing because funding the second, third, or tenth school trip probably won’t give us as much of a fuzzy feeling as the first one. An economist would say that these donations are subject to diminishing marginal returns (in fuzzies). Therefore, we can try to identify how much of our donation budget we should allocate to causes that give us the desired feelings, and donate everything else to the most cost-effective organizations, as identified by charity evaluators like REG or GiveWell. A lot of effective altruists have adopted this approach.
Feeling and giving are not mutually exclusive, and the suggestions above can help us to balance the “heart” (i.e. our immediate empathy and feelings) with the “head” (i.e our rational and analytical convictions). By avoiding a binary either-or-decision, we can have a huge impact while still getting a warm glow!