The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of Effective Altruism (and of good decision making)
Altruism is an intriguing phenomenon. Many of us make material sacrifices in money, effort or time that benefit others, without a clear immediate material benefit to ourselves. We hold the door open for someone, or allow a driver to join a queue of traffic. We volunteer at the annual fête of our children’s school, or we stay late at work to help a colleague finish a report. And many of us give away actual money to good causes. On the face of it, such altruism goes against our self-interest. How could evolution favour such an organism?
Interestingly, much of this can be explained through evolution. Prosocial behaviour and reciprocity help us cooperate with others. And over many thousands of generations, populations that were better at working together were able to achieve more than those that were less cooperative, and hence prospered in comparison. Another angle is that altruistic behaviour patterns signal our character, and help us build a good reputation. This in turn may help us to find a mate, or secure our ongoing membership of a collaborative tribe. But while this may explain why altruism prevails at a community level, the benefits to an individual may be too vague, too distant or too conditional to really encourage the behaviours instrumentally. There must be something else that mediates it.
Choosing for altruism
When we behave in an altruistic way, we generally feel good — this is sometimes called the ‘warm glow’. And this would appear to have been developed this into something even bigger: our sense of morality, of good and evil, of right and wrong. We may not all agree on such matters as what is good and evil, or right and wrong, but almost everyone experiences positive feelings when they do what they believe is right and good (and negative feelings at doing things that are wrong and bad).
If our sense of morality drives us towards doing good, it is but a small step to the point where we seek to do “the most good” — the Benthamite philosophy of utilitarianism. The idea of doing the most good is embodied in the notion of ‘ Effective Altruism’ (EA), a…