Motivation on the margin of saving the world

Most people feel that they have certain responsibilities in life. If they achieve those they feel good about themselves, and anything they do beyond that to make the world better is an increasingly imperceptible bonus.

Some people with unusual moral positions or preferences feel responsible for making everything in the world as good as they can make it, and feel bad about the gap between what they achieve and what they could.

In both cases people have a kind of baseline that they care especially about. In the first case they are usually so far above it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings. In the second case they are often so far below it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings.

Games are engaging when you have a decent chance at both winning and losing. Every move you make matters, so you long to make that one more move. 

I expect the same is true of motivating altruistic consequentialists. I’m not sure how to make achievements on the margin more emotionally salient, but perhaps you do?

11 responses to “Motivation on the margin of saving the world

  1. We should probably think more about how to motivate altruistic consequentialists, and how to share the insights. One strategy that seems to work is to set direct goals that are pretty achievable and settle for less than the best (e.g., lots of Giving What We Can members who give 10% to developing world health charities). That works better for things that are not existential risk. Another strategy that seems to work is to set proxy goals and push toward them in groups (e.g. together we’ll influence 10 others to dedicate some share of effort toward our cause within the next year). I think setting up communities and routines is helpful either way.

  2. Sounds like your first example is a deontologist and your second a consequentialist, whereas it’s more feasible with a virtue ethics framework to motivate societal contributions without getting demoralized by consequentialism’s inherent demands for self-martyrdom. The key idea is that moral judgments and their frameworks aren’t right or wrong, only useful or not for appropriate self-control purposes. (See “Why do what you “ought”?—A habit theory of explicit morality” —

  3. For me, taking the even bigger picture, decision theory and the multiverse, is actually emotionally easier. Every impact is infinite within that frame.

    • The quantum multiverse is a fantasy that doesn’t even have a well-defined expression by the standards of real physics. A slightly more defensible multiverse perspective might be to think of all the possible worlds you might be inhabiting, and to imagine your decision process as applying to actions by your subjective duplicates in all those possible worlds at once. But no-one is remotely close to a usable model of such a multiverse, and it’s pure speculation that those other possible worlds do exist, and the actual causes and consequences of the decisions made by this you would be restricted solely to this world. Any sense of being the same extended person as these imagined duplicates in parallel worlds is entirely a product of the workings of this mind within this single world.

  4. Agreed with Stephen here, BTW.
    Also, let me chime in with two stale cliches that seem to me to be genuinely relevant and under appreciated.

    “Be the change you wish to see in the world”
    “Think globally, act locally”.

    • What do you see as the advantages of acting locally?

      • You can easily confirm that your efforts are having an effect similar to that which you imagine. Resources far exceed human needs, so efficiency in doing good is less important than being sure that your efforts are actually having an impact in the desired direction.

        • My experience with helping local organizations (either as a donor or volunteer) is that they were no more transparent than international organizations. In the case of some of the tutoring I did, I could directly observe it having no effect at all.

          I don’t want to spend my time doing in-depth charity evaluations, so I prefer to trust the recommendations of people who do it professionally.

          I agree there are plenty of resources to go around, but until more people feel like giving their money away, I’m going to direct my donations carefully.

          • By all means direct donations carefully, and use Givewell as a professional evaluator rather than doing it yourself. Most donations are almost worthless, and possibly harmful. I don’t think, though, that there is a shortage of people willing to give money away. Rather, people aren’t clear on their thinking in a variety of respects. The main question has to do with the importance of seeing things up-close if you want to properly understand them, which would be important if charitable action was the central focus of your life. Good to know to help Village Reach. Better to know how to create a Village Reach.

            • Hmm, not what I thought you meant by “local.”

              >Better to know how to create a Village Reach.
              Only if I think creating organizations is my strong point, which it isn’t. I would only ever create a mediocre organization, so I may as well just learn enough to fund the best that’s out there. If I want a car, I should research what car is best for me to buy, but not how to build the best car ever from scratch.


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