Don't Worry, Be Canny


My girlfriend is [...] triggered [...] by many discussions of charity – whenever ze hears about it, ze starts worrying ze is a bad person for not donating more money to charity, has a mental breakdown, and usually ends up shaking and crying for a little while.

I just wrote a post on giving efficiently.

I just wrote another asking people to give to CFAR.

And I'm pretty sure I mentioned both to the person in question.


Of course I put a disclaimer up front about how I'm not talking about how much to give, just how to use your existing charity budget better. But of course that doesn't matter unless it actually worked - which it likely didn't.

Of course I would have acted differently if I'd had more information up front - but I don't get extra points for ignorance; the expected consequence is just as bad.

I'm going to try and write an antidote to the INFINITE GUILT that can feel like the natural response to Peter Singer style arguments. It probably won't work, but I doubt it will hurt. (If it does, let me know. If there's bad news, I want to hear it!)


You Don't Have To Be a Good Person To Be a Good Person

What are you optimizing for, anyway, being a good person or helping people?

If you care about helping people, then you should think of yourself as a manager, with a team of one. You can't fire this person, or replace them, or transfer them to another department. All you can do is try to motivate them as best you can.

Are you going to try to work this person into the ground, use up 100% of their capacity every day, helping others? No! The mission of the firm is "helping people," but that's not necessarily your employee's personal motivation. If they burn out and lose motivation, you can't replace them - you have to build them back up again. Instead, you should try really, really hard to keep this person happy. This person, of course, being you.

If telling them they should try harder gets them motivated, then fine, do that. But if it doesn't - if it makes them curl up into a ball and be sad instead, then try something else. Ask them if they need to give up on some of the work. Ask them if there's anything they need that they aren't getting. Because if your one employee at the firm of You isn't happy to be there, you'd better figure out how to make that happen. That's your number one job as manager - because without you, you don't have anyone.

That doesn't make the firm any less committed to helping people. As your own manager, you are doing your best to make sure helping-people activities happen, as much and as effectively as possible. But that means treating yourself like a human being, with basic decency and respect for your own needs.


Alright, suppose you do care about "being good." Maybe you believe in virtue ethics or deontology or have some other values where you have an idea of what a good person is, independent of maximizing an utilitarian consequence.

The same result follows. You should take whatever action maximizes your "goodness," but again, you don't have perfect control over yourself. You're a manager with one permanent employee. There's no point in asking more than they can do, unless they like that (some people say they do) - look for the things that actually do motivate them, and make sure their needs get met. That's the only way to keep them motivated to work towards being a "good person" in the long term; all the burnout considerations still apply.


What Do You Mean By "You"?

There's not really just one you. You have lots of parts! The part that wants to help people is probably distinct from the part that wants to feel like a good person, which is in turn distinct from the part that has needs like physical well-being. You all have to come to some sort of negotiated agreement if you want to actually get anything done.

In my own life, it was a major breakthrough, for example, to realize that my desire to steer the world toward a better state - my desire to purchase "altruons" with actions or dollars - is distinct from my desire to feel good about getting things done and be validated for doing good work that makes a clear difference. Once I realized these were two very different desires, I could at least try to give each part some of what it wanted.

Pretending your political opponents don't exist is not a viable strategy in multiple-person politics. It's no better in single-person politics. You have three options:

1) Crush the opposition.

If exercising is a strong net positive for you, but part of you is whining "I'm tired, I don't wanna," you can just overpower it with willpower.

In politics, there are all sorts of fringe groups that pretty much get totally ignored. For example, legalization of cocaine doesn't seem to have gone anywhere in the US, even though I'm sure there are a few people who feel very, very strongly about it. No concessions whatsoever seem to have been made.

The advantages of this strategy are that you get what you think what you want, without giving up anything in exchange, and get practice using your willpower (which may get stronger with use).

The disadvantages are that you can't do it without a majority, that some parts of you don't get their needs met, and that if you're tired or distracted the government may be overturned by the part of yourself that has been disenfranchised.

2) Engage in "log-rolling."

Sometimes the part of you that's resisting may want something that's easy to give it. For example, I just finished the first draft of a short story. Prior to that I hadn't finished a work of fiction in at least ten years. I'd started plenty, of course, so clearly there was some internal resistance.

My strategy this time was to get used to writing anything at all, regularly, and "finishing" (i.e. giving up and publishing) things, whether I think they're good or not. Get used to writing at all, and worry about getting good once I've installed the habit of writing.

But I stalled out anyway when writing fiction. Eventually, instead of just fighting myself with willpower when I noticed that I was stalling, I engaged myself in dialogue:

"Why don't you want to keep writing?"

"I can't think of what to write next."

"You literally can't think of what to write? Or you don't like your ideas?"

"I don't like the ideas."

"Why not?"

"Because I think they're bad. I'm trying to write something good, like you asked, but all I have is bad ideas."

"Darn it, self, I didn't ask you to write something good. I asked you to write something at all. Go ahead and write the bad version. We'll worry about writing something good later."

"Oh, is that all you wanted? That's easy!"

And I happily went back to work and kept writing.

Sometimes the best you can do is give everyone just part of what they want, though. There are people who believe that the rich US should give much of its excess wealth to poor people. If you believe this, what's a better strategy? Start a magazine called "America Is Bad And It Should Feel Bad", or try to expand our guest-worker visa program? One, and only one, of these will increase the wealth of poor foreigners at all.

The advantage of this approach is that is probably maximizes your short-term happiness, more of your needs get met, and it saves willpower for things where this approach is not viable.

3) Lose.

If you can't crush the opposition, and you can't trade with them, then you lose. If you're losing, and you have spent five minutes thinking about it and can't think of either a viable way to win or an idea-generating method you expect to work, then give up. Stop expending willpower on it, accept the bad consequence, and get on with your life.

I'm a bad person? Okay, I'm a bad person, I'd still like to help people, though. What's for lunch?

The Bottom Line

KIRK: I wish I were on a long sea voyage somewhere. Not too much deck tennis, no frantic dancing, and no responsibility. Why me? I look around that Bridge, and I see the men waiting for me to make the next move. And Bones, what if I'm wrong?
MCCOY: Captain, I
KIRK: No, I don't really expect an answer.
MCCOY: But I've got one. Something I seldom say to a customer, Jim. In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don't destroy the one named Kirk.

5 thoughts on “Don't Worry, Be Canny

    1. benquo

      As far as I can tell you're "triggered" by something if it reliably makes you freak out. (BTW I don't actually feel guilty about this whole thing, just sad that I did something with about a 10% chance of making a friend freak out unnecessarily.)

      I have no idea why this person dislikes being referred to with the feminine pronoun but doesn't seem to mind the term "girlfriend."

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