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Affective Altruism or Effective Altruism?

Emotion or reason? Two paths to altruism

Most people begin helping others inspired by their bonds of affection, empathy, and compassion towards their family and friends. In these intimate circles, human beings are social, gregarious, and often generous towards others. These minimal circles of empathy can be extended to other larger circles through social institutions, such as the church, the state, and philanthropic organizations. This first approach establishes the social and humanitarian criteria of aid.

On the other hand, Effective Altruism was born as a movement that questions the "simple-mindedness of mere good intentions" when it comes to helping others. It argues that much more can be done to improve the world if we channel our emotions using reason toward causes of high positive impact. Effective Altruism proposes using scientific studies and careful reasoning to figure out how to help others as much as possible with the resources we have. Moreover, from a philosophical perspective, it proposes a criterion of impartiality, where the importance of people is not linked to emotional and affective criteria, which tend to be biased towards those who are most similar to us. From this second approach, we find a scientific and quantifying vision of aid, which tries to maximize the benefits of aid through cost-benefit analysis.

However, this movement in turn is criticized for being cold and calculating. Impartiality and objectivity are not things that move us to act in the same way as empathy and emotion. In this article we want to elaborate on these ideas, exposing and evaluating some of the pros and cons of what we might call Affective Altruism versus Effective Altruism. From this discussion, we will develop a vision that allows us to synthesize the strengths of both perspectives.

Advantages of Affective Altruism

Motivation and emotion

Many activists feel compelled to do something about the current situation in the world, which leads them to speak out and act on behalf of causes that affect them, affect their friends or family, or by human tragedies they know about or see on television. It is quite clear that one advantage of Affective Altruism is that it emotionally leads to action through strong emotions towards a felt sense of justice.

Likewise, we also get certain pleasant and positive sensations by feeling that we are helping others. Affective Altruism does not require too much reflection, and allows anybody to take action immediately, without having to plan interventions to try to have the greatest possible impact.

We should not consider this as a minor advantage. This source of motivation is very important, as most of our actions are probably motivated by this type of affective feeling. In a similar way to how we drink when we are thirsty, we help others when we feel empathy for them. As strongly social beings, other people appreciate and benefit from this help, and we are happy to be of help, benefitting from our own action as well.

Disadvantages of Affective Altruism

Moral biases

Most people help only those around them, such as their family, friends, or the people of their country. However, if we have an affluent life, a life with television and air conditioning, we should seriously consider the enormous opportunity we have to do much more for those who have not had the opportunity to have all this. People living in extreme poverty live on the equivalent of fewer than two dollars a day. Many of these people go hungry, suffer greatly from disease, and do what they can to get by. These people would greatly appreciate your help through one of GiveWell's recommended philanthropic organizations.

In addition to this, there are other biases that lead us to help more those who are similar to us, such as:

  • Spatial/geographical biases, whereby we help more those who are close by, despite the fact that there are people in other parts of the world who are much poorer and in greater need.

  • Temporal biases, whereby we help current people more than future generations, disregarding the role this plays in present and future problems such as climate change, as well as catastrophic and existential risks.

  • Cultural biases whereby we help our co-nationals and people of a similar culture more, even if our culture has been acquired arbitrarily due to our place of birth.

  • Biological biases, whereby we help human beings more than other sentient beings, despite the fact that the latter often suffer much greater pain in our current world.

  • Insensitivity to scope and numbers, when psychologically we give the same amount of money to help a hundred people as to help a million people, as we are not able to conceptualize such a great difference in magnitude correctly.

The Soldier's Mindset: Defensiveness about our causes

The soldier's mentality is the behavior that we adopt that makes us always defend our causes by convincing ourselves of their worth, whether we are right or wrong about what we stand for.

While this mindset is great to provide motivation, we should be aware of its pitfalls. Sometimes, certain forms of well-intentioned activism can be shown to be misguided. For example, there are activist movements that perform ineffective, inadequate, or radical actions that have sometimes damaged the social movement's perception in the eyes of the public, with the result that those actions have negative long-term consequences even though those activists had good intentions.

At other times we commit much simpler mistakes, such as investing a lot of money and effort in causes that improve the world only slightly, when those same funds could be invested in improving the world much more. An example of this is when we focus on the welfare of pets, while there are billions of animals locked up for life in a very small spaces in factory farms.


All company founders think that their company will be successful. If they didn't think so, they wouldn't found their companies in the first place. Founders of startups think they are 70% to 100% likely to succeed. However, in reality, only about 10% of startups are successful. [1]

Showing confidence in your product in the public arena is often advantageous. But, although self-motivation is important, fostering this motivation through self-deception can be dangerous. Affective Altruism tends to fall into similar self-deception driven by feelings and self-motivation to do something great to change the world. Emotion can lead us to self-deception and to think that we are changing society when in reality the change that we are making is small. Sometimes we confuse what is happening in our lives on a personal level with what is happening in society at large.

Advantages of Effective Altruism

The Scout's Mindset: Having an accurate picture of how the world is

If the mentality of an Affective Altruist is that of the soldier convinced by their cause, the mentality of the Effective Altruist is that of the scout. In this mindset, they are always mapping the terrain carefully in order to report their findings to the group before launching into action. In order to do this, the scout looks further ahead, trying to predict the consequences of their actions, in order to carry out the execution of the project to the best of their ability.

This is done through a quantifying mentality, where we draw up plans and roadmaps. By writing things down in such a way, we will not be able to excuse ourselves by saying that we were successful regardless of the result or achievements we obtain, thus improving our effectiveness and our accountability to others.

For example, many people might say, "The objective of this project is to increase the welfare of people," which is a vague and ill-defined goal. We should instead say "We will provide clean water to two thousand people before the end of the year, this will be achieved by obtaining funds from X, and will be implemented with the support of agency Y...". This way, we will not be able to make excuses that the project went wrong. This will allow us to find out, could the project have gone better? Are there other projects that are more worthwhile?

Substantial donations

When most people give money to a person on the street, to their church, or donate to some philanthropic organization, it is usually just a few coins or a fairly small amount of money.

In contrast to this, many Effective Altruists realize that they are in a privileged position, in two ways. One, because due to arbitrary factors beyond our control, we were not born into extreme poverty. And two, because being in this position of relative wealth compared to 90% of the world's population gives us the privilege of being able to help them far more than we would otherwise be.

To that end, many people support donating a substantial portion of their salary to causes that have a major positive impact on the world. Organizations such as Giving What We Can, The Life You Can Save and others support this type of action, creating a community of people who strive to donate to the most positive impactful causes possible.

In addition, the donations we can make are not only monetary. We can also, in a way, "donate" our time or labor. In this sense, some people are currently dedicating their profession to making the world a better place by focusing on collaborating on the most necessary and important moral causes of our time. If we focus our efforts correctly, this can have an even greater impact than donations. If you want to contribute with your time and effort, check out the career advice offered by 80.000 Hours and Probably Good.

Moral impartiality leads to greater real impact

When we help someone in our everyday life, we cannot be sure if we are having a substantial or long-lasting effect. On the other hand, unlike most ordinary behavior, Effective Altruism allows us to be true heroes to others, like the dream many of us had as children or teenagers. If we meet a criterion of moral impartiality, such as helping people with properly targeted money in poorer countries, this leads to a moral impact on others that can be a hundred times greater than an average donation.

In this way, our moral commitment, our professional dedication, and our effective help allow us to save people's lives and improve them noticeably, changing the world in a substantial way.

Obtaining multiplier effects

If you increase your productivity by 130%, and you also improve the prioritization of your impact so that you achieve 200% of what you did before, and you also meet with a network of motivated people so that your contacts save you a lot of your time and effort, etcetera, you get a combination of advantages that improve your impact.

The surprising effect is that all of these multipliers have effects on all others, so increasing them will greatly multiply your positive impact on the world.

Disadvantages of Effective Altruism

A strong level of commitment, which does not tend to correspond to the level of emotional motivation

While Effective Altruism does not determine the level of commitment to the altruism movement itself, many people come to the movement with a strong level of moral commitment, or acquire it through surrounding themselves with other people who want to improve the world as much as possible.

This, in many cases, may require a certain level of personal sacrifices, such as motivating you to make substantial changes to your career, therefore moving to another country to work for an organization that is dedicated to a high-impact cause. It can also lead to less free time, perhaps by getting rid of hobbies that require a lot of time or money, as well as requiring an entrepreneurial mindset to start new and innovative altruistic organizations where we think they are needed most.

This is very positive on a global level, as it allows you to improve the lives of others substantially. It is deeply altruistic and derives from a principle of moral impartiality, where we do not consider ourselves more important than others.

However, this level of moral demandingness is very high. As Larissa MacFarquar says in Strangers Drowning:

"This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers — they always feel that strangers, like compatriots in war, are their own people. They know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.”

High impact requires in-depth strategic planning

If we are not careful to think about maximizing our lifetime impact, we will spend too much time and effort in our first months or years. This could lead us to sacrifice our health and our relationships with friends and family. This would lead to early burnout, which will also not maximize our long-term or lifetime impact.

To avoid this, it is incredibly important to think about how to maximize our impact throughout our lives, and not in the next few months. Therefore, our altruism must be sustainable over time.

Impact Elitism

For convinced Effective Altruists, impact is not proportional to effort, but to actual consequences in the world. This can lead to a certain level of "impact elitism," where certain people can have massive impact on the world because they have better skills (either innate or acquired) or more resources, while others have much less.

This, for many, can be demotivating and seem unfair, if they are not or do not consider themselves to be part of this elite that can have a large positive impact on the world.

Conclusion: Synthesizing both perspectives

Fortunately, we can try to establish a confluent path towards both Affective and Effective Altruism. To achieve it, it is crucial to maintain the emotionally and affectively originated motivation to try to do good and try to improve the lives of others. At the same time, we must have a concern for the real impact and quantification of our efforts, and the ultimate goal of doing as much good as possible.

This path not easy, but we can try to take the strengths of each of these mindsets, while trying to avoid the weaknesses of both. Thus, if we need motivation, it is important to appeal to our emotional and affective side in order to generate the necessary empathy to reinforce our moral and social commitment to others.

However, before taking action, it is good to know how to prioritize well among the causes, make our project explicit, justify it to others to elucidate its pros and cons, in order to be more effective and obtain better results.

In this way, we will be able to avoid defensiveness and the biases of our emotional thinking, and at the same time stay motivated. We will also channel our energies into those acts that we really know will make a substantial difference in the world.

To conclude, we leave you with a brief sentence that summarizes the key idea of this article:

"When it comes to doing good, let emotions be your gas pedal, and careful reasoning your steering wheel."

Recommended readings to make Affective Altruism and Effective Altruism compatible

On the Affective side

500 Million, But Not a Single More. An inspiring message on the eradication of smallpox.

On Caring, by Nate Soares, at the Effective Altruism Forum. On the cognitive biases that prevent us from doing more to help others.

The Replacing Guilt series by Nate Soares at the Effective Altruism Forum. Here's a summary of it.

Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately, by Eliezer Yudkowsky at LessWrong.

Framing Effective Altruism as Overcoming Indifference, by Darius Meissner at the Effective Altruism Forum

On the Effective side

The book The Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef, as well as her TEDx talk, where she develops the advantages and disadvantages of the soldier mentality and scout mentality.

How Flawed Judgments Limit the Impact of Charitable Donations, by Shakeel Hashim, at Giving What We Can.

The Psychology of (In)effective Altruism, a study by Lucius Caviola, Stefan Schubert, and Joshua Greene, on the motives that lead us to help others but in a biased or ineffective way.


[1] I take these numbers from The Scout Mindset (2019) by Julia Galef, Penguin Random House, p. 21. Julia Galef is citing Entrepreneurs' perceived chances for success, (1988) by Arnold C. Cooper, Carolyn Y. Woo, and William C. Dunkelberg. Journal of Business Venturing, Volume 3, Issue 2, 97-108.


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