On Caring

This is an es­say de­scribing some of my mo­ti­va­tion to be an effec­tive al­tru­ist. It is cross­posted from my blog. Many of the ideas here are quite similar to oth­ers found in the se­quences. I have a slightly differ­ent take, and af­ter ad­just­ing for the typ­i­cal mind fal­lacy I ex­pect that this post may con­tain in­sights that are new to many.


I’m not very good at feel­ing the size of large num­bers. Once you start toss­ing around num­bers larger than 1000 (or maybe even 100), the num­bers just seem “big”.

Con­sider Sirius, the bright­est star in the night sky. If you told me that Sirius is as big as a mil­lion earths, I would feel like that’s a lot of Earths. If, in­stead, you told me that you could fit a billion Earths in­side Sirius… I would still just feel like that’s a lot of Earths.

The feel­ings are al­most iden­ti­cal. In con­text, my brain grudg­ingly ad­mits that a billion is a lot larger than a mil­lion, and puts forth a to­ken effort to feel like a billion-Earth-sized star is big­ger than a mil­lion-Earth-sized star. But out of con­text — if I wasn’t an­chored at “a mil­lion” when I heard “a billion” — both these num­bers just feel vaguely large.

I feel a lit­tle re­spect for the big­ness of num­bers, if you pick re­ally re­ally large num­bers. If you say “one fol­lowed by a hun­dred ze­roes”, then this feels a lot big­ger than a billion. But it cer­tainly doesn’t feel (in my gut) like it’s 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 times big­ger than a billion. Not in the way that four ap­ples in­ter­nally feels like twice as many as two ap­ples. My brain can’t even be­gin to wrap it­self around this sort of mag­ni­tude differ­en­tial.

This phe­nom­ena is re­lated to scope in­sen­si­tivity, and it’s im­por­tant to me be­cause I live in a world where some­times the things I care about are re­ally re­ally nu­mer­ous.

For ex­am­ple, billions of peo­ple live in squalor, with hun­dreds of mil­lions of them de­prived of ba­sic needs and/​or dy­ing from dis­ease. And though most of them are out of my sight, I still care about them.

The loss of a hu­man life with all is joys and all its sor­rows is tragic no mat­ter what the cause, and the tragedy is not re­duced sim­ply be­cause I was far away, or be­cause I did not know of it, or be­cause I did not know how to help, or be­cause I was not per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble.

Know­ing this, I care about ev­ery sin­gle in­di­vi­d­ual on this planet. The prob­lem is, my brain is sim­ply in­ca­pable of tak­ing the amount of car­ing I feel for a sin­gle per­son and scal­ing it up by a billion times. I lack the in­ter­nal ca­pac­ity to feel that much. My care-o-me­ter sim­ply doesn’t go up that far.

And this is a prob­lem.


It’s a com­mon trope that courage isn’t about be­ing fear­less, it’s about be­ing afraid but do­ing the right thing any­way. In the same sense, car­ing about the world isn’t about hav­ing a gut feel­ing that cor­re­sponds to the amount of suffer­ing in the world, it’s about do­ing the right thing any­way. Even with­out the feel­ing.

My in­ter­nal care-o-me­ter was cal­ibrated to deal with about a hun­dred and fifty peo­ple, and it sim­ply can’t ex­press the amount of car­ing that I have for billions of suffer­ers. The in­ter­nal care-o-me­ter just doesn’t go up that high.

Hu­man­ity is play­ing for uni­mag­in­ably high stakes. At the very least, there are billions of peo­ple suffer­ing to­day. At the worst, there are quadrillions (or more) po­ten­tial hu­mans, tran­shu­mans, or posthu­mans whose ex­is­tence de­pends upon what we do here and now. All the in­tri­cate civ­i­liza­tions that the fu­ture could hold, the ex­pe­rience and art and beauty that is pos­si­ble in the fu­ture, de­pends upon the pre­sent.

When you’re faced with stakes like these, your in­ter­nal car­ing heuris­tics — cal­ibrated on num­bers like “ten” or “twenty” — com­pletely fail to grasp the grav­ity of the situ­a­tion.

Sav­ing a per­son’s life feels great, and it would prob­a­bly feel just about as good to save one life as it would feel to save the world. It surely wouldn’t be many billion times more of a high to save the world, be­cause your hard­ware can’t ex­press a feel­ing a billion times big­ger than the feel­ing of sav­ing a per­son’s life. But even though the al­tru­is­tic high from sav­ing some­one’s life would be shock­ingly similar to the al­tru­is­tic high from sav­ing the world, always re­mem­ber that be­hind those similar feel­ings there is a whole world of differ­ence.

Our in­ter­nal care-feel­ings are woe­fully in­ad­e­quate for de­cid­ing how to act in a world with big prob­lems.


There’s a men­tal shift that hap­pened to me when I first started in­ter­nal­iz­ing scope in­sen­si­tivity. It is a lit­tle difficult to ar­tic­u­late, so I’m go­ing to start with a few sto­ries.

Con­sider Alice, a soft­ware en­g­ineer at Ama­zon in Seat­tle. Once a month or so, those col­lege stu­dents with show up on street cor­ners with clip­boards, look­ing ever more dis­illu­sioned as they strug­gle to con­vince peo­ple to donate to Doc­tors Without Borders. Usu­ally, Alice avoids eye con­tact and goes about her day, but this month they fi­nally man­age to cor­ner her. They ex­plain Doc­tors Without Borders, and she ac­tu­ally has to ad­mit that it sounds like a pretty good cause. She ends up hand­ing them $20 through a com­bi­na­tion of guilt, so­cial pres­sure, and al­tru­ism, and then rushes back to work. (Next month, when they show up again, she avoids eye con­tact.)

Now con­sider Bob, who has been given the Ice Bucket Challenge by a friend on face­book. He feels too busy to do the ice bucket challenge, and in­stead just donates $100 to ALSA.

Now con­sider Chris­tine, who is in the col­lege soror­ity ΑΔΠ. ΑΔΠ is en­gaged in a com­pe­ti­tion with ΠΒΦ (an­other soror­ity) to see who can raise the most money for the Na­tional Breast Cancer Foun­da­tion in a week. Chris­tine has a com­pet­i­tive spirit and gets en­gaged in fund-rais­ing, and gives a few hun­dred dol­lars her­self over the course of the week (es­pe­cially at times when ΑΔΠ is es­pe­cially be­hind).

All three of these peo­ple are donat­ing money to char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions… and that’s great. But no­tice that there’s some­thing similar in these three sto­ries: these dona­tions are largely mo­ti­vated by a so­cial con­text. Alice feels obli­ga­tion and so­cial pres­sure. Bob feels so­cial pres­sure and maybe a bit of ca­ma­raderie. Chris­tine feels ca­ma­raderie and com­pet­i­tive­ness. Th­ese are all fine mo­ti­va­tions, but no­tice that these mo­ti­va­tions are re­lated to the so­cial set­ting, and only tan­gen­tially to the con­tent of the char­i­ta­ble dona­tion.

If you took any of Alice or Bob or Chris­tine and asked them why they aren’t donat­ing all of their time and money to these causes that they ap­par­ently be­lieve are worth­while, they’d look at you funny and they’d prob­a­bly think you were be­ing rude (with good rea­son!). If you pressed, they might tell you that money is a lit­tle tight right now, or that they would donate more if they were a bet­ter per­son.

But the ques­tion would still feel kind of wrong. Giv­ing all your money away is just not what you do with money. We can all say out loud that peo­ple who give all their pos­ses­sions away are re­ally great, but be­hind closed doors we all know that peo­ple are crazy. (Good crazy, per­haps, but crazy all the same.)

This is a mind­set that I in­hab­ited for a while. There’s an al­ter­na­tive mind­set that can hit you like a freight train when you start in­ter­nal­iz­ing scope in­sen­si­tivity.


Con­sider Daniel, a col­lege stu­dent shortly af­ter the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon BP oil spill. He en­coun­ters one of those col­lege stu­dents with the clip­boards on the street cor­ners, so­lic­it­ing dona­tions to the World Wildlife Foun­da­tion. They’re try­ing to save as many oiled birds as pos­si­ble. Nor­mally, Daniel would sim­ply dis­miss the char­ity as Not The Most Im­por­tant Thing, or Not Worth His Time Right Now, or Some­body Else’s Prob­lem, but this time Daniel has been think­ing about how his brain is bad at num­bers and de­cides to do a quick san­ity check.

He pic­tures him­self walk­ing along the beach af­ter the oil spill, and en­coun­ter­ing a group of peo­ple clean­ing birds as fast as they can. They sim­ply don’t have the re­sources to clean all the available birds. A pa­thetic young bird flops to­wards his feet, slick with oil, eyes barely able to open. He kneels down to pick it up and help it onto the table. One of the bird-clean­ers in­forms him that they won’t have time to get to that bird them­selves, but he could pull on some gloves and could prob­a­bly save the bird with three min­utes of wash­ing.


Daniel de­cides that he would spend three min­utes of his time to save the bird, and that he would also be happy to pay at least $3 to have some­one else spend a few min­utes clean­ing the bird. He in­tro­spects and finds that this is not just be­cause he imag­ined a bird right in front of him: he feels that it is worth at least three min­utes of his time (or $3) to save an oiled bird in some vague pla­tonic sense.

And, be­cause he’s been think­ing about scope in­sen­si­tivity, he ex­pects his brain to mis­re­port how much he ac­tu­ally cares about large num­bers of birds: the in­ter­nal feel­ing of car­ing can’t be ex­pected to line up with the ac­tual im­por­tance of the situ­a­tion. So in­stead of just ask­ing his gut how much he cares about de-oiling lots of birds, he shuts up and mul­ti­plies.

Thou­sands and thou­sands of birds were oiled by the BP spill alone. After shut­ting up and mul­ti­ply­ing, Daniel re­al­izes (with grow­ing hor­ror) that the amount he acu­tally cares about oiled birds is lower bounded by two months of hard work and/​or fifty thou­sand dol­lars. And that’s not even count­ing wildlife threat­ened by other oil spills.

And if he cares that much about de-oiling birds, then how much does he ac­tu­ally care about fac­tory farm­ing, nev­er­mind hunger, or poverty, or sick­ness? How much does he ac­tu­ally care about wars that rav­age na­tions? About ne­glected, de­prived chil­dren? About the fu­ture of hu­man­ity? He ac­tu­ally cares about these things to the tune of much more money than he has, and much more time than he has.

For the first time, Daniel sees a glimpse of of how much he ac­tu­ally cares, and how poor a state the world is in.

This has the strange effect that Daniel’s rea­son­ing goes full-cir­cle, and he re­al­izes that he ac­tu­ally can’t care about oiled birds to the tune of 3 min­utes or $3: not be­cause the birds aren’t worth the time and money (and, in fact, he thinks that the econ­omy pro­duces things priced at $3 which are worth less than the bird’s sur­vival), but be­cause he can’t spend his time or money on sav­ing the birds. The op­por­tu­nity cost sud­denly seems far too high: there is too much else to do! Peo­ple are sick and starv­ing and dy­ing! The very fu­ture of our civ­i­liza­tion is at stake!

Daniel doesn’t wind up giv­ing $50k to the WWF, and he also doesn’t donate to ALSA or NBCF. But if you ask Daniel why he’s not donat­ing all his money, he won’t look at you funny or think you’re rude. He’s left the place where you don’t care far be­hind, and has re­al­ized that his mind was ly­ing to him the whole time about the grav­ity of the real prob­lems.

Now he re­al­izes that he can’t pos­si­bly do enough. After ad­just­ing for his scope in­sen­si­tivity (and the fact that his brain lies about the size of large num­bers), even the “less im­por­tant” causes like the WWF sud­denly seem wor­thy of ded­i­cat­ing a life to. Wildlife de­struc­tion and ALS and breast can­cer are sud­denly all prob­lems that he would move moun­tains to solve — ex­cept he’s fi­nally un­der­stood that there are just too many moun­tains, and ALS isn’t the bot­tle­neck, and AHHH HOW DID ALL THESE MOUNTAINS GET HERE?

In the origi­nal mind­state, the rea­son he didn’t drop ev­ery­thing to work on ALS was be­cause it just didn’t seem… press­ing enough. Or tractable enough. Or im­por­tant enough. Kind of. Th­ese are sort of the rea­son, but the real rea­son is more that the con­cept of “drop­ping ev­ery­thing to ad­dress ALS” never even crossed his mind as a real pos­si­bil­ity. The idea was too much of a break from the stan­dard nar­ra­tive. It wasn’t his prob­lem.

In the new mind­state, ev­ery­thing is his prob­lem. The only rea­son he’s not drop­ping ev­ery­thing to work on ALS is be­cause there are far too many things to do first.

Alice and Bob and Chris­tine usu­ally aren’t spend­ing time solv­ing all the world’s prob­lems be­cause they for­get to see them. If you re­mind them — put them in a so­cial con­text where they re­mem­ber how much they care (hope­fully with­out guilt or pres­sure) — then they’ll likely donate a lit­tle money.

By con­trast, Daniel and oth­ers who have un­der­gone the men­tal shift aren’t spend­ing time solv­ing all the world’s prob­lems be­cause there are just too many prob­lems. (Daniel hope­fully goes on to dis­cover move­ments like effec­tive al­tru­ism and starts con­tribut­ing to­wards fix­ing the world’s most press­ing prob­lems.)


I’m not try­ing to preach here about how to be a good per­son. You don’t need to share my view­point to be a good per­son (ob­vi­ously).

Rather, I’m try­ing to point at a shift in per­spec­tive. Many of us go through life un­der­stand­ing that we should care about peo­ple suffer­ing far away from us, but failing to. I think that this at­ti­tude is tied, at least in part, to the fact that most of us im­plic­itly trust our in­ter­nal care-o-me­ters.

The “care feel­ing” isn’t usu­ally strong enough to com­pel us to fran­ti­cally save ev­ery­one dy­ing. So while we ac­knowl­edge that it would be vir­tu­ous to do more for the world, we think that we can’t, be­cause we weren’t gifted with that vir­tu­ous ex­tra-car­ing that promi­nent al­tru­ists must have.

But this is an er­ror — promi­nent al­tru­ists aren’t the peo­ple who have a larger care-o-me­ter, they’re the peo­ple who have learned not to trust their care-o-me­ters.

Our care-o-me­ters are bro­ken. They don’t work on large num­bers. No­body has one ca­pa­ble of faith­fully rep­re­sent­ing the scope of the world’s prob­lems. But the fact that you can’t feel the car­ing doesn’t mean that you can’t do the car­ing.

You don’t get to feel the ap­pro­pri­ate amount of “care”, in your body. Sorry — the world’s prob­lems are just too large, and your body is not built to re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately to prob­lems of this mag­ni­tude. But if you choose to do so, you can still act like the world’s prob­lems are as big as they are. You can stop trust­ing the in­ter­nal feel­ings to guide your ac­tions and switch over to man­ual con­trol.


This, of course, leads us to the ques­tion of “what the hell do you then?”

And I don’t re­ally know yet. (Though I’ll plug the Giv­ing What We Can pledge, GiveWell, MIRI, and The Fu­ture of Hu­man­ity In­sti­tute as a good start).

I think that at least part of it comes from a cer­tain sort of des­per­ate per­spec­tive. It’s not enough to think you should change the world — you also need the sort of des­per­a­tion that comes from re­al­iz­ing that you would ded­i­cate your en­tire life to solv­ing the world’s 100th biggest prob­lem if you could, but you can’t, be­cause there are 99 big­ger prob­lems you have to ad­dress first.

I’m not try­ing to guilt you into giv­ing more money away — be­com­ing a philan­thropist is re­ally re­ally hard. (If you’re already a philan­thropist, then you have my ac­claim and my af­fec­tion.) First it re­quires you to have money, which is un­com­mon, and then it re­quires you to throw that money at dis­tant in­visi­ble prob­lems, which is not an easy sell to a hu­man brain. Akra­sia is a formidable en­emy. And most im­por­tantly, guilt doesn’t seem like a good long-term mo­ti­va­tor: if you want to join the ranks of peo­ple sav­ing the world, I would rather you join them proudly. There are many tri­als and tribu­la­tions ahead, and we’d do bet­ter to face them with our heads held high.


Courage isn’t about be­ing fear­less, it’s about be­ing able to do the right thing even if you’re afraid.

And similarly, ad­dress­ing the ma­jor prob­lems of our time isn’t about feel­ing a strong com­pul­sion to do so. It’s about do­ing it any­way, even when in­ter­nal com­pul­sion ut­terly fails to cap­ture the scope of the prob­lems we face.

It’s easy to look at es­pe­cially vir­tu­ous peo­ple — Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nel­son Man­dela — and con­clude that they must have cared more than we do. But I don’t think that’s the case.

No­body gets to com­pre­hend the scope of these prob­lems. The clos­est we can get is do­ing the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion: find­ing some­thing we care about, putting a num­ber on it, and mul­ti­ply­ing. And then trust­ing the num­bers more than we trust our feel­ings.

Be­cause our feel­ings lie to us.

When you do the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion, you re­al­ize that ad­dress­ing global poverty and build­ing a brighter fu­ture de­serve more re­sources than cur­rently ex­ist. There is not enough money, time, or effort in the world to do what we need to do.

There is only you, and me, and ev­ery­one else who is try­ing any­way.


You can’t ac­tu­ally feel the weight of the world. The hu­man mind is not ca­pa­ble of that feat.

But some­times, you can catch a glimpse.