Tag Archives: Rationality

Another note on hypocritical altruism

At least by some definitions of “hypocrisy” and “altruism”, I suspect that non-hypocritical altruism is pretty rare. A lot of altruistic behaviour probably stems from the intention to signal socially desirable traits to others and to ourselves. Is that bad?

I think hypocritical altruism tends to be less effective than authentic altruism. Authentic altruism (if it exists) motivates people to employ effective means to the end of doing good for others. Hypocritical altruism motivates people to employ effective means to the end of appearing admirable to others. How much overlap is there between the most effective means to either of these ends? I’m afraid it’s usually very little.

I see two things you can deplore and/or attempt to change, here: (1) You can deplore people’s hypocrisy, and you can try to get them to be more authentic in their altruistic pursuits. Or, (2) you can deplore people’s admiration for acts of ineffective altruism, and you can try to get them to admire ineffective altruism less and effective altruism more.

(1) doesn’t appeal to me at all. Deploration-wise, while the result-side of hypocritical-as-opposed-to-authentic altruism bothers me, I don’t find myself caring about the intentions-side of it. (Is that weird?) Strategy-wise, I would be surprised to learn that promising ways to make people more authentically altruistic are known to anyone. (Though David Pearce’s calls for safe analogues of MDMA come to mind.)

(2) seems much more appealing. People’s misplaced admiration bugs me more than I’d like to admit. And, bugging aside, its effect of diverting hypocritical altruism to ineffective causes is a utilitarian disaster. As strategy goes, I think the prospect of getting people to direct their admiration toward more effective altruism holds much greater promise than hypocrisy abatement, through such simple means as providing information. If successful, the result here, too, should be more effective (if hypocritical) altruism.

You could object that “holds much greater promise than hypocrisy abatement” is setting the bar very low. I agree. I am not optimistic about the prospect of getting much of the general pop to recalibrate their altruism-admiration for effectiveness. But if Paul seeks to be admired, what’s relevant is not so much what “most people in the general pop” admire, but rather what people in Paul’s social circles admire. And there are many “social circles” within which the goal of creating an effectiveness-minded culture seems quite attainable to me. Spreading admiration for effectiveness in your social circles is a more modest goal, but even if its achievement results in no more than 2 or 3 new effective altruists, that’s a big deal. And the long-term potential of spreading the culture in niche after niche is much higher still.