Effective Altruism is Not a Competition

In the past, some people have suggested that we “gamify” effective altruism some more, and create points for doing altruistic-y things, like donating our money or volunteering our time. I think this could be a good idea, but rather than seeing individual scores, I’d much rather see a collective team score for EA. We’d compete as a group to beat our past group selves (make March better than February, for example) rather than compete amongst ourselves as individuals.

There are several problems with the individual competition model, but the biggest problem is the most fundamental – effective altruism is not (and shouldn’t be) a competition. Rather, we are a team. A community. We all have one common goal.

I know some effective altruists who see EAs like Holden Karnofsky or what not do incredible things, and feel a little bit of resentment at themselves and others; feeling inadequate that they can’t make such a large difference. This is an important feeling for generating a desire to improve, and keeping a growth mindset in the face of this could lead to great things for you. However, it’s even more important not to let this get you into depression, simply because Holden’s success is also your success.

All effective altruists care about is making sure that the world is a better place. It doesn’t matter who is doing the better-ing. If Holden, Bill Gates, and Dustin Moskovitz each have 1 billion EA points and you only have five, you should be celebrating the fact that the EA community is collectively at 3 billion and five EA points and that you’re helping. You shouldn’t feel bad that you’re not doing as well.

We all have different skills and abilities. Growth mindset does say that we each have an ability to be incredibly effective and altruistic, but we still all start with different places. It’s simply not the case that all of us, right this year, could be making seven figure donations to GiveWell or be putting in 80 hours a week at a top non-profit. But we all can do our best and try a little harder.

Let’s start seeing ourselves more as a community where everyone has something to offer and celebrate our collective success, not despair over who is or is not the most effective. Effective altruism shouldn’t be a competition (at least, among individuals).


Idea adapted from Brian Tomasik’s “Teamwork over Envy”.