Altruism Icebreakers

Altruism Icebreakers

If you’ve been thinking about how to maximize your positive impact on the world, you’ve probably already realized that one of the most high-impact things you can do is simply talking to people about the tremendous amount of good they can achieve with donations to the most effective charities. I’ve written before about the importance of communicating openly about your donations: if you can influence just one person to become part of the movement, you’ve made a massively effective use of your time.

This sounds great in theory, you may reply, but how can I actually start to raise the issue of effective altruism with my friends? Breaking the ice can be tough, even if you are quite comfortable with your altruism and think there are very strong reasons for doing it. It’s a stance that challenges some commonly held assumptions about morality – an obviously touchy issue. You may feel like it is never the appropriate moment to mention it. On a night out with your friends, casually mentioning the parable of the drowning child is probably counter-productive. But there are ways to talk about effective altruism without sounding preachy. Here are some tips for better altruism icebreakers.

1.      Don’t apologize

You may feel squeamish about mentioning effective altruism for a couple of reasons: people can be turned off by the cliché about “saving the world”, and you are breaking a taboo by declaring that some forms of charity are better than others. It’s natural to be tempted to immediately address these sources of unease. You might feel a need to hedge your statements by starting with “OK, I know this sounds really cheesy, but have you thought about the best ways to improve the world?”, or “I don’t mean to criticize anyone’s work, but did you know some charities are actually WAY better than others?”. The big problem with these is that they are very ineffective icebreakers: if the very first thing that comes out of your mouth is an apology for the perceived weirdness of effective altruism, you can forget about turning anyone around to your side. So just ignore the stage fright and start right off without apologizing. If the taboos do come up in the conversation, you can deal with them in a relaxed and up-front manner. But the first step to breaking the ice is to drop the sheepishness.

2.      Latch onto the conversation

It turns out there are many ways that you can integrate effective giving into a conversation. If you look out for mentions of charitable donations or foreign aid, these topics will eventually come up, and you can take it from there with something like, “but couldn’t they save so many more lives if…”.

If you want to avoid the moral side of the question, the technical details of solutions against poverty can be another way to leverage the existing conversation. If someone mentions the seemingly insurmountable problems of poverty, it’s the perfect occasion to point out that the situation is not so desperate. Interventions like distributing anti-malaria bednets are proven by rock-solid evidence to improve poor people’s lives.

3.      Start from premises they agree with

The best way to convince people of anything is to show them that the beliefs they already hold logically imply your conclusion. Most people will agree that all humans are, in some sense of the word, equal, and almost everyone wants to improve the world. These can be great places to start, and you can make your way from there in very small steps. The following example is taken from Ben Kuhn’s blog:

– So, like, you want to improve the world, right?

– Yeah.

– And you prefer improving it more if you can, right?

– Yeah.

– So we try to figure out how to improve it the most. It’s weird how nobody else is doing that, huh?

There are other ways to adapt principles that people agree with to effective altruism. For instance, when people make investments, they look very carefully at the return they will get. Our entire financial system is based on the idea of maximizing return on investment. So isn’t it strange that so few people are looking at the returns of their donations to charity, in terms of lives saved or suffering relieved? People already apply principles of effectiveness in almost every area of their lives, so you can start from these, and encourage them to think about the effectiveness of their altruistic actions, too.

4.      Tie in your personal story

By telling your friends how you came to start thinking about effective altruism, you show them that you are just like them, and that they too can follow this path. The key is to establish that you are coming from the same place as they are, but simply happened to realize what a tremendous difference you can make with targeted donations. For example, a few years ago I read Poor Economics, a book by M.I.T. economists on “the surprising truth about life on less than one dollar a day”. At first, I just thought it was an interesting book about economics, but eventually I realized that the existence of highly effective anti-poverty programs meant that I could save lives. A personal story about how your altruism changed your own life, in big and small ways, may ultimately be the best icebreaker. The supporter’s stories section of The Life You Can Save’s website is filled with examples of ordinary people who ended up pledging a portion of their income to effective altruism.

5.      Give them the book

If you don’t yet feel so confident about discussing effective altruism, why not ask Peter Singer to make the case for you? After all, he’s already convinced more than 17,000 people to take the Life You Can Save Pledge. Buying a few copies of his book ($11 on Amazon) and giving them out to your friends is probably the easiest way to break the ice. I’ve bought a small box of them myself, and the response has been really positive. People are usually surprised and genuinely happy to receive a gift. What I often do is give the book as a follow-up a few days after I’ve had a conversation about effective altruism with someone. It gets a great reaction because people are happy that you remembered the conversation, and they are likely to read the book because you have signaled to them how important you think it is. Even if they don’t read it, or are not convinced by it, don’t worry: the book is cheap enough to be a great speculative investment. If you can convince just one person to take the pledge, you’ve just paid for the cost of many hundreds of copies.

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About the author:

Thomas Sittler

Thomas is a student and started volunteering for The Life You Can Save in 2014. He's passionate about doing the most good and thinks that writing for TLYCS is the best way he can make a difference as a student. He is also planning a summer internship at Giving What We Can. Thomas enjoys debates about philosophy or politics, Woody Allen movies, and rock climbing.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.