In the last post, I argued that self-sacrifice is not, on its own, relevant to the moral value of an act. But if that’s the case, then why (again) do people love charity workers just because their work involves greater self-sacrifice?

I would suggest that this mistake is a symptom of a broader conceptual confusion between two questions:

  • Q1: What ought we to do?
  • Q2: What kinds of motives would a good person have?

Q1 is about acts and what’s morally right. Q2 asks about agents and their character. Depending on your moral views, the answers to these questions may diverge.

Self-sacrifice doesn’t seem directly relevant to Q1. But the willingness to carry some great burden might be a good motive: If everyone had that kind of character, then the world would probably be a better place. So, it may be relevant to Q2.

You might still find something fishy about the idea that the self-sacrifice of a charity worker doesn’t make charity work ethically preferable. If so, I think your thought might really be that **charity work is praiseworthy ** because it reflects good character or motives. But that wouldn’t imply that you ought to do charity work even when funding it instead would be more effective.

Let me explain. Praise and blame are ways of reacting to each other’s behavior, and they don’t correspond perfectly to right acts and wrong acts. People who act wrongly are not always blameworthy, since they may have a good excuse. Young children sometimes act wrongly but aren’t blameworthy because (say) they don’t know any better. And people who act rightly are not always praiseworthy, since they may not have done enough good or done it intentionally. So, praiseworthiness/blameworthiness and rightness/wrongness often come apart.

We might drive an even greater wedge between these concepts. On one influential account, we are blameworthy when our acts display insufficient good will, and we are praiseworthy when our acts show great concern for others. Charity workers may be praiseworthy because their self-sacrifice shows such high quality of will. While this evaluation bears on Q2 (the assessment of agents), it may not bear on Q1 (the assessment of acts). If our answers to Q1 are about the consequences of our acts and whether our choices make a difference in the lives of people in need, then good will and self-sacrifice may be irrelevant to what we ought to do.

People might be particularly prone to this confusion in the context of career choice. If we spend over 80,000 hours on a job, then people may tend to evaluate career choice not as an act or decision, but rather as a matter of character. But choosing a career — by seeking information, applying for jobs, and accepting offers — is an action (or set of actions), and effective altruists want to know what they ought to choose to make the most difference. Self-sacrifice is not directly relevant to this question.

So, why does this point matter? If this is right, then one important aspect of the common affinity for charity workers stems from a conflation of distinct moral concepts. Self-sacrifice may be relevant to our character and the quality of our will, but to the extent that making a difference is important, altruism may diverge from self-sacrifice in the context of career choice.