Brain vs. Heart: The Giving Stalemate

The competing point of views towards giving, dramatized.

Ernesta Orlovaitė


When doing good, do the most good you can. Sounds simple, right?

My brain nods eagerly. My heart raises its eyebrows.

Meet Brain, the warrior of reason

My brain is a powerhouse of deep self-reflection, dispassionate evaluation, and rational decision-making. My mum sometimes calls me her little robot.

Naturally, when I decided to make giving a part of my everyday life, I went through a rigorous process of reasoning. I didn’t want to miss anything important, so I started from moral philosophy, the Adam and Eve of philanthropy:

I then learned about the traditional approaches to giving, the flaws of blindly following one’s heart, and the various frameworks for evaluating the good that’s been done. My brain is now confident that the goal of giving should be to do the most good you can with the available resources:

Here’s an example where my brain can easily decide what’s right:

Imagine you have $1,000 you can donate to a charity of your choice. You immediately think of Greenpeace. They do amazing work advocating for the environment, and some of their recent campaigns have been particularly memorable. Or you could donate to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) to sponsor the distribution of anti-malaria nets. There is strong evidence that AMF is highly effective at reducing malaria cases. In fact, $1,000 would go a long way towards saving a child’s life. And what would Greenpeace do with your $1,000? Who knows. You could estimate how much money would go towards their various campaigns, but not what the outcome would be. Is Greenpeace truly doing good? Shrug. So AMF it is.

But here’s the problem: my heart disagrees.

Meet Heart, the soldier of love¹

The thing is, once all the reasoning and theorizing is done and the real world happens, my heart suddenly develops an opinion, and a pretty strong one at that. And unlike my brain, it’s not easily swayed by ethical arguments or effectiveness data. Instead, my heart wants love and happiness.

It wants to be happy, to make others happy, and (and this is where the trouble begins) to do all that in its own way². It goes something like this:

Brain: I read everything.
Heart: I believe you.
Brain: I also reflected on our values.
Heart: Mmmmm…
Brain: We’ll give to the Against Malaria Foundation.
Brain: (stars a lecture on the different values we assign to human and non-human animal lives, charity effectiveness, etc.)
Heart: (calls Brain a hyper-rationalistic ass, slams the door, leaves)

Effective altruism has indeed been called “moralistic”, “cold”, and “hyper-rationalistic”. Some even find it repugnant. I don’t. I find the idea of being able to measure the good you do liberating. I’d hate to give my hard-earned money or my limited free time to something that will ultimately change nothing. That’s why I wouldn’t give to Greenpeace. I don’t know if what they do is truly making a difference.

And even when the answer seems obvious, it might not be. For example, I love the idea of sending textbooks to poor students in Kenya to help improve their test scores. In my world, the right book can fix any problem. It turns out, however, that in developing countries textbooks don’t help. Nor do smaller class sizes. It’s deworming that makes the difference.

But then there are causes that I am pretty confident do work, though they might be hard to measure — and even harder to compare. For instance, the Order of Malta in Lithuania brings hot soup and conversations to the elderly. 38% of those older than 65 there are at risk of poverty; most are not just hungry, but also lonely. My heart breaks every time I think about them.

But then my brain comes in and gives me numbers. Reminds me how many lives I would be deliberately failing to save if I chose to support the elderly and the lonely.

Which is why I still haven’t figured out my giving strategy.

¹ The only appropriate reaction to this heading is listening to Sade’s Soldier of Love (and the video is so bad it’s mesmerizing).

² Nick Seluk has captured the complex relationships between heart and brain in his awesome Heart and Brain comic series. You need to follow him.



Ernesta Orlovaitė

Bookworm (but I sometimes go on real adventures) · Obsessive thinker · Inconsistent writer · “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” — Douglas Adams