Rethinking Altruism: Altruism Born of Suffering and Its Unique Potential for Inclusivity

Gideon Lim

Gideon studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He now works as a social impact consultant with Dalberg Advisors.

Author’s Note

What was your thesis topic?

Drawing from qualitative interview data from Lombok, Indonesia, I argue that suffering may not only motivate altruism, but also encourage altruists to be more inclusive towards others. However, contrary to current conceptions of Altruism Born of Suffering (ABS), I argue that this inclusivity need not come as the result of recategorizing one’s social outgroup as an ingroup. Instead, suffering may ignite a process of moral reasoning that expands one’s circle of concern. 

In what ways do you think your topic improves the world?

Cause neutrality has been heralded as an important stepping stone towards more effective altruism. Doing so involves encouraging altruists to include cause areas outside their natural circle of concern. This paper explains how this could happen – by showing that suffering encourages people to engage in moral reasoning about the value of life and therefore, why others may be equally worthy of concern, regardless of their relationship to us. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy efforts would do well to tap on our collective experience of suffering to encourage more to engage in altruism.

What do you think the stronger and weaker parts of your thesis are?

My paper’s main strength lies in its methodology. The paper is fundamentally inter-disciplinary, augmenting existing psychological models of altruism to account for philosophical reasoning. I also draw from qualitative experimental philosophy, which enables researchers to delve deeply into participants’ process of moral reasoning. This unique methodology supplies the paper with in-depth insight into a real-life case study of Altruism Born of Suffering (ABS) and the psychological and philosophical processes underpinning it. 

Conversely, my paper’s main weakness is its conceptual linkages between inclusivity and empathy. The paper could have afforded to flesh out the nuances between affective and cognitive empathy, and incorporate the extensive social psychological work around inclusivity more clearly.

In what ways have you changed your mind since writing it?

If I could redo my research, I would align my interview questions more closely with the psychological models I ended up using. This would have given me richer data to test my hypothesis. I was only properly introduced to my core model in the middle of my research process, when I was connected with David Moss by Effective Thesis. That connection was game-changing, because David helped me zero in on the most relevant literature and how I should be responding to it.

What recommendations would you make to others interested in taking a similar direction with their research?

Some researchers may present their findings at a lecture or on a podcast. This helps if you want a break from reading, and you may even find extra intellectual nuggets from the Q&A segment. 

Feel free to reach out to me at if you want to learn more about my research topic, or just want someone to bounce ideas with!

Please email Gideon if you would like access to the full text.