I think many EAs have a unique view about how one altruistic action affects the next altruistic action, something like altruism follows a power law in terms of its impact, and altruistic acts take time/energy/willpower; thus, it's better to conserve your resources for these topmost important altruistic actions (e.g., career choice) and not sweat it for the other actions.
However, I think this is a pretty simplified and incorrect model that leads to the wrong choices being taken. I wholeheartedly agree that certain actions constitute a huge % of your impact. In my case, I do expect my career/job (currently running Charity Entrepreneurship) will be more than 90% of my lifetime impact. But I have a different view on what this means for altruism outside of career choices. I think that being altruistic in other actions not only does not decrease my altruism on the big choices but actually galvanizes them and increases the odds of me making an altruistic choice on the choices that really matter.
One way to imagine altruism is much like other personality characteristics; being conscientious in one area flows over to other areas, working fast in one area heightens your ability to work faster in others. If you tidy your room, it does not make you less likely to be organized in your Google Docs. Even though the same willpower concern applies in these situations and of course, there are limits to how much you can push yourself in a given day, the overall habits build and cross-apply to other areas instead of being seen as in competition. I think altruism is also habit-forming and ends up cross-applying.
Another way to consider how smaller-scale altruism has played out is to look at some examples of people who do more small-scale actions and see how it affects the big calls. Are the EAs who are doing small-scale altruistic acts typically tired and taking a less altruistic career path or performing worse in their highly important job? Anecdotally, not really. The people I see willing to weigh altruism the highest in their career choice comparison tend to also have other altruistic actions they are doing (outside of career). This, of course, does not prove causality, but it is an interesting sign.
Also anecdotally, I have been in a few situations where the altruistic environment switches from one that does value small-scale altruism to one that does not, and people changed as a result (e.g., changing between workplaces or cause areas). Although the data is noisy, to my eye the trend also fits the ‘altruism as a galvanizing factor’ model. For example, I do not see people's work hours typically go up when they move from a valuing small scale altruism area to an non-valuing small scale altruism area.
Another way this might play out is connected to identity and how people think of a trait. If someone identifies personally with something (e.g., altruism), they are more likely to enact it out in multiple situations; it's not just in this case altruism is required, it is a part of who you are (see my altruism as a central purpose post for more on thinking this way). I think this factor that binds altruism to an identity can be reinforced by small-scale altruistic action but also can affect the most important choices.
Some examples of altruistic actions I expect to be superseded in importance by someone's career choice in most cases but still worth doing for many 50%+ EAs:
- Donating 10% (even of a lower salary/earnings level)
- Being Vegan
- Non-life-threatening donations (e.g., blood donations, bone marrow donations)
- Spending less to donate more
- Working more hours at an altruistic job
- Becoming an organ donor
- Asking for donations during some birthdays/celebrations.
- Getting your friends and family birthday cards / doing locally altruistic actions
- Not violating common sense morality (e.g., don’t lie, steal) on a whim or precarious reason. (This one is worth a whole other blog post).
Another benefit I did not even talk about is that costly virtue signalling can often be a more true reflection of someone's altruism. Personally, I am way more skeptical of someone pitching a career path as the most altruistic one if they have an extremely limited altruistic track record, and I think this view both in EA and the broader world is pretty common.
A darker edge to this argument I do not cover here is how many non-altruistic things have been done for “the greater good” where in fact this argument was just used as justification to do something for one's own self-interest. EA has been accused of this, and in my view not entirely unjustifiably in the past.
Overall, I would love to spread the idea of the model of altruism sharpening altruism a little bit more, as I think it’s a useful consideration when thinking about altruistic trade-offs.