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In 2022/3 there were a number of stressful events in and affecting the EA community, starting with the FTX crash. That led to people thinking about how to make a community one that you want to be a part of, and one in which people feel happy and safe - including, sometimes, wanting some people to leave or change how they interact with the community. 

How to make sure a community thrives seems difficult. For other types of entities, there are clearly defined interventions. A company has a clear mandate to fire people who act against its interests and it’s clear that that mandate should be carried out by managers at that company. Communities are in a pretty different situation. 

There are some community cases which seem reasonably clear - for example, people organising community events should take some care to exclude people who are likely to cause harm at those events. But there are also questions around whether communities should try to take more generalisable action against particular individuals, in the sense of trying to encourage everyone to stop associating with them. 

Some of the discussions I’ve seen around negative events in the community have at least implicitly pushed for coordinated action. Sometimes that’s been in a backward looking way, like wishing SBF had been excluded from the EA community long ago. Sometimes it’s been in a forward looking way: ‘Are certain types of finance just inherently shady? Should we avoid associating with anyone working in those?’.

I’ve been feeling kind of angsty about engaging in conversations around this, and have so far had trouble pinning down why. I often think more clearly by writing, which is why I wrote this. I also thought others might have experienced similar internal tension, and if so maybe hearing someone else’s reflection on it could be useful. 

After thinking about it some, I realised that I think the discomfort is coming from the fact that what’s sometimes going on in questions like the above is implicitly “at what point does morality get to tell you to break off a friendship?”.[1] I think I intuitively hate that question. It seems important to me that who I spend non-work time with to be ‘out of morality’s reach’ – I think it gets into the domain of what you might call  'sacred values'.[2]


What do I mean by sacred values?

It often feels kind of hard to know what the scope of effective altruism should be, because it feels like nothing is ever enough. But for most people it’s not sustainable to be always optimising every part of life for helping others more. 

A friend of mine resolves that tension by using the idea of ‘sacred values’. Deciding that something is a ‘sacred value’ for you means treating that part of your life as something you’re clearly permitted to have, regardless of whether foregoing it would allow you to help others more.[3] 

I don’t think ‘sacred values’ should be taken too literally. They’re more of a useful cognitive manoeuvre for helping us deal with the weight of morality and how many different ways there are of helping others. Having sacred values might be a way of allowing yourself to dive into doing good effectively in a sustainable rather than overwhelming way. Periodically, in cool moments, you pick which areas to optimise in and which to keep for yourself. Then day to day you don’t have to stress over every possible way of helping others more.[4]

Sacred values differ between people. For one person, having children might be a sacred value - they simply plan to have children, regardless of whether they could help others more if they didn’t. Another person might feel fine doing a careful calculation of how costly to the world them having children is likely to be, and make the decision about having kids based on the outcome. 

The kinds of things you might take into account when deciding which things you should treat as your sacred values are: 

  • Which things feel most important to you having a flourishing life, or most painful to give up? If you love to travel, and feel like a better person when you’ve learned more by directly exploring other cultures, you might treat ‘getting to travel’ as a sacred value. 
  • How much does treating a particular thing as a sacred value trade against your endorsed values? When I was at university I really liked the idea of becoming a librarian. But how I spend the time in my career is likely to make a huge difference to how much I help people over my lifetime, so ‘choosing my profession just by enjoyment’ doesn’t seem like a good candidate for me to hold as a sacred value.

Thinking of some things as ‘sacred values’ has been useful for me in taking the edge off effective altruism seeming to always imply I should be doing more good than I am. One case that has been particularly significant is my diet. I spent quite a few years trying and failing to become vegetarian, and getting very stressed about it. That got much better when one of my vegan friends donated to Animal Charity Evaluators on my behalf with the admonition ‘now stop worrying about that and do work instead’. It turns out I find eating kind of fraught, and so it’s very helpful for me to mostly put what I eat outside the domain of what I’m morally trying to optimise. 

On the other hand, people are malleable. What feels unacceptable or way too difficult for you this year may not in a decade’s time. I don’t think considering something as a ‘sacred value’ for you needs to imply it will always be one. Over the long run we might aim to reduce the number of sacred values we have. Maybe someday eating will feel less fraught, and I’ll try to become a vegetarian again.

Saying that something is a sacred value for you might seem to imply that for that domain, morality won’t be in any way relevant. That doesn’t seem quite right to me - I think it’s more about not needing to optimise. For example, I treat ‘bringing up my son to thrive’ as a sacred value to me. That means even though it might be better for the world overall for me to try to make sure he grows up to be as altruistic and effective as possible, I don’t aim for that. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I don’t morally care at all about how he grows up. I’m bringing him up to be happy and kind. I care about whether he seems to care about other people, and try to help them. But I’m thinking about my time spent with him as in a different domain than the one in which I’m striving to maximise impact. 



Like the other things mentioned above, there are lots of ways your friendships can be better or worse for the world. For example: 

  • Your friends might encourage you in good or bad habits
  • A friendship might be particularly supportive 
  • You might have a bad dynamic that leads to one or both of you being less happy
  • You might learn from each other
  • People might assume good or bad things about you based on your friend (since people tend to like their friends, be similar to them and support them in conflicts)
  • Being friends with a particular person might be beneficial or harmful to your other friends if they’re going to overlap because that person is particularly interesting / kind / obnoxious
  • Being friends with someone might make it more likely you end up working together (eg because you know when they’re looking for work, and know what types of jobs they’d be suited for)

The benefits or harms you might get from a friendship are often going to be predictable rather than surprising. In some cases you’ll be able to tell before you befriend someone whether they have the kinds of values that will likely rub off positively or negatively on you. In other cases you might notice as you spend time together that you keep getting into arguments and it doesn’t seem to be benefiting either of you. 

So like travel / diet etc, friendships do seem to be the kind of thing that morality has things to say about. If you were doing all you could to increase positive consequences and decrease negative ones, you could choose which friendships to take up / nourish / drop based on which were going to have better rather than worse consequences.


Why friendship is a sacred value for me

In trying to figure out why I was feeling fraught about questions surrounding ‘in light of events like the FTX crash, should we consider which people we shouldn’t associate with?’, I’ve been realising how important it feels for me to treat friendship as a sacred value. 

In thinking through why that is, I think it’s relevant how large a part friendship plays in my wellbeing. I expected to spend fairly little time with friends when I had a family, but in fact I’ve instead realised that I very much care about continuing to see my friends despite having a kid. In particular, it matters to me to have close, long run friendships. That makes the idea of allowing consequentialist morality to comment on my friendships feel threatening, as it would if it commented on how to bring up my son.

I think it’s possible that in some ways it’s a bit less costly for me than typical to have this as a sacred value. The reason is that I find it easier than some people do to separate out my different relationships with people. For example, it’s historically been possible (though still decidedly challenging) to be working closely with someone and for our working relationship to be going pretty badly, but for us to continue being close friends who care about each other and enjoy spending non-work time together. 



You might think that if I weren’t allowing morality to comment on my friendships, you should expect me to have friends with values totally dissimilar to mine, who encouraged me in bad habits etc. That’s not actually the case, and I don’t expect it to become more true over time. ‘Not intentionally optimising my friendships based on values’ is pretty different from ‘my friendships have no correlation with my values’. In fact, I don’t feel drawn to hanging out with people who seem mean. I find it interesting talking to people who have useful insights for my work. And I often kind of like having friendships that draw me towards good habits. 

On the other hand, some things affecting my friendships have nothing to do with my values. I form and keep some friendships based on shared hobbies, or having similar dispositions that aren’t related to my values. Other dispositions that draw me to (or repel me from) people are related to my values, but not in ways I particularly endorse. For example, I feel intuitively particularly badly towards people who are callous towards people in their care or who are their subordinates. The extent to which I feel that isn’t in line with my endorsed view of ‘how people should act’ in terms of how much time people should spend fixing that flaw, or how bad it is compared to other ways one might act badly. Whereas I feel totally unfazed by someone choosing to have a job they don’t think will help others, even though it feels important to me to do so. 

A caveat to all this is that I think that having friendship as a sacred value should be basically about who I personally spend time with and support through difficulties. I do think I should pay careful attention to which people are going to be bad for others in my life. I wouldn’t want to cause people to spend time with others they don’t want to (for example by inviting them to the same gathering). That ends up not being a big issue for me, because I prefer spending time with fewer people at a time.

The concrete implication of this for my action is that I basically shouldn’t be asking myself ‘is it moral to continue being friends with this person?’, just like I shouldn’t ask myself ‘is this a good way to ensure my son becomes an EA?’. That’s so, even though both are valid and important questions. 

I expect this policy to have some personal costs. For instance, maintaining some friendships might make people think I’m too trusting. I also expect it could have some broader costs. It’s plausible that it might be useful for the community to systematically exclude people, not just in the sense of not working at particular companies or coming to professional events, but also in the sense of being ostracised by individual members of the community. I expect not to contribute much towards that because my decisions about people to spend leisure time with won’t be optimised for impact. 

These costs seem worth it to me. I’ve previously been too slow to notice some of my sacred values. I think that’s not just been sad for me but has also sometimes gotten in the way of my helping others as much as I can.[5] If I’m representative in that, it may be helpful for the community to be one where people get to figure out their own limits and what’s sustainable for them in the long term. ​​For me, that includes treating friendship very differently from how I treat how I spend my work time, or allocate my donations. 

If this post resonated with you, you might enjoy the book I’m reading at the moment: The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center 


  1. ^

    To be clear, no-one has explicitly suggested to me breaking off a friendship for this reason. It’s just a vibe I sometimes get from online dialogue. I wondered whether other people might be getting it too.

  2. ^

    Warning for philosophers: I’m going to be frustratingly sloppy with discussing ‘morality’. This has been mostly me thinking through psychologically my relationship to my ‘duties’. I’m basically a consequentialist, so when I talk about morality affecting my actions, I’m thinking about it in terms of increasing wellbeing in the long run as much as possible. My guess is that this will be differently applicable to different ethics, but doesn’t depend on being consequentialist.

  3. ^

    The feeling I have here is similar to Bernard Williams’ idea of ‘a thought too far’ (though the implications I draw are reasonably different). The idea is that you’d treat the question of ‘ought I to continue allowing this sacred value to be part of my life’ as a thought too far.

  4. ^

    Another way of saying this is that I’m not thinking of these as being fundamental parts of normative ontology. I’m not talking about taking on deontological agent-relative permissions. Instead it’s similar to split level consequentialism.

  5. ^

    I’m not taking a stance on whether having sacred values increases a person’s impact over time. I think it’s plausible that sometimes it’s a way to prevent micro-optimisations which are actually counter productive because of wasted time/attention, and sometimes it’s clearly going to reduce the impact someone has.





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In my view, there's a level of badness for being excluded from my friendship, and a level of badness for being excluded from my communities, and I think the 2nd one should be much stricter. 

If I have a work buddy who is prone to making sexist jokes and off-colour comments, I would like them less, but I wouldn't find cause to avoid hanging out 1 on 1 or avoid them in the corridors. But I would keep them away from my dancing community, because it sets a bad tone and makes the place less welcoming for everyone. Everybody you let into a community has an effect on the character of that community, I see 

I think it's completely fair for an intentional community or movement to have reasonable standards about who to include. I think EA has suffered from having incredibly low standards in the past, to the point where someone straight up admitted to being an authoritarian manipulative narcissist and was still welcomed in with open arms. Nobody has a democratic right to be in this movement!

'Someone straight up admitted to being an authoritarian manipulative narcissist and was still welcomed in with open arms".

Just to satisfy my curiosity about gossip,what are you referring to here?

This is a great post and captured something that I feel. Thank you for writing it Michelle!!

Executive summary: The author argues that friendship should be treated as a "sacred value" that is outside the scope of moral optimization, even though friendships can have positive or negative consequences.

Key points:

  1. Recent stressful events in the EA community have raised questions about whether the community should take coordinated action to exclude certain individuals.
  2. The author feels uncomfortable with the idea of morality dictating who one should be friends with, and believes friendship should be a "sacred value" outside the domain of moral optimization.
  3. Sacred values are areas of life that are kept separate from the constant pressure to do more good, in order to make altruism more sustainable. Examples include having children, diet, and travel.
  4. While friendships can have positive or negative consequences, the author argues that not intentionally optimizing friendships based on values is different from having no correlation between friendships and values.
  5. Treating friendship as a sacred value may have some personal and broader costs, but the author believes it is important for individuals to figure out their own limits and what is sustainable for them in the long term.



This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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