May 06, 2018
Different EA organizations seem to value dedication differently, although almost all of them would put some weight on this being a positive factor. However, I think overall the importance of dedication is underrated by the EA movement.
Why Dedication is Important
There has been some writing about talent gaps and talent distribution and how this impacts the world. For instance, a talented person might make more and thus donate more money or do higher quality research. Likewise, dedication affects these same numbers. For example, a dedicated person might donate 50% compared to a less dedicated person who donates 10%. To stick with donations as an easy to measure example, it seems that the EA movement says to generally focus on increasing your earnings as that will be easier than reducing your spending. However, a harder look at the numbers makes me skeptical of this. If a person was making a $100,000 salary and they donated 10% they would have to compare the ease of increasing their salary to $200k and sticking at that 10% to donating 20% of their original $100,000 salary. For most people it seems far easier to do the latter than the former. Of course, in theory a person could increase their salary to $120,000 and donate 50% of the increase, also ending up at the same endline, but in practice this does not seem to happen. Generally the EA’s spending goes up proportionally with their increase earnings unless they have taken a specific pledge or made a specific plan of how much to donate (and the most common pledge by far in the EA movement is the 10% one).
Importantly, I think dedication is an even bigger factor in direct EA jobs. Again, the weak version of this premise most would agree with. Someone who cares about animal rights will likely do a better job working at an animal rights organization than someone who has no interest in animals. But I think that even outside of the baseline caring or not about the cause, dedicated employees vs undedicated ones end up doing very different sorts of work. Much like talent, dedication can affect:
In many, if not most, of the highly talent sensitive jobs, a person's odds of making good decisions is greatly affected by their dedication as well as talent. This is particularly important if you think the person, due to talent, IQ or whatever other traits, has an extremely high expected value because these multipliers will be influencing a much higher level of output.
Of note, much like talent, dedication is a spectrum. All EA employees are "dedicated" in some sense, but there are degrees with some people being more dedicated than others, just like some people are more talented than others. Factors like these combine together to result in someone’s potential to do impact.
Our Current Level of Focus on Dedication
Currently the movement has shied away from its more dedication-focused aspects of which there are many examples:
There are alternative factors that also affect each of these (we live in a complex world and rarely is one factor the single explanation for anything), but I feel the average trend is pretty clear over the last 5 years (with perhaps a slightly higher focus on dedication in the last six months).
Concerns With Under or Over-Focusing on Dedication
I am not suggesting we limit the EA movement to only dedicated people, but I am suggesting that dedication should be broadly encouraged, not discouraged. I have talked to quite a few people in the dedicated group who felt judged, disconnected or almost treated with hostility for taking a more committed approach to EA. Of course there are worries about dispiriting low dedication folks as well, but I think there are also worries about demoralizing people with higher levels of dedication. There has been far more discussion of the former than the latter. It also worth noting that you end up having to deal with similar concerns talking about talent, IQ or any other characteristic that is not uniformly distributed in the EA population.
Social motivation and anchoring are strong drivers of many human actions. If our movement treats a 50% donor the exact same as a 10% donor, fewer people will donate 50% than if it's activity celebrated and talked about. The effect is much worse if people are a bit negative towards them, suggesting they should be aware of burnout and be very careful about making others feel bad. The same rules apply for 10% vs 1% donations as well. Every ethical decision will have some people who accept it minorly, majorly and not at all, and we want to be careful not to anchor our movement’s baseline dedication level too heavily off the first pledge that got popular in it.
Another concern people might have is closing the door to new, less involved members, but again I think this concern can be reversed as well. I know folks from other movements who have trouble treating EA seriously when senior members or most members of the EA movement see EA as a very minor part of their lives. These are the sort of people who, if they joined, would have very high levels of involvement and potentially endline impact. It's worth noting that a 50% donor donates as much as fifty 1% donors (assuming they have the same average income), so even if there are lower numbers of people in this category, they are still worth considering seriously from an impact perspective. I think one could argue the differences are even more extreme in direct work. Some people might say that this is the opposite of their concern, and that high talent people will be scared away by some members being very devoted. However, if we’re getting high talent people with low commitment, we have all of the problems listed above, magnified by the fact that they are higher output.
A frequent worry people have is that those less invested in the movement will feel bad if there are people doing far more than them. However, this equally applies to all levels of involvement. We would not want to stop promoting giving 10% because it makes the people who give less feel bad. Of course we don’t want to bludgeon people with guilt, but unfortunately, doing more than the norm ethically will inevitably lead to some people feeling guilty or insecure. We should try to speak about things sensitively while still encouraging people to do the most impactful thing given their context. Which brings me to the final consideration - not everybody can be very committed.
If somebody mentions something they are doing that is above the average, people are quick to note that not everybody can accomplish said feats. This is definitely true. However, as above, it applies to every level of involvement in the movement. Not everybody can afford to donate 10% or do high impact volunteering. That does not mean that we should not promote those actions. We just need to try and communicate it sensitively and recognize that each person has different life circumstances. However, if you are fortunate enough to have life circumstances that allow for higher levels of dedication, don’t hold back just because others cannot. We should all give what we can, whether it be money or talent.
In summary, dedication is an important factor predicting impact. It either leads to people giving more per income or making decisions with impact as the more dominant consideration. We should encourage people making impact a larger part of their lives rather than discouraging it or being indifferent.