The thought crossed my mind today, “should I take the BART or Uber to the airport on the way to EAG DC..?” Among other considerations, I thought “well the BART would be much cheaper, but EA will compensate me for the Uber, so maybe cost shouldn’t be much of a consideration.” After thinking this, I thought “wow, what a sketchy line of logic.” Yet I don’t think this way of thinking is entirely uncommon among EAs.
Shortly after this I came across this article about how EA Berkeley is wasting money in the EA UC Berkeley Slack channel. While I found the article a little bit confused and it seems to have some factual errors, and some of the claims were made somewhat less credible by the fact that the author then proceeded to post some somewhat aggressive comments toward people in the slack, I nonetheless find the criticism that EAs waste money to be alarming and valid and think it is important to address before the issue balloons out of hand.
Basically, I think this argument has a few levels.
On the first level, you could say that money is really valuable and since we can say that something like $200 (please correct me if this number is inaccurate) could save a year of someone’s life via GiveWell top charities, we should take this as a real consideration and have a very high bar for wasting money.
Against that you could argue that, well, we have an insane amount of money for the size of the movement, if we very roughly have something like $50 billion and 2000 highly engaged EAs which have both been relatively stable over the past few years, if all of that money was spent by current EAs in our lifetime of ~50 years that’s about $500,000 per person, PER YEAR. That’s a lot. So even if it makes me only a minuscule amount more efficient, if the work I’m doing is high value enough in contributing to the community, then maybe it’s worth it.
But then that only makes sense if the work I’m doing is extremely extremely valuable, because I still have to compare it against the bar of $200 equals ~1 year of life saved. So if a $50 Uber ride saves me half an hour, my half an hour must be more valuable than a three months of someone else’s life. That’s a pretty big claim.
But, then, the claims of longtemism are quite big indeed. Bostrom calculates that a one second delay in colonizing space may be equivalent to something like the loss of 100 trillion human lives, due to galaxies we could potentially colonize moving away from us in every direction at fast speeds. Working on existential risk reduction, rather than speeding up technological progress and space colonization, likely increases this expected value by several orders of magnitude.. So if I am one of the very small number of people who is most obsessed with these ideas and competent/privileged enough to make a difference, and in expectation it seems that people explicitly working to reduce existential risk are most likely to succeed at doing so, then yes maybe saving half an hour of my time may actually have, in expectation, an un-intuitively massive positive impact.
But then what about the article above and other criticisms? Couldn’t the reputation risk to EA from this way of thinking be very dangerous, both because it attracts people who want to mooch money off of the community, and repels potential collaborators who don’t want to be seen as wasteful?
Yes, maybe it does repel certain people, but then again, perhaps it attracts the type of people who understand and agree with our logic, and if our logic is in fact correct and good, then perhaps the type of people who really look at our ideas and actions and evaluate them carefully, and then decide they agree, are exactly the type of people we are trying to attract. Perhaps we should value what actually matters, and if that is the long-term future and efficiently, effectively making it as good as possible, then perhaps it is desirable to attract people who are actually aligned with these goals rather than deceitfully people-pleasing our way to popularity.
But is this what we actually value? What do Effective Altruists value?
Here’s my final take:
Effective Altruism is diverse and values many things. We value a community of epistemic humility where even if some of us think improving the long-term future is most important, we collaborate with and share values and ideas with those who think dollars spent on things like global health and animal welfare are an extremely good value.
We value the altruistic spirit, which is very conscious not to unduly privilege ourselves, our comfort, our convenience, or our pleasure over that of other conscious beings. Many of us take great inspiration and energy from this, and can in fact be more motivated and effective living frugally than we could living in luxury.
Many of us value the intense focus that it takes to really have a massive outsized impact. Superfluous spending of time and money can quickly get out of hand, it is always easy to justify spending/wasting “just a little more, just this once” but discipline is a virtue, and if what we value is altruism then there are real trade-offs with other impulses and uses of time/money.
And we do value reputation, putting out good vibes, healthy cultural norms, and leading by example. Moral atrocities throughout history have been perpetrated in the name of goodness and virtue, and it is easy to forget we really don’t know what side of history we are on. It seems wise that we check our impulses toward excess in the name of altruism, use what we have as efficiently and prudently as possible, do good and promote good norms whenever possible, and generally live lives that we and the people around us feel good about.
So, in conclusion, I think being careful not to spend excessively promotes a healthy culture of conscientiousness and altruism, creates good vibes, and makes people within and without the community feel more positively toward EA and motivated to help it go well.
I think EA does have the potential to be one of the greatest forces for good of our times, perhaps even of all time, and if this is an ambition we aspire to, it is appropriate to expect scrutiny and pressure from others and ourselves to live lives of unique goodness. I think being frugal is one part if this, so that we can put our money where it really matters. Effective Altruism is a community I really care about, and I don’t want to see us fall into a self-destructive trap that could be avoided.
*I think I am quite possibly wrong about this and this probably needs some important qualifications, e.g. sometimes spending money really does make longtermists significantly more effective and if we are lacking better ways of using longtermist funds, perhaps we are altruistically, morally obliged to spend in these cases. Would love to have someone change my mind on this. If persuaded I will happily add another reversal and change the conclusion!
I replied to a comment below of somebody who was disturbed by the idea that small luxuries may be sacrifcing months of other people’s lives, thought it may be helpful to others as well:
I guess I implicitly think like this a lot, I feel very torn between telling you it’s okay don’t worry about it each person has their own comfort level, versus yeah, it’s real and those are real people and we’re really sacrificing their lives for petty pleasures.
I think a few things that help me:
- Personally I feel I have much higher leverage with direct work rather than donations, so while money is a consideration it isn’t as important as time and focus on what’s highest leverage. Also, with direct work you can sometimes get sharply increasing returns, an effective entrepreneur or content creator may be many orders of magnitude better than an unsuccessful one. This may or may not apply to you.
- I don’t feel things I can spend money on is a primary determinant of my happiness . Most luxuries on the hedonic treadmill don’t actually significantly make me happier long-term, what makes me happy is doing healthy things like diet & exercise (which also improve my productivity), spending time with people I love, and most of all, living by my values and knowing I am doing my best to help those in need (and so being able to help them a massive amount is a positive)
- I don’t believe other people are full separate or different than myself. In some profound and deep sense helping them feels like helping myself, firstly enlightened self-interest where it feels good and makes me happier to help others, but in another sense maybe we fundamentally are the same universal consciousness behind each mask of individuality, a position called “open individualism.” Basically my consciousness is literally the same consciousness in each conscious being. Sorry if it sounds a little new-agey, but it really does help me not feel like I’m sacrificing so much, even if there’s only a small chance it’s true, since I have such absurd leverage the selfish expected value that it might be true could still bex extremely high.