I believe honesty is very important. I think most people agree that honesty is like, pretty important, but I think it’s a lot more important than that. I basically think that people will be dishonest in ways that hurt them and others by default, even when they’re trying to be pretty honest, because I think it’s just that hard. I think it’s hard because there are a lot of incentives that push away from honesty. E.g. You want the job so you’re tempted to overstate your experience or past performance. You said you wouldn’t tell anyone about your friend’s secret, but this seems like a situation where they wouldn’t mind, and it would be pretty awkward to say nothing…etc. There’s a huge variety of situations that incentivize small acts of dishonesty. And it’s not always clear whether something is a little dishonest or not - dishonesty can be quite a spectrum.
If I’m correct, and honesty is pretty hard by default, I think this is quite bad. Honesty is important because it greatly improves the ability of people to coordinate with each other. And it’s important because it allows people to reason better about themselves and about the world. Good coordination and good reasoning are things we badly need. Fortunately, I think many people could level up their honesty by putting in a reasonable amount of thinking and effort, and that a lot of the failure modes are caused by not paying attention to the incentives around them, or not thinking about how to structure their own lives and commitments to be more honest.
If you want to be honest, it’s important to think about how to structure your life so being honest isn’t extremely difficult. This is especially true when it comes to promises and commitments. It’s often easier to be honest about your current beliefs than it is to be honest about what you’re going to do in the future. After all, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. You can definitely influence it, and you can choose now to take particular actions in the future. But if you’re not careful, you might promise to do a thing in a week you think will be easy, and then find later the thing is extremely difficult or costly.
At present there is an understanding that some kinds of commitments are much stronger and more serious than other kinds. One particularly strong example of a commitment or promise is a commitment you make in publicly, with people witnessing, e.g. marriage vows.
The point of a public pledge is help structure our own incentives to fulfill our commitment. If you pledge to get married to someone privately, but then a couple years later someone really attractive comes along, it might be tempting to leave your partner for that other person. But if you have publicly married someone, you’re going to pay a lot of social costs for leaving your partner for someone else. That’s a feature, not a bug; most people who get married want that incentive to stay together. They say aloud their vows in front of their friends for this reason.
Unfortunately, I think the wider subculture I’m in has a pretty weak ability to hold people accountable to their commitments. I think people often are vague about the kinds of commitments they’re making publicly, and this is very bad for honesty. When people make public commitments but aren’t clear about how serious the commitments are, this weakens the ability of everyone to make public commitments.
Marriage as a public commitment
In part, the problem is that people have pretty different understandings of what public commitments mean. For example, Marriage is usually a somewhat-costly commitment witnessed by friends & family, in part to help hold the parties accountable - to make it more costly for them to break their agreement - and in part just to get their support in their relationship. But how strong is this promise? Is it a lifelong commitment? Is it a commitment to “try really hard”? Do people who get married and then divorced expect people to think they’re less honest than they otherwise would?
Sometimes marriages don’t work out, and people get divorced. This sucks, but it’s worse if the people who got divorced made an ironclad promise that they would stay together til death did them part. Indeed, that’s a foolish promise to make if you’re looking at base rates and don’t have an extremely good justification for thinking why you’re likely to beat the odds by a lot.
And that’s okay! Just make your promise carry an escape clause. I attended a wedding of some friends recently where they promised not to get divorced unless they both climbed a particular mountain first. They’re planning on staying together, but they recognize that they can’t know for sure they will want this, so they’ve left themselves a way out. This is a more honest thing to do than promising to never leave. It makes their promise mean more.
I’ve seen this kind of vow at a number of weddings and I’d love to see it more. As a witness to people’s vows, I want to know what I’m there to witness, and how I can help them keep their commitment.
Sometimes, we ask other people to make commitments. Maybe it’s asking an employee to sign an NDA. Maybe it’s asking a friend to keep a secret. I think in our current environment of commitment-seriousness-ambiguity, asking people to commit to things is a serious business, and I think people are often too cavalier about it. If you’re asking someone to commit to something, it’s partially your responsibility to help them understand what they’re committing to. You should not ask people to commit to things if you don’t have a good model of what they’re committing to or how hard it will be for them to keep their commitment. Asking someone to commit to something they aren’t likely to be able to carry through on erodes the commons, because it incentivizes people making commitments they can’t keep.
Of course the one committing still holds most of the responsibility to keep their commitment, but circumstances and incentives matter here too. When there is a power difference between the asker and committer, we should expect the asker to have a greater responsibility than they otherwise would to make sure the committer understands what they’re agreeing to.
I’d like to see people come up with more best practices for commitments. A few might be:
- Don’t commit to or ask people to commit to things you think you or they are not likely to be able to complete
- When making or asking for commitments, include an escape clause if following through on the commitment might be really costly - the escape clause can include costs in order to preserve some incentive to keep the commitment
- Time-bound most commitments by default & don’t make unlimited or unbounded commitments or ask others to unless there’s a really good reason
- Get advice from several people you trust before making big commitments and make sure people you’re asking to make big commitments have done the same
Giving What We Can pledge
Within the EA community, the Giving What We Can pledge is the biggest community-specific commitment that people make. Unfortunately, I think the way it’s currently worded does not clarify the kind of commitment it implies, and thus GWWC unintentionally erodes the ability of people in our community to make public pledges effectively.
Here is the text of the pledge in full:
"I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from __ until __ I shall give __ to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely."
I think it’s great that the pledge now asks you to specify a starting and end time and particular percentage by default. (Previously, it read “until I retire”). I think it’s quite bad that the main text of the pledge doesn’t include any mention of an exit clause. The website does mention some things around this in their FAQ, but unfortunately this too doesn’t provide much clarity:
FAQ: Is a pledge legally binding? What if my circumstances change?
Our pledges are in no way legally binding. They are commitments made voluntarily and enforced solely by your own conscience. In some circumstances, it may be best to resign from your pledge.
In some circumstances?? Some circumstances like “my partner has a life threatening disease” or some circumstances like “I make 20% less money now” or “I switched to direct work and think donating doesn’t make sense for me anymore”? The differences between these really matter! As someone witnessing people make this public commitment, how can I help hold people accountable without knowing what they’re pledging to, and under what circumstances they should break it?
The Expanded FAQ adds more detail but not more clarity:
How does it work? Is it legally binding?
The Pledge is not a contract and is not legally binding. It is, however, a public declaration of lasting commitment to the cause. It is a promise, or oath, to be made seriously and with every expectation of keeping it. All those who want to become a member of Giving What We Can must make the Pledge, and we ask them to report their income and donations each year.
Taking the Pledge is something to be considered seriously, but we understand if a member can no longer keep it. If it is best for someone to resign from their Pledge they can depledge and are welcome to rejoin later.
After reading all this I still have very little idea what kind of promise GWWC is. I want people to take public commitments seriously, but I don’t believe they can without thinking clearly about what exactly they’re promising. I think GWWC being vague about this is pretty irresponsible. I want people to build within themselves the machinery to be able to make strict pledges that mean things, and I think agreeing to a pledge like this erodes that machinery. By my own standard, if I agreed to a pledge like this, I'd need to carefully specify the conditions under which I'd allow myself to exit this pledge or not, since it's not nearly clear enough to me in its current wording.
Sometimes people make mistakes in their promises. That sucks, and people break trust when they do that, but it’s also okay. People grow and learn, and the thing I care about is people working towards more honesty and integrity. It’s a process to learn how to be really honest with yourself and others. I’ve broken promises before, and I feel sad that I did. I can’t change that, but I can change what promises I make going forward. I want to be a person of unusual honesty and integrity, and so I want to think about what commitments mean to me and how I can structure my environment to help me make good ones and keep them.
This isn't your main point, and I agree there's a lot of motivated cognition people can fall prey to. But I think this gets a bit tricky, because people often ask for vague commitments, that are different from what they actually want and intend. For example, I think sometimes when people say "don't share this" they actually mean something more like "don't share this with people that know me personally" or "keep it in our small circle of trusted friends and advisors" or "you can tell your spouse and therapist, but no one else" (and often, this is borne out when I try to clarify). Sometimes, I think they are just trying to convey "this info is sensitive, tread with care". Or, they might mean something more intense, like "don't share this, and aim not to reveal any information that updates others substantially towards thinking it's true".
Clarification can often be useful here (and I wish there were more verbal shorthands for different levels of intensity of commitment) but sometimes it doesn't happen and I don't think, in its absence, all agreements should be taken to be maximally strict (though I think it's extremely important to have tools for conveying when a requested agreement is very strict, and being the kind of person that can honor that). And I think some EAs get intense and overly scrupulous about obeying unimportant agreements, which can be pretty unwieldy and divorced from what anyone intended.
I think "do you keep actually-thoughtful promises you think people expected you to interpret as real commitments" and "do you take all superficially-promise-like-things as serious promises" are fairly different qualities (though somewhat correlated), and kinda often conflated in a way that I think is unhealthy and even performative.
I super agree it's important not to conflate "do you keep actually-thoughtful promises you think people expected you to interpret as real commitments" and "do you take all superficially-promise-like-things as serious promises"! And while I generally want people to think harder about what they're asking for wrt commitments, I don't think going overboard on strict-promise interpretations is good. Good promises have a shared understanding between both parties. I think a big part of building trust with people is figuring out a good shared language and context for what you mean, including when making strong and weak commitments.
I wrote something related my first draft but removed since it seemed a little tangtial, but I'll paste it here:
"It’s interesting that there are special kinds of ways of saying things that hold more weight than other ways of saying things. If I say “I absolutely promise I will come to your party”, you will probably have a much higher expectation that I’ll attend then if I say “yeah I’ll be there”. Humans have fallible memory, they sometimes set intentions and then can’t carry through. I think some of this is a bit bad and some is okay. I don’t think everyone would be better off if every time they said they would do something they treated this as an ironclad commitment and always followed through. But I do think it would be better if we could move at least somewhat in this direction."
Which, based on your comment, I now think the thing to move for is not just "interpreting commitments as stronger" but rather "more clarity in communication about what kind of commitments are what type."
Thanks for sharing your perspective here Jeffrey!
[Note: I wasn’t involved in the decisions around the wording of The Pledge so am speaking from my personal perspective as a member of The Pledge, and as a staff member at GWWC who has spoken with many members and prospective members.]
I agree that there is a downside to having ambiguity around the technicality of GWWC pledges. There are members who, from my perspective, I think they take it too loosely and others who take it too seriously.
However, the level of specificity is a very difficult tradeoff to make when making a short standardised simple language moral commitment for a large and diverse group of people with different backgrounds, contexts, and levels of scrupulosity.
If GWWC were to try to precisely state everything in the pledge language then it’d be less of a moral commitment and more of a legal contract – it certainly wouldn’t fit on a pledge certificate. We’d certainly miss many circumstances and getting agreement from members who’ve already taken a pledge to be backwards compatible would be very difficult.
Furthermore, I think an overly legalistic pledge would make it harder for most people to make (it’d be too scary/confusing) and keep their commitments. I think that trusting people to use their conscience (while providing guidance like is done in the FAQ and in member conversations) is a feature not a bug.
I'm glad that you have self-knowledge to know that you'd like to have more specificity. Many people who’ve taken a pledge have also gone further in specifying things that they think are important to their commitment (such as under what specific conditions they would resign from their pledge) and sometimes write up a document (or blog post) and share it with several close friends they want to hold them accountable. If someone were considering a pledge and had these strong preferences around specificity then I’d encourage this route.
Actually, this depends on whether you are taking a Trial Pledge (which requires a specific amount and period) or The GWWC Pledge (which is still a 10% pledge of lifetime earnings, “until I retire”).
This is where it is quite similar to marriage and I’d argue that’s generally a good thing. Of course there are reasons that marriages end, but they’re variable and relevant to the individual people. If you look at the reasons marriages end sometimes people could work through those things and other times it’s best it ends. I wouldn’t include something like “infidelity” or “poor communication” as an exit clause within my wedding vows, but I can imagine both cases where the marriage would survive the common reasons people end marriages and also other cases where it’d be best to end it for some of those reasons (in good conscience). That being said, I’m all for people customising their vows (me and my wife did!) but still generally committing to the same thing as other married folk (put a damn good effort into sticking with the person for the rest of your lives until it's clear it’s no longer a good thing for you to do). The same can be said for giving pledges: you can generally commit to the same thing, but also customise to what makes sense to you (e.g. write up a separate document also).
Hope that helps to provide an alternative perspective and is useful to hear a bit of the reasoning behind why things might be the way they are right now, and why I’m not currently in favour of any major changes to the pledge language to include an exit clause.
GWWC is also currently in the process of updating our new FAQs and would love any input here.
Giving What We Can’s mission is to make giving effectively and significantly a cultural norm. If you think that any changes (e.g. to the FAQ, pledges language, or ways of communicating these ideas) would help us better achieve that mission then we’d be especially grateful to hear those suggestions.
I think "honest" here contrasts with romantic rather than dishonest. Maybe you think all commitments should be undertaken in a very clear-headed way, with an eye to possible failure points (and plans for how to respond if those contingencies eventuate). And that's certainly a fine approach for some people. But I'd guess many if not most people would disagree about that, and instead value a sort of romantic thinking in some contexts that isn't 100% epistemically rational, but may serve important purposes (including signaling commitment) nonetheless.
My default view is that such romantic thinking (and any associated "vague commitment") isn't inherently wrong or "damaging". If my friends get divorced, that doesn't necessarily undermine my belief in their honesty at all. (Absent special reason to believe in nefarious behaviour, I'm happy to trust that they have good reasons.)
Why not take a similar view of the GWWC pledge? I think the vagueness is maybe a good thing, for allowing flexibility for people of (presumed) good will to determine for themselves if their circumstances have changed sufficiently that they really need to rethink this, without potentially undermining the commitment by making its contingency explicit up-front.
My implicit assumption is that explicit escape clauses make escape more likely. If left implicit, exit remains possible if truly needed, but in a range of borderline situations where one would be tempted to take a pre-approved exit, the lack of pre-approval may (rightly!) deter one from exiting too easily.
The only cost of breaking the GWWC commitment is that people who saw you make that commitment might lose a but of trust in you. I think this is a great balance between being too costly - as it would be if it were legally binding - and not costly enough - as it would be if it were too vague or had vague exit clauses.
This seems like very little cost at all. Charitable donations and income are, by default, private, so no-one need know you stopped, and even when people are public about leaving the community, the main reaction I have seen is one of best-wishes and urging self-care. I'm not sure I've ever seen any EA leaders write a harsh word about people for leaving.
I think the problem is that the vagueness of the type of commitment the GWWC represents. If it's an ironclad commitment, people should lose a lot of trust in you. If it was a "best of intention" type commitment, people should only lose a modest amount of trust in you. I think the difference matters!
And the GWWC pledge seems to fit at a nice balance point between those two, where the cost is not so off-putting that no-one takes the pledge and not so non-committal that it's meaningless
Honestly, I find the idea of making hyper specific public pledges off-putting for the reasons you mention. I don't view it as my community's responsibility to hold me accountable for anything and I don't view it as my responsibility to hold others responsible for their verbal commitments. I would very harshly judge someone for neglecting certain legal commitments like parenthood, but that is why I am grateful we have a legal system. I would not judge them differently if they did or did not make a public commitment to be a good parent.
I also don't take other people's marriage vows seriously because I am not privy to their private conversations and I assume that they have discussed the scope and nature of their commitment to each other in far more detail than they publicly state in their vows. Further, when their marriage falls apart, I am not privy to whether or not there was abuse or concerns for safety or any other circumstance. Even when I am close with one of more people in the relationship, I usually only get one side of the story. Similarly, I admire when people actually give large portions of their money to specific charities but put almost no stock in their public pledges or commitments. I would not even be privy to most people's financial situation or how much they continue to give, and even if they were a good friend I would not think it appropriate to ask.
I certainly see the value of being able to make public commitments that you are held to but I just want to offer the alternative perspective that strong and credible public commitments are in tension with strong norms of respecting not only autonomy but also privacy.