This post is a response to Jeff's post here, and the genre of post it represents. I think Jeff's post is valid and valuable, and that thinking through this sort of thing is a good idea. I also think that necessarily, personal testimonies are going to be more common from more engaged EAs. So I'd like to give the perspective of a GWWC pledge taker more toward the periphery. N=1, so have your salt shaker ready!

EA status is unimportant at a certain distance

I've done freelance editing work for EAs and EA-related organizations for over five years, including (at various times) CEA, LessWrong, AI Impacts, BERI, PIE, and probably others I'm forgetting. There have been times - the longest was a little under a year - when this editing work was my primary source of income. I read a lot of EA content and occasionally wade into the discourse. So among non-inner-ring EAs, I think I'm probably unusually engaged by most metrics, perhaps among the most engaged 10% in the reference class of people who might skim the EA newsletter now and then.

All this being said, my relative status as an EA is just not very important to me at all. I took the Giving What We Can pledge several years ago. I've been donating 10% of my income to the Against Malaria Foundation since then. I care approximately 0 if EA bigwigs think I'm a bit dim for this decision, or if they think "ok well, a direct worker is worth about 30 Justis equivalents on the margin." My grandparents were religious and tithed; it feels nice to "do my part" not in an abstract  EA community cred sense but in a vague, "being a morally decent person" sense, and no amount of focus on direct work by people across the country/world is likely to make me feel inadequate or rethink this. 

Really! I will maintain my pledge with a similar level of pride and joy no matter what the official recommendation to current Yale students in EA student groups is (not to undermine them - they are very important, just approximately irrelevant to my life). I am in Florida. Most of my friends work at restaurants or for the state government. Sure, it feels nice when people across the country want to include me or rank me well, but it's not in a crucial spot on my hierarchy of needs. I suspect the same is true for most pledge-takers.

It's possible to regard EA roles as desirable without regarding them as morally necessary

I've applied for a few jobs in EA over the years. I didn't get them. This was painful. In one case I was doing 25+ hours a week freelance work for an org for several months, it went really well, they put up a job posting with precisely my current duties and invited me to apply, then hired someone else. This was very painful, and strongly discouraged me from applying to full time EA roles in the future.

However, at no point did I think "oh no, now I can't have all the impact I might have had counterfactually, so I'm a bad/worthless person."

Here I think it's time for another interlude: I've got moderate OCD and a lot of that manifests as scrupulosity. My most common negative emotion is guilt. I'm confident that I worry about being somehow ineffably "bad" significantly more than the average human being. I read Peter Singer in high school and it rocked my world - I got on the phone with Oxfam to donate something, anything, but realized I didn't actually have any money I'd earned myself yet and hung up. I'm confident that I am among the most vulnerable people to feeling distress from the notion that I've not lived up to an ethical obligation. But no, none of my EA-role-failure pain has really been in that direction. I am giving 10% of my income. This is much more than basically anyone I know, including virtually all my friends and all my family. I will probably never think I'm not altruistic or impactful enough. And I strongly suspect most pledge-takers are also like this. On my read, it's just a very, very inner-ring thing. Not that that means it's not a problem! Protecting people's mental health is important! But people out on the periphery are probably not putting much of their moral self worth in this basket; we're perfectly happy to be by far the most effectively altruistic person we know of within dozens of miles.

Would I be happy to take an EA job someday? Sure! If the salary was good for supporting my family, it would potentially be great! But it'd be great for normal job taking reasons first, and impact reasons second. It'd feel good to have smart peers who share one of my interests, and spend my time doing something I care about a lot. But failing to do this and just working in industry for money is also completely fine. I don't lose sleep over it, and I doubt many other people who aren't highly immersed in EA hubs do either.

Geography probably matters a lot

Again, I live in Florida. I have little doubt my feelings would be appreciably different if I lived in San Francisco, London, or New York. But I expect a great number of pledge-takers also do not live in major hubs. But if you're worrying about alienating people in the periphery, and you're in the center, it's worth considering that people in the periphery probably just aren't paying much attention to how much status you are assigning them. Their status games are mostly going to be local to them.

Summary

I think I am among the most engaged "peripheral" EAs. I think I also have a much stronger instinct toward scrupulosity than most people, including most people with at least a fleeting interest in EA. Despite this, current EA fashions and cutting-edge messaging has very little impact on my attitudes or behaviors. If my experience is typical, it's probably fine not to worry very much about the effect of central-to-EA status allocations on people like me; it's a rounding error.

174

10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:43 AM
New Comment

Thank you for sharing your perspective! I find it extremely helpful to hear from people who are less exposed to the social incentives and people that I usually interact with.

Thank you for sharing this! I just love hearing stories of pledgers around the world, and what's motivated them to pledge and to keep giving. I grew up not knowing anyone who donated this much, and assuming I wouldn't either. It's still kind of incredible to me that there are so many people promising to do this for the rest of their lives, and doing so joyfully rather than out of pure obligation. I'm glad you (rightfully) feel proud of doing it. I cannot wait to live in a world where not a single person needs to die of malaria. 

Thanks for your donations. They mean a lot to me. Also thanks for this article. I don't know you, but from this brief snapshot it seems like you are kind, well and happy. I'm glad about that.

I feel unsure about this bit but I'll try. Some people have more impact than others and yes that's better, but in another axis*, EA is about trying to do good better, whether it's with an hour a month or a billion dollars. I think it's great that you do what you do and I'm proud that many people in this community want to help and then actually do.

So thanks :)

*Perhaps some would call it virtue XD

N=1, so have your salt shaker ready!

I am commenting to say that I really like this phrase. It feels much more clever/witty than the more generic variants, and it made reading your article a bit more enjoyable. :)

Thanks for this post. I have some disagreements but I want to say that this part in particular is pretty common and is a big problem I have with the EA "big wigs" culture.

I've applied for a few jobs in EA over the years. I didn't get them. This was painful. In one case I was doing 25+ hours a week freelance work for an org for several months, it went really well, they put up a job posting with precisely my current duties and invited me to apply, then hired someone else. This was very painful, and strongly discouraged me from applying to full time EA roles in the future.

This seems to be really common and it's totally understandable to feel hurt.  One of the things that drives us to EA is the desire to contribute, and naturally our self-worth can get very tied up in that. I really hope that orgs can do a lot better on this, because I think this and similar things are pretty harmful.

I disagree and agree with various parts of your post.

But if you're worrying about alienating people in the periphery, and you're in the center, it's worth considering that people in the periphery probably just aren't paying much attention to how much status you are assigning them.

I agree, this summarizes a vibe I've felt before. I think their concern shouldn't be worrying about "alienating" the edge of EA, but more on positively framing it - making it easy for us to contribute as much as possible.

However, I think some of how you are phrasing this is a bit odd

I will maintain my pledge with a similar level of pride and joy no matter what the official recommendation to current Yale students in EA student groups is (not to undermine them - they are very important, just approximately irrelevant to my life). I am in Florida. Most of my friends work at restaurants or for the state government. Sure, it feels nice when people across the country want to include me or rank me well, [...]

Recommending actions in EA are about making an impact, not about status! Why will you maintain your pledge no matter what?? Are you certain you are having the biggest impact you can?

Now, if you don't want to change your life very much, that's totally fine, but I just think it isn't about status.

There is plenty of status though. Obviously EAs do get caught up in pursuing status, consciously or not, and also we do tend to think of highly impactful people as high status. However, that's a bad thing, not a good thing. Status assignment and signalling can only make our reasoning worse, not better.

Anyway I think your post is pretty good for making people think, so thanks.

I really hope that orgs can do a lot better on this, because I think this and similar things are pretty harmful.

Can you elaborate on what part of this you think is harmful, and what would be better?

  1. Strong messaging to the effect of "we need talent" gives the impression that there are enough jobs that if you are reasonably skilled, you can get a job.
  2. Strong messaging to the effect of "we need founders", or "just apply for funding" gives the impression that you will get funding.

In both cases, people can be repeatedly rejected and get extremely disheartened.

Some things that can be done:

  • Communicate (with real examples?) the level of competence required for success in a job / funding application. Unfortunately "apply but don't get sad at rejection" is an unrealistic message to send. Go the other way, and try to make people's self-screening more accurate.
  • Provide better feedback for rejected applicants.
  • Provide more opportunities for up-skilling.
  • Try really, really hard not to filter based on unchangeable parts of people's background such as their education (esp. fanciness of school) and location. (and of course ethnicity, gender etc.)

I've been meaning to write a post but it's a big ball of thoughts and I don't have the right structure for it.

  1. Strong messaging to the effect of "we need talent" gives the impression that there are enough jobs that if you are reasonably skilled, you can get a job.
  2. Strong messaging to the effect of "we need founders", or "just apply for funding" gives the impression that you will get funding.

I'm a bit confused, because this doesn't seem to match the scenario described in the OP that you quoted. My summary of that scenario would be:

  1. An EA org paid the OP to work for them as a contractor;
  2. The org  then invited them to apply for an open position for a similar role;
  3. They didn't get the position (presumably because the org found another candidate they thought would be better?).

I have a lot of sympathy for the OP in this scenario, and expect it was a very painful and disheartening experience. I definitely cringe a bit when I read it. But it doesn't seem to me like anyone did anything wrong here -- it just seems like the kind of unfortunate-but-unavoidable situation that comes up all the time in the workplace. But you're saying this is "harmful" and that orgs need to "do a lot better", which suggests that you disagree?

Ok - this is a good critique of my comment.

I was kind of off-topic and responding to something a bit more general. Since writing my comment I have found someone on the forum summarizing my perspective better.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/bsTXHJFu3Srurbg7K/leftism-virtue-cafe-s-shortform?commentId=mdhfHBe3k5wvqXfo2

 

and relatedly re. funding

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/bsTXHJFu3Srurbg7K/leftism-virtue-cafe-s-shortform?commentId=eW8zdL2MiXsgNPgMa

Thank you for the post. I really enjoyed the writing and I think it's a valuable perspective that could easily get lost on the forum!