Elitism and Effective Altruism
Many criticize Effective Altruists as elitist. While this criticism is vastly overblown, it does have some basis, not only from the outside looking in but also within the movement itself, including some explicitly arguing for elitism.
Within many EA circles, there are status games and competition around doing “as much as we can,” and in many cases, even judging and shaming, usually implicit and unintended but no less real, of those whom we might term softcore EAs. These are people who identify as EAs and donate money and time to effective charities, but otherwise lead regular lives, as opposed to devoting the brunt of their resources to advance human flourishing as do hardcore EAs. To be clear, there is no definitive and hard distinction between softcore and hardcore EAs, but this is a useful heuristic to employ, as long as we keep in mind that softcore and hardcore are more like poles on a spectrum rather than binary categories.
We should help softcore EAs feel proud of what they do, and beware implying that being softcore EA is somehow deficient or simply the start of an inevitable path to being a hardcore EA. This sort of mentality has caused people I know to feel guilty and ashamed, and led to some leaving the EA movement. Remember that we all suffer from survivorship bias based on seeing those who remained, and not those who left - I specifically talked to people who left, and tried to get their takes on why they did so.
I suggest we aim to respect people wherever they are on the softcore/hardcore EA spectrum. I propose that, from a consequentialist perspective, negative attitudes toward softcore EAs are counterproductive for doing the most good for the world.
Why We Need Softcore EAs
Even if the individual contributions of softcore EAs are much less than the contributions of individual hardcore EAs, it’s irrational and anti-consequentialist to fail to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of softcore EAs, and yet that is the status quo for the EA movement. As in any movement, the majority of EAs are not deeply committed activists, but are normal people for whom EA is a valuable but not primary identity category. Still, they are quite radical in their positive impact for the world by comparison to people who don't give to effective charities.
Additionally, if we add up the amount of resources contributed to the movement by softcore EAs, they will likely add up to substantially more than the resources contributed by hardcore EAs. For instance, the large majority of those who took the Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save pledges are softcore EAs, and so are all the new entrants to the EA movement, by definition. In a follow-up post, I will use the Guesstimate app to provide some Fermi estimates to give some numbers backing up this claim.
All of us were softcore EAs once - if you are a hardcore EA now, envision yourself back in those shoes. How would you have liked to have been treated? Acknowledged and celebrated or pushed to do more and more and more? How many softcore EAs around us are suffering right now due to the pressure of expectations to ratchet up their contributions?
I get it. I myself am driven by powerful emotional urges to reduce human suffering and increase human flourishing. Besides my full-time job as a professor, which takes about ~40 hours per week, I’ve been working ~50-70 hours per week for the last year and a half as the leader of an EA-themed meta-charity. As all people do, when I don’t pay attention, I fall unthinkingly into the mind projection fallacy, assuming other people think like I do and have my values, as well as my capacity for productivity and impact. I have a knee-jerk pattern as part of my emotional self to identify with and give social status to fellow hardcore EAs, and consider us an in-group, above softcore EAs.
These are natural human tendencies, but destructive ones. From a consequentialist perspective, it weakens our movement and undermines our capacity to build a better world and decrease suffering for current and future humans and other species.
More softcore EAs are vital for the movement itself to succeed. Softcore EAs can help fill talent gaps and donating to effective direct-action charities, having a strong positive impact on the outside world. Within the movement, they support the hardcore EAs emotionally through giving them a sense of belonging, safety, security, and encouragement, which are key for motivation and mental and physical health. Softcore EAs also donate to and volunteer for EA-themed meta-charities, as well as providing advice and feedback, and serving as evangelists of the movement.
Moreover, softcore EAs remind hardcore EAs of the importance of self-care and taking time off for themselves. This is something we hardcore EAs must not ignore! I’m speaking from personal experience here.
Effective Altruism, Mental Health, and Burnout: A Personal Account
About two years ago, in February 2014, my wife and I co-founded our meta-charity. In the summer of that year, she suffered a nervous breakdown due to burnout over running the organization. I had to - or to be accurate, chose to - take over both of our roles in managing the nonprofit, assuming the full burden of leadership.
In the Fall of 2014, I myself started to develop a mental disorder from the strain of doing both my professor job and running the organization, while also taking care of my wife. It started with heightened anxiety, which I did not recognize as something abnormal at the time - after all, with the love of my life recovering very slowly from a nervous breakdown and me running the organization, anxiety seemed natural. I was flinching away from my problem, not willing to recognize it and pretending it was fine, until some volunteers at the meta-charity I run – most of them softcore EAs – pointed it out to me.
I started to pay more attention to this, especially as I began to experience fatigue spells and panic attacks. With the encouragement of these volunteers, who essentially pushed me to get professional help, I began to see a therapist and take medication, which I continue to do to this day. I scaled back on the time I put into the nonprofit, from 70 hours per week on average to 50 hours per week. Well, to be honest, I occasionally put in more than 50, as I’m very emotionally motivated to help the world, but I try to restrain myself. The softcore volunteers at the EA-themed meta-charity I run know about my workaholism and the danger of burnout for me, and remind me to take care of myself. I also need to remind myself constantly that doing good for the world is a marathon and not a sprint, and that in the long run, I will do much more good by taking it easy on myself.
As a consequentialist, my analysis, along with my personal experience, convince me that the accomplishments of softcore EAs should be celebrated as well as those of hardcore EAs.
So what can we do? We should publicly showcase the importance of softcore EAs. For example, we can encourage publications of articles that give softcore EAs the recognition they deserve, as well as those who give a large portion of their earnings and time to charity. We can invite a softcore EA to speak about her/his experiences at the 2016 EA Global. We can publish interviews with softcore EAs. Now, I’m not suggesting we should make most speakers softcore EAs, or write most articles, or conduct most interviews with softcore EAs. Overall, my take is that it’s appropriate to celebrate individual EAs proportional to their labors, and as the numbers above show, hardcore EAs individually contribute quite a bit more than softcore EAs. Yet we as a movement need to go against the current norm of not celebrating softcore EAs, and these are just some specific steps that would help us achieve this goal.
Let’s celebrate all who engage in Effective Altruism. Everyone contributes in their own way. Everyone makes the world a better place.
P.S. Look for a follow-up post with Fermi estimates of the value of softcore and hardcore EAs
Acknowledgments: For their feedback on draft versions of this post, I want to thank Linch (Linchuan) Zhang, Hunter Glenn, Denis Drescher, Kathy Forth, Scott Weathers, Jay Quigley, Chris Waterguy (Watkins), Ozzie Gooen, Will Kiely, and Jo Duyvestyn. I bear sole responsibility for any oversights and errors remaining in the post, of course.
EDIT: added link to post explicitly arguing for EA elitism
The terms 'softcore EAs' and 'hardcore EAs' are simply terrible. I strongly urge people to use other words to talk about these groups.
Yeah, they're not my favorite either, but I couldn't think of anything better, and they were already coming into broad use because of Ozy's really good post about them. I'd love to hear some different ideas!
At the same time, there are many who actually embrace the term softcore, as it gives them the language to embrace an identity as an EA, which they were previously reluctant to do. I have both heard this in personal conversations with many EAs who responded to my article, but also some who have publicly posted about this, so I feel comfortable sharing this link to one response.
More broadly, we need to think about how to address this problem of EA being perceived as too lofty to embrace unless there is a more humble identity. As I talked about above, articles about EAs consistently celebrate deeply committed EAs, such as Julia
This is great for getting word about the movement out there, but what kind of an image does that create for people? It creates what I heard many describe as a "general unspoken feeling of 'you're not doing enough unless you meet our high expectations'" which is one reason many folks don't get involved in the movement. Again, I heard this in many personal exchanges, which inspired me to write about this topic, but also some people chose to share this publicly, such as Taryn in her Facebook comments here or Kaj here.
This is why I think there is a high need for a distinction between EA identities. This should not be a binary distinction, but one that describes two poles of EA involvement regarding contribution of time and resources. There should be freedom and flexibility to move between those poles based on life circumstances, and without judging or shaming of those who choose to move. This will result in optimizing the numbers of value-aligned people contributing to the EA movement, as well as good PR for the movement, which I think is what we want to achieve.
I totally agree, came here to make the same comment.
Yep, I came to ask whether people could brainstorm alternatives. Any ideas? Ideally these wouldn't contain value judgements - the terms that people first encounter are bad places for value judgements anyway. "Dedicated" vs. "highly dedicated" is a very nice idea, but sounds a little too artificial and 'PC' to catch on.
Perhaps EA leader vs just EA, without an adjective? That way, there is an especially positive associated with a higher commitment, and somewhat positive with just being an EA participant.
Oh, I find 'leader' much more off-putting and elitist! EA already puts a lot of people off with status hierarchies, fanboyism and hero worship. 'Part-time' and 'full-time' are the most popular suggestions from the other thread, and are better.
Ok, I see your point, full-time and part-time is good. We might want to do a FB poll in the EA FB group once we get a number of options.
Yes, I agree. I mentioned this privately before. I meant to bring it up with Gleb when I was reviewing this document, but I don't think I did in the end, so this is partially my fault. "Dedicated" vs. "highly dedicated" is one possibility that was brought up by Will, not painting the distinction with labels at all is another (which is my recommendation).
It all depends on whether we want EA to be a robust, strong movement or not. The movement will be a lot more vigorous with more people, and most people (over the age of 30) are not extremists. When I was 16 I would have been considered hardcore. At 41 I am softcore. My personal version of maturity went in that direction - I chose to move my focus toward family, career, self-expression. When my life changes in a few years and family and career become less of a focus, I expect I will look hardcore again.
Good point about people's lives changing over time, as well as their focus! If we want to retain people for the long term, celebrating all members is really important.
I would be interested in hearing from someone who disagrees with this about why they disagree. Just curious.
I don't strictly disagree with the above piece, and I think it's actually quite reasonable (upvoted), but I have a number of reasons which tilt me in the opposite direction. I don't believe in shaming softcore EAs, and I don't think that anyone would, but here is a list of my countervailing reasons why I would strongly value efforts that would increase the involvement and motivation of existing EAs (and why I am less excited about getting more people lightly on board):
-I'm highly skeptical of the frequency and severity of "burnout" accounts, which are rare and often appear insignificant (thanks to Gleb for providing a solid one)
-The difference between donating, say, 10% of one's income and 20% of one's income is effectively just as good as adding another "10%'er" to the movement, but people seem to overlook the significance of this difference. Depending on career possibilities and income I'd guesstimate that a fully committed altruist usually accomplishes about as much as three to six people who do little beyond pledging
-I am wary of the risks of movement drifting and losing intellectual focus, and think that bringing too many non-aligned people on board can detract from our values and epistemic capabilities
-I think that broadcasting the appearance of being more strongly committed to altruism would have some secondary PR and image benefits by making the movement look stronger and more serious (to countervail against the negative PR which people already talk about)
-Tightness/loyalty norms have benefits for the in-group which shouldn't be underestimated; so do other close community ties and activities (EA houses etc) which are less achievable with people on the softcore side of the spectrum
-I'm highly skeptical/uncertain of the long run impact of most EA efforts, and think that adding more donors into the generic poverty alleviation pool is unlikely to make the world significantly better
-Conversely, I strongly value a smaller, more specific set of efforts, and some of these causes are unlikely to get funded by softcore EAs because they are "weird" whereas they are more likely to get funded by hardcore EAs who put more time and thought into their cause prioritization
Fortunately, efforts which extend 'sub-communities' such as GWWC's pledge and InIn's effective giving can spread the movement without actuating a tradeoff.
I disagree with this. All pledgers are likely to increase the chances of new people taking the pledge. For instance, they might make their friends somewhat more likely to take the pledge. Also, I think that the mere fact that Giving What We Can can put one more pledge-taker on their site makes people more likely to take the pledge.
In short, social proof - one of Cialdini's six principles of persuasion - is likely to be much more dependent on the number of donors than on the amount each individual donor gives.
Stefan: I think I mostly agree with your point, but not entirely.
"All pledgers are likely to increase the chances of new people taking the pledge. For instance, they might make their friends somewhat more likely to take the pledge." Yes, but I think this is also somewhat proportionate to how dedicated people are. In general, I would expect people who are obsessed with effective altruism to do more recruitment than people who are dedicated, but do not consider it to be the driving urge in their life, dedicated people to be better at recruitment than lightly interested people, etc. So expected donations isn't the only metric in which pouring more resources and mental bandwith into will have positive marginal returns (as you would expect!!) I think the bounds Kbog gave -- 3-6x for very dedicated vs. dedicated EAs -- is roughly reasonable for what I expect to be variance from person to person on the grounds of dedication alone (though as the other recent post noted, certain traits other than dedication, especially the ability to generate wealth, can extend the difference from person to person to somewhat beyond 6x).
"Also, I think that the mere fact that Giving What We Can can put one more pledge-taker on their site makes people more likely to take the pledge." Yes I think that's a point that belongs in the other thread as well. Quantity has a quality all on its own, and even anonymous social proof can be incredibly valuable. Anecdotally, a friend of mine is doing significant outreach at a large company mostly by persuading people that EA is a lot bigger than it actually is. :P
I don't know about dedicated people being better at recruitment. I have found my friends to be more receptive to me as a 'softcore EA' because we can relate to each others' lifestyles easily and they are more likely to make small changes than large ones. If I donated a really high proportion of my income (say 50%), I think I would not talk about that with them as they would find it instinctively off-putting to consider such a large change. I actually don't talk about the pledge at all with them unless they already seem keen for fear of sounding too 'hardcore'.
Of course, maybe if you're super dedicated you're going to try and recruit more often and with more people, so you may have better results. My point is just that I think 'softcore' may be more relatable for non EAs and that can be good to start conversations.
Congratulations on having friends who're receptive to you! And thank you so much for sharing, we definitely need more data points as the movement grows. :)
I wrote on Facebook before that I think while being normal and relatable is a good hook to get people interested in EA, I don't think it will actually make it more likely to make your friends interested than if you're very dedicated. In particular, I think there is a confusion between "emulatable" and "marketable" efforts:
Put another way, if Person A, who is truly obsessed with making the world a better place is just as good (or, it sometimes implied, worse) at persuading other people to make the world a better place than Person B, who is only moderately interested in doing so, then this should come across as a huge surprise. It should not be tacitly assumed. Rather, Person A is doing something Very Wrong, and figuring out ways to correct this mistake should become a huge priority in EA.
Also, any new pledger has some non-zero chance of breaking the pledge (see the GWWC fundraising prospectus for their current estimates, though some people have argued these are under-estimates). The chance of different people is probably largely independent. If this is true, then at the margin, two 10% pledgers have a lower chance of both defaulting and would probably lead to more money being moved (ie narrower 95% confidence interval on the amount moved).
"If this is true, then at the margin, two 10% pledgers have a lower chance of both defaulting and thus have a higher expected value."
I don't think this is true, at least not taken naively. Ie, 70%20%=70%10%*2. Decreasing variance isn't quite the same thing as expected value, and there are so many problems in the world that needs money that decreasing variance just isn't that important relatively to channeling as much (expected) income as possible to the most effective causes.
"The difference between donating, say, 10% of one's income and 20% of one's income is effectively just as good as adding another "10%'er" to the movement, but people seem to overlook the significance of this difference" I agree with you that people overlook it, but I think we disagree on the direction. :)
"Depending on career possibilities and income I'd guesstimate that a fully committed altruist usually accomplishes about as much as three to six people who do little beyond pledging" This seems reasonable. However, this will also lead to the conclusion that if you can recruit 10 people a year (or slightly less than one per month), who are at least as effective as yourself and who are about 1/6 to 1/3 as dedicated as you are, to join 1 year earlier than they otherwise would have, then your efforts should be focused on recruitment rather than increasing your own effectiveness. There are so few people familiar with EA now that this is very plausible, especially if you're obsessed with recruitment.
"-I am wary of the risks of movement drifting and losing intellectual focus, and think that bringing too many non-aligned people on board can detract from our values and epistemic capabilities." People complain about this all the time, but I don't really see a plausible connection between "more people bringing down the average rationality" and "magically, worse analysis by EA organizations."
"Fortunately, efforts which extend 'sub-communities' such as GWWC's pledge and InIn's effective giving can spread the movement without actuating a tradeoff." Yes, I think this is true and a very important point.
Thanks for this thorough response (upvoted)!
I'm quite familiar with burnout accounts, but perhaps that's because my wife and I both burned out, and we tend to have more people in our surroundings who share about their experience. A broader study would be quite useful.
Agreed about the value of 10% vs. 20%. The follow-up post will address this question using some actual Fermi estimates.
The movement already looks pretty serious in current PR.
Loyalty norms and tightness at the same time result in a smaller movement, of course. Many people choose to avoid engaging with the movement due to the general unspoken feeling of "you're not doing enough unless you meet our high expectations" - in fact, one commented exactly this in response to this post. You and I probably have different estimates on the consequences of this to the EA movement.
My general take is that getting more donors to think about the question of "how can I do the most good with my dollars" is going to make the world significantly better.
Agreed on weird cause funding likely being better
Very much agreed about the dangers of bringing in non-aligned people. For the sake of this post, I'm presuming that softcore EAs are value-aligned.
Appreciate your comments about Intentional Insights' focus on effective giving spreading the movement (or rather its ideas) without that tradeoff, means I didn't have to bring it up and appear potentially self-promotiony :-)
Datapoint - I too have felt unsure whether I'm doing enough to justifiedly call myself EA. (I have both worked for and donated to MIRI, ran a birthday fundraiser for EA causes, organized an introductory EA event where I was the main speaker, and organized a few EA meetups. But my regular donations are pretty tiny and I'm not sure of how much impact the-stuff-that-I've-done-so-far will have in the end, so I still have occasional emotional doubts about claiming the label.)
Kaj, thank you for sharing! You totally deserve to call yourself an EA and you are indeed a datapoint indicating one of the reasons I'm writing this piece :-) Thank you for all you do and consider sharing about it on the Accomplishments thread.
I'm confused about how you use the same article as an example of looking "serious" in PR and as giving "softcore EAs the recognition they deserve".
Linch is right about my perspective, guess it didn't come off clearly
Hi Julia. My interpretation of the two links is that Gleb was using you and Jeff as examples of "hardcore EAs," and would like more articles about celebrating softcore EAs along the same lines as that article.
Hi William - you might be interested in my latest forum post: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/sm/ea_is_elitist_should_it_stay_that_way/
Hardcore EAs can also devote the brunt of their resources to advancing the flourishing of all sentient animals :)
Excellent catch! I try to refer to "global flourishing" to address this issue, but sometimes slip up and refer to human flourishing. Appreciate you helping me improve by reminding me to pay more attention to this topic.