I’ve noticed a persistent competing need in effective altruist communities.

On one hand, many people want permission not to only value effective altruism. They care about doing good in the world, but they also care about other things: their community, their friendships, their children, a hobby they feel passionate about like art or sports or RPGs or programming, a cause that’s personal to them like free speech or cancer, even just spending time vegging out and watching TV. So they emphasize work/life balance and that effective altruism doesn’t have to be your only life goal.

On the other hand, some people do strive to only care about effective altruism. Of course, they still have hobbies and friendships and take time to rest; effective altruists are not ascetics. But ultimately everything they do is justified by the fact that it strengthens them to continue the work. The discourse about work/life balance can be very alienating to them. It can feel like the effective altruism community isn’t honoring the significant personal sacrifices they’re making to improve the world. In some cases, people feel like there’s a certain crab bucket mentality—you should limit how much good you do so that other people don’t feel bad—which is very toxic.

Conversely, people who have work/life balance can feel threatened by people who only care about effective altruism. If those people exist, does that mean you have to be one? Are you evil, or a failure, or personally responsible for dozens of counterfactual deaths, because you care about more than one thing?

I propose that this conversation would be improved by naming the second group. I suggest calling them “EA dedicates.”

In thinking about EA dedicates, I was inspired by thinking about monks. Monks play an important role in religions with monks. They’re very admirable people who do a lot of good. The religion wouldn’t function without them. And most people are not supposed to be monks.

Why We Need Both Dedicates and Non-Dedicates

There are two reasons that the effective altruism movement should be open to people who aren’t dedicates. First, people who care about more than one thing still do an enormous amount of good. Many of the best effective altruists aren’t dedicates, such as journalist Kelsey Piper and CEA community liaison Julia Wise (as well as, of course, many people whose contributions don’t succeed in making them EA famous). It would be a tremendous mistake to expel Kelsey Piper for insufficient devotion. Quite frankly, the bednets don’t care if the person who buys them also donates to cancer research.

Second, most people caring about multiple things is good for the health of the effective altruist community. If the effective altruist community is totally wrongheaded, it’s psychologically easier to admit if that doesn’t mean losing literally everything you care about and have spent your life working for. There’s a certain comfort in being able to say “at least I still have my kids” or “at least I still have my art.” Similarly, the effective altruist movement is already quite insular. People who care about multiple things are more likely to have friends outside the community, and therefore get an outside reality check and views from outside the EA bubble. (An EA dedicate could have outside-community friends and many of them do, but it certainly seems less common.) These are merely two of the ways that having a lot of non-dedicates makes the EA community more resilient.

The advantages of being open to EA dedicates, conversely, are pretty obvious. In general, if you care about multiple things, you’re going to split your time, energy, and resources across them and have less time, energy, and resources for any particular goal. If you’re donating to cancer research, you’re not donating to farmed animal advocacy charities; if you’re using your deep-work hours on writing fiction, you’re not using them on AI risk research; if you’re sleep deprived from your new baby, you’re probably not getting much valuable effective altruist work done at all. Most of the time, assuming they don’t burn out, a dedicate is going to get more good done than a comparable non-dedicate. An example of a highly impactful effective altruist dedicate is Sam Bankman-Fried, one of the youngest billionaries in the world. Frankly, you don’t become a self-made billionaire if you have hobbies.

Should You Be A Dedicate?

Should you be a dedicate? I think this is a subject that requires a lot of thoughtful, careful consideration as part of your career planning. Being a dedicate is not for most people, and not being a dedicate doesn’t mean you’re a “bad effective altruist,” but at the same time I don’t think you should dismiss it out of hand. Devoting yourself utterly to world improvement doesn’t have to be a dreary slog. Many of the most joyful people I know are dedicates. Work you have a high level of personal fit for is often something you feel passionate about. There’s a sense of meaning and purpose to devoting yourself to world improvement: you never have to worry about ennui, about the sense that you’ll die without having any sort of impact on the world, that there’s no reason you’re alive. Dedicates don’t have bullshit jobs. When you imagine being a dedicate, imagine spending ten hours a day working on intellectually interesting problems at the edge of your ability, knowing that it matters to the world.

Many people can either be dedicates or nondedicates: for example, I think I could have gone either way, but wound up becoming a nondedicate because I married a man who very badly wanted children. Again, if you’re in that boat, it’s a very personal decision whether you should be a dedicate or not.

Some people may be psychologically cut out for being a dedicate, but not have a high level of personal fit for any jobs where being a dedicate even makes sense as a thing to do. Not all dedicates go to an Ivy League school, but jobs like technical AI safety researcher, startup founder, program officer at a major foundation, or farmed-animal welfare corporate relations specialist all require very particular sets of abilities. If your abilities point you more in the direction of being (say) a teacher, then being a dedicate is probably not for you.

You may wish to try out being a dedicate for a period of six months or so.

Being a dedicate, unlike being a monk, is not a lifelong commitment. On the outside view, looking at other social movements, we can expect a lot of effective altruists to be dedicates in their early- to mid-twenties, then to shift to not being dedicates as they age. If this happens to you, don’t worry: the investments in yourself you made as a dedicate will continue to pay off as a non-dedicate effective altruist.

I think a lot of people might also do best alternating between being a dedicate and being a non-dedicate. For example, if you want children, you might be a dedicate before you have kids, switch to prioritizing children while your children are young, and then become a dedicate again as an empty nester. You might also become a dedicate during a big project—founding a charity or a company, for example—and then once your project is stable return to your much-neglected hobbies and friendships.

Considerations for Dedicates

You don’t have work/life balance in the conventional sense: it’s not at all uncommon for dedicates to work eighty-hour weeks. However, you are not an ascetic. If you burn out, it doesn’t do any good for anyone. You need to exercise. You need to go to the doctor and the dentist. You need to have friendships. You need to take some time for rest and recreation. You probably need to sometimes go on vacation (and, no, if you spend the entire time networking it is not a vacation). These are basic human needs.

Take care not to overextend yourself. If you’re the sort of person who’s suited to being a dedicate, then work is exciting and fascinating and you want to do more of it, but if you take on more projects than any human being can reasonably do it is not good for anyone. Preserve your slack. Emergencies are going to come up; you don’t want to always be running on fumes.

It’s very easy, as a dedicate, to decide that human connection is so much deadweight that can be cut off in order to have more hours for work. But you have the same needs for emotional support and companionship that any other human does. If you have no one to talk to about your problems, no one who would visit you in the hospital if you got hit by a car, no one you can invite to a movie that you want to go see, that is a serious problem that will lead to burnout.

Of course, many dedicates are quite introverted, and you shouldn’t assume that you need to be the coolest guy at the party with hundreds of friends. Many dedicates I know have done well with a '“committed secondary relationship,” either platonic or romantic: relationships which don’t have the level of life entanglement and interaction normal to primary relationships in our culture, which aren’t “going up the relationship escalator,” but which are loving and intimate and intended to last a long time if not a lifetime.

At the same time, you need to be picky about who you get that companionship and emotional support from. Being a dedicate is incomprehensible to most people, and it is also the single most important fact about your life. A non-dedicate effective altruist can marry someone who is indulgent of effective altruism as their partner’s quirk; a dedicate should not. You don’t want someone who is going to try to convince you that you should spend less time on your work. Your friends need to be completely on board with your life’s work.

In conclusion: I think that there are multiple valid ways to engage with effective altruism. One major difference is between people who care about multiple things and people who have decided that their life’s work should be world improvement. More explicitly making this distinction will improve conversations and make people better able to make good career decisions.

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Thank you for writing this; I enjoyed it and thought it was novel (to me). The monk analogy seems particularly instructive.

Still - I feel uneasy because I'm not sure which category I fall into, nor which I want to fall into. Probably just because binaries are not (usually) perfect binaries!

For me, thinking of relationships and hobbies in an instrumental way takes away from how much joy and energy and meaning etc. I get from them. So in practice I expect most "EA dedicates" should instrumentally just live a life of a "non-dedicate", i.e. to value their relationships with their parents, siblings, partners and friends for their own sake.

Other things make this distinction messy:

  • How strongly various psychological needs are expressed for an individual will have strong effects for how their most sustainable "EA dedicate" life looks like. For example 
    • the need for meaning,
    • the need for feeling connected to others, for feeling love,
    • the need for fun.
  • How strongly you wish to found a family probably also is not under your control.
  • Your stamina, e.g. I'd be surprised if I ever be able to productively work 80 hours for more than one week, so I'll probably never look like I'm sacrificing too much.
  • Plausibly somewhat innate character traits like risk-aversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, neuroticism will have a strong effect on what lifestyles you can sustainably live or even just explore without draining a lot of energy.
  • Plausibly how financially independent has a lot of psychological effects that affect how much of an "EA dedicate" you can look like. E.g. I heard that Maslow's hierarchy of needs is very disputed, but it also seems true that helping others is very commonly given less weight by our motivational systems than making sure that we are personally safe etc. 

There is probably a distinction where some EAs would or wouldn't push the button that turns them into an omniscient utility maximizer who would always just take the action that is doing the most good. I would push this button because the lives and the suffering and the beauty that are at stake are so much more important than me and my other values. But in practice I think I will probably never need the distinction between EA dedicates and non-dedicates.

Thank you for naming this. I think you've sketched the distinction very well.

Pretty sure I'll find this useful in future big decisions.

Discussion from 6 years ago that might be relevant: Against Segregating EAs for why having this binary distinction might be counterproductive, but the comments there suggest that even that the time it could have been useful.
The top comment even proposes "Dedicated EAs", is it a coincidence or has the term been used elsewhere?

Conversely, people who have work/life balance can feel threatened by people who only care about effective altruism. If those people exist, does that mean you have to be one?

I experience a version of this. I think I'm very unlikely to feel fulfilled working on any high-priority issue without a clear work/life split, which makes me apprehensive of taking up a 'seat' that could have been taken by someone who'd have worked 80 hour weeks and vastly outperformed me.

I also have a softer concern about fitting in at companies that are mostly made up of dedicates: this is my outside perception of the AI safety space for example. Am I really likely to gel effectively with that culture, or might my non-dedicate status mean I end up being a net-negative addition to the team?

I guess what I'm saying is I'd l appreciate a 'Considerations for Non-Dedicates' section on this post!

makes me apprehensive of taking up a 'seat' that could have been taken by someone who'd have worked 80 hour weeks and vastly outperformed me.

As a fellow non-dedicate,  I like to discuss expectations around working hours in the "any questions" section of an interview anyway, since personally I wouldn't want to accept a job where thery expect more than a 40-hour week from me. That way, they also get this info about me to use in their decision, so I know if they make me an offer they think I'm the best candidate, having considered these factors.  I think being open like this is probably the best way to treat this area of uncertainty (rather than not applying), since the employer will have the better overview of other candidates.

(EDIT: To be clear, I don't think it's necessary to raise this at this stage: the employer seems unlikely to assume that applicants will work more than a standard working week by default, since many people don't do that. And I don't think it makes sense for the burden to be on people who will only work a standard working week to raise that in the recruitment process. I just mean that if you're concerned about the effect of accepting a job where you'll perform less well because of sticking to standard hours, I think discussing it with the employer before accepting is a good way to handle that.)

 

might my non-dedicate status mean I end up being a net-negative addition to the team?

I think  that having people with clear work/life split around can also be helpful. Partly since it helps make the culture more welcoming to other such people and, as Ozymandias argues, being open to non-dedicates is often helpful. But I also think the added diversity of perspectives can be helpful for everyone: for example it could help dedicates have a better work/life balance, in cases where they're too far towards the "work" end on pure-impact grounds. For example, they might not naturally think of ideas for work/life boundaries that, after they're raised,  they would endorse on impact grounds. (I don't think it's clearly always better to add more non-dedicates to a work environment or anything, but I think there are considerations in both directions.)

(Views my own, not my employer's.)

Worth adding that there is also a historic aspect to the Dedicate /  Non-Dedicate distinction in that EA’s origins were in more of a totalising, thrifty, monkish, Dedicate approach and over time Non-Dedicates have become more significant.  

Thank you for writing this! I like the concept and word "Dedicate". This piece resonates a lot with me.