Against segregating EAs

by Julia_Wise21st Jan 201692 comments



I’m troubled by two posts I’ve seen lately distinguishing between “hardcore” and “softcore” effective altruists. Even if we introduce these terms with the goal of reducing stigma, “softcore” is always going to sound a bit insulting. (Not to mention that it’s typically used to describe porn, not people.)

Do other types of movements make this distinction? Political parties include a wide spectrum of people from those who simply vote, to those who campaign for particular causes or candidates, to those who hold office and spend their entire careers to their party. “Environmentalists” include everyone from those who try to conserve energy in their daily lives to those choosing radically different lifestyles and working for major policy changes. Some religious traditions distinguish between “laypeople” and those who have taken vows, but this term doesn’t have the same dismissive connotation as “softcore” (perhaps because it’s understood that clergy and monastics could not exist without the support of the laity).

Of course, there will be variation in how involved people get with any movement. Some people will keep their engagement with effective altruism at a fairly casual level—perhaps telling friends and family about an excellent charity. Others will become deeply involved, committing much more of their time and money. People will shift between levels as their beliefs and life circumstances change, perhaps as they become more committed or develop health problems. And it’s hard to tell from the outside how difficult a particular level is for any given person; an amount of effort or money that's easy for one person will be a major stretch for another.

Having strictly defined categories of involvement doesn’t seem likely to help. Even among people who have taken some concrete step like taking the Giving What We Can pledge or organizing an EA meetup, there will be a lot of variation in effort and impact. So perhaps it makes sense to see involvement with effective altruism as a continuum rather than a two-category division.

One of the things I love about effective altruism is that it demonstrates how small changes—whether moving your donations to better charities, learning about a career you didn’t know much about, or giving away enough to put you in the world’s richest 2% instead of the richest 1%—can lead to big impacts. I would hate to see these kinds of changes minimized as “soft.”


Thanks to Michelle Hutchinson, Oliver Habryka, and Tyler Alterman for feedback; all opinions expressed are my own.