Two weeks ago I wrote a post discussing my intention to switch from donating to the Long-Term Future Fund to neartermist causes. The comments and messages I got in response were really interesting, seemed to fall evenly on both sides of the fence, and gave me some really useful perspectives in thinking about the issue raised. Much like before, an afternoon to spend in a café by Stavanger harbour gives me the excuse to collate some points people have suggested and lay out the updates I've made as a result.
Several people drew out what ought to be two separate topics in my initial post. Firstly, how should a longtermist view neartermist donations? External but linked to this choice, how much should one care about the optics of their EA actions and how can this be optimised.
It seems, from a handful of forum comments, far more common than I had anticipated for longtermists to donate to near-term causes. The prevailing theme in the reasons given seems to be "hedging one's bets". This could be motivated by a desire to avoid putting all of one's vegan egg alternatives in one basket, almost like an investor would diversify a portfolio. Furthermore, as Jack Lewars points out, the uncertainties around a donation to longtermist charities actually generating good are much greater than counterfactually tested global health initiatives.
My feeling on this is that portfolio diversification is a potentially prudent response to uncertainty surrounding the best donation opportunity but avoidance of low-likelihood, massive upside options in the case that it overruled one's EV estimates is a step away from Rationality in its strictest sense. That being said, I am entirely sympathetic towards, and even categorise myself along with, a person facing highly uncertain impact through a longtermist career that wants the kind of "slam-dunk" feeling of saving a life for a few grand that only global health interventions can offer. EA can be hard and I imagine there are a lot of people out there who would find it an easier pill to swallow if they can know for certain that they actually helped someone. Nate Soares has a quote that stuck with me - "But if the chance that one person can save the world is one in a million, then there had better be a million people trying." I remember this quote both because I passionately agree with it, and for the realisation that it requires selling to 999,999 people a dream that requires their life's work without them ever accomplishing the goal. Those individuals care about their lives, and so that is a high price to ask of them. What I've just said is admittedly a dilution of what EA tries to do, of what sets this community apart. In the scheme of things, if someone's main altruistic guilt is donating 10% of their earnings for the sure-fire win of AMF or GiveDirectly instead of the LTFF to compensate for the angst of a longtermist career rather than pure maximisation, that's probably forgivable and certainly not a failure. I'd still be glad to have a lot more of those people in the world.
Comments on my first post range in opinion from "the signalling value is often greater than the direct value of the donations" to "I wouldn't worry too much about optics unless you're doing a lot of community building and outreach to your friends." With due regard to a small data set, that was a striking polarity of viewpoint. Prior to writing all this, I agreed more with the first point but reading Chris Leong's comment from which I take the second quote got me thinking. In the 4+ years since I joined the EA community, I have surely introduced the idea to many dozens of people, many of whom are educated, skilled, and intelligent enough to really put a dent in the problems we spend our time discussing. How many of them became EAs that would not have otherwise? So far as I can recall: one. How did I persuade them? An evening spent in extremely deep conversation and binge-watching Rational Animations, following on years of close friendship and watching my entire EA/Rationalist journey unfold. I don't think my community-building score would be any higher if I'd spent this time donating to AMF instead of the LTFF. It's probably just hard to get people into EA, unless they're of a disposition that has an inherent affinity for it, in which case we're best off presenting our beliefs, thoughts, and interests with authenticity, as multiple commenters and friends suggest.
This brings me to a reframing of my optics concerns. I'm not worried that donating to longtermist charities is damaging my ability to conduct outreach. I am, as I think many others are, worried that a tabloid newspaper would make a concerted strike against the reputation of EA. I sincerely fear the headline "This cult of academic elites thinks it's wrong that you donate to Cancer Research" and the concerns I described in the previous post would be fuel to that fire. I lack the omniscience over our community and the understanding of journalism to foresee how this would come about, but I suspect it's not going to be a result of me talking to my friends about my donations. It would be interesting to hear other's thoughts on this, with the caveat that publicly discussing it may inadvertently attract the attention I'm trying to avoid. In any case, I should probably stop worrying too much about the signalling value of where that tenth of my salary goes and knuckle down on the direct impact conundrum.