Should EA have a career-focused “Do the most good" pledge?

by BrianTan8 min read20th Jul 202117 comments

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Value driftBuilding effective altruismCareer choice
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Time spent on thinking about and writing this: ~3 hours, spread over a few days

I think it would be good for the EA movement to consider having a pledge for people to aim to do the most good they can throughout their career. I outline the reasons for and against this idea below. I’m open to feedback and arguments against this, and I’d want to know who and how many would be willing to take it among people on the EA Forum!

Reasons why I think this pledge is good to have

It highlights EA’s focus on careers rather than donations.

Most people in EA would agree that it’s better to maximize the impact of one’s career than one’s donations. After all, the EA movement is now generally more constrained by people with specific skills/experience rather than money. As such, having a pledge like this can help stress the importance of maximizing the impact of your career rather than your donations.

It would likely help prevent value drift.

There aren’t a lot of job opportunities at EA organizations, and it’s quite hard for the average EA to land them. As such, people have to usually work at non-EA organizations first, especially to build career capital. But this may increase their risk of value drift. This post by Joey Savoie (although its on a small sample) and his fictional example made me realize value drift could be more likely than I thought. 

Given this, it’s important for the EA community to keep the rate of value drift low. CEA, local groups, and career-focused groups likely play a big role in retaining people in the movement, and to encourage people to optimize their career over their lives. But in addition to these, I think having a lifetime pledge that people can take, to aim to do the most good they can with their career, can be a good mechanism to prevent value drift. 

We have a Giving What We Can Pledge, which seems to help people stay committed to giving. Why don’t we have a similar pledge for people’s careers, especially when this is what the movement focuses on nowadays?

It can help EAs who can’t or don’t want to take the Giving What We Can pledge feel more welcome and committed to EA.

Also, as EA spreads to developing countries, more people in these countries will find the Giving What We Can pledge of donating 10% per year too difficult or too high. I sense this myself in people in EA Philippines

This is especially true if they’re going to work for lower-paying but high-impact careers, such as working in the government, in EA-aligned / recommended charities in their country, or doing animal advocacy work. As such, having a pledge like this could make EA slightly more welcoming and encouraging to people who can’t donate 10% of their income.

Reasons against having this pledge

Compared to the GWWC pledge, it’s a lot harder to know if one is fulfilling the pledge (i.e. truly maximizing the impact of one’s career).

This is quite true, but I think the pledge page can state things they see that count as maximizing the impact of one’s career, such as taking a job to increase one’s career capital to use later in a more impactful role. 

I think having pledgers take a quiz or survey once per year could help track how many people are “fulfilling” the pledge or not, whether via self-reported questions (i.e. do you think you’ve fulfilled the pledge this year?), or via objective questions (Are you working for an EA-aligned organization? Are you building useful career capital for an impactful path later on?). The survey could also ask “Where are you working?” and “What career capital are you building?” to see what people are doing and if they seem to be doing sensible things with their career.

The time and effort needed to promote the pledge might not be worth it if the pledge barely influences people's careers.

Having a pledge alone would likely not be enough to get people to maximize their career’s impact or prevent value drift. There needs to be an organization and staff promoting and reinforcing it, and the time & effort might not be worth it.

Giving What We Can’s monthly events, newsletter, and social media makes it easier for people to stay committed to their pledge. If we have a career-focused pledge, the pledge would ideally be referenced in multiple EA spaces, including by CEA, EA conferences, and 80,000 Hours. And there would ideally be some regular events per year for pledgers to meet, possibly organized by local groups. Maybe 80K would even consider holding some events to promote the pledge and promote career planning. Both CEA and 80K likely need to have buy-in into this pledge before this happens. There would also ideally be ~50+ people willing to take the pledge even before it launches, to give enough social proof that other EAs should take it too.

I’m sure there are obstacles in the way of making the pledge happen, or having it be widely taken. For example, ideally a bunch of key figures in EA take the pledge and encourage others to take it, including Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, Julia Wise, and more, similar to the GWWC pledge. So we would ideally need to get the buy-in of these people (and many highly engaged EAs) on having a pledge like this and taking it themselves.

Even with all this effort though, it might be unclear how much the pledge would help in preventing value drift or help people aim for and enter even higher-impact careers. But I think if there are some reinforced or promoted activities or behaviors by the pledge, such as an email reminder every 6 months for you to review your career, a reminder to use a career decision process (like 80K’s) when you have a big decision to make, or a monthly newsletter with EA-aligned career-related resources, those could be small things that will help some of the pledgers optimize their careers. I guess there ideally needs to be some monitoring & impact evaluation to see how the pledge is helping people, and that would determine whether staff time and money should be spent into maintaining it or promoting it even more.

Other than the two reasons above, I’m not sure if there are any other strong reasons why we shouldn’t have a pledge like this. If you have any though, or want to expound on either reason above, please comment it below.

Anyway, if the reception to this idea from the EA Forum is generally very positive, then I think CEA or 80,000 Hours should consider creating this pledge, or allowing a person or team they trust to create this pledge. Ideally the pledge would be on the effectivealtruism.org or the 80,000 Hours website to increase its reach. I recognize it might be unlikely for 80K to create this pledge, since ideally this pledge is cause-agnostic, while 80K is generally focused on longtermism. They could choose to create a cause-agnostic pledge, but others not into longtermism might not want to take it.

If 80K wanted to create a “longtermist pledge” though, that would likely also be good to have.

Names for the pledge

Here are some names I thought of for the career pledge, in descending order of my preference:

NameProsCons
Do The Most Good Pledge
  • Highlights the point of doing the most good
  • Only 5 syllables (shortest among the ones listed here)
  • Can be shortened to DMG or DTMG pledge
  • Might lead some people to burnout if they stress on doing the most good rather than just doing more good.
Doing Good Better Pledge
  • Many people inside and outside of EA know the name of Will MacAskill’s book
  • Can be shortened to DGB pledge
  • Less likely to lead to burnout vs. the Do The Most Good name
  • Highlights a book that is a bit outdated now
  • Doesn’t stress doing the most good
  • Might be confused to be a donation pledge, given the focus of DGB on donations
The 80,000 Hours Pledge
  • Highlights the point of maximizing your 80,000 Hours
  • Can be shortened to 80K pledge
  • Many people inside and outside of EA already know what 80,000 Hours is
  • 80K might not want their pledge to be cause-agnostic
  • Whether or not 80K makes this longtermist or cause-agnostic, there would likely be confusion on if the pledge is cause-agnostic or longtermist-focused
The Effective Altruism Pledge
  • This isn’t really a pro, but we would likely have to add other things to the pledge, i.e. living out EA principles, being willing to donate to effective charities (but with no % committed)
  • Can be shortened to the EA pledge
  • I think one can aim to do the most good without having to clearly identify as an EA or as part of EA.
  • The EA movement will likely change over time. People may wonder what it truly means to be an effective altruist (i.e. does it mean I should accept longtermism?), and if it truly is cause-agnostic. This may lead them to denounce the pledge later on if they don’t agree with where EA is headed.


 

Regardless of the name, the 1-line tagline under the pledge could be:

“Pledge to aim to maximize the impact of your career.” 

Others can still suggest other names for the pledge, and alternatives for the tagline.

Content of the pledge

Drawing inspiration from the Giving What We Can pledge, the actual pledge could be:

"I recognise that I can use my career to do a significant amount of good. Throughout the rest of my career, I pledge to regularly reflect on my career plans, and see if the path I’m on is what would likely maximize the impact of my career. If it’s not, then I will seek out ways to increase the impact of my career. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely."

The pledge content could definitely still be iterated upon.

Share your feedback

What do you think about this pledge? Do you think this is a good or bad idea? Would you be excited to take it?

I plan on judging how positive people feel about this idea based on:

  • the karma on this post
  • the karma on a comment I’ll create that says “Upvote this if you think this pledge is a good idea and should be created, and downvote it if not”, and
  • what people comment

Feel free to share your reasons for upvoting or downvoting this idea in the comments below or via a private Forum message to me. I’m interested to know people's feedback, especially what people at CEA or 80K think about the potential of having a pledge like this.

Thanks to Aaron Gertler for reviewing and providing some feedback on this before I posted.
 

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17 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:17 AM
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Upvote this comment if you would take this pledge yourself!

(There's a comment with negative karma below that you can downvote if you used this poll, to offset any karma I gain from using comments as polls.)

I do like the idea of creating a community and a bit of an accountability mechanism around career impact. I do have a critique of your suggestion: there's a big difference between a "donate 10%" pledge and a "maximize the impact of my career" pledge.

You have more than one goal, and that's fine [1]. Truly maximizing the impact of your career is more like donating 90% of your income than 10% - it would mean giving up all the other goals you have in order to focus on one thing. I don't see many examples of that even in EA and I wouldn't encourage it.

In this situation, the fact that we probably wouldn't want to encourage literally maximizing impact from careers would unfortunately make a pledge even more difficult to operationalize!

[1] https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/zu28unKfTHoxRWpGn/you-have-more-than-one-goal-and-that-s-fine

Hey Khorton, yeah I think I should have made that clearer with my post. I agree that people can have more than one goal. I was thinking though that one can maximize the impact of their career while generally still having other goals. 

Possibly the pledge could be reworded to be about pledging to aim to do a large amount of good with one's career. I think that could generally have the same effect, without being construed as being too single-minded on impact maximization.

Upvote this comment if you think this pledge is a bad idea. 

(I initially just put one comment that people could upvote or downvote, but I'm making this a separate comment to prevent the comment being hidden if it becomes negative karma. There's a comment with negative karma below that you can downvote if you used this poll, to offset any karma I gain from using comments as polls.)

80K used to have a pledge almost exactly like this (something like 'contribute at least 10% of my working time to doing the most good), but they moved away from it quite quickly. I can't find the original wording of the pledge now, but I found an email where said they were replacing it with this 'statement of intent':

I declare that I aim to pursue a career as an effective altruist.

This means that I intend to:

(i)                  Devote a significant proportion of my time or resources to helping others.

(ii)                 Use the time or resources I give as effectively as possible in helping others.

(iii)                Make my career decisions based at least in part on how it enables me to further my altruistic aims.


Further to this declaration of intent, every member, in joining the 80,000 Hours community, agrees to report on their altruistic activities every year.

I'm not sure if that's still publicised anywhere - it certainly doesn't seem like they promote it any more.

Interesting idea. Having mixed feelings about it because of the reasons you mentioned in the post (it's hard to tell whether one actually fulfilled it or not and ones life circumstances can change so much). 

I think one I would actually take would be a "Review-my-career-under-EA-principles-once-a-year-pledge". That's more specific, actionable and reasonable (for many EAs I think). Just not using that name of course!

Those are just some quick thoughts though!

Thanks for the feedback Cristina! Regarding one's life circumstances changing so much, Giving What We Can allows people to contact them to revoke their pledge, so I could imagine that being done by people who don't feel aligned with this career-focused pledge anymore, if life circumstances change in the future.

I agree that that's a specific, actionable, and reasonable pledge. Maybe a shorthand name for that pledge idea could be the "EA Career Planning Pledge". I'm not sure if that should replace this pledge, but it's an interesting idea.

Upvote this comment if you think this pledge is a good idea and should be created.

Initially I told people to downvote this comment if this is a bad idea, but it would end up getting hidden, so please upvote the other comment that says "Upvote this comment if you think this pledge is a bad idea instead!

(There's a comment with negative karma below that you can downvote if you used this poll, to offset any karma I gain from using comments as polls.)

I'm not going to downvote it as that would give you negative karma and hide this comment!

Ah good point, let me make a separate comment that people can upvote if they think the pledge is a bad idea

Thanks for writing this. I had a similar idea. I tentatively believe that some version of a volunteer pledge (e.g., try to give at least 10% of your time to high impact volunteer or paid work) is probably a good idea. I'll respond in the future with some further thoughts and and argument. I don't really understand why people your idea is a bad at present, so it might be useful to get more feedback. 

If we want to include a hits-based approach to careers, but also respect people not having EA goals as the exclusive life goal, I'd have a worry that signing this pledge is incompatible with staying in a career that the EA community subsequently decides is ineffective.  This could be true even if under the information known at the time of career choice the career looked like terrific expected value.

The actual wording of the pledge seems okay under this metric, as it only promises to "seek out ways to increase the impact of my career", so maybe this is fine as long as the pledge doesn't rise to "switch career" in all cases.