In casual discussions in EA spaces, it’s often useful to be able to refer separately to:

  • The smaller group of people who are 100% bought into EA, in the thick of things, relying on EA ideas and the EA community to steer many of their decisions
  • The larger group of people who are interested in EA, perhaps have engaged with it some, perhaps have been to a few meetups or donated to GiveWell charities, or maybe just agree with EA principles but haven’t engaged with the community much

I often hear the former category referred to as "hard-core EAs." I think that this is harmful and exclusive, that it reflects and contributes to sloppy thinking, and that we should stop doing it. This post explains why and offers a couple alternatives.

Why?

My issues with the phrase “hard-core EAs” mostly boil down to the implicit hierarchy it creates. I think implying a hierarchy like this is unwelcoming and distorts our thinking.

Unwelcoming: This one should hopefully be obvious. If this phrase is in common use, anyone who doesn't think they count as hard-core, or isn't sure, is likely to feel like they don't belong or are doing something wrong. “Hard-core” is also condescending — anyone describing themselves or their friends this way naturally sounds like they're looking down their nose at others.

Distorts our thinking: Talking in terms of how “hard-core” someone is conflates together a bunch of different dimensions that are importantly different. Saying someone is hard-core could be taken to mean that they:

  1. Are actually having a significant positive impact on the world
  2. Are deeply committed to overarching EA principles, e.g. impartiality, cost effectiveness, cause prioritization, etc.
  3. Are deeply embedded in the current EA community, e.g. buying into the community’s specific priorities/frameworks, spending lots of time with other EAs, etc.
  4. Work themselves extremely hard to try to maximize impact

...among other things.

In my mind, #1 and #2 are the traits that we as a community should promote and think highly of. But in practice, I think “hard-core EAs” is usually used to point to people whose distinguishing features are #3 & #4. I worry that this reflects and reinforces distorted beliefs the community has about itself, by making it sound like #3 & #4 are the more desirable traits. This worries me for two reasons:

  • First, current EA ideas, paradigms, and conclusions are bound to be wrong in important ways, even if they’re importantly right in some other ways.[1] According to me, the community is currently too far in the direction of encouraging conformity and convergence, and should move substantially towards encouraging exploration, questioning, and paradigm-busting. Glorifying “hard-core” EAs who buy into all the existing EA frameworks shuts us off from being curious about what we've gotten wrong and where other people or communities might be right. We should be looking out for people trying to figure this out in a serious way and getting excited when they reach different conclusions from us, not deriding them for not being fully part of our club.
  • Second, planning to work yourself to the bone for the rest of your life is unlikely to be the highest impact strategy. Comments that really hard-core people don’t think it’s important to pace yourself or have a life outside EA (like this tweet, quoting a speaker at EA Global 2021) make me despair for our ability to make the world a better place. It really shouldn’t be controversial to say that (a) some people can work incredibly hard and be productive the whole time, (b) many others need different rhythms, and (c) everyone should figure out what works for them—including sometimes pushing yourself to test and expand your limits, in settings where going past your limit won’t mess you or your team up too badly.[2] Saying in a session on sustainable motivation that “hard-core EAs might not agree with this”—thereby implying that the good EA thing to do is ignore your limits, go all out, and still feel bad that you’re not as productive as the most productive person you know—is just setting ourselves up for failure.

In sum, I worry that the way we currently use the phrase “hard-core” glorifies traits that I don’t think are necessarily positive. I therefore suggest we establish new ways of referring to people with these traits.

What else could we say?

I’ll offer two ideas here, and would be interested to hear others:

  • “Drank the kool-aid EAs.” This is my personal favorite, but maybe sounds a bit harsh. I think it works especially well when the speaker is including themselves, since it shows a bit of self-awareness and self-deprecation, and I use it pretty often. Might sound too negative for some contexts though.
  • “Super bought-in EAs.” This sounds pretty neutral and could probably be used anywhere “hard-core” is, but without the exclusive/glamorous connotations. I like that it foregrounds the fact that we’re talking about a group of people who tend to agree on a pretty narrow set of ideas.

Regardless of what term we use, the important thing is that we remain aware not only of how our language comes across to others, but also how it shapes our own thinking.

Thoughts?

___

Thanks to Rebecca Kagan for very helpful comments and edits on earlier versions of this post.


  1. If I imagine what a flourishing EA community 100 years from now would think of current EA ideas, I’d personally expect them to think we’re basically right on things like: the cost effectiveness of health/wealth interventions in developing countries relative to developed countries; the moral catastrophe that is factory farming; and the moral relevance of future generations. Some things that seem potentially shakier to me include: the specific interventions GiveWell currently prioritizes; the idea that working to reduce existential risk is the best way to help future generations; or the common 4-cause breakdown (poverty, animals, xrisk, meta). I’m not saying I think any of these latter ideas are wrong, just that EA discussions often seem to underemphasize that these are our best guesses for now based on what we know so far about an incredibly complicated set of considerations, rather than being clear truths that we’ve discovered about the world. ↩︎

  2. See my 2019 talk about sustainable motivation (transcript) for more of my thoughts on how purely from an impact perspective, we’re going to screw up if we think that the best plan is to push yourself as hard as you (think you) can go. ↩︎

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:14 PM
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I don't really use the word myself (at least, I don't remember using it), but I sometimes do say things like "intense utilitarian" or "intense worker."

I'd vote against "Drank the kool-aid EAs.”  It's a super dark metaphor; of an altruistic sect that turned into a cult and committed mass suicide.  I get that it's joking, but it feels like a bit much for me. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drinking_the_Kool-Aid
 

The phrase originates from events in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978, in which over 900 members of the Peoples Temple movement died. The movement's leader, Jim Jones, called a mass meeting at the Jonestown pavilion after the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and others in nearby Port Kaituma. Jones proposed "revolutionary suicide" by way of ingesting a powdered drink mix lethally laced with cyanide and other drugs which had been prepared by his aides.

This ^ I immediately went to the comments to make the same point when I read that (and re-read it twice to make sure it wasn’t just satire).

What about "very engaged EAs" or "highly engaged EAs"? I think that's the phrase we have been using for the EA Survey, though this mainly is meant to track your "(3) Are deeply embedded in the current EA community, e.g. buying into the community’s specific priorities/frameworks, spending lots of time with other EAs, etc.". I agree this is importantly separate from (1), and both of which is importantly separate from (2) (and same for (4)), and we need other terminology for that.

Yes, those are the ones I hear most often – plus “highly involved EA,” which is probably synonymous? I’d be very interested in opinions on those!

I have often noticed people conflating these four qualities (impact, ideological commitment, community involvement, and hard work) and I appreciate you listing them explicitly.

My problem isn't with the term "hardcore EA" itself. I just think there are a lot of people in the community that feel like the most good a person can do is get a job at an EA organisation, make a bunch of EA friends, and work as much as they can. I think even people who wouldn't endorse this view on reflection might feel like it subconsciously. I disagree with this pretty strongly and think almost all of the most impactful opportunities for doing good are outside of the EA community.

So I don't want to ban the term. In my perfect world, instead we'd have a deeper cultural change where people don't conflate impact with EA involvement because that's not what they actually believe.

"Super bought-in EAs" Drank the kool-aid EAs.”

I appreciate you raising these concerns, but I doubt this will ever catch on. Unfortunately, these terms are too long and awkward sounding for casual contexts and too informal for formal contexts.

I agree with Peter Wildeford that "highly engaged EAs" is better for formal contexts. It does have a slightly different meaning as "hard-core" suggests more ideological conformity than "highly engaged", however I would suggest that in most contexts the latter is what we want to focus on. For a start, it's easier to ascertain, but even more importantly we want people who think for themselves.

Huh, I don't feel very sold on this point. 

Regarding your (1),   the idea that the term is unwelcoming and hierarchical, it doesn't really seem that way to me (and certainly doesn't seem that way to me). I hear people talk about hardcore gamers, Christians, sports fans, Republicans, rock and roll enthusiasts, and tons of other things, including both the people in these groups and outsiders looking in on them, all without sounding like they think the hardcoreness is necessarily good, admirable, or high-status. So the term doesn't really feel connotated the way you suggest, and thus doesn't really seem unwelcoming or hierarchical  to me. (And this is related to the below point; you seem to think the term is more positive than I think it is so think it does more to make all the different aspects of what people mean by the term sound better than I think it does).  

I think people feel excluded by it being highlighted to them that other people are more hardcore than them (or, if you prefer, any of "Are actually having a significant positive impact on the world" "Are deeply committed to overarching EA principles, e.g. impartiality, cost effectiveness, cause prioritization, etc." "Are deeply embedded in the current EA community, e.g. buying into the community’s specific priorities/frameworks, spending lots of time with other EAs, etc." "Work themselves extremely hard to try to maximize impact") if they don't believe themselves to be the same way and think others see that thing as good.  And you know, it's the case that some people aren't hardcore EAs (or aren't far in the directions you suggest make up the term), and other people in the community maybe think that's worse than if they were more hardcore, but I think getting rid of the term just (somewhat) obscures an important facet of reality (that people vary on these dimensions, that some people think it's good to move farther in one direction on the relevant dimensions), and will only make people feel better inasmuch as it obscures reality from them. 

And on the second point, about distorting thinking... it's always the case that using categories obscures some detail about within-category differences. I guess the relevant thing is whether they are useful/carves nature at its joints. I happen to think "hardcore EA" does (e.g. I think your sub-points 1-4 are pretty correlated), but that's debatable. But just saying that there are different dimensions at play (including positive and negative ones) doesn't mean the category isn't useful.

Finally, sorry, but I kind of don't believe you actually don't think the term "hardcore EA" or the category/cluster it refers to is useful, otherwise it seems weird to suggest alternate terms (“Super bought-in EAs.” or “Drank the kool-aid EAs.”) instead of lobbying for abolishing the category entirely. 

I don't think I ever heard anyone use the phrase "hard-core EAs" or if I did it just passed by without note, but now that I bother to think about it I actually think it's really apt!

The etymology of hardcore has been a bit lost over the years. Here's what etymonline says:

also hard-core; 1936 (n.); 1951 (adj.); from hard (adj.) + core (n.). Original use seems to be among economists and sociologists, in reference to unemployables. Extension to pornography is attested by 1966. Also the name of a surfacing material.

Merriam-Webster seem to think it's a bit older, dating back at least to 1841:

So the earliest sense in which hard core was used was in reference to a sort of foundation on which something substantial was built. In the early 20th century the word broadened its sense to refer to serving as the foundation, or central element, of things aside of man-made structures, such as groups or organizations.

And in its perhaps better known application to pornography, the idea of a hard core that was irredeemable by virtue of how committed it was to immorality (or at least the morality of the time).

So actually I really like the idea of hardcore EAs. They're the bedrock, the foundation, the EAs who are still going to be there if EA becomes uncool or gets canceled or whatever. It makes me think of people like Peter Singer who would just keep on being an EA even if no one had come up with the label or built a movement. It has the metaphor of being so EA that even if someone brought in a jackhammer you wouldn't crack.

I don't know if I am or want to be a hardcore EA, but I'm sure as hell glad they exist!
 

I've heard and used "aligned EA" to refer to someone in category 2 (that is, someone deeply committed to overarching EA principles).

What about 'card-carrying EAs'? Doesn't have the same dark connotations as "drank the kool-aid" and does somewhat exemplify the difference you're hinting at.

Maybe GWWC can start printing cards 😅

https://writingexplained.org/idiom-dictionary/a-card-carrying-member

I like "(very or most) dedicated EA". Works well for (2) and maybe (4).