71 karmaJoined Nov 2018


Thanks for writing this up! I'm also a civil servant with a similar length of tenure. To add my two cents for other readers considering a career in the civil service, I've not found particular issues with the democracy and comprehensivity values you raise so far.

On the democracy value - I see a simplified three-staged process for policy work and in my experience if you're working on an impactful policy area it often leaves lots of space for satisfying EA action:

  1. Provide the most thoughtful and careful advice you can given any institutional constraints you face - this is typically quite aligned with an EA worldview.
  2. Let Ministers make the decision (sometimes this will go against your view of where the evidence leads) - this can be frustrating,  but lots in this world is frustrating and outside our control, I think that part of the joy (and pain) of EA is optimising around constraints and this is just another one.
  3. Implement the decision in the most pro-social way within the constraints of the steer you've been given - most ministerial steers don't fill in all the detail meaning it's a requirement for the civil servant to fill in the blanks, this is also quite aligned with an EA worldview.

On the comprehensivity value - I think the best move for an individual EA civil servant is to spend a bit of time early on in their career gathering some general civil service career capital and rotating around often to get it. Then to seek to specialise in a high-impact policy area and stick around for the long haul trying to become highly skilled at making good policy in that area. The fact that lots of others rotate regularly doesn't mean we have to. There are also so few EA-aligned civil servants that it doesn't feel like we're close to having unhelpful competition for important roles.

I think we agree on a bunch but do push back :)

This is excellent and is amongst the most thoughtful reflections on impact via policy that I've read, so thanks for writing it up.

I lead a policy team in the UK Civil Service working on a classic EA cause area and lots of the content here about routes to impact chimes with my experience, though obviously the institutional set-up in the UK is different.

From my experience, the points under the heading: 'Big impact wins require taking the time to look for non-obvious opportunities' are incredibly important. There are often super exciting opportunities for impact that sit outside of what your boss directly expects you to be doing and these can be reasonably easy to achieve if you cultivate the discipline of lifting your head above the grind to reflect on available opportunities and also then protecting enough time to pursue them alongside your more standard obligations.

Hmmmmmm, around 10 days is my best current guess, but I wouldn't be surprised if it should be more like 100 days, I assume crushing involves extreme pain which crating doesn't and so it wouldn't be outrageous to me if it ended up being more like that.

I'd be happy to chat about it if helpful,  I helped found EA for Christians and have spent a bunch of time thinking about different word choices for our name, though you may already be in contact with members of our team.

Our Facebook group is called 'Christians and Effective Altruism' I think this wording allows Christians who don't yet feel comfortable with fully aligning with EA to join and participate which has been useful for us in terms of outreach.

Then in terms of the name for our actual org, I see three options (i) 'EA for Christians', (ii) 'Christians in EA' and (iii) some wording like our Facebook group name using 'and'.

Whilst (ii) feels the cleanest, as noted above it reads as an affinity group without the outreach edge which is a core part of our org. (iii) is also inoffensive but sounds like it lacks a mission which I think can also be unattractive when doing outreach. I like the fact that in (i) Christianity is spotlighted, which works with the way Christians are encouraged to think about their Christian identity being the most central to them. The downside is that it risks sounding like it's EA being used in support of Christians, which obviously isn't our goal, rather the use of for is meant to imply that EA provides an invaluable toolkit to aid Christians in their God-given mission to serve others.

I'm also a current UK Civil Servant and agree with Kirsten. I don't think doing a Masters in public policy is going to do much to help your application. Obviously, there can be lots of good reasons to do one, but I wouldn't treat as a major factor it helping you get into the UK Civil Service.

Thanks for another excellent post. I continue to get a lot out of your writing, so please keep it coming!

I've always found the idea of 'bindingness' as the most intuitive term I can grasp towards to get at what it's like to be under the purview of a normative ought. You can choose to ignore the ought, or fail to realise that it's there, but regardless it'll be there binding you until you comply, and whilst you don't comply your hypothetical normative life score is jettisoning points and you're slipping down the league table. (Note I'm coming from a normative realist perspective)

Ultimately I think my view is that what one ought to do is just that which there is all-things-considered most reason to do, and I've always had the intuition that what it means to have a reason to do something is primitive and not amenable to deeper analysis. Interested in whether you think that having a normative reason is a primitive concept / any useful reading on the topic you might know on the topic?


This was one of my favourite EA Forum posts in a long time, thanks for sharing it!

Externalist realism is my preferred theory. Though I think we'd probably need something like God to exist in order for humans to have epistemic access to any normative facts. I've spent a bit of time reflecting on the "they understand everything there is to understand; they have seen through to the core of reality, and reality, it turns out, is really into helium. But they, unfortunately, aren’t."  style case. Of course it'd be really painful, but I think the appropriate response would be to understand the issue as one of human motivational brokenness. Something has gone wrong in my wiring which means my motivations are not properly functioning as they are out of kilter with what there is all-things-considered most reason to do, namely promote helium. That doesn't mean that I'm to blame for this mismatch. But I'd hope that I'd then push this acknowledgement of my motivational brokenness into a course of actions to see if I can get my motivations to fall in line with the normative truth.

On the hell case (which feels personally relevant as an active Christian) I think I'd take a lot of solace during my internment that this is just what there is all-things-considered most reason to happen. If my dispositions/motivations fail to fall in line, then as above they are failing to properly function and I think/hope that acknowledging this would take some of the edge off the dissonance of not being able to understand why this is a just punishment.

As a data point, I found this super useful and would love to see these happen for each episode. Two particular ways I'd benefit: (i) typically there are a few particularly interesting bits in each episode which I found particularly novel/helpful and reading over a post later which re-states those will help them sink in more, (ii) sometimes I skip an episode based on the title but would read over something like this to glean any quick useful things and then maybe listen to the whole thing if it looked particularly useful.

I haven't ever (and doubt I will) read over a full transcript, so posting those wouldn't do the same thing. Also, putting the particularly interesting insights as comments allows upvoting to triage the insights that are most useful for the community.

Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed by just how vast the terrain of doing good is, how many niche questions there are to explore and interventions to test, and how little time/bandwidth I have to figure things out. Then I remember that I'm part of this incredible community of thousands of thoughtful and motivated people who are each beavering away on a small patch of the terrain, turning over the stones, and incrementally building a better view of the territory and therefore what our best bets are. It fills me with real hope and joy that in some important sense the graft that other people are putting in psychologically frees me up to double down on my small patch of activity with even more vigour knowing that other people will find gold veins in other parts of the terrain that I miss.

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