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Persistent Idealism

11 Post author: jkaufman 26 August 2014 01:38AM

When I talk to people about earning to give, it's common to hear worries about "backsliding". Yes, you say you're going to go make a lot of money and donate it, but once you're surrounded by rich coworkers spending heavily on cars, clothes, and nights out, will you follow through? Working at a greedy company in a selfishness-promoting culture you could easily become corrupted and lose initial values and motivation.

First off, this is a totally reasonable concern. People do change, and we are pulled towards thinking like the people around us. I see two main ways of working against this:

  1. Be public with your giving. Make visible commitments and then list your donations. This means that you can't slowly slip away from giving; either you publish updates saying you're not going to do what you said you would, or you just stop updating and your pages become stale. By making a public promise you've given friends permission to notice that you've stopped and ask "what changed?"
  2. Don't just surround yourself with coworkers. Keep in touch with friends and family. Spend some time with other people in the effective altruism movement. You could throw yourself entirely into your work, maximizing income while sending occasional substantial checks to GiveWell's top picks, but without some ongoing engagement with the community and the research this doesn't seem likely to last.

One implication of the "won't you drift away" objection, however, is often that if instead of going into earning to give you become an activist then you'll remain true to your values. I'm not so sure about this: many people who are really into activism and radical change in their 20s have become much less ambitious and idealistic by their 30s. You can call it "burning out" or "selling out" but decreasing idealism with age is very common. This doesn't mean people earning to give don't have to worry about losing their motivation—in fact it points the opposite way—but this isn't a danger unique to the "go work at something lucrative" approach. Trying honestly to do the most good possible is far from the default in our society, and wherever you are there's going to be pressure to do the easy thing, the normal thing, and stop putting so much effort into altruism.

Comments (45)

Comment author: shminux 26 August 2014 04:55:25PM *  14 points [-]

Or maybe they realize that their younger self's values and goals are no longer their current values and goals, and give in to a bit of indulgence guilt-free.

It is certainly wise to keep a diary of one's goals, values, reasons and intentions, so that some time later one can tell whether the arguments you made when you are 20 are still persuasive when you are 40. Also reviewing one's diary on a regular basis is likely to mitigate any unintentional value drift.

What is probably not wise is trying to lock your future self in with precommitments. After all, would you want to be constrained at 20 by what your 12-yo self thought? That's how you might think about yourself at 20 when you are 40.

Comment author: jkaufman 26 August 2014 06:47:45PM *  4 points [-]

"What is probably not wise is trying to lock your future self in with precommitments."

The outside view suggests that as I get older I will probably get less idealistic and less altruistic. For example, from something I happened to be reading this morning:

Bob’s lack of ambition, which had initially seemed so noble, began to irritate Jacqui. “Everybody else in the animal-rights movement was growing up, starting to settle down, moving out of the squats and all that,” she recalled. “He was already a lot older, and he was not progressing.” While Bob was in the pub, plotting direct actions, Jacqui was at home, worrying about money.

(In this case Bob hasn't "grown up" because he's actually a government spy assigned to the animal rights movement, but if anything that makes this stronger.)

I expect that morally I will still believe that we should be helping others, I just will be pulled more and more to spend money on myself and people around me. Commitment here isn't to lock myself into the values of a much younger self so much as keep myself doing what I have all along thought was the right thing to do.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 27 August 2014 05:54:18AM 1 point [-]

The outside view suggests that as I get older I will probably get less idealistic and less altruistic.

That may be right but doesn't invalidate shminux' point. The best approach seems to be to constrain the future self in ways that will be benefinicial even from the older ones point.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 26 August 2014 09:36:29PM *  8 points [-]

The biggest hijacker of utility functions is children.

Edit: So I spoke about this specifically with a lesswronger parent tonight. He says that he feels like the weightings on his original utility terms have not been changed much, rather that he discovered a new term that is fairly large. This seems reasonably different from my intuitive version of "hijacking."

Comment author: RichardKennaway 29 August 2014 07:51:39AM 2 points [-]

So I spoke about this specifically with a lesswronger parent tonight. He says that he feels like the weightings on his original utility terms have not been changed much, rather that he discovered a new term that is fairly large.

Discovered, or added?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 29 August 2014 11:16:55AM 2 points [-]

Specifically discovered. We talked about that distinction.

Comment author: gjm 26 August 2014 03:15:20PM 7 points [-]

The following two strategies seem (to me) roughly equally plausible but (unfortunately) exactly opposite.

  • Establish a ruthless Schelling fence like "never keep more than $X of income in a year" where X is a rather small number.

  • Accept that you are likely to be unable to maintain a really unspendy lifestyle when surrounded by spendy rich people, and instead decide from the outset on a level of self-indulgence that you are likely to be able to keep up.

If forced to guess, my guess is that the former is probably easier to keep up for longer but may lead to a more drastic failure mode when it fails. But I have no reason to trust my guesses much on this. I'd be interested in others' opinions.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 August 2014 08:42:46AM 2 points [-]

How about practicing nonconformism as a skill so you're comfortable being frugal even with spendy friends?

Comment author: jkaufman 26 August 2014 06:31:42PM 2 points [-]

"instead decide from the outset on a level of self-indulgence that you are likely to be able to keep up."

For example, by setting a percentage to donate.

Comment author: Mac 26 August 2014 05:01:07PM *  2 points [-]

Schelling fence idea is interesting. However, as you indicated, I think that if it is too restrictive, your future, morally-compromised self is likely to abandon it. If you can outsource the enforcement, then maybe you’ve got a chance, but will banks fund a charitable trust with money you don’t have yet? Maybe you could take out a huge loan today and give the proceeds to charity, forcing your future self to pay it down. Of course, access to capital, cost of borrowing, and income growth rates need to be considered.

Or perhaps a less intense alternative would work: set up a relatively small, pre-scheduled, automatic bank draft to charity before you are corrupted. If the committed amount is more than you would have contributed otherwise, yet small enough to avoid being cancelled by your future self due to the “default effect”, then you’ve made progress.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 August 2014 03:22:13AM 4 points [-]

I think part of it is that activism is more immediate. If you decide to go to college so you can make more money, and then once you graduate you backslide, you never help anyone. If you were an activist, then you'd at least have been an activist for a few years.

Comment author: Lumifer 26 August 2014 03:48:55AM 5 points [-]

If you were an activist, then you'd at least have been an activist for a few years.

You assume that by being an activist you're automatically doing something useful. That's not self-evident to me.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 August 2014 05:22:51AM 5 points [-]

That seems like a different issue. With earning to give, you take a while to start doing anything. With activism, you do whatever you're doing immediately. How useful that is, or even if it's useful at all, is a separate question.

Comment author: Lumifer 26 August 2014 03:06:16PM 4 points [-]

With earning to give, you take a while to start doing anything.

Do you? My (limited) understanding is that people who are committed to earning to give start giving as soon as they have any income, it's just that they expect to give a lot more in the future.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 August 2014 03:12:32PM 3 points [-]

I can't speak for everyone, but I haven't worked much while going to college.

I also tend to procrastinate things like figuring out which charity to donate to.

Comment author: jkaufman 26 August 2014 01:13:17PM 2 points [-]

"If you decide to go to college so you can make more money, and then once you graduate you backslide, you never help anyone."

This makes a lot of sense for people who wouldn't be starting earning to give right away, but I usually see the 'backsliding' argument applied to people already earning to give or considering whether that's what they should do next.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 August 2014 04:02:13AM 3 points [-]

If you decide to go to college so you can make more money, and then once you graduate you backslide, you never help anyone.

In a healthy system, incentives are roughly aligned for individuals and the group, and you get money because other people wanted to trade with you out of their own self-interest. Crudely, more money means more people thought it would benefit them to trade with you. There are diseased fields with net negative social balance (e.g. selling meth), but EA types probably wont' stray into these areas anyway.

Comment author: ChristianKl 26 August 2014 02:47:28PM 2 points [-]

EA do consider working for banks who are guilty of defrauding their customers on multiple occasions.

Comment author: jkaufman 26 August 2014 06:28:42PM 4 points [-]

Could you expand more? EAs clearly shouldn't defraud people.

Comment author: Lumifer 26 August 2014 06:37:51PM 2 points [-]

It's just guilt by association.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 27 August 2014 05:06:04PM -1 points [-]

No, it's guilt by explicit participation.

Comment author: gjm 28 August 2014 12:18:05PM 6 points [-]

Perhaps you'd like to unpack that a bit.

Suppose Al is a would-be effective altruist. Al estimates that his charitable giving can "save a life" (i.e., do an amount of good that he judges equivalent to giving one person a reasonably full and happy life instead of dying very prematurely) for about $5k. Al is willing to give away half of what he earns above $40k/year, and everything above $150k/year. He can work for $50k/year as a librarian (giving $5k/year, 1 life/year) or for $250k/year as an investment banker (giving $155k/year, 31 lives/year).

The investment bank that's offering Al a job was recently involved in a scandal that effectively defrauded a lot of its customers of a lot of money. Al doesn't know of any similar frauds going on right now, and is fairly sure that the job he's being offered doesn't require him to defraud anyone. But of course it's entirely possible that somewhere in the large i-bank he'd be working for, other equally nasty things are going on.

OK. So, if Al takes the i-banking job then he is "guilty by explicit participation". That sounds bad. Should Al regard being "guilty by explicit participation" as more important than saving 30 extra lives per year? If I am introduced to Al and trying to work out what to think of him, should I think worse of him because he thought it more important to save an extra 30 lives/year than to avoid "guilt by explicit participation"?

Does "guilt by explicit participation" actually harm anyone? How?

Comment author: ChristianKl 26 August 2014 09:31:18PM 0 points [-]

Most of the big banks where found to defraud people by US courts in the last years.

The for example rigged Libor exchange rates. Every employee of a big banks that participated in the rigging that made trades that depend on the Libor exchange rate and where the rigging was harmful to the client was effectively participating in defrauding the client.

Comment author: Lumifer 28 August 2014 06:27:09PM 2 points [-]

Most of the big banks where found to defraud people by US courts in the last years.

A relevant Economist article.

Comment author: tut 28 August 2014 04:30:06PM 2 points [-]

Doesn't it follow from this (and the fact that fraud is illegal but the authorities are not very effective at ferreting it out) that it would be a good thing for the public if people who were more constrained by ethics than by money took jobs at these banks, so that they can blow the whistle on the next fraud at an earlier stage?

Comment author: Lumifer 28 August 2014 05:31:53PM 2 points [-]

Such people are a very limited resource and I'd rather they go into three-letter agencies, if it's all the same to them X-D

Comment author: DanielLC 26 August 2014 05:29:56AM *  1 point [-]

How about: you never help anyone in the method you planned to. If you find that acting in your own self-interest helps more than activism, and that earning to give helps more than acting in your own self-interest, then I guess you wouldn't need to worry about it so much.

That is, you wouldn't need to worry about it when considering going into activism. You still need to worry about it when considering how to avoid backsliding, because not backsliding is still much better than backsliding.

There are diseased fields with net negative social balance (e.g. selling meth), but EA types probably wont' stray into these areas anyway.

It has been considered here: http://felicifia.org/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=472&p=3789

Comment author: [deleted] 26 August 2014 03:28:36AM *  2 points [-]

If the increase from optimizing income is large enough, quite a bit of backsliding can occur while donations increase.

If having regular social relationships at work helps you make more money (e.g. playing golf with the boss) then "avoid your coworkers" might be bad advice for an aspiring philanthropist. Likewise, if your income will suffer from not fitting in, and if fitting in requires some amount of conspicuous consumption (expensive suits or whatever), then there isn't really a trade-off here.

EDIT: The caution against being "Penny-wise and pound foolish" should apply to moral as well as financial matters.

Comment author: jkaufman 26 August 2014 01:09:38PM 2 points [-]

"'avoid your coworkers' might be bad advice for an aspiring philanthropist."

I don't think you should avoid your coworkers. That's definitely bad advice. Not only are there the potential advantages you describe, they're probably really interesting people! I'm saying you should try to have a lot of different influences, and not let your coworkers form too much of your social circle.

(Which is also a good strategy given that you may may lose your job, and don't want to lose all your friends with it.)

Comment author: AlexSchell 26 August 2014 04:43:47PM 1 point [-]

Sellout risk can be worked into the discount rate for future donations, and so it's a consideration against complicated decade-spanning plans to maximize one's giving. Following your advice is very valuable by decreasing the discount rate.

Comment author: cameroncowan 27 August 2014 09:18:58PM 0 points [-]

This concept seems a bit odd to me because why would one decide to make a lot of money only to give it away? I guess I don't understand that? I'm a bit old fashioned. I believe that a monthly commitment to giving is important. When I was growing my parents gave exactly 10% of my Dad's income to church every month. They also did extra things on an as needed basis. When the church needed a new roof and it cost $85,000 my Dad gave the church about 1/3 of that to make up for the difference the church didn't have. It was still a goodly chunk of change all at once. I think its more important about the consistent giving and the attitude towards giving rather than saying "I'm going to earn a lot so I can give it away." I think this is also an area where a spiritual path is important. I'm a writer and rather poor but I still give away old clothes, old items I don't need anymore and in some cases I give people money or things they needed to improve themselves. When a transient person is standing on the sidewalk with a sign I wait for Creator to tell me if they need something and when I hear the go-ahead I do it or don't. I see this come back to me all the time.

I guess in my personal system how much I do to or do not do for myself does not matter because its the regular giving thats important not merely the act of making a great deal so I can give it away or finding some way to make sure that I don't "backslide" into selfish spending. After all who said that not buying nice things for yourself or living a good life with a lifestyle isn't a good idea if one is mindful of community and how you can help? I would say rather than trying to give away as much money as possible (and thereby jeopardizing your future) the better option would be to give regularly and make your community better by any means necessary.

Comment author: Skeptityke 28 August 2014 01:44:46AM 3 points [-]

The reason to make lots of money to give it away is elaborated on here, in the paragraph about the lawyer who wants to clean up the beach.

Summary version: More charities are funding-limited than volunteer-limited, and if you are making a sufficient amount of money, working one extra hour and donating the proceeds from that hour gets more done, saves more people, than using that hour to volunteer. The important part is to actually save people.

Saving people is far more important than giving consistently (If the best way to save people is to give each month, I want to give each month, if the best way to save people is to donate large chunks infrequently, I want to donate large chunks infrequently), saving people is far more important than having a good attitude towards giving (If having a good attitude towards giving makes me donate more, I want to have a good attitude towards giving, if having a selfish attitude towards giving makes me donate more, I want to have a selfish attitude), and saving people is far more important than spiritually developing in the process (I trust you can complete the pattern). I'm not saying these things are bad, it's just that they are subgoals of the thing you are trying to accomplish, which is doing the most good. Making a great deal to give it away, and making sure you don't backslide into selfishness are things to do to ensure that the most people can be saved. Regular giving is secondary in importance.

The goal is not fitting conventional patterns of giving, the goal is to help as many people as possible. To try to get a high score in the LIVES IMPROVED statistics column of the game of life. If something helps in this quest, do it, if it doesn't help, stop doing it.

Comment author: cameroncowan 28 August 2014 04:43:31AM 1 point [-]

This seems terribly inefficient and dependent you a great deal of personal sacrifice to achieve a goal. I guess I do t understand why someone would completely change their lifestyle just to help as many people as possible. If the goal is saving people in a large way it seems to me that aligning oneself with the people and organizations doing that work and regularly supplying them with the needed resources is far better than this system. I would say that the best way to live in this manner would be to position oneself as a donor to be called upon at a moments notice to fill a gap at a certain level. Working just to give money just isn't mindful of the commitment, the stress, and the need for self care. In order for you to be at your best you have to be well yourself. If you are living in a small apartment eating ramen while the beach is pristine that would not be optimal in my mind.

Comment author: Skeptityke 28 August 2014 05:34:20AM 1 point [-]

I think there's an important distinction to be made between the different levels of earning to give. Really, there's a spectrum between "donate 5 percent of income" at one end, and "devote existence to resolving issue" at the other end. For humans trying to do the best they can, in fact, trying to scale up too fast can lead to severe burnout. So caring for yourself and having a good life and low stress is a good idea because it guards against burnout. It is better to donate a thousand dollars a month to resolve an issue than three thousand with an 80% chance of burnout. Slowly build up to higher points on the spectrum that don't give up quality of life.

Remember, the goal is to do that which works, not to win a "I'm way more hardcore about charity than you!" contest. If that which works leads to sacrifice and you can handle it without burnout risk, then sacrifice. If self-sacrifice doesn't work for solving the issue, then don't do it. And yes, aligning oneself with the people working on it and supplying them with resources is pretty much exactly what is required in many cases. Earning to give comes from the fact that the "supplying them with resources" step works much better with more resources, and working at high paying jobs is a good way to get resources.

And finally, about not understanding why someone would completely change their lifestyle to help as many as people as possible... Lifestyle changes tend to look really intimidating from the outside, not from the inside. In college, as an example, going "I'm taking >20 credits" makes people mightily impressed and worried about your inevitable lack of a social life, but once you actually start doing it, it doesn't feel extraordinary or hard from the inside. Dropping annual expenses from 60k to 15k is another thing that sounds intimidating, but from the inside, it isn't that difficult, and quality of life doesn't significantly change.

So that's one part of it, that it doesn't take as much of a sacrifice as you think. The second part of it is that if there is anything at all that you value more than the thing you would spend the money on instead, moving the money to the more highly valued thing is inevitable if you don't compartmentalize. I value ten lives more highly than purchasing a shiny new car, and I suspect that most people would agree with this. It's just a matter of acting on preexisting values and desires.

Comment author: Lumifer 28 August 2014 03:23:34PM 3 points [-]

I value ten lives more highly than purchasing a shiny new car, and I suspect that most people would agree with this.

I am pretty sure "most people" value having a shiny new car more highly than the lives of ten unknowns somewhere far away. Revealed preferences are revealed.

Comment author: cameroncowan 28 August 2014 07:50:14PM 1 point [-]

Being a man, I'm very good at compartmentalizing thing so I view giving and charity in its own box of things that I do. I hold what I do around charity and giving and this kind of thing in extremely high esteem especially because I work within myself, within my soul, within subtle realms, and this kind of thing. However, while I guess that is a method of giving I think living a good life and having sufficient resources to invest in oneself is a far safer bet than giving away as much money as possible. You really have to think of yourself in order not to become a charity case yourself. Doing that which is fulfilling and making you a better person has a duplicative effect and amplifies all that you do without the burnout or poverty stricken state that I think this system leads to. I agree that to the person doing it its not as hard as it might seem. I live on very little an most people think that I'm crazy or that its so hard but its not. However, there are moments like when my car needs something done or there is an event I'd like to go to that I really wish I had those resources to just pick up and go do that thing. I guess in that way I don't see this extreme sacrifice method of giving is conducive to a good life. Does that make sense?

Comment author: jkaufman 28 August 2014 08:30:38PM *  5 points [-]

"You really have to think of yourself in order not to become a charity case yourself. Doing that which is fulfilling and making you a better person has a duplicative effect and amplifies all that you do without the burnout or poverty stricken state that I think this system leads to."

This is a good argument against donating too much, but you can still keep enough for yourself to avoid poverty and burnout while earning to give. For example, of what my wife and I earn this year we'll be dividing the money up like:

50% donations
23% taxes
21% saving
6% spending

You can see we're saving several times our annual spending, which gives us a good safety margin in case something goes wrong. Part of why we're able to have a budget like this is that we (me, wife, daughter) live frugally, and part of it is that we've tried to earn more so we can give more.

Comment author: cameroncowan 28 August 2014 10:29:23PM 0 points [-]

Good for you then for finding this lifestyle and creating a way to make it happen. I'll admit I would probably do the same thing differently in different ways in a more spiritual sense of things.

Comment author: Jiro 28 August 2014 06:17:06PM 1 point [-]

Define "burnout". It sounds like this means "has a psychological aversion to continuing to give"--but if that's what it means, then someone who gives ten dollars a year and is psychologically unwilling to increase this amount could be described as already burned out at higher values, which I'm pretty sure is not your intention.

Comment author: kalium 30 August 2014 05:27:06PM 0 points [-]

I'd read it as a loss of motivation to the extent of making it hard or impossible to keep doing that demanding, high-paying job that you're doing so you can have more to give. Happens to plenty of people in demanding jobs even if they're giving nothing.

Comment author: Izeinwinter 28 August 2014 07:39:51PM *  0 points [-]

It isn't just corruption that is a worry it is also the simple fact that if you are not corrupted, you will fit in really, really badly in your at-work social context. If you are obviously one of the righteous, and you are working at vampire squid headquarters, people are going to be rightly concerned that you may at any moment redo your utility calculations in the light of new data about just how vile they are and decide that the greatest net good you can accomplish is to, oh, copy every file you can lay your hands on, turn states evidence and in general pull a Samson in the temple on them. So, you know, perhaps not the most likely person to receive promotions.

More practically: Given the ability to get this sort of job you can almost certainly do much more net good by going into engineering, medicine or similar and working very hard at perfecting something which has broad use. The low-cost solar powered air-conditioner, the app that has a walkthrough on how to build the best possible house and outhouse given local ´materials, a shovel and lots of time (the third world has quite high smartphone penetration, and it will only go higher) Heck, even a humanities degree can be leveraged to outperform any plausible amount of giving if you laser down at producing something which makes the lives of enough people better. - Because in any given job, far more resources will pass through your hands than will be diverted into your bank account. It thus matters more what you do than what you earn. Pick a vocation. Be conscientious and diligent in executing it - this may result in personal wealth, or may not, but the mere act of doing a good job at a good task improves the world.

Comment author: jkaufman 28 August 2014 09:18:05PM 4 points [-]

"working at vampire squid headquarters..."

Earning to give doesn't require working for companies that are actively evil with secret malicious blow-the-whistle-on plans, and I don't think working for such organizations would be a good idea. But if you're working in tech (ex: me) or finance (ex: Jason Trigg) you can still fit in fine with your coworkers. You don't "ooze righteousness" or anything. (And I think trying to avoid coming off as "holier than thou" is very important if we don't want effective altruism to appear arrogant and offputting.)

"you can almost certainly do much more net good by going into engineering, medicine or similar and working very hard at perfecting something which has broad use"

You're making pretty strong claims ("outperform any plausible amount of giving") but the only evidence you're giving seems to be the claim that "in any given job, far more resources will pass through your hands than will be diverted into your bank account". Each individual doesn't have that much control over resources passing through their hands, while they have a lot of control over what they do with money they earn and can donate. But let's look at an example.

As the tech lead for the pagespeed module I'm one of ~10 people working on open source web server software that speeds up ~0.5% of internet page views by ~0.1s. There are about 1M page views per second on the internet, so every second we save people about 500s, or 500 person-years of time every year. That's 50-years per team member, so you could say through my work I save one life a year. Now for this work I get paid enough enough that I can donate about $100k/year. Donations to the AMF save a life for ~$2.5k but let's say $5k to be safe. So that's 20 lives. This is rough, but in my case at least my donations are going about 20x farther than my work. Add in replaceability and that shifts the balance even further in favor of donations.

Comment author: Capla 05 September 2014 07:00:14PM 3 points [-]

I am reminded of an old Robin Hanson post on "helpful" professions.

http://www.overcomingbias.com/2006/12/do_helping_prof.html

Comment author: ChristianKl 31 August 2014 08:33:40AM 1 point [-]

LW runs on markup. That means quotes that are marked with a ( > ) at the beginning get formatted nicely while quotes that are just marked with " at the start and end don't.

Comment author: Izeinwinter 29 August 2014 01:55:57AM -1 points [-]

Well, most jobs don't save or destroy many lives, but if you are planning your career around doing the most good - And the earning to give argument has only limited applicability to people who are already on a career track - then you can pick a job that does.