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A Defense of Normality

At EA Global, I met many different kinds of people. Some were gung-ho about EA, claiming that effective altruism meant that we should spend all our money on EA charities, to the detriment of artistic culture, movies, music, and even maintaining museums. Others seemed to only be concerned with certain subsets of EA, like those who care only about the charity recommendations. One person I met at EA Global claimed that he uses EA to determine where to send his 10% pledge to, but that’s the extent of his EA actions. He considers himself an EA, and rightly so, I think; after all, he is one of the most important parts of this community, and I’ll explain why later in this post.


There are those who claim that you’re not a true EA unless you really push hard on all the EA principles. I’ve never heard anyone claim that you have to be perfect, but I have heard people say that you need to give more than just 10%, that you’re not really EA if you give to non-EA charities, that if you spend more than a few dollars on things like video games, then you can’t really call yourself an EA. (These are not made-up accusations. I really have encountered people saying these things.)


I get where these people are coming from. They’re trying to maximize the output of good from their one life. And this makes sense. After all, effectiveness is all about getting the largest quotient of result over effort. We want the most results per effort given. For most people in the effective altruism community, this translates to accomplishing the most good per dollar. EAs focus on ensuring that our money goes to charities instead of sailboats (hence the GWWC pledge) and that, of the money sent to charity, that money goes to the right places (hence GW/ACE-style charity recommendations). These interpretations make sense to me.

 

But the people who claim you need to do even more if you want to be a true EA are interpreting the effectiveness quotient somewhat differently:

 

Result / Effort = Good Created / Person’s Life

 

They reason that effective altruism is all about creating the most good per life lived. In their interpretation, each of us has to maximize the good we produce throughout our lifetimes. For some, that would be through direct charity work, for others, it’s a giving pledge, and for still others it might be building wealth to be allocated once they die.

 

These people are laudable. I’m not going to say that they are doing badly by making this choice with their life. But I am going to claim that these actions are supererogatory.

 

Ultimately, I think these people are using the wrong reference class. They’ve plugged in incorrect numbers into the quotient, and are missing what’s really important. I believe the quotient should instead be interpreted as:

 

Result / Effort = Good Created / Marketable Individual Sustainable Effort

 

My claim is that the divisor should not be the full life of an individual EA, but instead each marketable and sustainable effort that is put in by each individual EA. This is a little convoluted, so I’ll explain.

 

As a first approximation, consider the divisor to be Individual Effort. This would mean that we’d need to do the most good for each effort we make. Whatever we expend energy on should have “most good created” as its ultimate purpose (in the sense of telos). But following this rule would lead to very short lives, as expending effort to eat food probably doesn’t maximize the possible good one could do in the present. This approximation just doesn’t consider the number of future moments of effort that are also possible to do good.

 

So we then go to a second divisor approximation: Individual Sustainable Effort. Now we can try to make each effort we expend have “most good created” as the telos, so long as that effort, in combination with other efforts, is sustainable. This approximation lets us eat food, sleep, and have recreation, as it recognizes that we need those things in order to continue doing good throughout the remainder of our lives. By this approximation, we should expend whatever minimal amount of time/money we spend on eating/sleeping that is possible. But this is missing something crucial: actually doing this would make our lives miserable. Sure, if it made it too miserable, we’d stop being EAs -- so this principle would give us the minimal comfort necessary to allow us to continue doing good until we die (or indefinitely, depending on your stance on life extension). But we wouldn’t be happy about it. (If you don’t think that some EAs think this way, consider the fact that Julia Wise actually had to argue that having a child was compatible with effective altruism.)

 

That’s where we get the next divisor approximation: Marketable Individual Sustainable Effort. Here we finally recognize that the good we do isn’t just based on the good we do directly, but also the good we do indirectly by helping others become EAs as well. The minimal comfort level we need is not the level at which we can continue to do direct efforts indefinitely, but instead the level at which we can successfully market the EA mindset to others so that they can accomplish good as well. In other words, we shouldn’t just get enough sleep to survive for another day of grueling EA work, we should get whatever threshold of sleep will allow us to both live a good life of comfort and pleasure, while maintaining the EA work we do.

 

Ensuring that things are marketable isn’t sexy (even though marketing those things usually is), but it’s an important component of the good each of us can accomplish. We are still at the beginning stages of our movement, though it is indeed growing quickly, and we need to be aware of how our choices of what is and is not a norm in this group can affect whether others decide to join the movement.

 

Giving What We Can had it right when they chose to make the pledge 10%. That number has historical familiarity with a western audience and doesn’t seem to be too much for a modest-income individual to give. This allows it to be marketable. Even if some EAs give much more, the main point here is that the norm should be a lower percentage like 10%. The Life You Can Save advocates for a looser standard for those with less income, and a higher standard for those with more income. Their suggestion is to give more than 10% if you make over $500k each year, and less than 10% if you make less. Their reasoning is that when it comes to lower-income people, the most important thing is volume; when it comes to higher-income people, the most important thing is magnitude.

 

Standard-lowering to lower the barrier of entry is important to those of us who market effective altruism to the mass audience. EAs who give more than 10% are awesome, but in order for this movement to spread more generally, we need more people at the 10% level. I’m not saying anyone should lower their pledge -- but I am saying that we should be inclusive of new EAs who come in only at that pledge level and stay there.

 

The above paragraph should be offensive to no one. I have high confidence that everyone reading it said to themselves: yeah, that’s obvious. But when I make the same claim about sleeping, eating, or playing video games, that’s when I seem to get pushback.

 

EAs who get by on less than eight hours of sleep through polyphasic hacks are laudable. You guys have so much more time available to you with which you may accomplish good. But in order for the movement to spread more generally, we need the norm to be more like eight hours of sleep.

 

Those of you who spend less time on cooking by eating those powder meals are impressive. You spend so much less time and money on food that you have the ability to spend that money/time on more important things, like doing good. But in order for the movement to spread more generally, we need the norm to be something more like three meals a day, or at least eating when hungry, and taking the time to cook good meals, simply because eating well is a pleasure that most humans would not want to do without.

 

Those of you who don’t play video games, who don’t go out to the movies, who don’t play CCGs -- you guys are great. By not expending so much time and energy on recreation, you can do much more good. But in order for the movement to succeed, we need the norm to include EAs having fun. Not just fun on the fringes, but EAs spending real money and time on whatever recreational things they like to do.

 

Effective altruism should be about creating the most good per marketable individual sustainable effort. We can’t go too far on the marketable side, because then it isn’t sustainable. We can’t go too far on the sustainable side, or it won’t be effort. Each of these adjectives reigns in the rest in a way that allows our movement as a whole to accomplish the most good. (At least this is true in the near term, where most individuals are non-EAs. Once a certain threshold of people are EAs, the marketable aspect ceases to be as important, at which point maybe something else comes into play, like maximizing the happiness of that large EA group.)

 

The best way to accomplish the most good is probably(?) to get very rich people/nations to give their money differently and more often. But most of us can’t work on that kind of project, because we don’t have access/influence on those people/nations. However, we can work on the second best way to accomplish good: growing the movement so that each of our effects are multiplied. Our individual efforts are great, but that extra 25% of time you get from cutting your sleeping hours in half could be replicated four-fold by just recruiting another person into effective altruism. If sleep reduction were the norm in EA circles, it would be much more difficult to recruit new EAs. (This doesn’t mean that you should cease polyphasic sleep; it just means that polyphasic sleep is supererogatory to EA.)

 

I realize that the absurdity heuristic comes into play here. Just because powder-eating and polyphasic sleeping sound silly doesn’t mean that we should reject them. Sometimes it is important to ignore our silliness heuristic and instead shut up and multiply. But we can only convince X people to do those things that seem silly, which only creates f(x) utility. Whereas we can instead downplay the silly-sounding stuff as an EA cultural norm, and instead recruit Y people to EA, which creates g(y) utility. My claim is that g(y) > f(x), so we should focus on ensuring EA norms are marketable. This doesn’t mean that individual EAs shouldn’t try to be even more effective -- it just means that it shouldn’t be perceived as a norm among the community.

 

And now, a confession. I sleep a lot. I average around nine hours, but with a large variance each night. I like to eat well. I spend a lot to get the specific foods I like best, and I eat out more often than most people I know. I don’t skimp on my playing budget. I play a lot of videos games -- on consoles, handhelds, computers, and mobile; I even co-host a video games podcast. I play board games regularly with a local playgroup, and I’m almost always the one purchasing the games. I enjoy books. My house is filled with books, to the point where you might call every room except the kitchen a library room. Though probably this is more due to my housemate than to myself specifically.

 

I do all these things because these things make my life enjoyable. These expenses of time and money are not cheap, but they help me to enjoy life not just to the point of sustainability, but beyond to the point of marketability.

 

So do I count as an effective altruist, even though I spend so much time and money on sleeping, eating, and various forms of recreation? I’d like to think so. I give 25% of my income each year, and I have for two years at this point. I have volunteered at three different EA organizations, and have worked at one for two years. I attended EA Global this year; I participate regularly in online discussion groups; I’ve gone to a few local EA meetups. Maybe I have a poor prior, but I think most of you will consider me to be a full-fledged EA, not just a fringe EA.

 

Given that, I think that more of us who spend a lot of time on sleep, food, and recreation (even if it’s stuff like M:tG, WoW, clubbing, scuba diving, etc.) should speak up and say that that’s how we are living our lives. Right now, when people look through the facebook posts of well-known effective altruists, they see stuff like eating powder, sleeping less, and always-working-toward-the-cause. While I’m not making the claim that what these people are doing isn’t morally praiseworthy, I am making the claim that those of us who don’t do those things should speak up more often so that the norm of EA is perceived as fun-loving 8-hour sleepers who enjoy the taste of food often.

 

We shouldn’t just spread a meme of giving to the best charities, or of giving 10% of income. We need to spread the meme of effective altruism itself, and that requires more of us to be vocal about just being regular people. Without approachable EA norms, growing our movement will be limited to those willing to do supererogatory acts.

Comments (16)

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 07 September 2015 11:05:14PM 14 points [-]

I'd take a different argument -- there's very little evidence that eschewing solid food, sleeping less than eight hours a night, or not spending any time having fun correlates with more impact. In fact, the sleeping less and not having fun correlates with less impact! The belief that less sleep + less breaks = more work time = more impact done is not just unmarketable... it's dangerously wrong.

Comment author: xccf 09 September 2015 10:34:42PM 5 points [-]

Yes. Honestly some of the behaviors Eric describes sound a bit more like optimizing for self-sacrifice than optimizing for impact to me. In power law world, spending a few bucks on recreation is not likely to move the needle in terms of your overall impact, and taking effective breaks is really valuable even if you're trying to maximize productivity at all costs. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Comment author: jayd 12 September 2015 06:33:43AM 1 point [-]

spending a few bucks on recreation is not likely to move the needle in terms of your overall impact

Why is that? Do you mean that someone spending $500 less on entertainment over the year and donating it instead will result in less rather than more money going to help people, due to damage to sustainability and marketability?

Comment author: xccf 13 September 2015 02:22:43AM 1 point [-]

That's not the claim I'm making. The claim I'm making is that your attention is a more valuable currency than you realize and you are best off focusing it on the very highest impact things you could be doing. The only point at which it makes sense to optimize small-scale recreational consumption is when you have already thought a lot about higher-impact ways to improve the world and concluded that none of them are feasible for you, so cutting down on recreation spend is the best way for you to convert attention & willpower in to utility for others.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 13 September 2015 02:42:07AM 0 points [-]

This doesn't make sense. If there are higher impact things you could be doing then that increases the opportunity cost of time rather than decreases it.

Comment author: xccf 13 September 2015 03:21:28AM 0 points [-]

I think attention and energy are generally more valuable currencies than time.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 13 September 2015 03:34:30AM 0 points [-]

That's such a specific claim that it's going to be much different from individual to individual. You're probably better off just saying "be as productive as you can" and then telling people to figure out for themselves what their optimal schedule is.

Comment author: bcforstadt 09 September 2015 08:24:08PM *  1 point [-]

On the subject of polyphasic sleep, I strongly suggest reading Dr. Piotr Wozniak's criticism of it at http://www.supermemo.com/articles/polyphasic.htm

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 11 September 2015 12:55:17AM *  5 points [-]

Eric, I agree 100% with being open to anyone who wants to make a significant impact, and I would never "exclude" anyone or make claims about being a "true" EA. But the question of how much money one ought to donate requires serious treatment. I don't disagree that we need to spread a broader and better message than just donating to the best charities, but I strongly disagree that we we would benefit from people being encouraged to give less money or be less productive.

These people are laudable. I’m not going to say that they are doing badly by making this choice with their life. But I am going to claim that these actions are supererogatory.

I'm not sure if you're approaching this from a philosophical perspective but there is a conceptual difference between what is obligatory and what is supererogatory. You make plenty of points regarding practical matters, but the ethical question of whether or not one ought to do as much as they can to have a positive effect on the world remains untouched. For the record, I do think there are supererogatory actions, just that we generally don't reach those limits while living in the richest countries in the world with all the modern benefits of medical technology and stable food supplies. Someone who donates maximally to charity is still living a more comfortable life than the vast majority of humans who have ever lived.

My claim is that the divisor should not be the full life of an individual EA, but instead each marketable and sustainable effort that is put in by each individual EA. This is a little convoluted, so I’ll explain.

I'm sorry but I'm still not entirely sure about your thought process. Are you saying that the metric be an output-per-input efficiency type metric? Because according to that logic we all should do exactly one maximally beneficial thing, and then just forget about EA, because that would enable the highest average impact per individual effort.

That’s where we get the next divisor approximation: Marketable Individual Sustainable Effort. Here we finally recognize that the good we do isn’t just based on the good we do directly, but also the good we do indirectly by helping others become EAs as well.

Sure, but that's not missing from the simple metric of positive impact. You would just have to intuitively factor in the effects of your lifestyle on other people. Does this new framework gives us any new tools to analyze the issue?

The above paragraph should be offensive to no one.

It's not obvious to me. Most people will probably become effective altruists based on their own beliefs and values. And people don't need to identify with the entire community in order to accept the movement; as long as there are some people who follow a similar route they will have some people to relate to.

The problem is that you are claiming that, say, if I increase my donations from 10% to 50%, I will actually turn off no less than four people (on average) who would have donated 10% each! Does that seem obvious to you? It doesn't seem obvious to me, either in this specific example or in other examples with other numbers. You also have to throw in the countervailing effects of people being less encouraged to donate more. If me donating only 10% reduces the likelihood of another 10%er moving up to 50%, then I've just done twice as much harm. Don't forget that since the start of Effective Altruism, the idea of donating large amounts of money has given it plenty of attention and the interest of key individuals.

Besides, no one even has to know how much money someone donates. One can just say that he donates 10%, but actually donate a lot more. Better yet, don't bring it up percentages at all to people who are new to the movement. Furthermore, for most people's financial situations 10% donation does not come close to eliminating your abilities to spend some money on hobbies or leisure time or things like that.

I have high confidence that everyone reading it said to themselves: yeah, that’s obvious. But when I make the same claim about sleeping, eating, or playing video games, that’s when I seem to get pushback.

No one disagrees that you shouldn't sacrifice so much that it would hurt your productivity. But be realistic, how many people will actually find out how many things you do in your free time? And how many of those people are potential effective altruists, and how many of those are potential effective altruists whose decisions are likely to change based on their perception of you? Finally, your donations can go into effect now. These hypothetical marketability issues won't be realized until months or years in the future, so that's a further reason to be less concerned about them.

By all means, it makes sense to have a few positive aspects in life that make yourself look interesting. But you rapidly begin to get diminishing marginal returns on that issue.

The right message to propagate, clearly, is that there is room for everyone. But I think that setting a lower-effort norm can have dangerous long term consequences for internal culture. There's something that makes effective altruism different from evangelical religious groups and small political parties and community volunteer groups, and that is the fact that EAs are consistently willing to go above and beyond in having a footprint. And if we want to spread the message to new people, instead of passively relying on being interesting and cool people, it's much more effective to actually go out there and actively build the movement.

Comment author: EricHerboso  (EA Profile) 15 September 2015 03:52:43PM 0 points [-]

The problem is that you are claiming that, say, if I increase my donations from 10% to 50%, I will actually turn off no less than four people (on average) who would have donated 10% each! Does that seem obvious to you? It doesn't seem obvious to me, either in this specific example or in other examples with other numbers.

I would like to make clear that I am not making this claim. Your numbers here are correct; I agree that if you increase your donations from 10% to 50%, it does not seem likely that that would turn off no less than four people who would have donated 10% each.

However, I still think my intended claim stands. It is my belief that the people who do less are not as vocal as the people who do more. I do not think the people who do more should instead do less; rather, I think that the people who do less should become more vocal.

This isn't so much a problem with percentage of income donations, which is why I (perhaps incorrectly) said that that paragraph should be offensive to no one. But it is a problem when it comes to inefficient behaviors, like people who have hobbies that actually cost money, or people who don't maximize every moment of their day.

There is an unstated premise here that I should have made explicit. I'm talking only about those individuals who are already doing the maximum that they are going to do. If someone could plausibly be talked into upping their percentage from 10% to 50%, then they probably should. But if they are already donating their maximum, my argument is that they should be more vocal about their contribution level within the community. (Again, I don't think contribution level vocality is an issue; but I do think that normal sleeping/eating/playing pattern vocality is an issue in the EA community.)

You also have to throw in the countervailing effects of people being less encouraged to donate more. If me donating only 10% reduces the likelihood of another 10%er moving up to 50%, then I've just done twice as much harm. Don't forget that since the start of Effective Altruism, the idea of donating large amounts of money has given it plenty of attention and the interest of key individuals.

This is a very good point. But, again, I'm not claiming that those who perform what I'm calling supererogatory actions should be more quiet; I'm merely claiming that the less efficient of us should be more vocal. We are still going to have people in the community who perform superhuman feats (you know who you are), and they are still going to get attention/press and be "looked up to". My claim is that, alongside this, we should also have room for the less efficient of us (which we all agree with), and that the less efficient should be a vocal portion of the EA community, to make the barrier to entry for new EAs feel that much lower (which is the part of my claim that we disagree on).

I am not claiming that we need to donate less or sleep more or spend more money on video games. What I'm instead saying is that, for those of us who are going to spend that money on video games regardless, and those who will sleep 9 hours regardless, and those who just aren't going to donate over 10%, we should not be embarrassed by these things and keep them quiet. If we really aren't going to be more effective in terms of time, money, attention, energy, or whatever, then we can at least create more utility for the cause by being vocal and thereby making it easier for new recruits to come into the fold.

I think that setting a lower-effort norm can have dangerous long term consequences for internal culture. There's something that makes effective altruism different from evangelical religious groups and small political parties and community volunteer groups, and that is the fact that EAs are consistently willing to go above and beyond in having a footprint.

This critique is a strong one, and I don't have a proper reply to it other than that I'm thinking about what you've said. If you're right, then this consideration would overwhelm all of the other arguments I've made in this thread. My suspicion is that you are wrong, but I don't have data to support this beyond my intuition.

And if we want to spread the message to new people, instead of passively relying on being interesting and cool people, it's much more effective to actually go out there and actively build the movement.

We agree on this point. Again, the unstated premise I had was that these people would not be doing more, so they could at least help by being more vocal. But obviously if they instead actually recruited others, that would be far better.

Comment author: Tom_Ash  (EA Profile) 09 September 2015 04:56:47PM 5 points [-]

On the semantic/marketing question of who to describe as an "effective altruist", I see no reason to require perfection or anything approaching it, or not count someone who donates 5% of their income to effective charities. (This isn't saying that 5% should be the minimum threshold.)

You also raise the separate question of what we have moral reason to do as individuals. We do often have reason to devote more resources to helping others than we do, as doing so would be better. (Though many of us wouldn't see it as a duty, or even class some level of giving as a duty and some as above and beyond the call of duty or 'supererogatory'.) I do agree that marketability limits this, but it's easy to overstate this, as the precise amount someone gives or works needn't be that visible. However I think that sustainability often limits it even more than you mention; I don't think that trying to expend the minimal amount of time/money that'll keep you alive to work on non-EA activities is generally sustainable! Instead I'd suggest it's best to set a fixed yearly 'charity budget' (for money and perhaps also time) and then cautiously see if you can (or can't) slowly expand it each year.

Comment author: Jay_Shooster 12 September 2015 07:30:30PM *  3 points [-]

Does abnormal self-sacrifice inspire social change?

The conventional wisdom is that many movements throughout history (christianity, buddhism, Indian independence) were inspired and fueled by the extraordinary sacrifice of leaders/early adopters (or at least myths about such extreme altruism). The conventional wisdom may be wrong, but maybe we need more abnormal sacrifice in our movement, not less. In fact, I think it's plausibly a good idea for us to donate our kidneys, precisely as a symbol of our commitment-- not necessarily in the hopes that others will follow suit-- but in the hopes that it inspires people to take altruism more seriously.

Comment author: EricHerboso  (EA Profile) 15 September 2015 04:05:26PM 0 points [-]

I don't believe that this conventional wisdom is wrong. Clearly both past movements and our EA movement have been fueled by such superhuman efforts.

But these movements would have died out if they only allowed superhuman actors. This is a bit of a strawman, but I'm trying to illustrate a point: I know most of us EAs are not superhuman. I know the less efficient of us are considered part of the movement and are not excised by the superhumans. But when I read through old facebook threads on EA, I again and again see a public norm established as needing to be superhuman.

I'm not saying we should abolish superhuman acts, nor that they should be more quiet about it; instead, I'm claiming that when the public face of EA only shows such people, it does EA a disservice. Yes, the superhumans should still do superhuman stuff and dominate the headlines about EA. But when people come to places like this forum or the main EA facebook group, they need to see that other effective altruists are just like them in as many respects as is possible, so that there is as little inferential distance between them-in-the-now and them-as-a-future-EA as we can manage. The more inferential distance, the less likely they are to join EA.

Comment author: EricHerboso  (EA Profile) 15 September 2015 04:22:54PM 2 points [-]

For those interested, there is additional commentary on this issue on the main EA Facebook group and the EA Hangout group.

Comment author: jonathonsmith 12 September 2015 05:26:21PM 1 point [-]

Great article Eric. I had similar thoughts at EA Global this year. The common tagline for EA that I heard repeated was "1.) Find out how to do the most good, 2.) Do it", and while I agree with this sentiment, I would add a couple un-sexy modifiers; "1.) Find out how to do the most good with the time and money you have decided to donate, 2.) Do it."

I really appreciate and look up to the people who are all-in and looking to maximize the good they can do with their lives. One of the reasons I like to go to EA events is to have my own altruistic scale recalibrated. The ten percent of money and time I donate make me pretty much a saint in my friend group, but just on the lower end of decent in the EA community. And I see this as a good thing, and I think the EA community needs these torchbearers to help motivate and remind everyone that we could be doing more.

Ultimately, I see the future of EA along the lines that Beth Barnes described in her (I think amazing) TED Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtWINl3C_7s). There is a central hub of leaders keeping the philosophical flame, running excellent organizations, etc, and then a much larger group that live their everyday lives as teacher and engineers and barista's, but that donate a minimally decent amount (10%?) to help attack whatever the most pressing problem in the world happens to be, indefinitely. I think this is a vision that is realistic and achievable, that scales well from the small community we have today to the population at large, and that would just totally transform the world into a much better place.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 09 September 2015 04:32:42AM *  0 points [-]

Eric, I misinterpreted your prior concerns on social media. I thought you meant we need to seem less like one big group having fun among ourselves. You're basically making the opposite point. I actually like Soylent, the powder food, and going like sitting around eating when I could do something more fun and productive. If my friends who are effective altruists didn't have fun with me, I likely wouldn't still be an effective altruist. Due to medications I take to stay healthy, I need as much sleep add you normally do. I cannot and won't do oolyphasic sleep. Making effective altruism about sustainable and marketable behaviors for most of us is likely necessary, and I think a normative pressure to maximize altruistic output beyond standard levels to the detriment of us taking care of ourselves is practically indefensible. I will speak up with you. Excellent post, this is.