07 September, 2015

A Defense of Normality

This entry was originally posted on Effective-Altruism.com. It is reposted here for reference only.

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

    2.    "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?

    3. 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.