80,000 Hours in the Washington Post! – Our responses to the coverage

The concept of Earning to Give was featured in the Washington Post last week. The article profiles several people, including some 80,000 Hours members, pursuing Earning to Give, and explains the rationale behind the idea.

In combination with Peter Singer’s TED talk on effective altruism, which mentions 80,000 Hours, we’ve been receiving very heavy and sustained web traffic – over 10,000 visitors in just two weeks.

The Washington Post article generated a number of high profile responses, including an opinion piece in the New York Times, a piece in the National Review, and a mention on Daily Mail Online – the world’s most read online newspaper. (Unfortunately they call us 8,000 Hours!)

There was much praise for the idea of Earning to Give and Effective Altruism, as well as the dedication of the people mentioned. Many of the criticisms, including those reflected more generally in the comments, are criticisms or misunderstandings we have addressed many times in the past, for instance in our FAQ about Earning to Give, in this series of three blog posts, and in Will’s original paper. One of the most widespread misunderstandings has been that 80,000 Hours believes Earning to Give is typically the optimal career path; whereas we actually believe that it’s only optimal for a fraction of people, and whether a particular person should Earn to Give is a complex empirical question, which depends on the cause you support and many other factors.

In the rest of this post, I’ll comment on the two most prominent response articles.

In the New York Times, David Brooks first raises the corruption objection:

If there is a large gap between your daily conduct and your core commitment, you will become more like your daily activities and less attached to your original commitment. You will become more hedge fund, less malaria.

Later he says:

Taking a job just to make money, on the other hand, is probably going to be corrosive, even if you use the money for charity rather than sports cars.

We agree this is a worry, but Brooks doesn’t produce evidence that this worry outweighs the advantages of Earning to Give. The strongest evidence we know in support of the corruption objection is the body of research in psychology which shows that we are strongly influenced by the behaviour of our social group1. This supports the intuitive belief that if you surround yourself with non-altruistic people, you’re likely to become less altruistic yourself. In our experience, however, the people working in finance are not all evil! There are plenty of altruistic people, and if you can pick a firm with enough of them, becoming corrupted may not be a worry. In addition, you can make sure you socialise with other altruistic people in your spare time, and use other commitment devices such as making a public declaration of your intention to donate. It’s early days, but it seems that the people who have recently started Earning to Give are not in danger of corruption, and there are examples of people who have successfully pursued finance in order to engage in philanthropy. With a bit of work, it seems the corruption worry can be mitigated.

Brooks also warns against becoming overly calculating in your altruism.

I would worry about turning yourself into a means rather than an end…But a human life is not just a means to produce outcomes, it is an end in itself.

If a human life is an end in itself, then why should we prioritise our own lives as ends so extremely over those of other people? If Jason Trigg (the person pursuing Earning to Give in the original article) quits his job and stops donating, then hundreds of people will die of malaria in the developing world. If human lives are important ends in themselves, then this is a terrible outcome.

I’d think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously. If your profoundest interest is dying children in Africa or Bangladesh, it’s probably best to go to Africa or Bangladesh, not to Wall Street.

Is it more important for Jason Trigg to “cultivate a deep soul” than save hundreds of lives? And is it even obvious that Trigg isn’t cultivating a deep soul? He’s willing to strive hard to make the world a better place, standing up to conventional wisdom and sacrificing luxuries he could easily obtain. He thinks hard about how to use his talents to make a contribution. In our experience, putting yourself on this path attracts allies, meaningful relationships united by altruism and a deep sense of purpose.

You might end up enlarging the faculties we use to perceive the far — rationality — and eclipsing the faculties we use to interact with those closest around — affection, the capacity for vulnerability and dependence.

Effective Altruism arose because it seems that people’s widely held goals to be altruistic were being frustrated by a lack of rationality – a lack that’s reflected in Brooks’ article. If we start with our affection for those closest around us and recognize rationally that every human life counts equally, we arrive at the conclusion that the near and the far are equally important and equally deserving of our concern. Effective Altruism is a combination of affection and rationality.

Reihan Salam’s piece in the National Review reads a political angle into our agenda which doesn’t exist.

He includes an extensive quote of Julian Sanchez:

If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily. If private efforts are ineffectual or relatively unimportant compared with political action, however, the intellectual can rest assured that he’s satisfying his moral obligations by paying taxes and writing persuasively in support of the appropriate political remedies.

Salam identifies Trigg’s Earning to Give approach with a conservative political position, which holds that private action is generally more important than political action.

The individuals Dylan describes seem to believe that private action can do a great deal of good — for example, giving directly to poor people in the developing world might in some be preferable to government-to-government transfers, also known as overseas development assistance.

This misunderstanding is one reason that 80,000 Hours can wind up those with strongly progressive political views.

It’s true that Effective Altruists believe private action can do a great deal of good, but they are also in favor of political solutions. Effective Altruists are concerned with how they can make the most positive impact on the basis of evidence, through whatever means. Almost everyone we know pursuing Earning to Give would gladly welcome effective government-to-government transfers aimed at reducing poverty, just as they would welcome equally effective private transfers.

At the end of his article, Salam points out:

amassers of great wealth who build useful, scalable technologies can also do a great deal of good even in the absence of any benevolent motivating impulse…it is very possible that people who are solely motivated by curiosity and novelty or a desire for recognition could have a much bigger positive impact than people who devote their lives to social justice.

Our response is that people motivated solely by curiosity will only have a bigger positive impact than those who devote themselves to social justice if those who devote themselves to social justice do it badly. If the evidence suggests that being involved in private entrepreneurship on average has a greater positive impact than being more directly involved in social justice, then we will recommended that members of 80,000 Hours get involved in entrepreneurship.

The relative benefit of being involved in entrepreneurship and donating to an effective charity is currently unclear to us, though we suspect donations are typically more important. We’ll be writing more about this topic soon.

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Notes and References

  1. For instance, see the papers presented in Chapter 4 of Influence by Robert B. Cialdini