Alice is founding a startup. If all goes well, she will be dominant in the Uber-for-kittens space and make millions of dollars and donate all of it to global poverty charities; if all doesn’t go well, she’s already started mulling over Uber for chihuahuas.
Bob works in HR. He made thirty thousand dollars last year. If all goes well, he will eventually top out at about fifty thousand dollars. He has taken the Giving What We Can pledge and donates ten percent of his income to charity.
A lot of articles about earning to give implicitly talk about people earning very high incomes and donating a high percentage of it: the classic example is a Wall Street trader, while the version ridiculously overrepresented in the EA community is programmers. However, within the EA community, both Bob and Alice would probably characterize themselves as “earning to give”. I do not think this is useful.
Alice and Bob are clearly doing two different things. In fact, Alice probably has a lot more in common with people aiming to do direct work than with Bob. For Alice, the potential to do good is one of the most important criteria in choosing a career; for Bob, it’s secondary to the fact that he likes HR. Alice routinely asks herself about whether becoming vegan will be too much altruism and make her burn out, or whether buying a nice suit will be worth the expense because of her increased credibility. Bob rarely thinks about such tradeoffs.
I propose we reserve “earning to give” for people who deliberately seek out high-earning professions in order to donate, such as Alice, and instead refer to Bob as a “softcore EA”.
A softcore EA is someone who has pledged to donate a high percentage of their income, but otherwise lives a pretty normal life. A hardcore EA is someone who is making their career decisions to deliberately maximize the amount of good they can do in the world.
I am not in love with the hardcore/softcore terminology; it’s the best I’ve thought of, but I feel like it suggests that softcore EAs are worse than hardcore EAs, or “not real EAs” somehow, which is not what I mean at all. (I appreciate suggestions for different terminology, and will edit the post with thanks to anyone who thinks of some.)
In reality, the vast majority of EAs are and will always be softcore EAs, and that’s fine.
80,000 Hours has a career recommender. The first question is “Were you good at math, science, or logic when you studied them?”; the second question is “Are you good at writing or speaking?” If you say “no” on both, you will get one suggestion: policy-oriented civil service. Remember that half of people are below average. And the suggested careers for people who are good at math– startup early employee, economics PhD, data science– imply they want significantly above average math skills.
And even if Bob is really good at writing or speaking… well, Bob has a family. Bob has a mortgage. Bob has a long resume filled mostly with HR positions. Bob cannot actually abandon his life to go off and join party politics or become a foundation grantmaker.
I’ve seen a lot of people take the career recommender quiz and start beating themselves up because the jobs it recommends are things they cannot actually do. That’s okay. Hardcore effective altruism is for a relatively narrow segment of the population– people at the beginning of their careers or who were very lucky in early career selection, who happen to be talented in math or speaking rather than music or athletics, and who are generally privileged enough to be able to get in good fields. 80,000 Hours specializes in recommending jobs for hardcore EAs, because they’re the ones who are making career decisions based on effective altruism. If you’re basically an ordinary person, you are probably going to end up a softcore EA, and you should not feel guilty.
First, of course, because it is ridiculous to feel guilty about not being able to do something you can’t do; you could not be Dustin Moskovitz even if you tried, and so no blame is attached to you for not being Dustin Moskovitz. Second, because saving dozens of lives over the course of your life is actually really amazing and something to be proud of. And third, because softcore EAs are vital to the success of the effective altruism movement.
It is true that most people cannot be hardcore EAs. It is also true that to stick to being an effective altruist– to keep donating even when all your friends are going on exciting awesome vacations, to stand up for policies that help people in the developing world in spite of political pressure, to prevent burnout after two years of seventy-hour weeks at a nonprofit and no end in sight– we need a community that reminds people why we’re EAs. We can’t have that community just from hardcore EAs. There aren’t enough of them. What we need is a bunch of ordinary people, keeping their pledges, and creating a community in which the coolest fucking thing you can do is save a life.
Dustin Moskovitz has done as much good as the rest of the EA movement put together. But without us he wouldn’t have done half as much good.
And furthermore think about the PR. Think about showing other people that you’re a normal person, with no exceptional abilities, who is living an ordinary life with no undue self-sacrifice– and you’re saving children’s lives. We can write a lot of articles about how great EA is, but none of it is as persuasive as a friend saying “actually, I give ten percent of my income to Give Directly! It gives my life a lot of meaning to know that I’m not just working for myself, but to help others.” They can see with their own eyes that giving ten percent is possible without giving up your ability to have Starbucks coffee, movie tickets, or a gym membership. And that kind of quiet demonstration is worth a lot.
As a softcore EA: there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a softcore EA. We are doing tremendous good in the world, both directly through our donations and indirectly through working to create a community of giving. We’re not earning to give, but we have a lot to be proud of.