In some recent discussions of values drift, it was noted that, anecdotally, one of the major causes of people not having as large an altruistic impact as they had hoped is people marrying or getting into committed relationships with people who are, at best, apathetic about effective altruism. Some people pushed back against advising effective altruists to marry people who share their values, on the grounds that it “seems culty.”
If that’s true, lots of people are culty. Evangelical Christians warn regularly about the dangers of being unequally yoked. Catholics aren’t even allowed to marry non-Catholics without a special dispensation. Interfaith marriage is also limited in Islam. It’s not just religions: “if he’s not a feminist, dump him” is a common subject of feminist thinkpieces. And whenever I go on OKCupid I find myself surrounded by people who only want to date anti-capitalist anti-colonialist anarchists who want to smash the patriarchy with gay sex.
Indeed, for any major life plan, it’s important to make sure that your potential primary or primaries are on board. If you want to have children, you should not marry someone who is childfree, or even uninterested in children. If you want to travel the world, marry someone who loves to travel. If you want to become an artist, marry someone who is going to rejoice at your gallery opening and not mind too much if they have to pay all the bills. If you want to retire at forty, marry someone who gets a kick out of figuring out how to save money.
Let’s say you have a goal to donate thirty percent of your income to charity. You marry someone who doesn’t care about effective altruism. As part of your marriage, you merge your finances. Maybe your spouse will tolerate this as a quirk of yours for a few years. But at some point they’re going to say “you know, if you didn’t donate that thirty percent of your income, we could buy a house.” Or “going on a vacation to Hawaii has been my dream for my entire life.” Or “our son is getting bullied in public school, and we could afford private school if you stopped donating. Do you want him to be bullied?”
Maybe your goal is to do direct work. If you’re like many effective altruists, you might be giving up tens of thousands of dollars in potential income to do direct work. Is your plan that your spouse is not going to, like, notice?
Maybe you have some really ambitious goal: you want to found your own charity, or completely reorient your career so you can work on AI risk, or run for office. Do you want to be married to someone who says “yes, absolutely, I’m 100% behind you– I understand that there are sacrifices and I am willing to make them by your side”? Or do you want to be married to someone who says “ever since you founded that stupid charity I never see you anymore” or “why can’t you just work a normal job”?
As the cliche goes, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time around. Some people, maybe, can maintain an altruistic motivation without the encouragement of the most important person in their lives and while sometimes having to debate it with them. But why make yourself do that?
There’s an idea that you should marry someone you’re in love with, who gives you butterflies in your stomach and hearts in your eyes, and not really worry about compatibility. Thinking about finances and life goals is unromantic. All those issues will work themselves out because love conquers all.
This idea is really really stupid.
It might be easier for me to notice that, because I’m polyamorous. I already have a category for “person who gives me heart-eyes and stomach-butterflies but with whom I have deep incompatibilities about dreams and goals and values.” That category is “secondary.” Perhaps it is more difficult for monogamous people.
But I do think we should, in general, cultivate an appreciation of the romance in a person who has your back, who will lift you up when you fall and celebrate with you when you succeed, who understands the stupid quixotic goal you’ve committed your life to. The person who makes you a better person because when you’re uncertain of whether you’re willing to make a sacrifice they encourage you and because when you think about doing something wrong you imagine the look of disappointment in their eyes.
Of course, being married to a supportive person isn’t the same thing as being married to an effective altruist. Indeed, because a plurality of the effective altruist community is heterosexual men, it is impossible for every effective altruist to be in a romantic-sexual relationship with another effective altruist.
Effective altruists who are concerned about animals should try to find dates within the vegan community, which is predominantly female and also has a heavy LGBTQ presence. Many religions have more female adherents than male, and many consider charity to be a moral duty, whether it’s zakat, tikkun olam, or the preferential option for the poor. (Of course, it’s important to filter heavily for people whose beliefs you can respect, who actually follow their religion’s teachings about charity, and who are willing to prioritize effectiveness at least somewhat.) Some effective altruists might also be interested in a platonic primary partnership with other effective altruists: you don’t have to have a romantic-sexual relationship to have many of the benefits of having a life partner.