What are people's objections to earning-to-give?

post by DonyChristie · 2019-04-13T20:16:43.283Z · score: 24 (14 votes) · EA · GW · 10 comments

This is a question post.


    Moses's answer
    ImmaSix's answer
    eFish's answer
    aarongertler's answer

I am wondering what is a reasonably complete set of the psychological difficulties people have with earning-to-give. I am particularly interested in cases where for a person it seems like earning-to-give could be as high or higher impact than direct work, but it doesn't nearly feel that way. Personal disclosures of seemingly-irrational and raw attitudes are encouraged; consider posting under an anonymous alt account if that will let you post one. Common-knowledge data on how people actually feel is important.


answer by Moses · 2019-04-14T14:05:18.854Z · score: 29 (17 votes) · EA · GW

I'm not in a position where EtG would seem reasonable, but I can imagine the psychological obstacles which would arise if I was in that position. E.g.:

If you're one of the x-risk-oriented people (like me), rather than, say, global-poverty-oriented, your money wouldn't typically go to people who are much worse off than you, in Africa and elsewhere. It would typically go to support people like AI and generalist researchers, content creators, event organizers, and their support staff—people who are notably better off than you. They spend their days doing work which feels meaningful and enjoyable, often they live (and pay rent!) in the Bay Area, surrounded by fellow EAs and Rationalists, and they enjoy the high social status that the EA community assigns to people who do direct work.

Meanwhile, you spend 8 hours a day doing… well, a job. The people there might be nice enough, but probably not exactly your kind. You're probably working on something that (roughly speaking) doesn't matter. And your future prospects are gloomy: if you really give away a significant portion of your income, rather than saving up, you'll keep toiling as a wage slave for deeecaaadeees before you can afford to retire.

This is indeed something that might make rational sense (if you're somehow particularly ill-equipped for direct work), but it just feels… unfair?

comment by saulius · 2019-04-14T22:29:00.041Z · score: 30 (18 votes) · EA · GW

I wanted to write something similar. I saved up the money that I donated by buying cheaper food and living in cheaper places. It all felt a bit pointless when I saw that the orgs that I donated to spend some of that money on fancy offices in expensive areas. But if I remember correctly, it wasn't a big deal as I continued donating to them. I thought that from an utilitarian POV it could be the right decision on their part.

I also want to say that I'm not sure that I now enjoy my job as a researcher at an EA org more than I enjoyed earning to give as a programmer. I thought that doing something directly meaningful would be much more enjoyable and make me more motivated day-to-day, but it's not happening. I think that what matters more (at least for me) is the nature of the task and whether it's easy to get into a flow.

As for social status, I always felt that even in EA circles (e.g. at EA Globals) it mostly depends on how charismatic/socially smooth you are and that what you do for a living has little impact on it. Maybe it's different in places other than the UK, I don't know. I guess I'm saying all these things because I want to show earning-to-givers that the other side might not be as glamorous as it can seem.

comment by Matthew_Barnett · 2019-04-14T19:08:24.216Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I strongly empathize with this framing.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-16T17:46:03.289Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW


I think this dynamic is a great example of utilitarian morality diverging from intuitions about a what constitutes the Good Life.

i.e. "toil away at a random job you don't really care about to subsidize other well-off people doing more interesting work" definitely doesn't pass the smell test for "this is what the Good Life looks like."

answer by ImmaSix · 2019-04-14T07:17:31.751Z · score: 14 (5 votes) · EA · GW

This post gives an excellent description of some challenges of earning to give:


This post is from 2015, but I think the reasoning is still valid. The author stopped earning to give because he 1) performs better working for a cause he believes is important than for the business he used to work for, 2) does not see excellent giving opportunities and could have more impact by doing something else, 3) had different values than his colleagues.

I sort-of earn to give myself and have similar challenges, but I can overcome them and enjoy being with my colleagues even if their values aren't exactly the same - there are always work-related or everyday life topics we can exchange about. I don't agree that there is a lack of giving opportunities, in 2015 it might have been true. Nowadays more charities and cause areas have been evaluated and there are the EA Funds.

[edited to add a little more nuance]

answer by eFish · 2019-04-14T14:54:33.077Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

My E2G experience:

In the summer of 2016, I decided to continue self- and university training as a software engineer instead of switching to study biotechnology (I was accepted for two bachelor programs). The main influencers of the decision was my high uncertainty in having an impact in the latter case (relative to a much less risky E2G career), made more salient by my chronic depression.

Having been working as full-time software developer in Berlin since summer '18, I find the job^ de-moralizing, the environment of the "common" people intellectually toxic and my impact in terms of reducing suffering in the world (via E2G in this case) insignificant. I think, dedicated EAs can do better than spending their productive time like this.

If I manage my worsening mental health, I will quite this summer to find a better EA application of my life. (I would like to switch from software engineering to a different field, but due to my Russian citizenship and the official training, I don't yet see how I could get a visa in any promising country.)

^ The company does media monitoring SaaS business. I felt desperate enough to accept the offer.

answer by aarongertler · 2019-04-18T19:37:58.583Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

An answer from personal experience:

It can feel frustrating to be separated from your impact. People in EA have some capacity to resist this, in that we're more likely to give money to help strangers and non-cute animals and people who live in the future, but that doesn't mean we're immune.

Giving money from my basement in Wisconsin while I earned-to-give just didn't feel as good as going to work every day does now. I knew intellectually that I was probably making an impact, but I didn't have any mental image of what the impact looked like, or an especially clear story I could tell myself. Now that I work for CEA, I see the "story" every day, and I've seen dozens of examples of my work being directly linked to impact.

An answer from theory:

It can be hard to trust other people to do good. I'd guess that EA has an unusually high proportion of people who, consciously or not, endorse statements like "if I don't do it, no one will" or "to get something done right, you've got to do it yourself".

Even if it's likely that the person running Organization X is probably better at it than me, I still might have lingering thoughts of "if I could pay myself to run Org X instead of paying them, the world would be better off".


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comment by kbog · 2019-04-14T20:35:00.833Z · score: -7 (6 votes) · EA · GW

This is a rather strange post. (a) you're only looking for objections, (b) you're looking for feelings rather than sound reasons or heuristics. Just an observation.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-04-18T19:28:12.185Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA · GW

(a) Posts looking for examples of a particular worldview (whether pro-X or anti-X) are common here, and seem perfectly reasonable as a way of focusing a conversation and making people realize there's a demand for their opinions. For example, the "why not donate to the EA hotel? [EA · GW]" post generated lots of writing people may not have thought to post if it had just been "what are your thoughts on the EA Hotel?"

Personally, I'm more likely to submit writing I think will be useful to someone if I think there are fewer other people who can help them (e.g. the marginal value of my writing goes up). I probably wouldn't bother replying to a friend's request for stories about childhood religious experiences on Facebook, but if they asked for stories about becoming atheist on the eve of one's Bar Mitzvah, I'd think "well, either I help them or no one does".

(b) If you're trying to gather information on how people feel about the work they do, or the reasons people decide to do or not do something, asking about feelings is a solid approach. Feelings affect behavior, and behavior affects reality. Because I'm interested in reality, I'm also interested in learning about feelings.

comment by kbog · 2019-04-19T01:22:01.645Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

One-sided questions make more sense when there is an established position to question. If it had become a common point of view that we simply feel good about ETG, then it would make sense to seek out opposing views. But, to my knowledge, no one has made such a case for ETG before. Asking for people's feelings about it is mainly a step into new territory. To the extent that gut feelings about ETG are implicitly circulated within EA, they seem to be generally negative, which means that specifically asking people for gut feelings in favor of ETG would make more sense.

A worldview gives specific reasons to support or oppose something, that's different from feelings.

Knowing how ETGers actually feel about their work is different from generically asking how people feel about it. The former of course is useful evidence.