A relevant distinction for effective altruists
I’ve noticed a persistent competing need in effective altruist communities.
On one hand, many people want permission not to only value effective altruism. They care about doing good in the world, but they also care about other things: their community, their friendships, their children, a hobby they feel passionate about like art or sports or RPGs or programming, a cause that’s personal to them like free speech or cancer, even just spending time vegging out and watching TV. So they emphasize work/life balance and that effective altruism doesn’t have to be your only life goal.
On the other hand, some people do strive to only care about effective altruism. Of course, they still have hobbies and friendships and take time to rest; effective altruists are not ascetics. But ultimately everything they do is justified by the fact that it strengthens them to continue the work. The discourse about work/life balance can be very alienating to them. It can feel like the effective altruism community isn’t honoring the significant personal sacrifices they’re making to improve the world. In some cases, people feel like there’s a certain crab bucket mentality—you should limit how much good you do so that other people don’t feel bad—which is very toxic.
Conversely, people who have work/life balance can feel threatened by people who only care about effective altruism. If those people exist, does that mean you have to be one? Are you evil, or a failure, or personally responsible for dozens of counterfactual deaths, because you care about more than one thing?
I propose that this conversation would be improved by naming the second group. I suggest calling them “EA dedicates.”1
In thinking about EA dedicates, I was inspired by thinking about monks. Monks play an important role in religions with monks. They’re very admirable people who do a lot of good. The religion wouldn’t function without them. And most people are not supposed to be monks.
Why We Need Both Dedicates and Non-Dedicates
There are two reasons that the effective altruism movement should be open to people who aren’t dedicates. First, people who care about more than one thing still do an enormous amount of good. Many of the best effective altruists aren’t dedicates, such as journalist Kelsey Piper and CEA community liaison Julia Wise (as well as, of course, many people whose contributions don’t succeed in making them EA famous). It would be a tremendous mistake to expel Kelsey Piper for insufficient devotion. Quite frankly, the bednets don’t care if the person who buys them also donates to cancer research.
Second, most people caring about multiple things is good for the health of the effective altruist community. If the effective altruist community is totally wrongheaded, it’s psychologically easier to admit if that doesn’t mean losing literally everything you care about and have spent your life working for. There’s a certain comfort in being able to say “at least I still have my kids” or “at least I still have my art.” Similarly, the effective altruist movement is already quite insular. People who care about multiple things are more likely to have friends outside the community, and therefore get an outside reality check and views from outside the EA bubble. (An EA dedicate could have outside-community friends and many of them do, but it certainly seems less common.) These are merely two of the ways that having a lot of non-dedicates makes the EA community more resilient.
The advantages of being open to EA dedicates, conversely, are pretty obvious. In general, if you care about multiple things, you’re going to split your time, energy, and resources across them and have less time, energy, and resources for any particular goal. If you’re donating to cancer research, you’re not donating to farmed animal advocacy charities; if you’re using your deep-work hours on writing fiction, you’re not using them on AI risk research; if you’re sleep deprived from your new baby, you’re probably not getting much valuable effective altruist work done at all. Most of the time, assuming they don’t burn out, a dedicate is going to get more good done than a comparable non-dedicate. An example of a highly impactful effective altruist dedicate is Sam Bankman-Fried, the youngest billionaire in the world. Frankly, you don’t become the youngest billionaire in the world if you have hobbies.
Should You Be A Dedicate?
Should you be a dedicate? I think this is a subject that requires a lot of thoughtful, careful consideration as part of your career planning. Being a dedicate is not for most people, and not being a dedicate doesn’t mean you’re a “bad effective altruist,” but at the same time I don’t think you should dismiss it out of hand. Devoting yourself utterly to world improvement doesn’t have to be a dreary slog. Many of the most joyful people I know are dedicates. Work you have a high level of personal fit for is often something you feel passionate about. There’s a sense of meaning and purpose to devoting yourself to world improvement: you never have to worry about ennui, about the sense that you’ll die without having any sort of impact on the world, that there’s no reason you’re alive. Dedicates don’t have bullshit jobs. When you imagine being a dedicate, imagine spending ten hours a day working on intellectually interesting problems at the edge of your ability, knowing that it matters to the world.
Many people can either be dedicates or nondedicates: for example, I think I could have gone either way, but wound up becoming a nondedicate because I married a man who very badly wanted children. Again, if you’re in that boat, it’s a very personal decision whether you should be a dedicate or not.
Some people may be psychologically cut out for being a dedicate, but not have a high level of personal fit for any jobs where being a dedicate even makes sense as a thing to do. Not all dedicates go to an Ivy League school, but jobs like technical AI safety researcher, startup founder, program officer at a major foundation, or farmed-animal welfare corporate relations specialist all require very particular sets of abilities. If your abilities point you more in the direction of being (say) a teacher, then being a dedicate is probably not for you.
You may wish to try out being a dedicate for a period of six months or so.
Being a dedicate, unlike being a monk, is not a lifelong commitment. On the outside view, looking at other social movements, we can expect a lot of effective altruists to be dedicates in their early- to mid-twenties, then to shift to not being dedicates as they age. If this happens to you, don’t worry: the investments in yourself you made as a dedicate will continue to pay off as a non-dedicate effective altruist.
I think a lot of people might also do best alternating between being a dedicate and being a non-dedicate. For example, if you want children, you might be a dedicate before you have kids, switch to prioritizing children while your children are young, and then become a dedicate again as an empty nester. You might also become a dedicate during a big project—founding a charity or a company, for example—and then once your project is stable return to your much-neglected hobbies and friendships.
Considerations for Dedicates
You don’t have work/life balance in the conventional sense: it’s not at all uncommon for dedicates to work eighty-hour weeks. However, you are not an ascetic. If you burn out, it doesn’t do any good for anyone. You need to exercise. You need to go to the doctor and the dentist. You need to have friendships. You need to take some time for rest and recreation. You probably need to sometimes go on vacation (and, no, if you spend the entire time networking it is not a vacation). These are basic human needs.
Take care not to overextend yourself. If you’re the sort of person who’s suited to being a dedicate, then work is exciting and fascinating and you want to do more of it, but if you take on more projects than any human being can reasonably do it is not good for anyone. Preserve your slack. Emergencies are going to come up; you don’t want to always be running on fumes.
It’s very easy, as a dedicate, to decide that human connection is so much deadweight that can be cut off in order to have more hours for work. But you have the same needs for emotional support and companionship that any other human does. If you have no one to talk to about your problems, no one who would visit you in the hospital if you got hit by a car, no one you can invite to a movie that you want to go see, that is a serious problem that will lead to burnout.
Of course, many dedicates are quite introverted, and you shouldn’t assume that you need to be the coolest guy at the party with hundreds of friends. Many dedicates I know have done well with a '“committed secondary relationship,” either platonic or romantic: relationships which don’t have the level of life entanglement and interaction normal to primary relationships in our culture, which aren’t “going up the relationship escalator,” but which are loving and intimate and intended to last a long time if not a lifetime.
At the same time, you need to be picky about who you get that companionship and emotional support from. Being a dedicate is incomprehensible to most people, and it is also the single most important fact about your life. A non-dedicate effective altruist can marry someone who is indulgent of effective altruism as their partner’s quirk; a dedicate should not. You don’t want someone who is going to try to convince you that you should spend less time on your work. Your friends need to be completely on board with your life’s work.
In conclusion: I think that there are multiple valid ways to engage with effective altruism. One major difference is between people who care about multiple things and people who have decided that their life’s work should be world improvement. More explicitly making this distinction will improve conversations and make people better able to make good career decisions.
Actually I suggested calling them “EA stylites” but my beta readers disapproved because it sounds like it means “stylish.” You should reward me for my sacrifice here by reading the Wikipedia page for St. Simeon Stylites, the most relatable of all saints. I too would go sit on a pillar for the rest of my life rather than answer my email.