Friday, December 30, 2016

Two standard donations and one new one

Here are three places Jeff and I are donating this year. The first two are similar to what we’ve been doing for years, and the third represents a change.

Direct work

Jeff and I want to support work that directly makes the world a better place. (Some arguments against falling into a “meta trap” here.) As usual for us, this year we’ve given just over half our donations to direct work. We made these donations to the Against Malaria Foundation, one of GiveWell’s top picks, except for small amounts that were part of a matching fundraiser and a giving game we did at a workshop.


We think helping effective altruism grow will ultimately be very good for direct work. If a new person hears about EA and decides to go into a more impactful career, to donate to better charities, or to start donating more, then a lot more good is getting done! By encouraging new people to do these things, you can multiply the impact that you would have alone. So we give around half our donations to movement-building work.

In the past we’ve typically given to the Centre for Effective Altruism. We still think that’s one of several good choices for people interested in supporting movement growth, but there were a few reasons we leaned away from it this year:

  • I work there, and it’s hard to neutrally evaluate your own employer.
  • There are various complications when staff donate to their employers, and I think it’s probably best to discourage it.
  • We don’t know much about the best breakdown for what the different meta-charity organizations should get, and we’d like to coordinate with other donors. (Imagine everyone thought Meta Org A and Meta Org B were about equally good, but thought Meta Org B needed the money a little more, so everyone donated to them, leaving Meta Org A with nothing. That would be bad.)
  • There may be excellent new meta-charity organizations or projects just starting up that we haven’t heard of, and aren’t likely to hear of in the limited number of hours we plan to put into a donation decision.

So this year we’re donating to the EA Giving Group Fund run by Nick Beckstead, as described in his section of this post. Nick spends a lot more time on charity evaluation than we do, we believe his values are similar to ours, and we have a lot of faith in his judgement. Together with other donors, we’ll be funding a variety of meta-charity organizations and projects that he recommends. This may include CEA or its projects, but I feel better having that decision one step removed from me.

And one more thing

After we had already tallied up how much we expected to earn and then donated half of it, I found a check that I had forgotten to deposit. And I decided to do something different with it, something I’d been thinking about for a while but hadn’t fully made up my mind about. (Jeff thinks differently about this topic than I do, so while our other donations were joint, this one was just from me.)

Since spending more time with people who believe animal welfare is one of the biggest problems of our time, I’m more persuaded than I was that they’re right. Our food system depends on billions of creatures living in horrifying conditions.

If you believe animals' experiences matter, there are a lot of approaches you might take. You could persuade people to stop eating animal products (note that just cutting out meat isn’t necessarily helpful, as eggs cause a lot more suffering than most meats.) You could support work to improve farming conditions. You could support campaigns that aim to change how people view animals and cause them to care more. You could develop better replacements for animal products. Or you could support research on how to do all of this better.

One thing that seems odd to me is that the precursor to any of this seems to be going vegan or at least vegetarian. I don’t think I know anyone who donates to animal causes and also eats meat.

Maybe this is to be expected — isn’t it hypocritical to care about animals and yet still eat their corpses? And yet none of us is perfectly consistent. I care deeply about global poverty, but I don’t make every conceivable change to my lifestyle that would better support the global poor. I think holding ourselves to high standards of consistency can actually be really bad, because it encourages us to give up if we’re not perfectly consistent.

Some people find dietary change relatively easy, but others (for reasons of health, convenience, cost, and/or taste) don’t. I’m one of them. It’s not out of ignorance — I was vegetarian for a decade, lived in a vegan house for two years, and currently cook vegan food on a regular basis for my housemates. I just don’t much like a vegan diet, and don’t want the added hassle of getting my kids a balanced diet while cutting out their main sources of protein and fat. I realize some people will find this morally indefensible, but I don’t have plans to change it.

So I’m donating (not all that much, but something) to make the world closer to what I want to see in this area.

I would love to be able to buy a good replacement for eggs, milk, or meat in my grocery store. (I realize there are attempts at this, but I’m not impressed with what’s currently on the market.) And I have a lot more faith in people’s ability to stop buying animal products if they have good alternatives. So I’ve donated to New Harvest, which is developing ways to grow meat, milk, and egg tissue without animals.

I hope this will encourage others to think about donating outside their usual areas. I don’t want certain causes to only be for certain people — you shouldn’t need to be a computer programmer to care about artificial intelligence safety, and you shouldn’t need to change your diet to help animals. There are good reasons why not everyone will do those things, but it shouldn’t cut them off from supporting those causes in other ways.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Practical steps for self-care

Last week the Boston Effective Altruism group had a discussion on self-care for altruists. I've written about the topic before, but I wanted to share some of the more practical advice people had.

Think beyond day-to-day choices

Self-care isn’t just short-term decisions like whether to make time for yoga tonight. It’s larger life decisions too, like what job to take, where to live, how to budget money, and how to make time for partners, friends, and family.

For me, having children was self-care. I might spend a day doing nothing but 1) work, 2) care for my kids, and 3) sleep. There’s no “me time” there in the sense of meditation or bubble baths. But the two very different kinds of work are a break from each other. After taking care of my kids for a while it’s nice to sit at a desk and have a break from The Cat in the Hat, and after sitting at a desk all day it’s nice to be with my children instead. (Life with kids is not everyone's idea of a good time, and it absolutely does take time away from my other work. I don't want to minimize this.)

Make lists

One person works for an organization that publishes a list of mistakes made by the organization (not typos, but medium-to-large mistakes). They said when they do something wrong at work, there’s some satisfaction in adding it to the list before anybody else catches it. That way when someone else points it out, you at least have the pleasure of feeling that you were proactive in adding it to the collection before someone else caught it.

Several people also said they keep lists of praise they’ve received or accomplishments they’re proud of.

Be careful with comparisons

The effective altruism movement attracts a lot of ridiculously smart people. I find it easy to feel gloomy about not being as smart as I’d like. But as one group member put it last week, “It’s not about whether I can be the sharpest tool out there, but about how I can make myself sharper.” (This post about how basketball is like intelligence was helpful to me; feeling bad for not being smart enough is like feeling bad for not being 7 feet tall.)

Someone else pointed out that different people need different amounts and kinds of self-care, and that using other people's standards isn't helpful. If you need more hours of sleep or more time away from work than your coworker does, that means nothing about how good a person you are. It just means you need something different than they do.

Step out of your own shoes

I also try to act on advice that I would give other people. Several years ago I was emailing with a younger woman who was trying to figure out how to get more involved in effective altruism. It made me think out what general choices I thought were good ones, particularly in terms of balance between change-the-world effort and take-care-of-yourself effort. When I’m trying to decide something for myself (should I go to this conference even though it’s expensive?) I think about what I would advise a young effective altruist to do.

Consider the long term

This cuts two ways. First, think in terms of a marathon rather than a sprint. Make choices that will sustain you in your efforts over the long term rather than giving up after a few years. This may mean treating yourself with more care than you're otherwise inclined to.

But also consider the precedent you’re setting. If you decide to stop work an hour early today, you’ll probably do the same on future days with similar circumstances. Ask if this is actually a special case, or if it’s the kind of thing that’s likely to repeat often. (It may still be the right thing to do if it turns out you need a shorter work day in general to be functional, but see it as a long-term pattern and not just a one-time choice.)

What other practical tips do you have?