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Persistent Idealism

August 25th, 2014

When I talk to people about earning to give, it's common to hear worries about "backsliding". Yes, you say you're going to go make a lot of money and donate it, but once you're surrounded by rich coworkers spending heavily on cars, clothes, and nights out, will you follow through? Working at a greedy company in a selfishness-promoting culture you could easily become corrupted and lose initial values and motivation.

First off, this is a totally reasonable concern. People do change, and we are pulled towards thinking like the people around us. I see two main ways of working against this:

  1. Be public with your giving. Make visible commitments and then list your donations. This means that you can't slowly slip away from giving; either you publish updates saying you're not going to do what you said you would, or you just stop updating and your pages become stale. By making a public promise you've given friends permission to notice that you've stopped and ask "what changed?"
  2. Don't just surround yourself with coworkers. Keep in touch with friends and family. Spend some time with other people in the effective altruism movement. You could throw yourself entirely into your work, maximizing income while sending occasional substantial checks to GiveWell's top picks, but without some ongoing engagement with the community and the research this doesn't seem likely to last.

One implication of the "won't you drift away" objection, however, is often that if instead of going into earning to give you become an activist then you'll remain true to your values. I'm not so sure about this: many people who are really into activism and radical change in their 20s have become much less ambitious and idealistic by their 30s. You can call it "burning out" or "selling out" but decreasing idealism with age is very common. This doesn't mean people earning to give don't have to worry about losing their motivation—in fact it points the opposite way—but this isn't a danger unique to the "go work at something lucrative" approach. Trying honestly to do the most good possible is far from the default in our society, and wherever you are there's going to be pressure to do the easy thing, the normal thing, and stop putting so much effort into altruism.

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