[Question] How does it feel to switch from earn-to-give?

I suspect this phenomenon is common in the LW/​EA spheres, but I’ve never seen it presented like this. I describe the way that switching from earning-to-give to working-in-altruism has consequences on one’s sense of responsibility and trust. I wonder if others have experienced this and how.

Delegating responsibility

One of the truisms in life is “there are no adults”. Having turned 18 last month, I’ve had the displeasure of staring that truism in the face. Nothing deals a blow to your sense of civilizational adequacy quite like thinking about future Earth with life extension where everyone is thousands of years old, and then remembering you live on Earth2024 where most people in charge are barely half a century old. Nihil supernum and all that.

But the illusion of adults is extremely tempting to me. A part of me really wants to believe there are adults out there that can solve my problems better than I can. For instance, I donated to MIRI for the first time a month ago, and anytime I make money now, I run the expected value calculation and establish that if MIRI can slightly increase the log-odds of everyone surviving, that’s worth more than anything I could buy for myself. MIRI has become a sort of blackbox to me: money comes in, survival lottery tickets come out, and I don’t care how the sausage gets done. I’m willfully ignorant, because “donating to MIRI” is one deviation away from the front lines, and lets me avoid taking ultimate responsibility for things.


Then I got accepted into BlueDot Impact’s governance course. Oh no! That’s a reversal of responsibility! Now other people [1] are treating me as a black box where money comes in and x-risk mitigation comes out!

I applied to the course in the hopes of becoming the type of person who can use Neil’s dollars in a more effective manner than MIRI.[2] In other words, I wanted to be able to legitimately trust myself more than MIRI as far as allocating my own money is concerned. I’m not there yet, but the fact I am aiming to become that person is a shift in trust. It may also be the meaning of adulthood, to the extent there is one.

Should people aim for this?

In x-risk as with any other cause, should you aim to become the type of person whose money is better spent on oneself than on a charity?

Well, no. It’s widely admitted that earning-to-give is a noble route, especially if you already work a job you’re particularly good at. If you’re excellent at jurisprudence, then by all means, support x-risk mitigation by working as a lawyer and donating. It would be suboptimal to switch to a career closer to the front lines just because you think that’s more admirable or something. For me personally, switching from trusting others to trusting myself felt like leaping into adulthood. But the lawyer in the example is definitely an adult in that they are picking the best path, and taking responsibility for it.

What about you?

I’m still a high school student, and trusting myself more than others is a little alien to me. Until now, I had never viscerally felt the switch from relatively distant responsibility to much closer responsibility. Have you felt this switch? Is this some sort of threshold to adulthood? Do you think there are some far-reaching consequences to the self-worth of the average EA versus the average person?

  1. ^

    Primarily Open Philantropy donors

  2. ^

    That is, I only need to use the money to generate more utility than a marginal donation to MIRI of that price would have represented. That is, if a new project of mine costs 100 dollars, it should do more good than 100 dollars given to an already-existing project at MIRI. I’m not there yet, but it’s likely the governance course will get me a lot closer.

Crossposted to EA Forum (8 points, 0 comments)
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