The phrase “hard-core EAs” does more harm than good
In casual discussions in EA spaces, it’s often useful to be able to refer separately to:
The smaller group of people who are 100% bought into EA, in the thick of things, relying on EA ideas and the EA community to steer many of their decisions
The larger group of people who are interested in EA, perhaps have engaged with it some, perhaps have been to a few meetups or donated to GiveWell charities, or maybe just agree with EA principles but haven’t engaged with the community much
I often hear the former category referred to as “hard-core EAs.” I think that this is harmful and exclusive, that it reflects and contributes to sloppy thinking, and that we should stop doing it. This post explains why and offers a couple alternatives.
My issues with the phrase “hard-core EAs” mostly boil down to the implicit hierarchy it creates. I think implying a hierarchy like this is unwelcoming and distorts our thinking.
Unwelcoming: This one should hopefully be obvious. If this phrase is in common use, anyone who doesn’t think they count as hard-core, or isn’t sure, is likely to feel like they don’t belong or are doing something wrong. “Hard-core” is also condescending — anyone describing themselves or their friends this way naturally sounds like they’re looking down their nose at others.
Distorts our thinking: Talking in terms of how “hard-core” someone is conflates together a bunch of different dimensions that are importantly different. Saying someone is hard-core could be taken to mean that they:
Are actually having a significant positive impact on the world
Are deeply committed to overarching EA principles, e.g. impartiality, cost effectiveness, cause prioritization, etc.
Are deeply embedded in the current EA community, e.g. buying into the community’s specific priorities/frameworks, spending lots of time with other EAs, etc.
Work themselves extremely hard to try to maximize impact
...among other things.
In my mind, #1 and #2 are the traits that we as a community should promote and think highly of. But in practice, I think “hard-core EAs” is usually used to point to people whose distinguishing features are #3 & #4. I worry that this reflects and reinforces distorted beliefs the community has about itself, by making it sound like #3 & #4 are the more desirable traits. This worries me for two reasons:
First, current EA ideas, paradigms, and conclusions are bound to be wrong in important ways, even if they’re importantly right in some other ways. According to me, the community is currently too far in the direction of encouraging conformity and convergence, and should move substantially towards encouraging exploration, questioning, and paradigm-busting. Glorifying “hard-core” EAs who buy into all the existing EA frameworks shuts us off from being curious about what we’ve gotten wrong and where other people or communities might be right. We should be looking out for people trying to figure this out in a serious way and getting excited when they reach different conclusions from us, not deriding them for not being fully part of our club.
Second, planning to work yourself to the bone for the rest of your life is unlikely to be the highest impact strategy. Comments that really hard-core people don’t think it’s important to pace yourself or have a life outside EA (like this tweet, quoting a speaker at EA Global 2021) make me despair for our ability to make the world a better place. It really shouldn’t be controversial to say that (a) some people can work incredibly hard and be productive the whole time, (b) many others need different rhythms, and (c) everyone should figure out what works for them—including sometimes pushing yourself to test and expand your limits, in settings where going past your limit won’t mess you or your team up too badly. Saying in a session on sustainable motivation that “hard-core EAs might not agree with this”—thereby implying that the good EA thing to do is ignore your limits, go all out, and still feel bad that you’re not as productive as the most productive person you know—is just setting ourselves up for failure.
In sum, I worry that the way we currently use the phrase “hard-core” glorifies traits that I don’t think are necessarily positive. I therefore suggest we establish new ways of referring to people with these traits.
What else could we say?
I’ll offer two ideas here, and would be interested to hear others:
“Drank the kool-aid EAs.” This is my personal favorite, but maybe sounds a bit harsh. I think it works especially well when the speaker is including themselves, since it shows a bit of self-awareness and self-deprecation, and I use it pretty often. Might sound too negative for some contexts though.
“Super bought-in EAs.” This sounds pretty neutral and could probably be used anywhere “hard-core” is, but without the exclusive/glamorous connotations. I like that it foregrounds the fact that we’re talking about a group of people who tend to agree on a pretty narrow set of ideas.
Regardless of what term we use, the important thing is that we remain aware not only of how our language comes across to others, but also how it shapes our own thinking.
Thanks to Rebecca Kagan for very helpful comments and edits on earlier versions of this post.
If I imagine what a flourishing EA community 100 years from now would think of current EA ideas, I’d personally expect them to think we’re basically right on things like: the cost effectiveness of health/wealth interventions in developing countries relative to developed countries; the moral catastrophe that is factory farming; and the moral relevance of future generations. Some things that seem potentially shakier to me include: the specific interventions GiveWell currently prioritizes; the idea that working to reduce existential risk is the best way to help future generations; or the common 4-cause breakdown (poverty, animals, xrisk, meta). I’m not saying I think any of these latter ideas are wrong, just that EA discussions often seem to underemphasize that these are our best guesses for now based on what we know so far about an incredibly complicated set of considerations, rather than being clear truths that we’ve discovered about the world. ↩︎
See my 2019 talk about sustainable motivation (transcript) for more of my thoughts on how purely from an impact perspective, we’re going to screw up if we think that the best plan is to push yourself as hard as you (think you) can go. ↩︎