I believe honesty is very important. I think most people agree that honesty is like, pretty important, but I think it’s a lot more important than that. I basically think that people will be dishonest in ways that hurt them and others by default, even when they’re trying to be pretty honest, because I think it’s just that hard. I think it’s hard because there are a lot of incentives that push away from honesty. E.g. You want the job so you’re tempted to overstate your experience or past performance. You said you wouldn’t tell anyone about your friend’s secret, but this seems like a situation where they wouldn’t mind, and it would be pretty awkward to say nothing…etc. There’s a huge variety of situations that incentivize small acts of dishonesty. And it’s not always clear whether something is a little dishonest or not - dishonesty can be quite a spectrum.

If I’m correct, and honesty is pretty hard by default, I think this is quite bad. Honesty is important because it greatly improves the ability of people to coordinate with each other. And it’s important because it allows people to reason better about themselves and about the world. Good coordination and good reasoning are things we badly need. Fortunately, I think many people could level up their honesty by putting in a reasonable amount of thinking and effort, and that a lot of the failure modes are caused by not paying attention to the incentives around them, or not thinking about how to structure their own lives and commitments to be more honest.

If you want to be honest, it’s important to think about how to structure your life so being honest isn’t extremely difficult. This is especially true when it comes to promises and commitments. It’s often easier to be honest about your current beliefs than it is to be honest about what you’re going to do in the future. After all, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. You can definitely influence it, and you can choose now to take particular actions in the future. But if you’re not careful, you might promise to do a thing in a week you think will be easy, and then find later the thing is extremely difficult or costly.

At present there is an understanding that some kinds of commitments are much stronger and more serious than other kinds. One particularly strong example of a commitment or promise is a commitment you make in publicly, with people witnessing, e.g. marriage vows.

The point of a public pledge is help structure our own incentives to fulfill our commitment. If you pledge to get married to someone privately, but then a couple years later someone really attractive comes along, it might be tempting to leave your partner for that other person. But if you have publicly married someone, you’re going to pay a lot of social costs for leaving your partner for someone else. That’s a feature, not a bug; most people who get married want that incentive to stay together. They say aloud their vows in front of their friends for this reason.

Unfortunately, I think the wider subculture I’m in has a pretty weak ability to hold people accountable to their commitments. I think people often are vague about the kinds of commitments they’re making publicly, and this is very bad for honesty. When people make public commitments but aren’t clear about how serious the commitments are, this weakens the ability of everyone to make public commitments.

Marriage as a public commitment

In part, the problem is that people have pretty different understandings of what public commitments mean. For example, Marriage is usually a somewhat-costly commitment witnessed by friends & family, in part to help hold the parties accountable - to make it more costly for them to break their agreement - and in part just to get their support in their relationship. But how strong is this promise? Is it a lifelong commitment? Is it a commitment to “try really hard”? Do people who get married and then divorced expect people to think they’re less honest than they otherwise would?

Sometimes marriages don’t work out, and people get divorced. This sucks, but it’s worse if the people who got divorced made an ironclad promise that they would stay together til death did them part. Indeed, that’s a foolish promise to make if you’re looking at base rates and don’t have an extremely good justification for thinking why you’re likely to beat the odds by a lot.

And that’s okay! Just make your promise carry an escape clause. I attended a wedding of some friends recently where they promised not to get divorced unless they both climbed a particular mountain first. They’re planning on staying together, but they recognize that they can’t know for sure they will want this, so they’ve left themselves a way out. This is a more honest thing to do than promising to never leave. It makes their promise mean more.

I’ve seen this kind of vow at a number of weddings and I’d love to see it more. As a witness to people’s vows, I want to know what I’m there to witness, and how I can help them keep their commitment. 

Sometimes, we ask other people to make commitments. Maybe it’s asking an employee to sign an NDA. Maybe it’s asking a friend to keep a secret. I think in our current environment of commitment-seriousness-ambiguity, asking people to commit to things is a serious business, and I think people are often too cavalier about it. If you’re asking someone to commit to something, it’s partially your responsibility to help them understand what they’re committing to. You should not ask people to commit to things if you don’t have a good model of what they’re committing to or how hard it will be for them to keep their commitment. Asking someone to commit to something they aren’t likely to be able to carry through on erodes the commons, because it incentivizes people making commitments they can’t keep.

Of course the one committing still holds most of the responsibility to keep their commitment, but circumstances and incentives matter here too. When there is a power difference between the asker and committer, we should expect the asker to have a greater responsibility than they otherwise would to make sure the committer understands what they’re agreeing to.

I’d like to see people come up with more best practices for commitments. A few might be:

  • Don’t commit to or ask people to commit to things you think you or they are not likely to be able to complete
  • When making or asking for commitments, include an escape clause if following through on the commitment might be really costly - the escape clause can include costs in order to preserve some incentive to keep the commitment
  • Time-bound most commitments by default & don’t make unlimited or unbounded commitments or ask others to unless there’s a really good reason
  • Get advice from several people you trust before making big commitments and make sure people you’re asking to make big commitments have done the same

Giving What We Can pledge

Within the EA community, the Giving What We Can pledge is the biggest community-specific commitment that people make. Unfortunately, I think the way it’s currently worded does not clarify the kind of commitment it implies, and thus GWWC unintentionally erodes the ability of people in our community to make public pledges effectively.

Here is the text of the pledge in full:

"I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from __ until __ I shall give __ to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely."

I think it’s great that the pledge now asks you to specify a starting and end time and particular percentage by default. (Previously, it read “until I retire”). I think it’s quite bad that the main text of the pledge doesn’t include any mention of an exit clause. The website does mention some things around this in their FAQ, but unfortunately this too doesn’t provide much clarity:

FAQ: Is a pledge legally binding? What if my circumstances change?

Our pledges are in no way legally binding. They are commitments made voluntarily and enforced solely by your own conscience. In some circumstances, it may be best to resign from your pledge.

In some circumstances?? Some circumstances like “my partner has a life threatening disease” or some circumstances like  “I make 20% less money now” or “I switched to direct work and think donating doesn’t make sense for me anymore”? The differences between these really matter! As someone witnessing people make this public commitment, how can I help hold people accountable without knowing what they’re pledging to, and under what circumstances they should break it?

The Expanded FAQ adds more detail but not more clarity:

Expanded FAQ:

How does it work? Is it legally binding?

The Pledge is not a contract and is not legally binding. It is, however, a public declaration of lasting commitment to the cause. It is a promise, or oath, to be made seriously and with every expectation of keeping it. All those who want to become a member of Giving What We Can must make the Pledge, and we ask them to report their income and donations each year.

Taking the Pledge is something to be considered seriously, but we understand if a member can no longer keep it. If it is best for someone to resign from their Pledge they can depledge and are welcome to rejoin later.

After reading all this I still have very little idea what kind of promise GWWC is. I want people to take public commitments seriously, but I don’t believe they can without thinking clearly about what exactly they’re promising. I think GWWC being vague about this is pretty irresponsible. I want people to build within themselves the machinery to be able to make strict pledges that mean things, and I think agreeing to a pledge like this erodes that machinery. By my own standard, if I agreed to a pledge like this, I'd need to carefully specify the conditions under which I'd allow myself to exit this pledge or not, since it's not nearly clear enough to me in its current wording.

Sometimes people make mistakes in their promises. That sucks, and people break trust when they do that, but it’s also okay. People grow and learn, and the thing I care about is people working towards more honesty and integrity. It’s a process to learn how to be really honest with yourself and others. I’ve broken promises before, and I feel sad that I did. I can’t change that, but I can change what promises I make going forward. I want to be a person of unusual honesty and integrity, and so I want to think about what commitments mean to me and how I can structure my environment to help me make good ones and keep them.

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To the list of actions I want to add: don't use commitments to extend the reach of your social pressure.

There's a trap where people ask for ambiguous commitments in ways that are socially awkward to say no to (because obviously they mean the weak version that only a mean or austic person would say no to!), and then try to hold you to the strong version later (because you committed!).

The marriage vow allows one partner to veto divorce, which seems like a bad idea. 

It's a marriage vow that includes pretty strong commitment. If you think that strong commitment is inherently bad, I think you should argue why you believe it to be bad. 

Well, I don't, so I don't.

Seriously, there is absolutely nothing about strong commitment being bad in my comment, or is there?

I think there are many marriages where one side defects (be it cheating, alcohol, abuse, ...) and the other side has very good reason to get out and conversely there are many cases where it is advantageous for one side to hold on to the marriage long after things have gone south (for example for financial reasons). 

That's why I think allowing one side to veto divorce is a bad idea. Making divorce harder is very different from making it impossible. 

I would click the "disagree" button if there was one, because many parts of this post are askew to how I understand marriage, divorce, commitment, etc., 

I think of a marriage as two people deciding to build a life together, and commitment as essentially about being "in" on that shared project. This post seems to be coming at it from a different angle, where explicitly specifying things in advance is much more fundamental. It centers honesty vs. dishonesty, ironclad promises, and public accountability in places where those don't feel like the central concepts to me.

A few of the places where that disagreement came up most strongly:

  • The paragraph about marriage beginning "The point of a public pledge is help structure our own incentives to fulfill our commitment." That does not seem like the main point of having a public ceremony, which IMO is more about marking the occasion of the couple building a life together, in common knowledge so that their surrounding community will treat them as a unit.
  • The paragraph about the mountain climbing promise. Agreeing to climb a mountain before a divorce is finalized doesn't actually seem to help with the things this post is describing as important. This promise mainly just seems to be acknowledging that an escape clause (divorce) already exists, and adding in an extra step which perhaps is symbolically meaningful to the couple.
  • The partial sentence "I want people to build within themselves the machinery to be able to make strict pledges that mean things". As if a pledge needs to be strict in order to be meaningful. There are plenty of meaningful marriages which didn't specify in advance criteria for a divorce or social consequences of a divorce.

The complaints in the GWWC Pledge section also don't seem that similar to the arguments in the section on marriage. Standards like 'Don't say false things' (like "till death do we part") and 'make it possible to opt out later on, and acknowledge this possibility up front' which seemed like central parts of the section on marriage are already covered by the current version of the GWWC Pledge.

Marriage has multiple interpretations, of which both "a shared life" and "a contract to mutually support each other" are valid meanings. They point to different aspects of it. And both are important, though to different degrees depending on the people involved. 

If your word is your bond and you really want to be honest and truthful, then the publicity really is about additional incentives to keep your bond (not to imply that's the only way to achieve it, nor that it's universal). IMO the only point of a public wedding (for me personally) is the accountability, but I'm also aware that I'm an outlier on that dimension.

If you very much don't want to break promises (or your word), then it's very important to have explicit outs. Even if divorce is implicitly understood to be a way out, if you don't explicitly specify the cases in which you can trigger it, you're breaking your promise if you get divorced. Which of course doesn't mean that you can under no circumstances get divorced - it's just a matter of the lesser evil. Take one traditional vow (from a quick google search):

In the name of God, I, _____, take you, _____, to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death

That doesn't allow for divorce. Or for infidelity. Or brain damage. Or a whole lot of other problems. If you want out, then you have to break your word. Each broken promise weakens all your other promises. So if you add an additional escape clause, then you won't break your promise. The mountain climbing thing allows for an amical divorce without either side having gone against their word. It keeps the sanctity of vows and promises. 

A pledge needs to be strict if it is to mean what it says and if others are to be able to trust in what it means. Not if the only meaning you care for is a personal feel good kind of meaning. Which I don't want to negate here - if it gives you personal meaning, good. But that's a different thing than mutual information and assurance.

This is the problem with the current GWWC pledge. It's generally understood implicitly that of course you can opt out if you want. And that it's current state is mainly to give you personal meaning and fellowship. Which is a good thing, to be clear. But a pledge is something sacred and breaking it is sacrilege which weakens all other pledges (both yours and others). The current wording doesn't allow you to opt out. Which is a problem if you value the literal words of what you say, rather than just the underlying meaning which you want to express.  

Reading the title my immediate reaction was "Oh no, lots of marriages are being damaged by people commiting to Giving What We Can Pledges". I'm unsure if what you're pointing out is better or worse /s.

Admittedly the title is not super clear

Our marriage vows[1] have well-defined exit conditions! Some commenters thought they are too strict, but time will tell provide a little Bayesian evidence.


  1. Final version is slightly different from the version in the post. ↩︎

I attended a wedding of some friends recently where they promised not to get divorced unless they both climbed a particular mountain first. They’re planning on staying together, but they recognize that they can’t know for sure they will want this, so they’ve left themselves a way out.

This gives me an idea — is there a medical way to temporarily die then come back to life? That is, to stop your heart and then get resuscitated, with >90% chance of living through. That seems like quite a valid way of keeping your commitment to any "until death do us part" clause, and nonetheless ending the marriage.

Jeezus christ that is a hilariously bad/great idea.

I cannot recommend this approach on the grounds of either integrity or safety 😅

it worked for Jon Snow I don't know what your problem is. 

In that case, did death part you? 

Not more than sleep, I would say.

If someone (temporarily) killed themselves to escape a relationship with me, I would consider us rather parted.

From my current understanding, there is so much more going on in a marriage ceremony that is worth mentioning here. A carefully designed, meaningful, public ritual seems to be a huge way that humans reinforce their sense of what they value & what their life narratives are about.

Relevantly, I would guess that the act of making the GWWC pledge has much less of this positive effect of reinforcing one's values and sense of meaning, and thus is easier to break.

We did the traditional marriage ceremony. Neither of us particularly cared nor paid attention to the exact wording of it. It's not legally binding, unlike the papers we signed, which were.

There are so many more practical reasons to not get divorced I can't imagine the exact wording matters to most people - especially given we were largely hearing it for the first time that day, only to promptly forget it.

I wonder if being too creative with your wedding could in theory lower the social pressure. The more it moves away from "traditional," the less others consider it a marriage, maybe. Or not!

A solution for "some people take promises (marriage, GWWC, etc.) more seriously, some people take them less seriously, and there is no consensus on what degree of seriousness is right" could be something like this: make a public list of public promises, together with information about which promises were kept and which were not. No judgment, just information. If you believe that promises are super important to keep, let's hope you can keep your personal list 100% clean. If you believe that breaking promises all the time is no big deal, I am not judging you... I just hope that you are okay with making this fact about you publicly known.

To add your promise to this list, you need to specify how your promise can be verified. For example, there would need to be an authority that verifies your GWWC pledge if you give them your tax report and a proof of sending money to the charity. (Promises that cannot be verified either can't be entered to the public list at all, or are clearly marked as "not officially verifiable".)

On a second thought, there is a potential for abuse, basically by making promises under pressure. If someone has a power over you, they can force you to make a promise (or punish you for refusing to make one), and thus extend their power over you to the future. For example, imagine that you desperately need to keep your job, and your employer forces you to make some specific long-term public promise -- a few years later you find a new job and no longer depend on your old employer, but the promise you made remains on your public record.

Not sure how to solve this problem, in general. In my ideal world, promises would only be made voluntarily. (I would judge more harshly people who spontaneously made a public promise and then broke it, compared to people who made a promise at gunpoint and then broke it.) Problem is, it is hard to draw a line between voluntary and involuntary actions, if other people can punish you for failing to do a "voluntary" action.

Oh cool. I was thinking about writing some things about private non-ironclad commitments but this covers most of what I wanted to write. :) 

Thanks for sharing your perspective here Jeffrey!

[Note: I wasn’t involved in the decisions around the wording of The Pledge so am speaking from my personal perspective as a member of The Pledge, and as a staff member at GWWC who has spoken with many members and prospective members.]

I agree that there is a downside to having ambiguity around the technicality of GWWC pledges. There are members who, from my perspective, I think they take it too loosely and others who take it too seriously.

However, the level of specificity is a very difficult tradeoff to make when making a short standardised simple language moral commitment for a large and diverse group of people with different backgrounds, contexts, and levels of scrupulosity.

If GWWC were to try to precisely state everything in the pledge language then it’d be less of a moral commitment and more of a legal contract – it certainly wouldn’t fit on a pledge certificate. We’d certainly miss many circumstances and getting agreement from members who’ve already taken a pledge to be backwards compatible would be very difficult.

Furthermore, I think an overly legalistic pledge would make it harder for most people to make (it’d be too scary/confusing) and keep their commitments. I think that trusting people to use their conscience (while providing guidance like is done in the FAQ and in member conversations) is a feature not a bug.

if I agreed to a pledge like this, I'd need to carefully specify the conditions under which I'd allow myself to exit this pledge or not, since it's not nearly clear enough to me in its current wording.

I want to be a person of unusual honesty and integrity, and so I want to think about what commitments mean to me and how I can structure my environment to help me make good ones and keep them.

I'm glad that you have self-knowledge to know that you'd like to have more specificity. Many people who’ve taken a pledge have also gone further in specifying things that they think are important to their commitment (such as under what specific conditions they would resign from their pledge) and sometimes write up a document (or blog post) and share it with several close friends they want to hold them accountable. If someone were considering a pledge and had these strong preferences around specificity then I’d encourage this route.

I think it’s great that the pledge now asks you to specify a starting and end time and particular percentage by default. (Previously, it read “until I retire”).

Actually, this depends on whether you are taking a Trial Pledge (which requires a specific amount and period) or The GWWC Pledge (which is still a 10% pledge of lifetime earnings, “until I retire”).

I think it’s quite bad that the main text of the pledge doesn’t include any mention of an exit clause.

This is where it is quite similar to marriage and I’d argue that’s generally a good thing. Of course there are reasons that marriages end, but they’re variable and relevant to the individual people. If you look at the reasons marriages end sometimes people could work through those things and other times it’s best it ends. I wouldn’t include something like “infidelity” or “poor communication” as an exit clause within my wedding vows, but I can imagine both cases where the marriage would survive the common reasons people end marriages and also other cases where it’d be best to end it for some of those reasons (in good conscience). That being said, I’m all for people customising their vows (me and my wife did!) but still generally committing to the same thing as other married folk (put a damn good effort into sticking with the person for the rest of your lives until it's clear it’s no longer a good thing for you to do). The same can be said for giving pledges: you can generally commit to the same thing, but also customise to what makes sense to you (e.g. write up a separate document also).


Hope that helps to provide an alternative perspective and is useful to hear a bit of the reasoning behind why things might be the way they are right now, and why I’m not currently in favour of any major changes to the pledge language to include an exit clause.

GWWC is also currently in the process of updating our new FAQs and would love any input here.

Giving What We Can’s mission is to make giving effectively and significantly a cultural norm. If you think that any changes (e.g. to the FAQ, pledges language, or ways of communicating these ideas) would help us better achieve that mission then we’d be especially grateful to hear those suggestions.

Thanks for the reply!

I hope to write a longer response later, but wanted to address what might be my main criticism, the lack of clarity about how big of a deal it is to break your pledge, or how "ironclad" the pledge is intended to be.

I think the biggest easy improvement would be amending the FAQ (or preferably something called "pledge details" or similar) to present the default norms for pledge withdrawal. People could still choose to choose different norms if they preferred, but it would make it more clear what people were agreeing to, and how strong the commitment was intended to be, without adding more text to the main pledge.

 

Thanks! Will have a think about how any existing language could be updated or what should be added.

The TL;DR version of what my ideal would be is that people to take it seriously enough with enough foresight that there is a small (5-20%) chance of withdrawal (it's best to keep promises), but not so seriously that they wouldn't take it (worried that there's some tiny chance they'll break it) or wouldn't resign if it were truly the best thing for the world (including not just their direct impact but also the impact on their own wellbeing and the impact their resignation/follow through has on the norm).

I see a few problems with having default norms for withdrawal, It can (a) be hard to universalise; (b) provide licence for some; (c) devalue the efforts of others.

For the purpose of look at (a) (b) and (c) let's imagine we made an explicit default norm to be developing a chronic health issue (something that I can imagine being a good reason to withdraw for some people after careful consideration of their exact circumstance):

(a) The types of chronic health issues can vary significantly on how much they'd change someones ability to follow through; and the places in which someone lives (e.g. public/private healthcare) and their employment situation can also change that. For example, I've had chronic back pain and headaches/migraines since I was 14 years old, but I don't see that as a dealbreaker.

(c) We all fall prey to motivated reasoning and pre-commitment is meant to help you avoid that to some extent. If chronic health issues were listed as a norm I might have looked at the pledge and thought "Oh, that's for healthy people, I'm all good, I should keep 100% of my money." Or say I took the pledge before my chronic pain started, and then at some point I reflected and thought "I guess I'll just stop giving because that's just for the healthy people.".

(b) If some people with the same situation have worked through it then it can devalue their efforts and/or make them seem like a fool (e.g. given money that shouldn't have been expected). Back to the marriage example, many people take great pride and meaning having worked through the common reasons marriages end and many have better relationships on the other side of it.

However, the proof is in the pudding and I'm open to hearing specific suggestions. Do you have specific suggestions for what good norms you think meet the bar for being presented as defaults?

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