The Buddha rebuked him: "...Foolish man, how can you receive money? This will not give rise to confidence in those without it... And, monks, this training rule should be recited thus: 'If a monk takes, gets someone else to take, or consents to gold and silver being deposited for him, he commits an offense entailing relinquishment and confession.'" Bhikkhu Vibhaṅga, Nissaggiyā Pācittiyā 18

What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel. For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. 1 Corinthians 9:18-19

The new-age spiritual chakra wellness meetup

About a year ago, feeling that I was stuck in a social bubble where somehow everyone I met was yet another tech/finance/science-type person like myself, I decided to check out this "new-age spiritual chakra wellness" meetup I'd heard about.

It was a culture shock, but not how I expected. What struck me about that group was how they seemed far more obsessed with money and "hustle" than anyone else I've met!

The event took place on a Sunday night in an otherwise-unused yoga studio. The plan was that we'd schmooze with other attendees a bit before going into the studio-proper, where we'd lie down on mats listening to the "music" they'd play for us: one person sitting in the center playing crystal bowls, and another walking amongst the audience playing various flutes. (That was just the premise for this particular event; the group does other events with different activities.)

The price of admission was $20, which I paid in cash to the guy at the door. (This momentarily threw him off his rhythm because most others bought tickets online or via Venmo.) In the lounge where we hung out before the music began, there was a bowl of hot cocoa to which you could help yourself. Only after I started ladling myself a cup did I see the sign saying "$5/cup" - certainly not worth it, but I supposed I had only myself to blame for not looking more carefully, so I finished filling my cup and dropped $5 in the till.

After the music (which was nice and relaxing), there was a chance for everyone to address the audience and share their thoughts. Some used the opportunity to talk about their philosophy of life, while a fair number (it seemed like almost half) found some way to plug their life-coaching services, yoga teaching, book/website, personal training, etc. The organizer of the meetup (the one playing the crystal bowls) gave a little spiel about how it's so great to be building a growing community of conscious living etc. and would we all please consider buying tickets to some of their upcoming events.

After we adjourned to mingle and chat again, another guy (not the one I'd paid at the door) went around checking everyone's Venmo receipts to make sure we had paid the $20. This seemed odd to me (shouldn't this have been done at the beginning?) but I explained to him that I had no receipt because I paid cash to the original doorman (whose name I didn't know, so I had to describe him by appearance). He seemed skeptical due to my inability to supply the doorman's name, but once he understood whom I was referring to he said "Ah okay, I'll go check with him [to verify that you're telling the truth]".

I left and never went back - not the sort of harsh vibes I wanna activate, man!

Was my impression justified?

I find this story amusing because, within the tech/finance/science bubble I usually run in, I have never been asked to pay money for the mere privilege of attending a meetup or participating in a community. And supposedly this is a crowd of materialists, libertarians, capitalists, utilitarians, etc. who try to make markets for everything. Why, of all people, is it the spiritualist karma-believing communitarians who buck the trend?

I don't want to get too carried away with self-congratulation. It could just be that the rationality community isn't mature enough to have had to deal with this problem yet. Also, to be fair, I have noticed increasing attempts to monetize rationality, by using it as a vehicle for advertising some product or service. This is why I thought it was important to write this article: because I see how easy it would be to fall into the same trap, and I would hate to see this all go to waste.

Why do I see monetization as a debasement? I'm not against paying money for things in general, nor (I hope, though if I'm being annoyingly self-unaware about this I'd like to know) am I projecting some kind of rich-techbro-elitism where I feel entitled to free stuff because that's how it works with the snacks in my cushy office. Rather, my feeling is that things like "conscious living" or "rationality" need to be held to a different standard. Their purpose is uniquely undermined by making money off of them.

A teacher of practical skills ("How to Change a Light Bulb 101") may reasonably expect to be paid for their services. A purveyor of values (politics, religion, an academic field that claims to be purely descriptive but really isn't, "good karma", moralistic art, rationalist philosophy, etc.) should not.

You cannot put a price on ideology

In short: Alteration of values (to wit, "ideology") is not a "product" that can be assigned a market price. If you think that you have Good Values, and that others have Bad Values, then naturally you'll think it's worthwhile for you to get them to switch to your Good Values. You might even think you deserve to get paid for this important work. But, by definition, your audience won't agree. For them, all they hear is one among a cacophony of voices saying "Switch to Value System X!" "Switch to Value System Y!" etc. Only someone who already shares your values would think that listening to you is worth paying for. Indeed, from the audience's perspective, they're the ones doing you a favor by sitting through your pitch, so you should be paying them!

But, like it or not, there's a lot of money to be made in ideology. Just as people are "accustomed to a haze of plausible-sounding arguments", so too are they awash in a sea of grifters who are all too eager to take their money and then convince them it was a good idea all along. How do you come to the truth? You could try to rely on your own reasoning capacity, but the supply of bad ideologies far exceeds the amount of time you have to debunk them all. Instead, you have to fall back on adversarial epistemology.

The most basic filter is sincerity - does this person preaching Ideology X actually believe it? Presumably this is a necessary* criterion for Ideology X being correct - so your Bayesian update should be towards X if they're sincere, and away from X if they're not.

(*Or at least necessary enough for the Bayesian update to go this way - I suppose we could imagine a situation where X is correct despite not being believed even by its proponents, but this seems quite unlikely!)

Then, the Adversarial Argument proceeds as follows:

  1. If you believe in X, you'll think that convincing me of it is inherently positive-value, regardless of whether you get paid for it.
  2. An easy way to credibly signal that you think this is to refuse payment; and yet you have not done that.
  3. Therefore, I am entitled to ignore your advocacy of X (or believe ¬X out of spite), since you don't seem to believe in it yourself.

(Note the similarity with the ancient texts quoted above!)

Of course, this argument can only disprove, not prove - there are plenty of sincere people out there advocating for contradictory things, and they can't all be right. But it does filter out a lot of chaff (empirical claim - is this true?), and will be the first recourse of a reasonable listener. If we on LessWrong think we have an important message to get across, we should therefore take care not to be filtered out as well.


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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:02 AM

I think you might be missing something more obvious here: tech has a huge amount of slack when it comes to money.  If I were running a tech event of similar size to what you described, I wouldn't bother charging, because it would be a waste of my time.  When you make half a million dollars a year, funding something like that yourself basically comes out of your fun budget; you don't really even think twice about it.

Yoga and new age groups though?  Not nearly as flush with cash.

This is a fair point but I think not the whole story. The events that I'm used to (not just LW and related meetups, but also other things that happen to attract a similar STEM-heavy crowd) are generally held in cafes/bars/parks where nobody has to pay anything to put on the event, so it seems like financial slack isn't a factor in whether those events happen or not.

Could it be an issue of organizers' free time? I don't think it's particularly time-consuming to run a meetup, especially if you're not dealing with money and accounting, though I could be wrong.

We might also consider the nature of the activity. One can't very well meditate in a bar, but parks are still an option, albeit less comfortable than a yoga studio. But isn't it worth accepting the discomfort for the sake of bringing in more people? Depends on what you're trying to do, I guess.

Money and spirituality are a tricky topic.

I'm currently president of the board at my zen center, so I see and think a lot about our finances. We run pretty lean. We ask members to pay dues to support the center, and we hold events where we ask people to pay. 90% of this money though is to cover rent, insurance, food during retreats, and various incidentals. Our teacher gets a very modest stipend, and he couldn't survive on it alone.

We sometimes debate things like how to deal with people who can't afford to pay our recommended dues and fees for events. In every case so far we've said "sure, pay what you can, these are just guidelines based on what it takes to operate, but we won't turn you away from the dharma because you don't have money".

I know that outside zen (and sometimes even within zen!) you find people who try to make a living by doing spiritual work. I think there's nothing necessarily wrong with this: our economic system is structured such that money is how we allocate resources, and even if you want to be a mendicant, rather than begging directly for food, shelter, etc. we ask people to beg for money so they can buy their own food, shelter, etc. because that's how our system works. But of course once you bring money in, because it's fungible, people can try to enrich themselves, so more discipline is required.

So the optimal amount of money to be asked of in spiritual spaces is not 0, but it's also not very high. Sounds like the vibes of this place were off, and that's a shame.

One parting thought: some time ago I saw a tweet that I can no longer find that address the phenomenon you're noticing rather succinctly. I think it went something like this meme:

(I don't know if you're in America but this is a very American thing to turn stuff into jobs. I think it spills over to other places because we're really good at exporting our culture.)

Really helpful to hear an on-the-ground perspective!

(I do live in America - Austin specifically.)

I don't think this issue is specific to spirituality; these are just the most salient examples I can think of where it's been dealt with for a long time and explicitly discussed in ancient texts. (For a non-spiritual example, according to Wikipedia the Platonic Academy didn't charge fees either, though I doubt they left any surviving writings explaining why.)

How would you respond to someone who says "I can easily pay the recommended donation of $20 but I don't think this event/activity is worth nearly as much as you seem to think I should consider it worth, so I'm going to pay only $5 so that it's still positive-on-net for me to be here"? In other words, pay-what-you-want as opposed to pay-what-you-can.

If I were in your position I'd probably welcome such a person at first, but if they keep coming back while still paying only $5 I might be inclined to think negatively of them, or pressure them to either pay more or leave. Which also seems like a bad thing, so maybe it's best to collect donations anonymously so that nobody feels pressured.

The problem is that the functions of "doing X" and "convincing people that doing X is worth" are often being served simultaneously by the same activities, and are difficult to disentangle.

Your question is a though one.

I can say that what we've done in the past is give people some space at the start to see the value and then, over time, lean on them a bit without actually imposing any consequences. If everyone else is paying $20 and they're only paying $5, it's reasonable to, after a time, ask them if they think that's really fair given everyone else is paying $20. What makes them different/special such that they should only pay $5?

Would not apply pressure for them to leave unless their behavior was negatively impacting the sangha. Just paying less than everyone else is fairly private, so assuming all else was equal then I expect to let them stay so long as we could afford it.

Even if I am willing to teaching for free, the room costs money; so I would consider it fair if the participants pay for the room (and possibly other material costs, such as food, printed materials, maybe also my travel costs). I may not want to make profit from my spiritual activity, but I do not want to make loss either.

If there is a huge demand for my teachings, I should also consider the fact that if I keep my daily job to pay my bills, and only teach during evenings or weekends (most likely not all evening and all weekends, I also need to take a break, and maybe have duties beyond my job and teaching), I can only teach maybe 10% or 20% as much as if I instead quit my daily job, and charged more money to pay my bills. So even if my motivation is purely altruistic, getting paid might be the right choice, if there are enough people willing to pay the increased price to keep me doing it as a full-time job. (The alternative is that most of those people are sent home: sorry, the room is full. And the room is also full the next day, and the day after that.)

So this is an argument for taking money. It does not say how specifically the money should be taken. Donations (perhaps with a suggestion like "the recommended amount to cover our material costs is X") might work, though I would suggest asking for 50% more, to compensate for those who won't donate. Or you might get a millionaire donor (you might want to provide them info such as "paying X would cover our expenses for one year"), in which case you do not need to change the participants.

There is also a valid argument against charging money, which goes like this: There is a tradeoff between optimizing for money and optimizing for the spiritual message. If you lean towards money too much, it will come at an expense of the quality of your teaching. As the Bible says: "You cannot simultaneously optimize for two different utility functions. Maximizing one of them requires sacrificing the other, and vice versa." (Luke 16:13)

Sounds like the solution is to simply not maximize for money; charge only as much as you must, and otherwise optimize for the message. That is the intuition behind the idea of "just price". But this is easier said than done, because we are running on corrupted hardware. What is the just price of my lecture?

In case of covering the financial expenses, it seems easy: just collect the bills, and then collect enough money to pay them. But even here, there would be a temptation to choose a more convenient room, a more tasty food, a more convenient form of travel. To print my spiritual teachings in a hardcover color book, instead of some cheap black and white printout (and a freely downloadable PDF as an alternative). Even if I resist the temptation to put a single cent in my pocket, my brain will find a way to extract some other value, along with a convenient excuse why doing so is the right way to run my business... ahem, a non-profit spiritual mission. Until one day I find myself traveling all around the world by plane, living in five-star hotels, eating caviar, and wearing a huge gold watch (hey, I need to know the exact time in order to deliver my spiritual message optimally, and these expensive watches are very precise and reliable, you should really try them). But hey, no money in my pocket, I just live an absurdly luxurious life with all expenses paid by the believers; and I got there step by step.

How much money do I need to pay my bills, that also depends on how large my bills are. Should I take as much as I made at my recent job; perhaps adjusted for inflation? Or should I say "hey, hypothetically I could get a job in a Silicon Valley, or maybe become a CEO of some successful startup, so it is only fair to get a compensation for giving up that". Or I may simply focus on my living expenses... but they keep growing without limits.

These may be silly examples, but the idea is that there is a slippery slope from here to there, and without a simple rule where to stop, I will be tempted to gradually push further and further, always telling myself that I am a virtuous person, because I am not going as far as I possibly could.

Also, what about advertisement? At the minimum, it would make sense to announce my lectures somehow. Otherwise, how would people know when and where to go? At the far end, there are billboards with my face all over the town (many towns actually), and I am playing an expensive zero-sum game against my fellow billionaire evangelists.

These are the concerns that make "do not take any money, ever" and "only take voluntary donations" seem like the only Schelling points. Even these are not really safe. For example, I may recruit dozens of volunteers, working for free (idealistic students are the best), collecting donations for me all over the town. And if I already have crowds of enthusiastic true believers, I might be tempted to also use some of them sexually.

So... what is the answer here?

I guess, it is "with great power comes great responsibility", and realizing that having an attractive spiritual message is a great power. There are no best answers. Try to resist as long as you can.

But from the perspective of a "customer", it is perfectly valid to decide that certain person or organization is already too far on the slippery slope of temptation, and to refuse to engage with them.

Sounds like the solution is to simply not maximize for money; charge only as much as you must, and otherwise optimize for the message.

The problems that come from optimizing for money are largely about sales techniques and marketing. You can charge a lot of money without compromising the message, it's much easier to compromise it because of sales techniques and marketing.

You probably want to charge enough that you don't need to use sleazy sales techniques to make ends meet. 

There's a question of how the resources that result in an event get sourced. 

The more resources people in a community have, the easier it is for them to run events that are free for the participants. The tech community has plenty of money and therefore many tech events are free.

A teacher of practical skills ("How to Change a Light Bulb 101") may reasonably expect to be paid for their services. A purveyor of values (politics, religion, an academic field that claims to be purely descriptive but really isn't, "good karma", moralistic art, rationalist philosophy, etc.) should not.

If you categorically don't pay people who are a purveyor of values, then you are declaring that you want that nobody is a purveyor of values as their full-time job. 

If someone runs a libertarian think-tank, to spread libertarian values, they are usually funded through donations because someone considers it valuable to spread libertarian values instead of being paid by the audience of the think tank. That's because there are libertarians who have money to spare and who value spreading libertarian values enough to donate to it. 

It's like whether or not a website is free or paid. Plenty of websites are free because they like an audience that watches the ads on the website. Many events that are about spreading values are free because they exist for making the audience believe those values. 

To the extent that there's value to having events by people who don't organize them besides their full-time job but are more focused on creating those events and there's no grant/donation money to run them, taking money for them allows the events to exist. I think there could be a lot of value generated by having more people organize valuable events and take money for them.

Checking people's tickets during the events still sounds strange and suggests that there was in the event you are speaking about too much focus on money. It makes more sense to charge a price for admission, check at the entrance, and then leave the topic of money out of the actual event. Or alternatively, do it the way the church does and have no entrance fee and ask for donations during the event.

The more resources people in a community have, the easier it is for them to run events that are free for the participants. The tech community has plenty of money and therefore many tech events are free.

This applies to "top-down funded" events, like a networking thing held at some tech startup's office, or a bunch of people having their travel expenses paid to attend a conference. There are different considerations with regard to ideological messages conveyed through such events (which I might get into in another post), but this is different from the central example of a "tech/finance/science bubble event" that I'm thinking of, which is "a bunch of people meeting in a cafe/bar/park".

Or alternatively, do it the way the church does and have no entrance fee and ask for donations during the event.

I would indeed have found this less off-putting, though I'm not sure exactly why.

If you categorically don’t pay people who are a purveyor of values, then you are declaring that you want that nobody is a purveyor of values as their full-time job.

Would this really be a bad thing? The current situation seems like a defect/defect equilibrium - I want there to be full-time advocates for Good Values, but only to counteract all the other full-time advocates for Bad Values. It would be better if we could just agree to ratchet down the ideological arms race so that we can spend our time on more productive, non-zero-sum activities.

But unlike soldiers in a literal arms race, value-purveyors ("preachers" for short) only have what power we give them. A world where full-time preachers are ipso facto regarded as untrustworthy seems more achievable than one in which we all magically agree to dismantle our militaries.

I think there could be a lot of value generated by having more people organize valuable events and take money for them.

Perhaps, but this positive value will be more than counteracted by the negative value generated by Bad-Values-havers also organizing more events.

This intuitively seems true to me, but may not be obvious. It's based on the assumption that some attributes of an ideology (e.g. the presence of sincere advocates) are relatively more truth-correlated than other attributes (e.g. the profitability of events). Therefore, increasing the weight with which these more-truth-correlated attributes contribute to swaying public opinion, and decreasing the weight of less-truth-correlated attributes, will tend to promote the truth winning out.

(I have more points to add, but I'll do that in another comment.)

If ideologies would be just about I'm for the blue tribe or I'm for the red tribe, then there would be a zero-sum. 

I do believe that progress often arises dialectically. For that, it's useful if both sides develop deep arguments. 

For both the rationality community and the new agey community where a lot of different ideas are developed I find it strange to think in terms of zero-sum because rationality is a lot more than just self-identifying as belonging to the rationality tribe. I like the new agey people who deeply practice some skill a lot more than new agey people for whom it's just shallow tribe membership.

Agreed. People trying to purvey values don't only spread values; they also make factual claims, and in so doing help bring light to facts that people holding different values would like to ignore or minimize as inconvenient for their claims. 

I don't know that I'd generalize very much from the selection of events you've seen.  There are PLENTY of tech events with pretty high fees for attendance, and even technically-free meetups where you'll feel a little bad and out-of-place if you don't spend any money at the venue.  And plenty of spiritual groups that charge no (or only extremely voluntary) fees.   

That said, it's probably a little more common outside the tech-ey casual/informal world, where most organizers are relatively well-off to start with, and most participants are more observant of and willing to question monetary transactions.

For the second part of your post, I think you're confusing evangelism (desire to spread your ideas) with teaching/facilitating (willingness to help people improve their ideas or have good experiences, for their benefit more than yours).  These are generally bundled to some extent, but some topics and some teachers are likely to fall further to one side or the other.   

It's perfectly reasonable for some to want to be paid for their time, EVEN IF they also believe they're getting value from the activity.  As long as it's voluntary, I see no problem with it.  To the extent that they're preying on the unaware (like not mentioning the fee until you'd committed time and resources to get there), that's on the scummy side.  I fully agree with you not wanting to return - it sounds like you didn't get your money's worth, and I even agree that you should view such things with suspicion if they're not clear about their purpose and methods.  

In Buddhist ideology, the reason to pick one set of values over another is to find an end to suffering. The Buddha claimed that certain values tended to lead towards the end of suffering and other values tended to lead in the opposite direction. He recommended that people check this claim for themselves.

In this way values are seen as instrumental rather than fundamental in Buddhism -- that is, Buddhists pick values on the basis of the consequences of holding those values, rather than any fundamental rightness of the values themselves.

Now you may say that the "end of suffering" is itself a value; that there is nothing special about the end of suffering except to one who happens to value it. If you take this perspective then you're essentially saying: there is nothing objectively worthwhile in life, only things that certain people happen to value. But if this was true then you'd expect to be able to go through life and see that each seemingly-worthwhile thing is not intrinsically worthwhile, but only worthwhile from a certain parochial perspective. Is that really the case?

Is suffering something other than experiencing ununderstood negative terms of your utility function?

Well suffering is a real thing, like bread or stones. It's not a word that refers to a term in anyone's utility function, although it's of course possible to formulate utility functions that refer to it.

I have understood it to be the experience of adversity. You are in pain and hate it, that is you suffer. If you are in pain and like it that is not suffering.

If you knew that your choice would lead to your suffering you probably would not be making that choice. Hence the main way that problematic suffering is produced is not seeing the connection between choices and outcomes. "I went to avoid pain and now I am in pain, where did I go wrong?". This kind of problem would form even if the states that you find worth seeking and avoiding would be arbitrarily given at random, as long as you don't have an infinitely competent world model. The claim that some actions get you nearer to the arbitray goals and some get you away from them would still hold. Even if it would not refer to same states or concepts for different individuals evaluating the claim for their different arbitrary goals would still check this out. Putting a needle into themselfs makes one suffers and the other blisses out which compared to the boring option of not applying the needle shows that not all actions are equal for goal aquisition.

So you might form a pro-needle or con-needle opinion and form a corresponding strategy. But then you might encounter something other like ice for which the needle stuff is inapplicable. But there seems to be an innate capability to "know" whether suffering occurs and this can be done before and independent of the formation of the opinions or strategies. Thus you might believe that you are a ice-blisser but then infact discover that you are an ice-sufferer. "utility function" might mean the functionality of the black box that reveals this goalnessness perception, "We are in a bad experience right now". Or "utility function" might refer to the opinion that you profess, "I am the kind of person that blisses about ice". Over time your opinions tend to grow (refer to more stuff and make finer distinctions). It is plausible or atleast imaginable that the innate goal experiences remain constant (ie you don't have to constantly poke yourself with a needle to check that the categorization is still there and that late discoveries were there dormant even at the beginning).

Under this scheme asking, instead of ice or needle having "suffering" as the exposure component would be a category error. "Suffering suffering" or "blissing on suffering" make limited sense (or super fancy metastuff).

Opinions and strategies are not foolproof. If you use those to evaluate new candidate opinions and strategies there is no good guarantee that they will match your experiences. "Avoid ice" and "ice leads to suffering" are very comparable and it is not like the suffering form has some magical extra foothold. If you try to evaluate "hot stove leads to suffering" and you don't have a hot stove to touch you can't torture that kind of information from the term "suffering" appearing there.

The term "value" is problematically ambigious between experiences and (opinions and strategies). "end of suffering" is not, at object level, an opinion position or a strategy.

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