Marriage, the Giving What We Can Pledge, and the damage caused by vague public commitments

You can also read this post on Lesswrong or the EA forum.

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.