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So you say you're an altruist...

11 Post author: John_Maxwell_IV 12 March 2009 10:15PM

I'd be really interested to hear what the Less Wrong community thinks of this.  Don't spoil it by reading the comments first.

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Comments (106)

Comment author: ciphergoth 13 March 2009 08:46:15AM 18 points [-]

The practical answer is that most people would indeed put their neck in the noose for those other 10 strangers, because they and they alone can save them. However, if the King were instead to go out onto the marketplace and say "I will hang ten people today unless one person steps up to take their place", no-one would volunteer. This makes little sense from a consequentialist point of view; it's just a fact about human psychology.

One consequence is that if you're ever being attacked on the street while passers by walk on, don't just shout for help: select a particular passer by and ask them for help as specifically as you can.

Comment author: Lawliet 13 March 2009 09:31:14AM 1 point [-]

Even better to address as many as possible, making them all feel like they are being specifically targeted

"Hey you with the dark hair"

Comment author: ciphergoth 13 March 2009 11:24:49AM 8 points [-]

I suspect that would be counterproductive - people would rather hang onto the idea that someone else is being targeted.

Comment author: David_Gerard 06 April 2011 07:16:26AM *  -1 points [-]

One consequence is that if you're ever being attacked on the street while passers by walk on, don't just shout for help: select a particular passer by and ask them for help as specifically as you can.

I fear my first thought would be that they were confederates and this was a 419-like scam.

(This is London, of course people try 419-like scams face to face.)

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 April 2011 11:10:01AM 0 points [-]

Anyone running such a scam would be well advised to wait until the mark is the only person nearby before starting their performance.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 August 2010 06:09:54AM 13 points [-]

It seems to me that if you set the price of virtue too high, a lot of people will say "Fuck virtue, I'm not bothering at all"-- and if you aren't supposed to feel like a good person unless you give all your disposable income to charity, that's setting the price too high.

Stable religions seem to set the price of virtue (in terms of giving to charity) at 10% of income. Anyone know whether that's just the Abrahamic religions?

Comment author: Nominull 13 March 2009 01:48:26AM 10 points [-]

The thing is, I could just as easily be one of the ten as the eleventh (actually, ten times as easily), so it's in my interests to support a norm where the eleventh sacrifices for the good of the ten. I am in very little danger of starving to death in Africa.

It's not pleasant, but it is true.

Comment author: Lawliet 13 March 2009 03:03:52AM 13 points [-]

Teach everyone else to cooperate then defect

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 05:23:00AM 11 points [-]

Congratulations, you've written the most horrifying sentence I've read all day.

Comment author: Lawliet 13 March 2009 05:55:23AM 5 points [-]

Congratulations, you've written the most horrifying sentence I've read all day.

Tricking the other player is never justified? Did I miss something?

Comment author: [deleted] 13 March 2009 01:37:53PM 9 points [-]

This site is supposed to be about rationality, but it's covertly about altruism.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 05:31:30PM 11 points [-]
Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 13 March 2009 05:22:18PM 6 points [-]

Which is just the opposite of what you'd expect--If I recall correctly, students who took game-theory-oriented economics classes became less altruistic, not more.

Comment author: Larks 09 January 2012 09:58:23AM 0 points [-]

Possibly not the case - the studies you're probably thinking of used charities that did things like lobby for lower tuition and so on - exactly the sort of things you'd expect altruistic economists to oppose.

See for example Steven Landsburg on the subject

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 March 2009 11:23:02PM *  2 points [-]

You also have to deceive them into believing that you, personally, won't defect. For humans, who almost never really face one-off decision problems, your strategy isn't supposed to work both because the other people shouldn't cooperate for high stakes without having a way of getting the strong knowledge that the opponent will cooperate given that they cooperate (some kind of publicly announced externally controlled commitment), and because you have too few shots at defecting before you get bad reputation.

Comment author: Yvain 12 March 2009 11:59:56PM *  10 points [-]

There's an objection to be made that you can't be sure how useful charity is, but it's not a very strong objection. Last I heard there was pretty good evidence converging around $1000 or so being enough to save a person's life.

I accept this argument as valid and have for some time. I doubt I could donate everything to charity, but ~50% seems like a good compromise between human weakness and inhuman mathematics. We'll see how far I follow through on this when I get an income.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 12:05:10AM *  16 points [-]

You need to choose a very carefully targeted charity that takes into account knock-on effects like displacing local production, before you should accept any such claim. It is now being suggested that the majority of aid is actually counterproductive and destroys local industry in exchange for giving Westerners a warm fuzzy feeling. Hence Africa staying poor despite (because of?) hundreds of billions spent.

Frankly, if you're going to put in that much work into buying expected utilons at the cheapest available price, you shouldn't be considering any mainstream charity targets like aid to developing countries. Let Bill Gates worry about it, if that's the limit of his creativity.

Comment author: Rings_of_Saturn 14 March 2009 06:59:08PM *  9 points [-]

Also, as I know you are aware because you linked to it once at OB, Eliezer, there is the work of Gregory Clark, which suggests a double reason refuting this essay's line of argument. Not a response directly to your comment then, but as an add on I mention it here.

I suppose this line of reasoning is not new to most here, but since I don't see it explicitly mentioned....

1) Most controversial, and almost an aside to the main argument that Clark makes but of course the claim that gets the most ink: that there is something in the culture or even genes of certain societies that keeps them from effectively industrializing.

2) The core claim: That throughout history, temporarily increasing the food supply (through minor technical innovation, or through some other windfall) in a non-industrialized population just leads to more births, creating more people living at the subsistence level. The next food or money shock around the corner puts all these people at death's door. An increase in their numbers just strains the subsistence system even more, inviting an even more horrible catastrophe. Only large, across-the-board increases in the efficiency of economic agents can provide anything other than temporary respite from this trap.

I do not mean to be glib about the horrible, regrettable, and tragic death of a single victim of starvation, let alone millions. But if poorly aimed altruism leads to MORE starvation in the future, then it is not really altruism but self-important, deadly moralizing. I don't know where the truth of the situation lies, but at the very least I bet I could come up with a cute, leading and misleading thought experiment that would lead the essay-writer to admitting he's killing 10 times as many people as he claims he's saving. And I'd be just as reprehensible in my intellectual laziness as he appears to be.

Added: In response to Yvain's latest post, I can accept that this is one sense a dodge of the question. I suppose I don't have a response to the central question, if indeed the central question is whether to do everything in one's power to alleviate suffering, either through food charity or condom charity or whatever. So to separate out the issues here: (1) I find the argument disingenuous, (2) I do not have an answer. .... yet. I must think more clearly about my morals.

Comment author: Yvain 13 March 2009 12:23:32AM *  15 points [-]

I've done some research into this, and found a few targeted charities that I trust.

However, I'm a bit skeptical of the "aid is naturally counterproductive" claim (which I admit is stronger than what you're saying here, although I have heard some people say it). There are definitely some cases where it's true (you don't just send in random goods for free!), but the claim that you can't help poor people so you might as well keep all your money is just too convenient.

Take the claim from the OB post that it would take $3000 per person to raise per capita income $3. Unless they are referring to some specific, especially stupid kind of aid, this is clearly false. Simply invest the $3000 at 5% interest, and give the $150/year to the Africans and you've raised per capita income 50x as much. Not that this is a good idea, but it does seem to show there's something fishy about the calculation.

Jeffrey Sachs writes some interesting responses to the claim that Africa is too corrupt to be able to handle aid. If anyone has seen a specific counterargument to Sachs' claims, please link me to it.

Before I went back to school and lost my income, my favorite charities were microfinance, iodine supplementation (see Raising the World's IQ ) and yes, the Singularity Institute. Although I will be very disappointed if you guys (or anyone) still need money by the time I'm in my prime donating years.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 01:23:16AM 6 points [-]

Simply invest the $3000 at 5% interest, and give the $150/year to the Africans

to the Africans' warlords, who steal the money and use it to stay in power

Fixed that for you.

As P. J. O'Rourke says, speaking of something like a total of $200,000(?) per poor person spent by the American welfare system, it's a flabbergasting phenomenon that appears to be real: You can't fix poverty by giving people money.

I'd love it if the Singularity Institute had an endowment by the time you get out of school, but I wouldn't count on it if I were me.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 September 2011 01:04:18AM 6 points [-]

Citation so very needed. 200,000 dollars to do what? And how often? And by what agencies?

"The American Welfare system" is an enormous patchwork of state, federal and local organizations with different mandates and populations served. It also does not tend to transfer much money at all. I've lived on Social Security Disability for years and it pays a little over 7k a year (try "bootstrapping" yourself on that budget). I make another 40 dollars monthly in food stamps. I am receiving the maximum amount possible from SSDI; the max for Food Stamps is about 120 dollars monthly.

I am highly suspicious of the claim that for my annual income of ~7600 USD, it takes ~192,400 USD just to get it to me, affecting no other welfare recipients in the country.

Comment author: jkaufman 18 September 2011 01:56:10AM *  5 points [-]

Total yearly welfare spending in the usa is $700 billion [1]. This includes federal, state, and local spending. This is being spent on around 50 million people [2] (that's 1/6th of the population). So $14K/person. To get $200K/person you'd need there to be only 3 million poor people in the usa (1%) which is way to low.

This sounds like maybe 50% overhead, not 500% overhead.

Comment author: Yvain 13 March 2009 01:48:42AM *  9 points [-]

"to the Africans' warlords, who steal the money and use it to stay in power"

Note the reference to Jeffrey Sachs in my comment. If you haven't read The End of Poverty, he demolishes the "It's all warlords stealing the money" argument pretty darned thoroughly.

I was thinking of my prime giving years as late middle age, two or three decades down the line, and I was hoping less that you would have an endowment than that, you know, you would control the world and dazzle the few remaining people who hadn't advanced to a Stross-ian Economy 2.0 by transforming small asteroids into giant gold nuggets. But I guess an endowment would be nice too.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 05:35:16AM 5 points [-]

Haven't read The End of Poverty, but I'm willing to accept that it's other forms of economic displacement, not just the warlords stealing. However, it really doesn't look like ending African poverty is remotely as simple as giving them a bunch of money. You'd think it would be. I wish it were. But it doesn't appear to be.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 March 2009 04:10:50PM 5 points [-]

It's not particularly surprising that ending poverty isn't that simple. Most developed economies were brought to their current stage through hundreds of years of innovation, investment, protectionism, and use of inexpensive raw materials and labor from the global South (among other things), and the ones that industrialized more quickly (like Singapore) often had unique geographical or political characteristics that aided this. The development of a stable, diverse economy (and correspondingly high standards of living for a population) depends on far more things than a simple infusion of capital.

For that matter, poor African states are usually poor for very different reasons. Congo's poor despite its great natural resource wealth because the Belgians systematically sabotaged its ability to rule itself before independence even arrived, in the early '60s, and then it got stuck with corrupt dictators who robbed it blind for four decades. Rwanda's poor because the genocide destroyed everything it had built, and even the stable, non-corrupt government that's in power today can't overcome such odds in a generation (and has virtually no natural resources to help it along). Botswana's actually not that poor, because it has a competent government that's used its diamond wealth well. Rather like different aid organizations are differently competent, different African governments are better- and worse-positioned to benefit from A) aid or B) participation in the global economy in general.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 September 2011 04:30:35AM 0 points [-]

I don't usually expect comments that have plus five votes and no negative reception to be retracted! Interesting.

Comment author: arundelo 18 September 2011 08:07:01AM *  2 points [-]

Even weirder: It's from 2009 (before the retraction feature was added).

Edit: Maybe the strikethrough is just because the account was deleted.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 September 2011 11:28:17AM 0 points [-]

Aha. Good theory.

Comment author: Aurini 19 March 2009 02:09:27PM *  1 point [-]

Re [i]The End of Poverty[/i]:

Can't say I recommend it. I picked it up about a year back. I made it about a third of the way through, and he was still discussing 1st year microeconomics and political theory. I really meant to finish it, and I might at some point, but there is a lot of unnecessary filler. The book's written to be popular and easily accessible.

You, sir, have better things to do with your time.

Edit: I fail at the magic of javascripting...

Comment author: Nick_Beckstead 18 September 2011 12:35:25AM 2 points [-]

What is your p that I can't find a charity that (1) gives money to people in Africa and (2) the majority of the donated funds doesn't go to warlords? How about this one: http://givedirectly.org/?

Comment author: wedrifid 18 September 2011 04:27:16AM *  1 point [-]

The p that is more relevant is that of a charity that (1) will be giving money to people in Africa in the counterfactual in which the 10% donations are done by all the wealthy people and (2) the majority of the donated funds doesn't go to warlords. The more money that is floating around the harder it is to avoid corruption. Incentives.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 August 2010 05:56:08AM 2 points [-]

As P. J. O'Rourke says, speaking of something like a total of $200,000(?) per poor person spent by the American welfare system, it's a flabbergasting phenomenon that appears to be real: You can't fix poverty by giving people money.

I'd be curious about how much of that is going for administrative costs to people who haven't taken a vow of near-poverty themselves, assuming that the number is accurate. Is it per year?

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 06 August 2010 03:59:26PM 7 points [-]

Eliezer implies it's pretty much all administrative costs. But it's not clear that this is a fair measure "giving people money." European welfare systems are less resentful of their recipients and more focused on direct transfers. I'm sure that they are more efficient than the US system, though I don't have any numbers. A stipend that was not means-tested could be more efficient still. A negative income tax might not need to be more complicated than the income tax system itself. The US version is not terribly complicated by income tax standards, but I think a lot of people fail to exploit it out of ignorance. That's a type of inefficiency that doesn't show up in this kind of number.

Comment author: David_Gerard 06 April 2011 07:23:19AM *  2 points [-]

As P. J. O'Rourke says, speaking of something like a total of $200,000(?) per poor person spent by the American welfare system

Per year? If so, that is evidence mostly that your system is ridiculous. When I worked for the Department of Social Security in Australia (who do most welfare payments) in 1991, our running costs were 2% of benefits disbursed (so we were told by our managers).

In this case, I really think a cite for precisely what he was claiming, and his source for it, would be needed.

Comment author: Multiheaded 15 April 2012 09:51:00AM 2 points [-]

Frankly, if you're going to put in that much work into buying expected utilons at the cheapest available price, you shouldn't be considering any mainstream charity targets like aid to developing countries.

That almost sounds like some sort of a subtle hint, EY...

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 06 April 2011 12:11:54PM 0 points [-]

Are the charities reccommended by Givewell, specifically VillageReach, good or counterproductive?

Also, what exactly does the Singularity Institute spend its money on? If I knew, I'd be more willing to direct my money there.

Comment author: gwern 06 April 2011 04:41:36PM 4 points [-]

Also, what exactly does the Singularity Institute spend its money on? If I knew, I'd be more willing to direct my money there.

I've answered this before directly, so I'll try a different tack. What action could you take to find this out? What information is already available?

Comment author: gwern 19 April 2011 09:14:56PM *  6 points [-]

Since no one bit my Socratic lure, my sequence of answers would have been to point out that SIAI is a charity, charities are nonprofit corporations, corporations keep records of spending, and often make them public; as an IRS-recognized charity, SIAI is obligated to make reports public, and some googling then turns up GuideStar as a source, at which point it's easy to download their PDFs from SIAI and finally answer the question - what does SIAI spend its money own?

I did this earlier for salary information: http://lesswrong.com/lw/2l8/existential_risk_and_public_relations/2ywt There are a lot of interesting things in the filings; I once wrote an essay on what I found in the filings for Girl Scouts: http://www.gwern.net/Girl%20Scouts%20and%20good%20governance (See also Discussion post.)

EDIT: for an analysis of SIAI, see http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/5fo/siai_fundraising/

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 March 2009 06:22:40AM *  14 points [-]

I hold the "wound-healing" theory of charity, which I by coincidence made up earlier today.

Suppose you have a nasty wound on your leg. Suppose your body isn't very smart, and you have to direct the platelets yourself to begin healing it. Judging from how we go about international aid, most people would direct them to the center of the wound. That wouldn't work. The platelets would die and shed, and the wound would never heal.

You heal a wound from the outside in. You begin healing the parts that just border the healthy, solid parts, and gradually work your way to the center.

Likewise, if you want to help people, you shouldn't throw money into the most unstable, unproductive, screwed-up part of the world. You should find a population that is barely self-sufficient, and help them be more self-sufficient.

Comment author: DanielLC 09 January 2012 12:34:21AM 2 points [-]

You throw money where it makes the biggest difference. This is not going to be the neediest person in the world, but I'm not sure exactly how bad they'll be.

Judge the charities on a case-by-case basis, and see what works best. Once you do that, you will spot patterns, and you can work from there. Don't assume it works the same as healing a wound.

Comment author: Lawliet 13 March 2009 09:40:10AM 5 points [-]

I dont know much about charity, but I dont contest that this was made up in a day.

"Never fix the worst problem first, because thats the way skin heals"

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 March 2009 04:19:42PM 16 points [-]

You can't fix the worse problem first. You'll get nowhere if you look at this as a collection of individual problems. You won't find a country that has a high standard of living, high employment, and a good educational system, but can't get mosquito nets for their beds.

You can't even begin to think about the issue unless you understand some complex-system domain, preferably economics or ecology. As a crude analogy, an economy is like the framework of a large and complicated tent. If the tent has fallen, you can't pick up individual pieces and put them back in place. It will fall down again as soon as you let go.

Trying to "fix the worst problem first" is the philosopher's solution. A philosopher looks for the biggest questions, tackles them directly, and never solves them. A scientist looks for questions that are solvable. Science also proceeds at its edges.

Comment author: Annoyance 13 March 2009 03:56:55PM 2 points [-]

Bootstrapping, in other words. Starting with what works and amplifying it, rather than going straight to what's not working and trying to fix it.

Comment author: Nebu 13 March 2009 05:07:11PM 8 points [-]

So I imagined myself at this person's speech, and found it fairly predictable for the most part. When he said he wanted to ask a few questions before the speech, I knew that the questions would actually be "part of" the speech, and I felt I should put the effort to try to answer them honestly (at least internally, if I were too embarrassed to admit the true answers publicly), as he probably chose the questions to trigger some insight later on.

When he asks if I was 50% confident I would kill myself to save 10, I was pretty torn, and I suspect I would not have resolved the question (and thus not raised my hand) by the time he moved on to the next question.

When he asks if I'm 95% confident I would kill myself to save 10, this was a much easier question. I know I'm not 95% confident and thus did not even consider raising my hand.

When he asks if I would spend 20 years in jail to save 10, my first gut instinct was to raise my hand, and I think I would have raised my hand. But, with my hand still in the air, I think I would immediately start regretting it, as I know that I, personally, am terrible at intuiting time duration, and started to wonder "how long is 20 years, really? That's practically my whole life so far... am I really willing to give up almost as much time as all the time I've ever experienced so far?"

"Too late", I imagined thinking to myself, "he's moved on to the next question." Would I live in eternal poverty to save 10? This again was an easy answer: definitely not. If 20 years was uncomfortably long, there's no way I'd live 60-80, or longer (if I sign up for cryonics?) without being able to afford videogames, internet access, etc.

And I'd at first be surprised by the number of hands that went up, but then I'd figure this is typical of neurotypicals (I'm on the autistic spectrum), who don't say what they mean, and don't even realize they don't mean what they are saying.

Then, as soon as the speaker said

In both situations if the people die, you will be rich; if they live, you will be poor, and it is within your power to decide which it is to be. In either situation if you decide that they should die in order that you can be rich, you have put your happiness, or not actually even that, you have put material riches for yourself above 10 people’s lives.

I successfully predicted that this speech would be about donating money to the poor.

So to answer the implied question:

I'd be really interested to hear what the Less Wrong community thinks of this.

I can tell you that my thoughts really didn't have much to do with poverty, morality, charities or Africa, but a lot more to do with people (in general, not just neurotypicals) not actually thinking about nor realizing what it is that they are saying. As an Autist, I "knew" on some level that NTs weren't doing this intentionally, but this speech actually really hit me hard with the idea that they really weren't doing it intentionally.

This really reminds me of Eliezer's Cached Thought concept.

the next time you hear someone unhesitatingly repeating a meme you think is silly or false, you'll think, "Cached thoughts." My belief is now there in your mind, waiting to complete the pattern. But is it true? Don't let your mind complete the pattern! Think!

Comment author: jhuffman 13 March 2009 01:30:01AM 8 points [-]

Can you imagine a world where everyone followed this advice? I don't really know what would happen but it seems possible if all disposable income is given to people who don't have an income in regions that don't have an economy that this would choke economies and bringing the entire world population down to a subsistence level.

Comment author: juliawise 17 September 2011 04:02:21PM *  14 points [-]

That's like imagining a world in which everyone became nurses and we had no other professions, or where everyone decided not to have children and the population crashed. We shouldn't discourage people from becoming nurses or not having children just because it would be bad if everyone did. If economies really started crashing because everyone gave away lots of money (or we had too many nurses or not enough babies), people would adjust their behavior.

Organizations like Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save advocate those of us in the developed world giving between 1% and 10% of our income. That would easily end the worst of world poverty, and (I believe) would not destroy economies.

Obviously, people in the developed world are not leaping to give away 50% of their income. Until they start, I'll continue trying to make up for them.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 04 August 2010 07:02:12PM 8 points [-]

I'm pretty sure that if everyone did what their explicit morality told them to we would have endless global religious wars, but that doesn't mean that a world where people who build sane explicit moralities for themselves wouldn't make the world better by following those moralities in so far as they can.

Comment author: jhuffman 05 August 2010 06:54:41PM *  0 points [-]

Well I had to reread the original article as it was written more than a year ago...

But what the speaker was suggesting was if people agree to his scenario where giving up all but subsistence income to save 10 lives, then they should in fact now give every dollar they make beyond a basic subsistence level to charities that would distribute it to places were people want for food or clean water.

So it was not proposing a "middle-ground"; at least in my reading of it. You could almost extrapolate that he believes it immoral to posses above a subsistence level if there are people in the world still starving.

My point was that some people starve because they live in broken economies, and funneling money out of functioning economies into broken ones may not be very optimal in its performance against the speaker's assumed preferences.

ETA: I shouldn't say that is actually the speaker's viewpoint. I think he was trying to challenge his audience's beliefs about their own morality more than suggest a particular one.

Comment author: lessdazed 17 September 2011 04:59:20PM 3 points [-]

Can you imagine a world where everyone followed any advice based on how they imagined the world to be if everyone followed that advice?

Comment author: ciphergoth 13 March 2009 11:27:50AM 5 points [-]

You think that if most people in privileged countries suddenly made maximising the total worldwide good their true goal in life, it would be a bad thing? I'd like to believe this to justify my own small extravagances, but I doubt it.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 March 2009 04:27:32PM 2 points [-]

He gave a justification; you didn't. Point: jhuffman.

Comment author: Technologos 16 March 2009 02:08:39AM 1 point [-]

I agree--in fact, we're seeing some of this right now, with the financial crisis. It's related to the paradox of thrift: if everybody saves, the economy collapses and we're all in trouble.

Similarly, if instead of spending money on consumption and local goods, I sent it all to the poorest people I could find, a whole variety of other people would have no means of income. Remember that spending on consumption goods doesn't destroy the money (or more to the point, prevent charity from being done), since somebody else still gets it.

As an offset, of course, we might expect the poorest countries to become legitimate markets and thus increase total wealth.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 06 April 2011 12:02:23PM 1 point [-]

It is only necessary to give up to the point where the problem is fixed. If everyone giving all their surplus would be non-optimal, there is some amount less than "all" for each person to give that would be optimal. However, most people are not giving anywhere near this amount, so in the here and now the world will be better if you give all your surplus. If the world were different, the principles that led to this advice would lead to different advice that would be optimal in that situation.

Comment author: jhuffman 06 April 2011 06:22:06PM 0 points [-]

My entire point was that the problem cannot be fixed in this way. Pouring money into a region that doesn't have a functioning economy doesn't create an economy, in fact it may even make a self-sustainable economy impossible. Meanwhile, it takes money out of an economy that is functioning which amounts to a net loss to world productivity.

Comment author: Caesium 17 September 2011 02:23:19PM 5 points [-]

This is a fairly common and important criticism of aid; it is part of the hypothesis of Dambisa Moyo. Whilst a valid criticism against certain types of aid, it certainly does not apply to all of them. For example, public health interventions such as increased vaccinations, or combating infectious diseases, require little in the way of a local functioning economy. Furthermore, such items are generally considered to be both quasi-public goods (due to herd immunity) and merit goods -- so, there is a strong economic argument that they will be under provisioned, especially in a country lacking an effective government.

But, yes, development aid has a very checquered record.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 06 April 2011 07:33:24PM 0 points [-]

That makes more sense. I don't have the economics knowledge to answer it either way.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 March 2009 10:46:33PM 8 points [-]

Please remember that we're supposed to be able to submit links, not just original essays. Anyone downvoting on that basis (rather than dislike of the link itself) is making an error about Less Wrong posting policies. A link like this wouldn't be promoted to the front page but it's okay to vote up if you like the content.

Comment author: Lawliet 12 March 2009 10:51:56PM 3 points [-]

Why cant linked articles be promoted? Do they have to be original content written specifically for LessWrong? Can they be cross posted elsewhere?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 March 2009 11:01:03PM 5 points [-]

Really good linked articles could be promoted, or crossposted ones. But because the amount of possible content of this sort is so high, the general policy, I think, should be to not promote anything that isn't really good, while being highly tolerant of links that are genuinely interesting.

Comment author: BrandonReinhart 13 March 2009 12:29:06AM 2 points [-]

There may be a bug in that this article shows up as a "top" scoring one although when I viewed the article it had zero points assigned.

Comment author: dlrlw 12 January 2015 12:34:55AM 3 points [-]

The real question is, is the ultimate value maximizing the number of human-years? How about the quest for knowledge? Improvement of the species?

Is saving 10 people from starvation (ie, funding the continued existence of 10 people, engaging in the typical activities of a subsistence agriculturist, and experiencing the normal pleasures/pains of a subsistence agriculturist's life, of greater value than, say, funding one person working to figure out how to increase human being's peak IQ? [although, of course, fill in here the research question that you think is the most important]

I'd say that the average subsistence agriculturalist isn't contributing anything (and CAN'T contribute anything) to the most valuable activities mankind is currently engaged in.

Comment author: Good_Burning_Plastic 12 January 2015 08:22:44AM 0 points [-]

Is saving 10 people from starvation (ie, funding the continued existence of 10 people, engaging in the typical activities of a subsistence agriculturist, and experiencing the normal pleasures/pains of a subsistence agriculturist's life, of greater value than, say, funding one person working to figure out how to increase human being's peak IQ? [although, of course, fill in here the research question that you think is the most important]

The former may be more terminally valuable for certain value systems, but as far as I can tell the latter is more instrumentally valuable for pretty much all reasonable human value systems.

Comment author: jimrandomh 13 March 2009 12:42:53AM 7 points [-]

The linked article presents a situation where the ten people you could save were chosen at random by a king. However, the people who you could save by giving to food aid charities are not random. They are specifically those who for some reason cannot produce enough to feed themselves. A few hundred years ago, feeding them would have prevented deaths in the short term, but caused an equal or greater number of deaths a generation later due to excess population. It also eliminates selection effects which would make future generations more productive. It may be possible to feed everyone today, but our moral instinct has had very little time to adjust to that fact, and it's still difficult to ensure our efforts aren't counterproductive. A lot of aid ends up being claimed by warlords and used against the people we want to help.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 13 March 2009 01:13:42AM *  7 points [-]

Yes, but there are ways to save people for not very much money. See http://givewell.net/psi

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 01:20:36AM 1 point [-]

Anna or Carl or Vassar: was Givewell one of the good guys or one of the bad guys?

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 13 March 2009 01:33:30AM *  8 points [-]

One of the good guys. Givewell isn't a specific charity; it's a serious attempt to research and publicize means of effective giving, in the sense of figuring out how to get the most {lives saved / education / other specific goals} per dollar.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 August 2010 05:59:56AM 3 points [-]

They are specifically those who for some reason cannot produce enough to feed themselves.

They may be people who produce enough to feed themselves, but who can't keep it, whether it's because they don't have the facilities to preserve what they make from rot and insects, or because they live in a society where much of the value they create is likely to be stolen.

Comment author: dlrlw 26 January 2015 04:55:28PM 4 points [-]

This whole speech makes me mad. The same people who urge us to not have kids, because of overpopulation, are urging us to spend all of our disposable income in supporting 'poor people', because they are in misery. And why are they in misery? Because they had more kids than they could afford to take care of. And their parents did. And their parents before them.

You on the other hand, are descended from a long line of prudent people. Who though about the consequences of their actions and decided that the short term pleasure wasn't worth the long term pain. Those in misery, those we are being urged to save, they, and their parents, didn't exercise the self restraint to not have kids they couldn't afford, and so now we should rush in and save them -- from the pain associated with their shortsightedness. They are and were obviously more indifference to their own future suffering, and to the future suffering of their children than to the pleasure of having half a dozen kids, why should we be more concerned about their suffering than they were? You postpone marriage and sacrifice to get a good job, they go out and have 10 kids when they don't have enough food and money to support themselves.

If revealed preferences show anything, they show that they, personally, aren't actually very distressed by the threat of dying of hunger, or being debilitated by disease, or living in a society wracked by violence and injustice. And they aren't too distressed by the possibility of their children living and dying in exactly the same way. They obviously aren't concerned enough about it to change their own behavior. Why should we rush in and save them?

That's the problem with utilitarianism. Just like every other form of socialism it says that people who are smart, and conscientious, and hard working, should spend their time working to accomplish the goals of people who are lazy, stupid, and thriftless. Or rather working 24/7 to save them from the consequences of their actions. They go off and have half a dozen kids with no way to support them, and then we are supposed to spend out time maximizing "the sum total of human happiness" by supporting them and their kids -- by doing for them things they can't be bothered to do for themselves.

That's the problem with democracy too, especially democracy in the form with mass redistribution. Money (which is, literally, time) is taken from the smart, the hardworking, and the conscientious, and given to the foolish, the feckless and the irresponsible. This TRANSFERS decision making power as to what to do with the spare resources of society from people who would invest in cultural enhancement, things like scientific research, to those whose highest goals are pleasure and the shortsighted avoidance of pain.

This is a mistake on two levels:

First, it turns evolution on it's head. Soon the world is full of thriftless, heedless, irresponsible people.

Second, it destroys the possibility of progress. I say encourage smart, conscientious, hardworking people to use their spare time, energy and money to advance human KNOWLEDGE, and to have smart, conscientious, hardworking kids of their own, who will do the same.

If increasing the sum total of human happiness is your goal, there are far better ways of accomplishing it than giving all of your money to aid workers to distribute to the poor.

1) Even if you did save the lives of 10 people, by sending all your spare cash to provide food aid or medical assistance to the dreadfully poor. I don't think it actually decreases the amount of suffering in the world, or increases the amount of human happiness. It just gives 10 people you saved the 'opportunity' to suffer in a dozen other unpleasant ways. The quality of life in places where people actually die from malnutrition is dreadful.

2) If you just want to maximize the human happiness of 10 people, have 10 kids, and raise them lovingly. You'd add more to the sum total of human enjoyment in the world than someone who rescues 10 people from starvation. The number of additional " enjoyable human life years" you give them is probably nil, since you don't, and can't, make sure they are educated, or taught a useful profession, or protected from dreadful diseases, or from random violence by thugs and jihadists and the hundreds of other injustices and oppression they would encounter in Africa,or where-ever. Just making sure they don't die of starvation is just the start of the unending list of things you would have to fix to make their lives enjoyable. Cut out the middleman, those ineffectual, incompetent aid workers, who need tens of thousands of your money to marginally improve the life of one person (maybe). Raise 10 kids of your own. Guaranteed the happy, useful lives of THOSE ten kids will add more to the 'sum total of human happiness' than the lives of those hypothetical 10 people in Africa.

3) Besides, raising 10 kids of your own would dramatically increase your OWN happiness. Why feel guilty? Pleasure that you give yourself is as much a contribution to the sum total of human happiness as pleasure you enable your 10 kids experience, by living happy and productive lives. And believe me, your life would be MUCH more enjoyable. And not just from the fun of watching the kids grow up. If you're a guy, and if you're reading this blog, the odds are high you are a guy, then, believe me, there is no 'game' you can play that would be as sure a road to finding a beautiful, loving woman who wants YOU, as announcing to all and sundry that you want to get married and have a lot of kids -- and that you are looking for someone who wants that too. Try THAT the next time you walk into a bar.

4) And if you're reading this blog, the odds are high that you are about 2 standard deviations above the average human being in intelligence, conscientiousness, and willingness to work hard. If the 10 people whose lives you make possible are all YOUR KIDS, instead of some random strangers, you just helped improve the human gene pool, and by a lot. We need more people who are just like you, who care about scientific progress, and the future of the human race, etc. So get out there and replicate!! :-) ,Instead of sending your money off to help replicate other people, replicate yourself! You are exactly the sort of people we need more of.

Even better, if you do have kids, (instead of spending your time supporting other peoples kids), you can raise them to be USEFUL: scientists, engineers, researchers -- people who can make a real contribution to humanity, instead of eaking out their lives as subsistence agriculturalists, or as "marginally attached workers" in some slum of a mega city, or idling their time away in some refugee camp...

Comment author: ciphergoth 13 March 2009 11:23:57AM 2 points [-]

BTW your edit is a spoiler - I recommend turning it into a comment...

Comment author: Lawliet 12 March 2009 10:46:11PM 7 points [-]

If you could gave me a magic button to kill 10 people and make me rich, without any tricky business (like risk of being punished) then I would push it.

I should also hope that nobody else would, and by the sound of things many wouldn't.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 13 March 2009 01:48:30AM 6 points [-]

If you weren't so lazy and risk-averse, you could start your illegal toxic waste dumping business immediately :)

I'm glad that your button isn't readily available. If it chose its victims without any intent to cause personal regret, then I can't see any less than 10% of people opting for wealth - goodbye human race.

Comment author: Annoyance 13 March 2009 04:08:44PM 5 points [-]

I wouldn't push the button if it picked people at random, although I might consider the risk of killing a valuable person worthwhile if the payoff is big enough.

I guess the real question is: what is the value of other people? It does not seem to be a trivial matter.

Comment author: thomblake 12 March 2009 10:50:58PM 3 points [-]

The trick there is that you can't easily disconnect who you are from what you do. If you're the sort of person who would really push that button, then people will be able to tell; it will show up in your other actions. Your other virtues will decline as well, and you will be less successful at making friendships, doing business, and having a good life.

Comment author: Lawliet 12 March 2009 11:04:42PM 6 points [-]

I don't go around telling people, and if I was in the audience I would raise my hand with everybody else.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 09 January 2012 01:37:37AM 0 points [-]

... and you're using Tor, or you're confident that the site admins won't develop a habit next week of tracking people down ...

Comment author: DanielLC 09 January 2012 12:36:22AM 0 points [-]

Are you allowed to donate the money to charity? If so, I'd definitely push it.

Comment author: thomblake 12 March 2009 10:47:41PM 6 points [-]

Wow, I'm glad I don't say I'm an altruist.

I'm also glad I don't easily fall prey to arguments based on bad economics.

Comment author: billswift 13 March 2009 04:43:35PM *  0 points [-]

There are several different fallacies and errors mixed together in this essay which is what makes it so bad.

First, and simplest, is the equating of non-sacrifice and murder. Just because the one person is not willing to sacrifice himself to save a few others is not the same as being willing to kill innocent others. "But morally speaking, that situation is exactly the same as this one."- vicious nonsense.

Second, everything I have read, except Leftist propaganda, says this "Within the next 50 years an absolute minimum of 500M people will starve to death. The UN reports that around 10M people starve to death every year and the problem is only going to get worse as the population increases." is also vicious nonsense. And the idea that foreign aid will help the people who do die of malnutrition is as bad. Any widespread malnutrition today is directly caused by governments' attacks on specific groups, the most current and egregious example being Sudan.

Most important is a matter of values. Why should someone value anyone, even a large number of people, over their own life and freedom, or even their own comfort? There is no one, or any collection of people, I would sacrifice my life or my freedom for. I might risk my life for a sufficient number of people, or for a few people I know personally.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 13 March 2009 02:26:04AM 1 point [-]

Personally I'd keep myself alive, accept 20 years jail, but refuse permanent poverty which I consider a worse-than-death (those preferences make sense since I hope to live a very long time). And I don't think that "not maintaining life" is the same as killing - any more than I think "not creating life" is the same as killing. Other people's survival is not automatically my problem, and I am certainly not obligated to beggar myself to keep a hundred war-impoverished Africans in rice. They had better look out for themselves.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 13 March 2009 02:32:45AM 0 points [-]

Yep, there is definitely a difference between killing and not saving. However, I think a reasonable definition of an asshole is someone whose coefficient modifying the experiences of others in their decision-making is below some threshold. (An example of how to compute the coefficient: Let's say I want a car. If n is the number of people like me such that I would be indifferent between giving a car to all those people and giving a car to myself, then my coefficient is 1/n.) So it's possible to be an asshole without breaking any specific moral rules.

Also, presumably in a society where you lived a very long time, problems like starvation, AIDS, and malaria would have been solved.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 March 2009 04:26:33PM 5 points [-]

If you gave everyone in the world a car except me, my standard of living would go down dramatically. I'm not just indifferent to that; I see it as negative utility. So on your scale I am infinitely assholic.

Comment author: Lawliet 13 March 2009 02:55:59AM 1 point [-]

Do you mean you would rather commit one stranger to poverty than kill ten people, or that you being in poverty is worse than ten strangers dying, but a stranger in poverty is not?

Comment author: JulianMorrison 13 March 2009 01:13:52PM 1 point [-]

The scenario was quite contrived - truly permanent poverty, enforced by a king. Every non-coerced form of poverty has at least the hope of benefiting by economic improvement, and most forms of poverty are something you can work your way out of (allowing for difficulties with time, energy, education and lowered IQ). Ordinary poverty is not a worse-than-death.

Comment author: Jonnan 18 March 2009 02:35:31AM 0 points [-]

I am what I like to call a "Greedy Progressive", inasmuch as my liberal instincts are not based in the guilt theory that a lot of conservatives and some liberals associate with liberalism, but on an implicit assumption that others doing well helps my life get better - and after a certain point, indeed helping others helps my quality of life in more immediately helpful ways than even spending money on myself or my family, though exactly where this point is at is subject to argument.

However, fundamentally the point is that I am not a progressive because I'm a sweet guy, but because I get a return on the investment. This implies two obvious things

A) That as improving others life also improves mine, improving my life also improves the lives of others in society. I am no less worth of living in comfort than someone in Africa either.

B) That although it helps me to help someone in Africa, it may very well help me more to help someone here, who in turn helps someone else slightly further from my sphere of influence, et al. Since this is not about me being a sweet guy, the question of who I help depends on my (perception of) return on investment.

C) Once I get below a certain point, the highest return on investment for expenditure of X money for Y personal happiness, is me. And, since I am in fact as important as anyone else, I give myself explicit permission to do that. I quit giving to my local public radio and the ACLU when I get below that point - and start again when I get above. The same for every other charity in existence.

And that's where I dislike the article. It assumes my happiness is in fact less important than the happiness of those I could help. So in point of fact, no, there is a definite limit to what i will sacrifice for random strangers, just because my happiness is no less important.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 18 March 2009 02:47:19AM 4 points [-]

You are not supposed to be as important to yourself as everybody else is to yourself, you can easily be more important. The point of helping the people in poor countries is exactly that supposedly you can help much more people per buck than in a developed country.

Comment author: quinsie 17 September 2011 03:12:57PM -1 points [-]

The correct moral response to the king's sadistic choice (in any of the 4 forms mentioned) is not sacrifice yourself OR to let the other 10 die instead. The correct answer is that you, knowing the king was doing this, should have founded/joined/assisted an organization devoted to deposing the evil king and replacing him with someone who isn't going to randomly kill his subjects.

So to with charity. The answer isn't to sacrifice all of your comforts and wealth to save the lives of others, but to assist with, petition for and otherwise attempt to inact sanctions, reforms and revolutions to force the leaders of the world's most impoverished nations to end the policies that are leading to their populations starving to death. There is already enough food to feed everyone in the world twice over, it is simply a matter of making sure that nobody is prevented from obtaining it by a cruel or uncarring outside institution.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 September 2011 11:41:57PM 1 point [-]

There is already enough food to feed everyone in the world twice over

Really? That sounds like it should mean we have a massive waste problem. Enough food to feed (entire world's population + everyone who is not being fed now) is constantly being discarded. In that counterfactual world we really should be using food leftovers to produce fuel.

Comment author: CarlShulman 18 September 2011 12:18:18AM *  10 points [-]

There actually is massive waste due to food spoilage, e.g. in India and other regions with poor transport infrastructure, but the big effect here is that crops go to feed meat animals (and, to a much lesser extent, biofuel) instead of humans, with low efficiency. If global income inequality were reduced (through increasing incomes of the current poor) this would bid up food prices and result in the current rich cutting back on meat consumption while the current poor increased plant (and to a lesser degree, meat) consumption.

Of course, with uneven development you get situations like massive increases in meat production in China while things become harder for those in the worst-off countries due to increased food prices (at least in the short-term).

Comment author: [deleted] 18 September 2011 02:18:56AM 0 points [-]

There's also the fact that formerly public land inhabited by people capable of producing food enough for their own needs winds up getting sold off to First World companies for agribusiness, displacing the people who used it and making it unavailable for locally-focused agriculture (as the crops involved go to market exports instead -- if you'd ever eaten a Dole pineapple, odds are good a lot of people wound up in urban shantytowns in order to rent that land to the company).

Comment author: satt 15 April 2012 12:44:15PM 1 point [-]

CarlShulman's mentioned food waste in developing nations, but there's non-negligible food waste elsewhere too. On a bigger scale, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy used to be infamous in the 70s and 80s for generating surplus beef & butter "mountains", although this is apparently a negligible problem now.

Comment author: billswift 13 March 2009 05:35:44AM -2 points [-]

The linked essay is one of the most viciously stupid things I have read in a long time.

Thanks JohnMaxwellIV for gratuitously insulting all autists by calling them assholes. I have been annoyed enough by evo-psychs saying humans do this or humans do that when many non-neurotypicals don't; apparently evo-psychs don't consider autists as humans (more likely they're just sloppy thinkers).

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 13 March 2009 06:22:58AM 1 point [-]

If you dislike my definition of asshole, please provide a new one. I'm genuinely interested to hear what you come up with. Remember, my definition applies only at the decision-making level: if you don't have a native capability to care for others but you emulate such a capability, you're no asshole in my book.

Comment author: Annoyance 13 March 2009 03:58:06PM 3 points [-]

"if you don't have a native capability to care for others but you emulate such a capability, you're no asshole in my book."

Why should I want to emulate such a capability?

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 13 March 2009 05:20:55PM 1 point [-]

To make the world a better place, perhaps?

Comment author: Annoyance 14 March 2009 05:25:42PM 2 points [-]

All right: why should my definition of 'better' involve caring for others?

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 14 March 2009 08:01:12PM 5 points [-]

Well, if you really don't care at all for other people, I don't think there's much I can do to bring you around. All I can say is that suffering is suffering and pleasure is pleasure, even if you aren't the one experiencing it.

Comment author: Aurini 19 March 2009 02:16:37PM 0 points [-]

Implicit premise, that I haven't seen anyone point out:

It is assumed that while charity has a variable utility anywhere between 0 and X, selfish spending has a utility which is less than 0. This may be true in most cases, given that many people waste their money on disposable, consumerist garbage, but when considering somebody who spends frugally, their monetary utility will be in the positive sums (though arguably, less than any given charity).

Comment author: DanielLC 27 December 2009 06:05:17PM 2 points [-]

He never said selfish spending has zero utility or less. He just implied it was less than charity. If you find a really good charity, it tends to be orders of magnitude better than keeping the money. For example, for $25 you could either see a couple of movies, or allow someone else to see the rest of their life. http://www.hollows.org/

There's nothing wrong with watching a movie. It's just not nearly as good as being able to see in general.

Comment author: pjeby 19 March 2009 05:32:04PM 2 points [-]

Also, note that rich people have a tendency to engage in charity anyway; this suggests that once you have enough money to buy whatever you and/or your family might want, you gain more utility by giving it away than you can obtain by buying more stuff. Conversely, if you don't have enough for things you want or feel you need, the idea of giving it away to other people might be of lower utility.

(This assumes that utility is both relative and personal, of course, as otherwise it is impossible for two persons to profit from trading with each other.)

Comment author: candyfromastranger 26 July 2012 08:24:01PM 0 points [-]

I don't agree that the selfish option on the third choice is murder. There's a difference between killing people because you're being coerced using your money and killing people of your own free will in order to take their money.

If the facts about poverty there are true and one agrees that being unwilling to make the third sacrifice is murder (which I don't), then yes, his conclusion that most of the people there were being hypocritical would be logical. If you consider yourself altruistic but put your own comfort before the lives of others, I don't think that your actions logically follow from your morals. I didn't feel conflicted by his conclusion, though, because I'm not an altruist.

Comment author: Emile 13 March 2009 11:58:18AM 0 points [-]

The gap between what people say they'd do and what they actually do is an interesting topic.

However, in the example chosen here (starving people in third-world countries), there are too many other reasons for which people wouldn't make the choice to save lives, many of which have been given by other commenters.

And I expect that if you mounted a hypothetical scenario that was closer to the actual starving people one, including the factors like the impact that aid might have on the local economy, the overpopulation problems, etc. - then I expect that much less people would say that they'd make great sacrifices to save lives (much less than would in the ten-hostages scenario, at least). There would probably still be a gap between what people say they'd do, and what they actually do, but it wouldn't be as dramatic.