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komponisto comments on Efficient Charity - Less Wrong

31 Post author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 10:27AM

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Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 08:10:04PM *  2 points [-]

No parent would prefer to send a child to Disney World over preventing even a single one of his or her children from contracting a life threatening illness!

This kind of criticism seems inappropriate to me. It is so utterly obvious that foreign lives could be saved for less money than a trip to Disney World, that it should be an automatic conclusion that people who donate to Make-A-Wish are deliberately purchasing fuzzies, not attempting to purchase utilons. In other words, I highly doubt that people who donate to Make-a-Wish are doing so because they think saving a foreign infant's life would be more expensive; rather, they're most likely doing so because they actually want a domestic sick child to go to Disney World.

Your argument is not an argument against donating to Make-a-Wish; it's an argument against going to Disney World.

This is why I tend to be impatient with discussions of optimal philanthropy; most of it seems to consist of attempts to get people to feel bad about doing things that make them feel good. Of course I realize that this post, despite appearing on LW, isn't actually targeted at a LW audience, so maybe it will have some effect just in terms of getting people to think about utilons when they might not have otherwise. But for me at least, the case is pretty much closed at once: when you're actually trying to be efficient with your money, as measured by utility, you should spend your marginal dollars (or whatever currency) on existential-risk-reduction/long-term-species-improvement. The utilities (positive and negative) involved in these domains are so large that, until you actually think existing institutions are having a satisfactory impact on these problems, nothing else even comes close.

Hence I don't myself see a lot of need for arguments about whether saving lives in third-world countries is "better" than going to Disney World -- or sending a sick child there.

Comment author: JGWeissman 04 December 2010 08:43:09PM 7 points [-]

It is so utterly obvious that foreign lives could be saved for less money than a trip to Disney World, that it should be an automatic conclusion that people who donate to Make-A-Wish are deliberately purchasing fuzzies, not attempting to purchase utilons.

I doubt that most people even ask the question whether they want to purchase fuzzies or utilons, so it doesn't make sense to conclude that they are deliberately choosing one over the other. It also is not clear that people consider and discard the option of donating to life saving charities, rather than just not thinking about the possibility. Getting people to actually deliberately consider these options is valuable.

But for me at least, the case is pretty much closed: when you're actually trying to be efficient with your money, as measured by utility, you should spend your marginal dollars (or whatever currency) on existential-risk-reduction/long-term-species-improvement.

I agree, but if you are targeting people who not familiar with concepts of optimizing charity and x-risk/transhumanism, there are large inferential distances, and this is a good start in breaking of a manageable piece of it. To get to promoting x-risks, additional prerequisites include problems with time discounting, and expected utility optimizing under large uncertainty.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 08:49:20PM 0 points [-]

I understand and agree. I think I would just prefer not to have it framed as "Make-A-Wish is less efficient than VillageReach". Their goals are different. I do think getting people to consider VillageReach as a source of fuzzies is all well and good.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 09:22:07PM *  1 point [-]

I agree with JGWeissman's comment here. The key point is that the article is written for donors who have not thought about who not familiar with concepts of optimizing charity and x-risk/transhumanism.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 10:21:40PM *  0 points [-]

I responded to JGWeissman here, acknowledging that but standing by my criticism of the framing.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 10:28:25PM 0 points [-]

What framing would you prefer?

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 10:39:28PM *  0 points [-]

I would suggest comparing the cost of saving a life with the cost of something more mundane and dispensable, like movie tickets, rather than the sorts of activities that are likely to be seen as integral to one's identity and values (like bringing happiness or other help to people in bad situations).

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 11:01:24PM *  2 points [-]

I see. I suspect that your objection arises from you having thought more about effective philanthropy than the intended audience but I may be wrong. If people in the intended audience have a similar objection I'll consider revising the article.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 11:11:41PM *  4 points [-]

Basically, I feel that "effective philanthropy" is a "wrong topic". The topic should be effective use of money. VillageReach vs. Make-A-Wish is a false choice. If we are going to channel more money into VillageReach, I feel that that there are much better places to take it out of than something like Make-A-Wish.

Think about it: imagine you're a regular Make-A-Wish donor who has suddenly found out about VillageReach, and would like to offer support. Why should your Disney-World-trips-for-cancer-patients fund be the first jar you raid?

Comment author: wedrifid 05 December 2010 12:05:40AM 6 points [-]

Think about it: imagine you're a regular Make-A-Wish donor who has suddenly found out about VillageReach, and would like to offer support. Why should your Disney-World-trips-for-cancer-patients fund be the first jar you raid?

Because people are the way they are. They have intuitive budgets for different classes of expenditure and trying to take money from their shoes budget instead of their charity budget just would not work.

Comment author: komponisto 05 December 2010 01:12:40AM 2 points [-]

Was it not clear that I was attacking the notion that there ought to be a "charity budget"?

This is the inferential gap that we ought to be trying to bridge. Famine relief and Make-A-Wish shouldn't be in the same budget!

trying to take money from their shoes budget instead of their charity budget just would not work.

How do you know this? In fact I beg to differ. People aren't born with a charity budget; they have to take it out of somewhere when they start giving in the first place.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 December 2010 04:13:43AM *  8 points [-]

Was it not clear that I was attacking the notion that there ought to be a "charity budget"?

I am attacking the notion that effecive philanthropy is a 'wrong topic' just because in a perfect world people would be different to they are now. Effective philanthropy is an important topic because people do care about their shoes. A lot.

How do you know this? In fact I beg to differ. People aren't born with a charity budget; they have to take it out of somewhere when they start giving in the first place.

I disagree on the fundamentals. People do allocate their resources and attention according to inbuilt instincts. People do have an impulse to balance signalling conspicuous consumption and signalling altruism. People do not act as perfect utility maximisers who will be persuaded to redirect their resources so fluidly. We know that these individuals are not rational because they are donating to the flipping Make A Wish Foundation!

Not a wrong topic.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 11:21:56PM 0 points [-]

Interesting thought. I'll have to think about this. Again, the ultimate question is how the intended audience responds. Neither you nor I are representative of the intended audience. It would be good to have some data on people's subjective reactions to the article. A couple of points:

  1. See the GiveWell blog entry titled Denying the choice.

  2. It's plausible to me that Make-A-Wish donors could get more fuzzies out of donating to VillageReach than they do now (after initial discomfort coming from a readjustment of worldview).

Comment author: komponisto 05 December 2010 01:32:42AM *  0 points [-]

See the GiveWell blog entry titled Denying the choice.

I would suggest that the author of that entry see the grandparent comment. No one denies that there must ultimately be some tradeoff. That doesn't mean that a particular proposed tradeoff is necessarily optimal.

It's plausible to me that Make-A-Wish donors could get more fuzzies out of donating to VillageReach than they do now

It sounds like you're once again assuming the very thing I'm disputing, which is that donating to VillageReach implies "switching" from being a "Make-A-Wish donor". Either that, or you've perhaps forgotten what I wrote earlier:

I do think getting people to consider VillageReach as a source of fuzzies is all well and good.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 03:59:44AM 1 point [-]

I feel like we're engaged in a semantic dispute and/or hairsplitting which has proceeded beyond the point of diminishing returns at least for me personally. Though I've read everything you've said, I don't have a clear intuitive sense for where you're coming from and why this topic is important to you. If you feel that you have a substantive point to make on this subject maybe you can make a discussion board post detailing your position.