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Elizabeth comments on Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others... - Less Wrong

130 Post author: Yvain 24 December 2010 09:26PM

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Comment author: Elizabeth 25 December 2010 05:15:39AM 22 points [-]

I find I run into a conundrum on this question, because there is a bias I fear overcompensating for. I know as a human that I am biased to care more about the one person standing in front of me than those ten thousand people starving in India that I'll never meet, but I find it difficult to apply that information. I know that donating money to, say, those malaria nets, will probably save more lives than donating to, say, my local food pantry. By these arguments, it seems that that fact should trump all, and I should donate to those malaria nets.

However, I know that my local food pantry is an organization that feeds people who really need food, that it has virtually no overhead, and that there are children who would be malnourished without it. I also know that there are people all over the world who will contribute to malaria nets, but it is highly unlikely that anyone outside my community will contribute to my local food pantry.

I agree that it is vitally important to think carefully about how we spend our charity money, and I understand that the difficulty I am having with this topic is an indication that I need to think more deeply on it, but I keep coming up against two basic issues.

  • There is no simple metric for "most good done." What if one disease costs little to prevent death, but leaves survivors crippled, while another costs much more to prevent death but leaves people healthy? Should I donate to the first, and burden the communities with many cripples, or to the second, and let people die? With food and medical care costing more in the developed world, should I only donate to help those in the undeveloped world, where my dollar will go farther?

  • Should I feel guilty for donating money to public radio because it doesn't save children? No. My purpose in donating money to public radio is to keep my favorite shows on the air, and my donations do that very efficiently. Yes, the money could go to save children, but so could the money I use to pay my cable bill. I should perhaps not consider it as charity the way I do a donation that saves children, but I should not feel guilty. If I have $500 allocated for entertainment and $500 allocated for charity, perhaps it should come out of the former. However, it would be disingenuous to say that donations for more frivolous causes, such as saving artwork, could be donated to better causes, such as malaria nets, unless we also point out that what we spent on our fancy dinner or our new dress or going to the movies could also be thus allocated.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 December 2010 09:10:21PM 11 points [-]

Should I feel guilty for donating money to public radio because it doesn't save children? No.

I agree and would go even further. Guilt is a terrible motivator and one that I would does not apply to anything involving charitable contributions. Well except for, say, mugging the aid workers to steal other's contributions. In such cases guilt serves an entirely different and somewhat useful role.

This is a simple question of "What do you want?" If you want to reduce malaria infections buy nets (probably). If you want to save a radio station save a radio station. If you have multiple things you want to prioritize them and do multiplications or approximations thereof.

Never let anyone make you feel guilty for doing things that achieve your goals. Even yourself.

Comment author: Pfft 26 December 2010 06:36:53AM 0 points [-]

Never let anyone make you feel guilty for doing things that achieve your goals.

Really? Suppose I want to murder my old primary-school teacher, in a final revenge for all that arithmetic homework. Should I not feel guilty?

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 26 December 2010 07:11:58AM 5 points [-]

If there's any part of that you should feel guilty about, it's having the goal in the first place, not what you do to achieve it. Feeling guilty about buying poison or sharpening a knife doesn't make much difference if you keep thinking that the murder itself is a good idea.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 December 2010 07:54:18AM 2 points [-]

Well if you get right down to it, feeling guilty only makes it worse. You should just not have the goal in the first place.

The point is that listening to a radio station should be significantly below saving lives on your list of goals.

Comment author: Elizabeth 26 December 2010 03:59:15PM 9 points [-]

My point was that it is not any more wrong to spend money on public radio than to spend money on cable tv or a new iPod. Yes, in theory all my money not spent on food and shelter could go to saving children, but you are not going to do that, I am not going to do that, and no one either of us knows is going to do that.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 26 December 2010 11:19:30AM 2 points [-]

Well if you get right down to it, feeling guilty only makes it worse. You should just not have the goal in the first place.

Hence the 'if' at the beginning of my comment, though in practice I do see how guilt can be useful at that stage: Most people don't have complete control over their emotions or what they want, and given the choice between someone wanting to murder someone, feeling guilty about wanting that, and not doing it because they feel guilty about even considering it, and someone wanting to murder someone, deciding that that's a perfectly reasonable thing to want, and actually going through with it, the former is pretty clearly preferable. Not wanting to murder someone at all is preferable to either of those, but humans are pretty lousy at wanting what we want to want.

Comment author: Yvain 25 December 2010 08:32:52PM *  6 points [-]

The first question is hard but not confusing (I'd say "yes" to the developing world example, though); the second question confuses me too and I don't have a good answer.

I think this whole "efficient charity" field is working in the tradition of utility theory, where people's desires are treated as givens and the only interesting question is how to maximize achievement of those desires.

In that context, if you desire getting nice clothes with strength X, and desire helping other people with strength Y, then you divide your resources accordingly and try to maximize the niceness of the clothes you get with X resources and the number of people you help with Y resources. In that model, "try and help as many people as you can per charity dollar" is about all you can say.

This is a terribly oversimplified model, both because desires might be more complicated (your desire might not be to help people, but to help Americans, or to help people who enjoy public radio like you do), and because people are not utilitarian agents and it is possible to change the strength of your desires. A model that takes those into account would have to, among other things, fully understand morality and what it means to "want" something, and I don't fully understand either, though they're both research interests.

So this essay is only about how to avoid one particularly obvious mistake that's easy to model in utility theory, and not about how to avoid more important moral and psychological mistakes.

On the harder problems, without having much philosophical foundation for doing so, I recommend Giving What We Can

Comment author: clarissethorn 25 December 2010 05:42:06AM *  16 points [-]

The second point is something that really gets me. It seems to me that rather than feeling bad about donating to one charity rather than a more efficient or more "important" other charity, we should feel bad about spending money on frivolities rather than donating to charity. Nonprofit organizations are forced to compete against each other for slender resources in many ways, including donor dollars -- why can't they compete against things that have less moral value instead? It would be awesome if there were more social pressure to donate to charity rather than going to the movies or buying pretty clothes.

Interestingly, however, there is some social stigma against donating "too much". A few years ago, there was a New York gentleman who donated a much larger than "normal" percentage of his money to charity, as well as his kidney, plus some other stuff. (I'm sorry, I really wish I could remember his name, but I am very sure I have these details correct, because I read a lot about it at the time.) People speculated in the press about his mental status and other children mocked his kids at school, although his family was hardly left poor by the experience, and his health was not endangered.

In terms of the point in the OP about the lawyer who should be working overtime rather than volunteering ... I struggle with this so much. I spend most of my time doing activism, and I have friends who spend more time than I do (who do things like take very low-paying part-time jobs in order to finance spending most of their time doing activism), but most of us are sex-positive activists, and sex-positive activism is arguably an extremely "low priority" type of activism. If we are concerned about saving more lives, for example, then we should be dedicating our time to other types of activism, or we should be using our intelligence to get awesome jobs and then spending the money on charity. However, I (for one) have tried dedicating all my time to doing activism that seemed "more important" (HIV in Africa) rather than the activism that is most interesting to me (various types of sexuality stuff in America), and I was both less happy and less effective. I am also very sure that I would be unhappy if I dedicated my considerable IQ to becoming a corporate bitch and then donating lots of money, rather than working directly on the issues I care about.

Additionally, it is undeniable that someone has to work on the issues I care about, or else who would I donate money to even if I had a lot of it?

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 December 2010 05:46:08PM 26 points [-]

I (for one) have tried dedicating all my time to doing activism that seemed "more important" (HIV in Africa) rather than the activism that is most interesting to me (various types of sexuality stuff in America), and I was both less happy and less effective

There's a story I like to tell when I hear this. Louise and Claire are both concerned about global warming. Louise is full of passion for the subject and does what moves her most; through her hard work persuades a thousand people to unplug their phone chargers at night. Claire can't get worked up about it even though she understands it's important; in a drunken conversation one night she persuades one friend to turn down their central heating one degree.

Claire's choice of an efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions absolutely swamps the difference in enthusiasm; she does considerably more good than Louise.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 24 March 2011 01:23:27AM 7 points [-]

This makes me wonder if giving out free clothing vouchers in winter might be an effective global warming hack.

Comment author: Vaniver 25 December 2010 11:05:04AM 7 points [-]

we should feel bad about spending money on frivolities rather than donating to charity.

This is standard religious dogma. Secular activists rarely have the gumption to make it part of their pitches.

Interestingly, however, there is some social stigma against donating "too much".

When you take seriously something other people are hypocritical about, it makes them edgy.

most of us are sex-positive activists, and sex-positive activism is arguably an extremely "low priority" type of activism.

Not for me. Keep up the good work :D

Additionally, it is undeniable that someone has to work on the issues I care about, or else who would I donate money to even if I had a lot of it?

Comparative advantage. Compare you being an activist and your donors working (which includes you working a low-value job to donate to yourself) and you working and donating to the marginal activist. Which scenario is superior?

The standard lawyer/secretary example comes to mind- even if the lawyer types much faster, they're better off having their secretary type for them. As an activist, are you a lawyer or a secretary? If gainfully employed, would you be a lawyer or a secretary?

Comment author: michaelkeenan 28 December 2010 09:49:08AM 6 points [-]

we should feel bad about spending money on frivolities rather than donating to charity.

This is standard religious dogma. Secular activists rarely have the gumption to make it part of their pitches.

That isn't a counter-argument. The idea is not wrong because religious people say it, and requiring gumption also does not make an idea wrong.

A completely secular presentation of the idea can be found in The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 December 2010 11:01:28AM 5 points [-]

That isn't a counter-argument.

It was not intended as one.

Comment author: clarissethorn 26 December 2010 04:17:34AM 2 points [-]

Good point re: religious dogma. I think there are studies showing that religious/conservative folks are much better at volunteering and donating to charity than liberal/secular folks. It's too bad.

Re: lawyer/secretary, well, the longer I focus my time on activism the more likely it becomes that if I were more "gainfully employed" I'd be a secretary ... :P

Comment author: alexanderis 25 December 2010 07:27:14PM 4 points [-]

I think the guy you're thinking of is Zell Kravinsky.

Comment author: clarissethorn 26 December 2010 04:15:36AM 2 points [-]

Yeah, it looks like it. Funny, I was sure he lived in Long Island, but I don't remember why. Chalk another one up to memory being fallible even when I was "very sure" about the details.

Here's a New Yorker piece: http://facstaff.unca.edu/moseley/zellkravinsky'skidney.pdf

Comment author: DanielLC 25 December 2010 11:17:12PM *  0 points [-]

He donated his kidney? They sell in Iran for $3,000 to $5,000.

I don't know when he donated it. It could be before that was legal.

Edit: I accidentally wrote "Iraq" instead of "Iran".

Comment author: Vaniver 25 December 2010 11:37:27PM 1 point [-]

Kidney sales are legal in Iran, but not Iraq (they are still sold in Iraq, obviously, but it's a more difficult option).

Comment author: milindsmart 08 February 2015 07:41:06AM -2 points [-]

A vote for the statement that : sex-positive activism is (unarguably) an extremely "low priority" type of activism.

It might be better if you can find ways to change what you feel happy about.

Just my 2p.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 22 January 2011 07:24:32AM *  2 points [-]

Late response, but:

(a) The domestic vs. international issue is not clear cut - see, e.g. GiveWell research message board posts by Elie Hassenfeld and by Jason Fehr. More generally, I think that at least at present it's quite unclear which philanthropic efforts are most cost-effective.

(b) In regards to

However, I know that my local food pantry is an organization that feeds people who really need food, that it has virtually no overhead, and that there are children who would be malnourished without it. I also know that there are people all over the world who will contribute to malaria nets, but it is highly unlikely that anyone outside my community will contribute to my local food pantry.

see Holden Karnofsky's post Hunger Here vs. Hunger There.

(c) In regards to:

My purpose in donating money to public radio is to keep my favorite shows on the air, and my donations do that very efficiently. Yes, the money could go to save children, but so could the money I use to pay my cable bill. I should perhaps not consider it as charity the way I do a donation that saves children, but I should not feel guilty.

You might be interested by komponisto's comments to a post that I made which are in similar spirit.

See also Holden Karnofsky's Nothing wrong with selfish giving - just don't call it philanthropy and the comments to it.

Comment author: DanielLC 25 December 2010 11:30:10PM 1 point [-]

There is no simple metric for "most good done."

I suggest the QALY, or quality-adjusted life year.

Should I feel guilty for donating money to public radio because it doesn't save children?

Yes. Sure you want radio, but they don't want to die. Who says your wants are more important?

Could you justify killing people for entertainment? Is this any different?

Comment author: shokwave 26 December 2010 03:05:53PM 7 points [-]

I consider DALY - disability-adjusted life years - better than quality-adjusted.

Basically, I am leery of letting people choose their own factors when given a range of 1 being perfect life and 0 being death. For instance, a charity that cures blindness in impoverished sections of Africa, with a pro-this-charity treatment might choose 0.1 as blind, 0.9 as cured (blindness is hugely disadvantageous, giving back sight is therefore a huge improvement); an anti-this-charity treatment might choose 0.1 as blind and 0.3 as cured (the rest of their life still sucks). This means a QALY-based look at the charity could over- or under-estimate by as much as a factor of 4! Comparisons of charities based on QALYs that are gamed could, possibly, be only viable on order-of-magnitudes.

Comment author: DanielLC 08 November 2013 07:33:29AM 0 points [-]

Is there a standard for DALYs?

I'm told that there's some kind of difference, but I still think of them as the same unit.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 November 2013 07:59:18AM 2 points [-]

Yes. Sure you want radio, but they don't want to die. Who says your wants are more important?

The fact that it's her own money?

Comment author: Lumifer 08 November 2013 03:32:26PM 1 point [-]

Sure you want radio, but they don't want to die. Who says your wants are more important?

My autonomy.