Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

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

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

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (318)

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: fischer 25 December 2010 06:55:57AM 2 points [-]

I'm bothered by the intertemporal implications of this, i.e. if I have $100 that I will spend to help the most humans possible, then I could either spend it today or invest it and spend $105 next year (assumed 5% ROR). Will I then ever spend the money on charity? Or will I always invest it, and just let this amassed wealth be distributed when I die?

Comment author: bogus 25 December 2010 07:24:00AM *  12 points [-]

Assuming that charities can invest and borrow at prevailing interest rates (and large charitable trusts can in fact borrow from their endowment), you should be indifferent to this choice. Robin Hanson has addressed this issue here.

Comment author: kybernetikos 25 December 2010 07:07:26AM *  7 points [-]

The good you do can compound too. If you save a childs life at $500, that child might go on to save other childrens lives. I think you might well get a higher rate of interest on the good you do than 5%. There will be a savings rate at which you should save instead of give, but I don't think we're near it at the moment.

Comment author: Marius 27 December 2010 05:16:15AM 3 points [-]

This, incidentally, is also an argument for supporting less immediately-efficient charities. If you spend $500 on mosquito nets, you are saving the life of a child whose expected lifetime earning potential is low. This is wonderful, but the rate of "interest" may well be small. If you spend $500 on saving the painting Blue Rigi, you have not saved a single life in the short run. But it contributes to the education of thousands of British children, many of whom will grow up to create and donate large amounts of wealth/knowledge. Your incremental impact on their education may plausibly prevent more malarial deaths than your donation of mosquito nets, though I've no idea how to calculate this.

At the very least, I'd suggest that analogy of "setting out on an Arctic journey" sets us up to mentally discount future benefits in favor of immediate results. Instead we might imagine that we've set up an Arctic village, or are planning a journey a decade from now. Our spending habits would change accordingly.

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 27 December 2010 06:22:14AM 10 points [-]

If you spend $500 on saving the painting Blue Rigi, [...] it contributes to the education of thousands of British children, many of whom will grow up to create and donate large amounts of wealth/knowledge

Contributes how much? For each child, how much more knowledge do you expect they will create because they saw the original, rather than a facsimile, Blue Rigi? My estimate for this is so close to 0 that I can't conscience paying even $1 for Blue Rigi, except for aesthetic reasons.

Comment author: Marius 28 December 2010 01:46:02AM 1 point [-]

Is this another way of saying that schools should focus on math and science, ignoring art? Or is this an argument that we need to restructure the way public museums work, slashing the cost by replacing the paintings with copies?

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 28 December 2010 02:36:10AM 5 points [-]

It's just an argument that art is not in the same bucket as saving lives. I'm not going to tell you how to spend your money, but if your stated objective is to help people, saving Blue Rigi is not a cost effective way of doing that.

The way we run schools, math and science aren't very useful to begin with. Slashing art budgets is probably not a useful place to start.

Comment author: Marius 28 December 2010 03:28:41AM *  2 points [-]

Well, I want to make sure I understand it. Which of the following do you mean: a. If British people become more productive that productivity won't translate into more charity/inventions that will save lives? b. Education does not improve productivity? c. Art museums are not an important part of education (at least not in terms of scientific/economic productivity)? d. Blue Rigi does not improve the overall quality of the Tate? e. Actually none of the above, but Blue Rigi was simply priced too high?

To clarify/address ArisKatsaris's points:

I am not attempting to make an argument in this post. I am trying to identify the point at which datadataeverywhere first has a problem. For instance, I don't need to discuss whether the cultural given (fetish?) that our museums will seek out originals is easily mutable if his objection really starts earlier in my list. For instance, is it possible that the education of British children is a better way to save African lives than the immediate purchase of mosquito nets? If that's implausible, then the question of how one educates a child is irrelevant to this discussion.

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 28 December 2010 09:16:43PM 3 points [-]

Aris' expanded explanation is excellent, and what I would have tried to say at first.

I find it pretty implausible that the education of British children in the artwork of an 18th century British landscape painter is a better method of saving African lives than a proven method that currently saves lives and is reckoned to be one of the cheapest methods per life saved.

Over the long term, how we educate children probably determines a great deal about what our world looks like in the future. However, unless you have an oracle, or are educating them in something specifically related, such as the concept of Efficient Charity, I would place the upper and lower guesses of the median increase in QALY/DALY well below and above zero, respectively, indicating that you shouldn't do it on that basis.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 28 December 2010 03:46:29AM *  3 points [-]

Downvoted for extreme amounts of muddled thinking, and a line of argumentation that's so hole-ridden it gives me a headache.

Also he has answered you already: He argued that displaying the original Blue Rigi as opposed to a facsimile doesn't contribute one iota to the education of any child. You either didn't pay attention, or are trying to wear him out by keep on asking something he already answered.

Comment author: Marius 28 December 2010 03:58:51AM *  1 point [-]

Maybe. But I still don't know if that's because art doesn't contribute or because originals are the same as facsimiles.

Anyway, can you help me understand what you consider the holes/muddle?

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 28 December 2010 04:46:15AM *  10 points [-]

Muddled thinking is when your line of argumentation "painting contributes to museum, museum contributes to education, education contributes to productivity, productivity contributes to charity" implies there's some single metric each of these increase, which can be traced from one to the other simply, step by step.

An original painting may contribute to museum's "quality", but it needn't contribute to the educational quality of the museum, so you can't transfer that sort of contribution down that next step.

An art museum contributes to education, but it needn't contribute to education in such a manner that it becomes the sort of "productivity" that saves lives. Art is about aesthetics, which contribute to quality of life, but not the preservation of such. Art contributes, but it contributes differently - and you were told that already.

Education may contribute to productivity, but depending what you're educated to value, it may increase or decrease the amounts of charity provided. For example, if you're taught to value the presence of original paintings, you'll probably give money to keep original paintings in your nation, not to save lives.

Wanting an original painting, as opposed to a copy, isn't about educating, it's about satisfying a fetish. A national fetish in this case, much the way that Greece was obsessing with Olympic Games and museums to house the unreturned Parthenon marbles, while in the meantime its economy was going down the crapper.

In that way I could easily argue that the original is of less utility than a facsimile, exactly because it encourages such unproductive fetishes, while being aesthetically identical.

Comment author: wnoise 27 December 2010 07:42:07AM 2 points [-]

that child might go on to save other childrens lives.

Or, of course, go on to harm them. Or be neutral. It seems almost certain that on average there is some benefit from the standard trade and comparative advantage reasons, but I have no idea how to even approach that calculation.

Comment author: Vaniver 25 December 2010 10:56:14AM *  2 points [-]

Will I then ever spend the money on charity?

What's likely to happen is that the RoR and benefit of charity will fluctuate over time and over the size of your pot- so your pot will grow until there's a need, then you'll spend, and then it'll go back to growing. The problem is that requires active management (which is hard to continue after your death) and typically the view is that if you value warm fuzzies, you can find some charity that returns more than the RoR of profitable ventures.

There is quite a bit of warm fuzzies in generating a giant pot of cash and then endowing it to stand perpetually- but beyond stability effects I'm not sure there is much to recommend that model of charity.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 December 2010 01:32:56AM 1 point [-]

In order this to be true forever, the world would have to never end, which would mean that there's infinite utility no matter what you do.

If this is false eventually, there is no paradox. Whether or not It's worth while to invest for a few centuries is an open question, but if it turns out it is, that's no reason to abandon the idea of comparing charities.

Comment author: nshepperd 26 December 2010 02:40:22AM 1 point [-]

In order this to be true forever, the world would have to never end, which would mean that there's infinite utility no matter what you do.

That doesn't sound right... even if I'm expecting an infinite future I think I'd still want to live a good existence rather than a mediocre one (but with >0 utility). So it does matter what I do.

Say I have two options:

  • A, which offers on average 1.. utilon per second? (Are utilons measures of utility of a time period, or instantaneous utility?)
  • B, which offers on average 2 utilons / s

The limits as t approaches infinity are U(A) = t, U(B) = 2t. Both are "infinite" but B is yet larger than A, and therefore "better".

Comment author: Will_Sawin 26 December 2010 03:25:08AM 0 points [-]

So we need to formalize this, obviously.

Method 1: Exponential discounting.

Problem: You don't care very much about future people.

Method 2: Taking the average over all time (specifically the limit as t goes to infinity of the integral of utility from 0 to t, divided by t)

Conclusion which may be problematic: If humanity does not live forever, nothing we do matters.

Caveat: Depending on our anthropics, we can argue that the universe is infinite in time or space with probability 1, in which case there are an infinite number of copies of humanity, and so we can always calculate the average. This seems like the right approach to me. (In general, using the same math for your ethics and your anthropics has nice consequences, like avoiding most versions of Pascal's Mugging.)

Comment author: wnoise 27 December 2010 07:43:52AM 2 points [-]

Problem: You don't care very much about future people.

Why is this a problem? This seems to match reality for most people.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 01 January 2011 12:34:36AM 1 point [-]

So does selfishness and irrationality. We would like to avoid those. It also is intuitive that we would like to care more about future people.

Comment author: wnoise 06 January 2011 09:33:16AM *  1 point [-]

Excessive selfishness, sure. Some degree of selfishness is required as self-defense, currently, otherwise all your own needs are subsumed by supplying others' wants.. Even in a completely symmetric society with everybody acting more for others' good than their own is worse than one where everybody takes care of their own needs first -- because each individual generally knows their own needs and wants better than anyone else does.

I don't know the needs and wants of the future. I can't know them particularly well. I have worse and worse uncertainty the farther away in time that is. Unless we're talking about species-extinction level of events, I damn well should punt to those better informed, those closer to the problems.

It also is intuitive that we would like to care more about future people.

Not to me. Heck. I'm not entirely sure what it means to care about a person who doesn't exist yet, and where my choices will influence which of many possible versions will exist.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 06 January 2011 03:31:30PM *  0 points [-]

each individual generally knows their own needs and wants better than anyone else does.

I don't know the needs and wants of the future.

Expected-utility calculation already takes that into effect. Uncertainty about whether an action will be beneficial translates into a lower expected utility. Discounting, on top of that, is double counting.

Knowledge is a fact about probabilities, not utilities.

Not to me.

Let's hope our different intuitions are resolvable.

I'm not entirely sure what it means to care about a person who doesn't exist yet, and where my choices will influence which of many possible versions will exist.

Surely it's not much more difficult than caring about a person who your choices will dramatically change?

Comment author: nshepperd 26 December 2010 05:44:21AM 2 points [-]

How about this:

If you have a set E = {X, Y, Z...} of possible actions, A (in E) is the utility-maximising action iff for all other B in E, the limit

is greater than zero, or approaches zero from the positive side. Caveat: I have no evidence this doesn't implode in some way, perhaps by the limit being undefined. This is just a stupid idea to consider. A possibly equivalent formulation is

The inequality being greater or equal allows for two or more actions being equivalent, which is unlikely but possible.

Comment author: DSimon 27 December 2010 06:59:42PM 4 points [-]

Side comment: that math equation image generator you used is freakin' excellent. The image itself is generated based from the URL, so you don't have to worry about hosting. Editor is here.

Comment author: nshepperd 28 December 2010 03:06:43AM *  4 points [-]

I prefer this one, which automatically generates the link syntax to paste into a LW comment. There's a short discussion of all this on the wiki.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 26 December 2010 12:28:12PM 1 point [-]

Functions whose limit is +infinity and -infinity can be distinguished, so your good there.

I think it's the same as my second: As long as the probability given both actions of a humanity lasting forever is nonzero, and the differences of expected utilities far in the future is nonzero, nothing that happens in the first million billion years matters.

Comment author: nshepperd 27 December 2010 09:30:13AM *  0 points [-]

The difference in expected utility would have to decrease slow enough (slower than exponential?) to not converge, not just be nonzero. [Which would be why exponential discounting "works"...]

However I would be surprised to see many decisions with that kind of lasting impact. The probability of an action having some effect at time t in the future "decays exponentially" with t (assuming p(Effect_t | Effect_{t-1}, Action) is approximately constant), so the difference in expected utility will in general fall off exponentially and therefore converge anyway. Exceptions would be choices where the utilities of the likely effects increase in magnitude (exponentially?) as t increases.

Anyway I don't see infinities as an inherent problem under this scheme. In particular if we don't live forever, everything we do does indeed matter. If we do live forever, what we do does matter, excepts how it affects us might not if we anticipate causing "permanant" gain by doing something.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 26 December 2010 06:04:15AM 0 points [-]

Can't think about the underlying idea right now due to headache, but instead of talking about any sort of limit, just say that it's eventually positive, if that's what you mean.

Comment author: gwern 26 December 2010 03:58:38AM 2 points [-]

Bostrom would disagree with your conclusion that infinities are unproblematic for utilitarian ethics: http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/infinite.pdf

Comment author: DanielLC 26 December 2010 07:48:22AM 0 points [-]

You can switch between A and B just by rearranging when events happen. For example, imagine that there are two planets moving in opposite directions. One is a Utopia, the other is a Distopia. From the point of reference of the Utopia, time is slowed down in the Distopia, so the world is worth living in. From the point of reference of the Distopia, it's reversed.

This gets even worse when you start dealing with expected utility. As messed up as the idea is that the order of events matter, there at least is an order. With expected utility, there is no inherent order.

The best I can do is assign the priors for infinite utility to zero, and make my priors fall off fast enough to make sure expected utility always converges. I've managed to prove that my posteriors will also always have a converging expected utility.