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

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

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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