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

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

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Comment author: shokwave 27 December 2010 02:20:48PM *  2 points [-]

Welcome to LessWrong! I'd like to mention that here on LessWrong we will try to quantify the value of loving kindness and encouragement, and after quantifying we're going to find that it would fall well below the value of immediate food, shelter, and medical needs.

especially as I earn very little money anyway.

I suspect this is a stronger reason than the preceding paragraph ;)

Comment author: artsyhonker 28 December 2010 10:43:39AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the welcome.

I wonder how it's possible to quantify encouragement and the value of relationships. I have been on the receiving end of a good deal of care and encouragement at a time when my physical health was poor and nothing could immediately be done to improve it. This gave me great hope and is experience I still draw courage from when I find life challenging. I don't have a spare me to experiment on so can only imagine how I might have fared without that support, but I know it has seemed more influential than the practical support I had, and in some cases I would not have sought practical support had I not had steady emotional encouragement. I am fortunate in that I have never been without sufficient food or adequate shelter, but that would not have been the case had I been left to my own devices. I can only experience the world as myself, but for me, loving kindness and unconditional positive regard have been extremely important, and are probably the deciding factor in my subsequent attempts to help others.

On a wider scale, I've often wondered why we don't simply set up a tax system such that everyone can have a decent physical standard of living. Population concerns aside (given the lower birth rate that appears to result from increases in standard of living this should sort itsrlf out) I think some of this comes back to our tendency to prioritise kinship or clan groups over the common good. I would argue that not having a direct relationship with the people we are trying to help makes us more likely to withdraw aid at the first hint of danger. Certainly those withdrawing benefits or financial aid from the most disadvantaged in Britain right now are not those who work with the disabled and the homeless on an ongoing basis. Yes, good people ought to donate to charity, and funds should be used efficiently, but the idea that paying taxes, voting, donating a bit to charity and perhaps writing to an MP or going on a protest is enough seems flawed. I think that for the changes to occur which would guarantee everyone a decent standard of living, people need serious motivation. I see that motivation coming from personal involvement and relationships more than from a cost/benefit analysis of how to spend the "charity" portion of a household budget. The latter is important and I am glad there are organisations like GiveWell which attempt some of the arithmetic, but I question whether money-only donors will, in general, evaluate the rest of their spending and activity with a view to increasing the common good, and I suspect that the abstract connections formed by financial donations are frail, making such aid more likely to be withdrawn if it is inconvenient.

I don't suggest that people who donate money to charity should discontinue that support but I do think it helpful if they also spend some time, perhaps as little as an hour per week or month, doing some kind of aid work that offers the opportunity for a genuine relationship not based on who has more money. As most people do not spend all their waking hours working, this need not detract from their financial contributions.

I would be interested in seeing any data that support or refute this; I am extrapolating from my own observations.

Comment author: David_Gerard 28 December 2010 10:53:41AM *  6 points [-]

I don't suggest that people who donate money to charity should discontinue that support but I do think it helpful if they also spend some time, perhaps as little as an hour per week or month, doing some kind of aid work that offers the opportunity for a genuine relationship not based on who has more money. As most people do not spend all their waking hours working, this need not detract from their financial contributions.

This is an important point: perfectly spherical rationalists of uniform density in a vacuum at absolute zero might make a more productive contribution to charity by working and donating rather than personal contribution of time, but perfectly spherical rationalists of uniform density in a vacuum at absolute zero are in somewhat short supply. In the world of humans, a bit of hands-on participation makes it far more likely that they will bother to continue to contribute to that charity at all.

Comment author: artsyhonker 28 December 2010 12:00:37PM 1 point [-]

In the world of humans, a bit of hands-on participation makes it far more likely that they will bother to continue to contribute to that charity at all.

Exactly what I was trying to say, but much shorter! Thanks.

Comment author: David_Gerard 28 December 2010 10:57:52AM *  2 points [-]

here on LessWrong we will try to quantify the value of loving kindness and encouragement, and after quantifying we're going to find that it would fall well below the value of immediate food, shelter, and medical needs.

It helps in this regard to be really sure of the security of one's own immediate food, shelter and medical needs.

(Can this be claimed of all LessWrong participants? If so, then LW's participant base is not wide enough.)

Comment author: shokwave 28 December 2010 01:51:17PM *  2 points [-]

Yes. This is my major disagreement with the "give until it hurts" slogans you sometimes see.

Also, I guess yes to your parenthetical. This is a selection effect caused by LessWrong's medium (generally, shelter is a necessary condition for internet access, and food and medical needs are probably - hopefully? - prioritized over internet access).

Comment author: David_Gerard 28 December 2010 04:50:55PM *  6 points [-]

generally, shelter is a necessary condition for internet access, and food and medical needs are probably - hopefully? - prioritized over internet access

Actually, no, it turns out your view of the world is incorrect and in need of updating. I spent a chunk of 2002 couch-surfing, living on the kindness of friends, looking for work in London. I seriously put rather a high value on Internet, because it was the rational choice in securing a job. "Well, yes, it's a house ... but there's no net there." It's that important.

Comment author: shokwave 28 December 2010 05:08:29PM 7 points [-]

Wow. I definitely do not treat the internet as that important. Clearly I generalised from my own example instead of seeking out any data. I can even see how it makes rational sense to prefer internet over shelter, food, and medical needs; it's an instrument to achieve all three terminal goals. I just didn't think that way.

Man, that one-mind fallacy is insidious.

Comment author: David_Gerard 28 December 2010 05:18:27PM *  5 points [-]

In the situation, it would have been irrational - blitheringly stupid - not to make damn sure I had internet access in the prospective new place. Medical needs are fine in the UK (here's to the NHS!), cheap food exists in small quantities, shelter is the crippling expense in London.

Fortunately my friends are sysadmins. I would characterise my situation at the time as closer to "distressed gentleman" than "bum". (1)

In any case, I owe the world (and said individuals) lots of kindness points, and am quite proud to pay a sizable chunk of my income in tax, because I know personally what it pays for ...

More broadly: yes, you actually need Internet to participate in Western civil society these days. Restricting it from the homeless is a way to keep them there. They have phones too these days, and not just as some sort of frippery - why do they need them? And also, loving kindness and encouragement are how to treat humans; positing that as somehow dichotomous with food, shelter and medical care is a twist of thought I find confusing.

  1. And hadn't been the former long enough for it to smell like the latter.
Comment author: BillyOblivion 01 January 2011 12:12:38PM 0 points [-]

What was that t-shirt (from slightly earlier than 2002) 'bout drugs, sex and 'net access?

Comment author: David_Gerard 01 January 2011 04:55:32PM *  1 point [-]

One of the several alt.gothic T-shirts, dating to the mid-1990s. (I had several but appear to have only the original 1994 one left.)

Comment author: artsyhonker 28 December 2010 11:54:27AM 0 points [-]

The security of one's own access to physical necessities is an interesting factor in this. Are those whose security has been unstable more or less likely to donate time or money to charity?

For me personally, uncertainty about my own circumstances is a double-edged sword. If I am feeling a bit skint I'm unlikely to give money to someone begging on the street, and if I know my budget will be limited I am stingier than usual about charity boxes in shops. At the same time, an awareness that it is only because of the kindness of others that I am not homeless myself makes me eager to pass that kindness on in unstructured ways (being kind to others where I can in the course of my work and leisure) and more formally (this winter, volunteering at a local night shelter).

Comment author: juliawise 23 July 2011 12:32:12AM 2 points [-]

Possibly the people who give the most, albeit to relatives, are immigrants from less developed to more developed countries. Even though for many it means lowering their standards of living in the US (or wherever), they know the remittance they send is sending their younger sister to school, buying a new roof for the family house in Bolivia, etc.

In the US, the lowest income bracket gives a <a href=http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html>larger percent</a> of their income than any other bracket. I haven't seen numbers on whether this includes people on the brink of not having their basic needs met, but I bet a lot of them have been there at some point.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 24 July 2011 01:14:40AM *  2 points [-]

In the US, the lowest income bracket gives a <a href=http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html>larger percent</a> of their income than any other bracket. I haven't seen numbers on whether this includes people on the brink of not having their basic needs met, but I bet a lot of them have been there at some point.

Note that it's possible that a substantial fraction of these donations are made to community organizations (churches, etc.) and so may effectively serve as membership dues. Despite this I think that this statistic makes a good rejoinder to middle/upper class people who claim that they can't afford to give.

Comment author: pnrjulius 12 June 2012 01:45:35AM -1 points [-]

On the other hand, perhaps the poor give too much! They should be receiving the aid, not giving it out!

Consider all the economic opportunities that poor immigrants are giving up by remitting so much of their income to relatives where they came from. Perhaps it would be better if they saved and invested instead, and then after securing themselves financially, then start giving back?

Comment author: juliawise 12 June 2012 01:00:31PM *  2 points [-]

Perhaps it would be better if they saved and invested instead

If you consider yourself as, say, a Mexican 30-year-old who comes to the US and works as a carpenter, would you prefer to save your earnings and invest them (despite having little formal education, and thus being unlikely to invest well) while your wife, son, and parents continue living in a shack in Chiapas? Knowing that they would despise you for hoarding your earnings while they scraped by? I bet you would send them part of your paycheck. The opportunity cost of saving that money is too high.