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

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

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Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 December 2010 08:28:39PM *  2 points [-]

And likewise, there is only one best charity: the one that helps the most people the greatest amount per dollar.

I disagree. Giving money to charity is not different from spending money on a latte at Starbucks. I spend money according to my values. And I still buy lattes. I am not Zachary Baumkletterer. Even Jesus said, "The poor you will have with you always", to justify spending an INCREDIBLE amount of money (enough to buy ten people's entire lives, in an era with no inflation, making it comparable to ten million US dollars today) on pouring perfume once on Jesus' feet. The guy was tired and depressed and about to be crucified and wanted his damn perfume, like I want my damn latte.

Similarly, people who gave money to keep a painting in a museum, might also spend considerably more money to buy paintings to hang in their houses, than it would take to save a life in another country. These people value art, and they value benefitting others. Draw a 2D plot, and label the axes "selfish ... unselfish" and "spiritual ... physical" ("spiritual" standing for art and other "impractical" values). One person might

  • buy a painting to hang in their bedroom (spiritual, selfish)
  • buy a painting to hang in their guest room (spiritual, sorta selfish)
  • spend to preserve a painting in a museum (spiritual, unselfish)
  • buy fuzzy slippers (physical, selfish)
  • spend money for vaccines in Africa (physical, unselfish)

And each of those things could have similar utility for them.

I don't think this is irrational. Irrational is spending any money at all on "charity" instead of spending it according to your utility function.

This post contains the hidden presupposition that charity, using a collective utility function, is more moral than self-oriented actions; and therefore, following our utility functions is immoral. This is an assertion about morality and rationality that has huge implications! It is resonant with a very common meme that says that "moral" behavior is behavior that we don't want to do, because we are fundamentally immoral. I say, instead, that morals are part of our utility function - that we have these things called morals because part of us really wants to be nice to other people. They are just another part of our utility function.

Encouraging unselfish behavior can be done by manipulating peoples' selfish desires to produce "unselfish" behavior (give to charity and get social benefits, or stay out of Hell), as a mechanism to solve PD problems with a given payoff matrix. But it can also be done by treating people in ways that encourage what natural unselfish tendencies they have - solving PD problems by changing people's payoff matrices.

Apply Kant's imperative. This post suggests that we have 2 utility functions, one for everyday life, and another for charity; and that the one for charity is more moral. But if everyone used such a charity utility function for everything they did, it would result in a global race to the bottom as economies imploded after spending all national wealth on ameliorating suffering while undercutting all private motivation. Therefore, it is less moral. It is not only not obviously moral, it is immoral, if that means anything, for a government, or a person, to spend every last dollar on helping the unfortunate before spending any money on education, roads, defense, art, or even entertainment.

Comment author: Yvain 28 December 2010 08:00:31AM *  14 points [-]

To some degree, this article is less about moralizing and more of a "how to" guide. If you want to help people, this is how to do it. If you don't want to help people, and you prefer to have lattes or works of fine art or whatever, then a how-to guide on how to help people isn't relevant to your interests.

To the degree that it is more than that, the article is an attempt to expose certain thought processes into consciousness so that they can be evaluated by conscious systems. People may be donating to these inefficient charities because they feel like it and they don't examine their feelings, even though if they were to consciously think the problem through they would give to more efficient charities. If, after realizing that the choice is between one kid's life or 1/1000 of a painting, someone still prefers the painting, I don't really have anything more I can say - but my guess is that's not a lot of the population.

You made a really good point in your mysticism post on Discussion, about the difference between categorizing things by their causes and categorizing things by their effects. When you talk about spiritual and unselfish choices, you're categorizing things by their causes - a donation to the painting come from the same warm feelings that also produce a donation to vaccines.

Efficient charity is about categorizing things by their effects - it doesn't matter how noble the feelings that produced a certain action, only how much that action did what you wanted it to do. If you want to help people, it's about how many people you helped.

Categorizing things by their causes is an academic activity that can only declare some people to be more "unselfish" than others and accord them bragging rights. In my opinion this doesn't have as much to do with the actual work of saving the world as categorizing things by effects. You say this article claims things about morality, but that's really not its purpose. Its purpose is - if you've seen all sorts of horrible things in the world, and it's reached the point where you're so mad you don't care what can or can't be classified as moral, you just want to fix things as quickly as possible, what do you do then?

I think the idea of something to protect is relevant here.

Comment author: XiXiDu 28 December 2010 11:58:13AM *  3 points [-]

It should be noted that if you want to help people then donating something helps more people than being discouraged to the point of not donating at all due to the possibility that your contribution might be used some orders of magnitude less effectively than possible.

Many people do not (yet) have the ability (or nerves/time etc.) to read up on and make sense of the arguments, or the data, to subsequently compute the answer of what would be the most effective way to spend their money in case they want to help other people.

So before you give up and do not donate anything at all, better split your money and give some to the SIAI (or even Wikipedia etc.). Additionally use a service like GiveWell. And also don't worry helping to exhibit some painting. All of those contributions will help some people, if only by making them happy (as in the case of the painting). It will make a difference! And it will make a huge difference compared to doing nothing at all.

Comment author: pnrjulius 12 June 2012 01:36:58AM 0 points [-]

Indeed, it's remarkable how little we would have to spend to end the worst poverty and injustice in the world today, if only people were willing to do it.

We literally spend more on cat food than it would take to eliminate the UN absolute poverty level.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 December 2010 08:53:57AM *  1 point [-]

To some degree, this article is less about moralizing and more of a "how to" guide.

The specific quote the grandparent was replying to is about moralizing.

And likewise, there is only one best charity: the one that helps the most people the greatest amount per dollar.

One could strip the moralizing element from the quote (and the article) in a fairly straightforward manner. The best charity someone can donate to is subjectively objective: the one that achieves the most benefit per dollar according to that persons values, altruistic or otherwise.

Comment author: Yvain 28 December 2010 09:14:03AM *  2 points [-]

The specific quote the grandparent was replying to is about moralizing.

The problem with the word "best" there is the same problem the word "good" always runs into - the difference between "a good car" and "a good person". I'm using "best charity" in the same sense I would use "best Arctic survival gear" - best at achieving the purpose you are assumed to have. Although I think there is a case for that also being the morally best for most moral systems in which "morally best" makes sense, that would be way outside the scope of this discussion.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 December 2010 11:39:14AM *  1 point [-]

I understand what you are doing in the post and follow the sense of 'best'. What I am observing is that the claim "you are moralizing" is factually correct. The moralization is not in the form of a direct 'should' nor is it in the way in which you use best. It can be seen here:

best at achieving the purpose you are assumed to have.

That is an extremely powerful moral gambit.

Comment author: thelasttree 24 October 2011 01:10:58AM 0 points [-]

What a provoking article - excellent! It's healthy for us to be asking these questions.

But I wonder about the dualistic nature of the questions posed in your 'how to guide'. Sometimes, in fact often, it is not a simple choice between two. Biodiversity, like culture, is much more complex than a graph can depict. The multiple layers move at different rhythms & speed and are instructed by differing motivations such as hormone, instinct, sex, survival, power, empathy (to name only a few).

My point is that systemic change is not a matter of choosing between the best charity - that approach only has one outcome which is how many lives to save in one monetary act - if we look at the world in a connected web than demonstrating empathy & care by looking after one's place (cleaning up the local beach) or protecting a rainforest for the future health of the planet - these are all responsibilities with different impacts that contribute to a greater whole. Helping a rainforest now may save millions of lives in the future compared to 10 lives treated for malaria now. And this is not just about humans! I don't think you can measure what you are trying to measure - it denies the complexity of life and reduces it to an economic plan.

Yes you can look at a 'how to guide' if you want to find the best charity and you do make great examples of how to make that decision - but sustaining life and survival is much deeper, chaotic and unknown.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 December 2010 10:18:08PM 14 points [-]

Even Jesus said, "The poor you will have with you always", to justify spending an INCREDIBLE amount of money (enough to buy ten people's entire lives, in an era with no inflation, making it comparable to ten million US dollars today) on pouring perfume once on Jesus' feet

"Even Jesus"? Does it occur to you that making this a religious example is actually even MORE likely to get us to notice the moral dissonance, not convince us to excuse it?

Comment author: artsyhonker 28 December 2010 11:17:09AM *  0 points [-]

It is not only not obviously moral, it is immoral, if that means anything, for a government, or a person, to spend every last dollar on helping the unfortunate before spending any money on education, roads, defense, art, or even entertainment.

This seems a false dichotomy; the unfortunate will also be helped by money spent on education, roads and other measures which increase the common good (so long as they do not make the plight of the unfortunate worse).

Whether to spend money on medicine for the sick, education for those who cannot get access to it with their own resources, or art and etertainment by which a culture might examine these problems strikes me as being a bit like medical triage in an emergency room. Perhaps it makes sense to treat personal resource management similarly.

Comment author: artsyhonker 28 December 2010 11:18:53AM 0 points [-]

(Sorry for bad html, I'll try to learn to use the interface when I'm next at a real computer.)

Comment author: Vaniver 28 December 2010 11:40:11AM 2 points [-]

When replying to a comment, click the "help" link to the right of the "cancel" button (it's all the way over in the corner).

Comment author: artsyhonker 28 December 2010 12:02:04PM 0 points [-]

Thanks.

Comment author: pnrjulius 12 June 2012 01:41:52AM -1 points [-]

Well, think of it this way: What would an economy look like, if everyone in it obeyed the maxims of Peter Singer?

It seems to me it would be a complete mess, far worse than what we have today.

Now, if everyone in the world gave just a small amount of their income (5%? 10%?) to a wide variety of charities they care about---e.g. scientific research, medicine, economic development, and yes, arts and culture---we would get all the benefits of our present system and eliminate a lot of the worst flaws. US GDP is $14 trillion. US development aid and private charity are more like $300 billion (about 2% if you're playing at home). Step that up to $600 billion, or $1 trillion, and what we could accomplish!

But I don't think we're going to get there by making people feel guilty about supporting one thing rather than another. Far better, it seems, to get them to just make a habit of writing a check---think of it like another bill to pay---and not worrying so much about whether it is going the best possible place.

Comment author: gwern 12 June 2012 02:37:06AM 3 points [-]

Well, think of it this way: What would an economy look like, if everyone in it obeyed the maxims of Peter Singer?

They would donate up until the point of diminishing marginal returns as determined by experts in the relevant fields and then spend on themselves.

Seems like a pretty good world.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 June 2012 05:35:28PM 1 point [-]

It seems like a world in which most resources are controlled by "experts in relevant fields." When I consider this possible world should I imagine it with the experts we have now, or with more idealized experts?

Comment author: gwern 12 June 2012 05:58:42PM 0 points [-]

How about the existing experts that the existing Singer recommends in his existing books, and not some straw Singer as pnrjulius seems to be thinking of?

Comment author: [deleted] 12 June 2012 08:59:46PM *  1 point [-]

Singer wants us to donate to these organizations. Seemingly, he wants us to donate a lot, but not so much as he personally gives.

I don't know what Straw Singer wants us to do.