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

thomblake 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. Show more comments above.

Comment author: thomblake 05 December 2011 11:35:25PM 0 points [-]

Your comment tries to answer the question, "How can I make myself more charitable?" rather than the question, "Now that I'm very charitable, how can I maximize my impact?"

If someone is not a very charitable person, yes some learned empathy might fix that, and hands-on experience might be the best way to do that. But such a person would not be asking the first question above.

If someone is already a very charitable person, then they should be concerned with how much of an impact their actions are actually having - then, the work on the beach is inefficient as compared to the thousands of dollars.

Comment author: Boyi 06 December 2011 02:43:32AM 0 points [-]

Well said, but I would tweak your wording of my question to "now that I am a good person, how can maximize my impact?" What is the estimate of a good person? I would argue that a good person is one who produces meaningful relationships in the world. The model of efficiency above touches only on how to most impact the person-captial relationship, i.e what to do with the material and labor resources I have accumulated to most positively impact humanity. I agree that this is important, but add that the "good person" is defined by multiple relationships, not just of the one they have to capital. For example, I would argue a truly good person would be a good child, good parent, good friend, good older/younger (depending on the age of the opposing actor), good stranger, good citizen, good character, and potentially much more. To maximize the meaning and positivity of all critical relationships is not done through economic efficiency. And while I cannot make any absolute claims that the social impact a person makes is more beneficial than the way they use their capital, personally I believe it to be so.

Now if your original statement about already being charitable was meant to mean that you are already a very humane person (meaning your relational impact in your community is maximized) , then sure, I think maximizing charitable action is great. But I think to maximize your role within a social network is really hard, if not impossible to some extent. I also think that most people are not as empathetically developed as they would like to think. I would go as far to as to say that a perfect empathetic awareness is as unreachable as Truth with a capital T.

I apologize if I sound argumentative, I just was not sure if my question was already dealt with in your minds/blogs and this is a further point.

Comment author: thomblake 06 December 2011 01:08:11PM 0 points [-]

That story sounds suspiciously nice.

Given the choice between being a 'good person' and fostering local relationships of various fuzzy impacts, or saving the lives of ten thousand people, would you really choose the former over the latter? Do you think that actually makes you a good person?

Note that this is not merely a hypothetical; that is effectively the choice the lawyer is making when he works in soup kitchen instead of donating money.

Comment author: Boyi 06 December 2011 08:49:08PM 0 points [-]

Well given the way you word it, yes, it does seem suspicious. There are several things I would change about your retelling of my position.

1.) I advocate for proper and efficient relationships. This idea is local if you mean thinking of mechanical solidarity before organic solidarity, but in this day in age with telecommunication and a globally mobile workforce I would not call relationship cultivation "local" in the traditional sense. For example, my self-network spans multiple continents. The potential for impact is huge.

2.) Proper relationships are by no means "fuzzy," I would say that the fact that you would describe relationship cultivation as fuzzy shows a serious lack of mental effort. Since it is something I think about a lot, I will give you an example. First let me say I am currently trying to define all core relationships of the social self. The social self is the idea that human identity, motivation, action, cognition, do not arise from autonomous agents, but from, a network of human, non-human, and cultural relationships. One such relationship is the relationship between child and parent/ child and guardian. It is possible to not have parents, or to not have a guardian, but it is not possible to avoid the consequences of this fact. The dynamics of the child to parent/ guardian relationship is fundamental to a person's actions, thoughts, and feelings. If my mom or dad were to die, no matter how happy, satisfied, complete I felt immediately prior to this, it would completely rearrange my feelings and thoughts. I would eventually recover, but I would be a different person, one who had to figure out how to be happy, satisfied and complete knowing my mother was not alive.

So far I have been trying to show the impact of a core relationship. The point I originally wanted to make was that cultivating relationships is not "fuzzy." Frankly speaking it is hard being a good son. If your parents are racist, religious zealots, unhealthy, insecure, it is not your job to fix that. You think it is your job, because your parents raised you, fixed you in a sense, and at some point to validate your own maturity you want to do the same. And honestly in a perfect world you should be able to. I have far more education than my parents about health, psychologically, and sociality. I am positive that if I know what my parents are doing wrong in certain aspects of their life, and that I could do better. There is nothing wrong with telling your parents you think they should change in some way; the problem arises when they do not want to. You cannot force your parents to change. You can cut them out of your life, but that is destroying a relationship not cultivating it. Now I am not talking about extremes here. There might be some cases where they choice comes between those two options, but the majority of the time it is not. The majority of the time, the choice is to either accept your parents for their imperfection, ignore it, or abandon them. The proper choice being the former. It is a hard thing to do.

Proper relationships are not fuzzy. If a relationship is fuzzy all the time, generally you are not maintaining it well.

3.) I see cultivating good people as making transformation change. Meaning that it is a transforming change that does not just stop at initial impact. It is perpetual. If you model proper relations in your social network, then the networks connected peripherally will be impacted. In the short run pouring money on the problem might help, but I do not see this as a solution.

A perfect example of this is Aristotle's appeal for the need of practical wisdom to complement laws. You can make laws to regulate, but if people do not have an internal commitment to the spirit behind the laws then the laws will become perpetually less effective. How many thousands of pages of new laws does the United States produce each year? The byproduct of which is that normal people can no longer understand the law because it has become so complex. If normal people cannot understand it the result is two-fold. The masses do not internalize it, and the elite figure out how to take advantage of it. I would argue this problem of deficient practical wisdom is directly related to a lack of proper relationships and knowledge of how to cultivate them.

4.) I do not think you can save 10,000 people with any one action. Nor do I think just because your intention is to save people that is what you actually do. If you get 10,000 people malaria nets that does not save them from a. being able to get malaria, b.) living in an environment where malaria is prevalent, c.) the poor condition of their lives, d.) being able to sustain their lineage for multiple generations.

Dambisa Moyo has a book called "Dead Aid" the argument is that the millions of dollars in aid sent to africa is actually doing more damage than good. There are several reasons for this, if you are interested in hearing them I would be happy to share.

Comment author: TimS 06 December 2011 09:06:01PM *  0 points [-]

You are equivocating on the word fuzzy. There's a contrast between doing something because it feels good and doing something because it actually helps others. Contrast serving food at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, which makes one feel good vs. serving food on some random day in June, which is probably more helpful to the soup kitchen. The first act provides "fuzzy." The second provides more social utility.

None of this asserts that maintaining relationships is not valuable or real. The argument is that transformational relationships have less payout per effort than other social improvement acts (like donating lots of money).

And one point of anti-Aid groups is that international donors are so consumed with "trendy" types of aid that they crowd out both African self-improvement and foreign aid that might help. For more on Dead Aid in particular, you might find this developmental economist's take interesting.

Comment author: Boyi 06 December 2011 09:23:33PM 0 points [-]

" The argument is that transformational relationships have less payout per effort than other social improvement acts (like donating lots of money)."

I realize this is the argument, it is what I am disagreeing with.