Effective altruism, efficient charity, and other miscellaneous notes

You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

—Steven E. Landsburg, Giving Your All

“Most of us do not merely let people starve, but also participate in starving them.”

—Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights

“[N]either our distance from a preventable evil nor the number of other people who, in respect to that evil, are in the same situation as we are, lessens our obligation to mitigate or prevent that evil.”

—Peter Singer, Famine, Affluence and Morality

“The cost of a guide dog for the blind is $42,000.[12] As an alternative, the cost of performing surgery to correct trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma, often costs as little as $40 in developing countries.[13] This surgery is 80% effective. Therefore, sight can be restored to 840 people for the cost of one guide dog, and the guide dog does not restore sight.”

—Wikipedia, “Effective giving”


“Effective altruism,” notes Wikipedia, “is a philosophy and social movement[1] which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact.[2][3] It is this broad evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity.”

Wikipedia outlines the principles of effective altruism as follows:

  1. Cost effectiveness. Applied to charitable interventions, cost-effectiveness refers to the amount of good achieved per dollar spent. For example, the cost-effectiveness of health interventions can be measured in quality-adjusted life years. Effective giving is an important component of effective altruism because some charities are far more effective than others.[4] Some charities simply fail to achieve their goals.[5] Of those that do succeed, some achieve far greater results with less money.[6][7] Researchers at GiveWell have calculated that some charities are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than others.[6]

    (The first time I came across this fact I was actually genuinely shocked.)

  2. Cause prioritization. Many effective altruists place a high degree of importance on working out what the most important cause to support is.[8] This is one way that effective altruism is distinguishable from other traditional altruism or charity.

    For example, although there is a growing emphasis on effectiveness and evidence among nonprofits, this is usually done with a single cause in mind, such as education or climate change. It is uncommon for the cause itself to be critically analyzed.[9]

    Effective altruists attempt to choose the most effective causes based on broad values such as preventing suffering. They will then put their time and money into actions and organizations that pursue these goals efficiently. Several organizations are doing research on cause selection.[10][11] Most effective altruists think that the most important causes to focus on are currently poverty in the developing world, the suffering of animals on factory farms, and humanity’s long term future.[8]

  3. Impartiality. Effective altruists reject the view that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others. For example, they believe that a person in a developing country has equal value to a person in one’s own community. Peter Singer:

    It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. […] The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously […], this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.”

    (Impartiality in the moral sense was one of the things I found really attractive about the effective altruism point of view. For kicks see e.g. this post, which plays on the fact that the intuitive morality of an action seems to be dependent on physical distance.)

    In addition, many effective altruists think that future generations have equal moral value to currently existing people, so they focus on reducing existential risks to humanity. Others believe that the interests of non-human animals should be accorded the same moral weight as similar interests of humans and work to prevent the suffering of animals, such as those raised in factory farms.

  4. Counterfactual reasoning. Effective altruists argue that counterfactual reasoning is important to determine which course of action maximizes positive impact. Many people assume that the best way to help people is through direct methods, such as working for a charity or providing social services.[16][17] Since charities and social-service providers usually can find people willing to work for them, effective altruists compare the amount of good somebody does in a conventional altruistic career to how much good would have been done had the next-best candidate been hired for the position. According to this reasoning, the impact of choosing a conventional altruistic career may be smaller than it appears.[18]

    The earning to give strategy has been proposed as a possible strategy for effective altruists. This strategy involves choosing to work in high-paying careers with the explicit goal of donating large sums of money to charity. Some effective altruists have argued that the marginal impact of one’s potentially unethical actions in such a lucrative career would be small, since someone else would have done them regardless, while the impact of donations would be large.

  5. Donating to charity is not superegoratory. Several influential philosophers in effective altruism, including Peter Singer and Peter Unger, reject the common belief that donating to charity is supererogatory. A supererogatory act is one that is good but not morally required. These philosophers argue that donating to effective charities that help the poorest people in the world is morally required. In other words, they hold it is morally wrong not to do so. Effective altruists do not necessarily reject the existence of supererogatory goods but are more likely to deny that a particular action is supererogatory.Singer and Unger both use various thought experiments to illustrate this point. The basic structure of the thought experiment is that one encounters a person in fatal danger and one could help at little cost to oneself. If one does not help, the person would die. Most people say it would be morally wrong not to help. Singer and Unger conclude that it is therefore morally wrong to fail to donate to charities that can save lives at little cost. This argument assumes that physical distance does not affect the morality of an action (as mentioned above), a key principle in effective altruism.

A notable supporter of effective altruism is Peter Singer, whose now-classic essay in ethics Famine, Affluence and Morality argues that “if one can use one’s wealth to reduce suffering — for example, by aiding famine-relief efforts — without any significant reduction in the well-being of oneself or others, it is immoral not to do so”. The thrust of his argument goes as follows:

  • “Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad”.[8]
  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it”.[8]
  • “It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away”.[8]
  • “The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position”.[9]

The essay itself is of course worth a read.

Here’s an interesting post by LW user Louie that briefly summarizes “some of the most crucial considerations that one needs to take into account when soberly approaching the task of doing the most good possible”, a.k.a. “making the world a better place”; below I’ve quoted the more interesting parts of the post but the whole list is definitely worth a read:

What should we do if we want to generate the most positive impact possible?

It’s definitely not an easy problem. Lots of smart, talented people with the best of intentions have tried to end war, eliminate poverty, cure disease, stop hunger, prevent animal suffering, and save the environment. As you may have noticed, we’re still working on all of those. So the track record of people trying to permanently solve the world’s biggest problems isn’t that spectacular.

So how can you make your attempt to save the world turn out significantly better than the generations of others who’ve tried this already?

It turns out there actually are a number of things we can do to substantially increase our odds of doing the most good:

1. Patch your moral intuition (with math!) – Human moral intuition is really useful. But it tends to fail us at precisely the wrong times — like when a problem gets too big [“millions of people dying? *yawn*”] or when it involves uncertainty [“you can only save 60% of them? call me when you can save everyone!”]. Unfortunately, these happen to be the defining characteristics of the world’s most difficult problems. Think about it. If your standard moral intuition were enough to confront the world’s biggest challenges, they wouldn’t be the world’s biggest challenges anymore… they’d be “those problems we solved already cause they were natural for us to understand”. If you’re trying to do things that have never been done before, use all the tools available to you. That means setting aside your emotional numbness by using math to feel what your moral intuition can’t. You can also do better by acquainting yourself with some of the more commonhuman biases. It turns out your brain isn’t always right. Yes, even your brain. So knowing the ways in which it systematically gets things wrong is a good way to avoid making the most obvious errors when setting out to help save the world.

2. Identify a cause with lots of leverage – It’s noble to try and save the world, but it’s ineffective and unrealistic to try and do it all on your own. So let’s start out by joining forces with an established organization who’s already working on what you care about. Seriously, unless you’re already ridiculously rich + brilliant or ludicrously influential, going solo or further fragmenting the philanthropic world by creating US-Charity#1,238,202 is almost certainly a mistake. Now that we’re all working together here, let’s keep in mind that only a few charitable organizations are truly great investments — and the vast majority just aren’t. So maximize your leverage by investing your time and money into supporting the best non-profits with the largest expected pay-offs.

3. Don’t confuse what “feels good” with what actually helps the most – Wanna know something that feels good? I fund micro-loans on Kiva. It’s a ridiculously cheap way to feel good about helping people. It totally plays into this romantic story I have in my mind about helping business owners help themselves. And there’s lots of shiny pictures of people I can identify with. But does loaning $25 to someone on the other side of the planet really make the biggest impact possible? Definitely not. So I fund a few Kiva loans a month because it fulfills a deep-seated psychological need of mine — a need that doesn’t go away by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist. But once that’s out of the way, I devote the vast majority of my time and resources to contributing to other non-profits with staggeringly higher pay-offs.

4. Don’t be a “cause snob” – This one’s tough. The more you begin to care about a cause, the more difficult it becomes not to be self-righteous about it.  The problem doesn’t go away just because you really do have a great causeit only gets worse. Resist the temptation to kick dirt in the faces of others who are doing something different. There are alwaysother ways to help no matter what philanthropic cause you’re involved with. And everyone starts out somewhere. 15 years ago, I was optimizing for anarchy. Things change. And even if they don’t, people deserve your respect regardless of whether they want to help save the world or not. We’re entitled to nothing and no one. Our fortunes will rise and fall based on our abilities, including the ability to be nice — not the intrinsic goodness of our causes.

5. Spread awareness – This is a necessary meta-strategy no matter what you’re trying to accomplish. Remember, deep down, most people really do want to find a way to help others or save the world. They just might not be looking for it all the time. So tell people what you’re up to and if they want to know more, tell them that too. You shouldn’t expect everyone to join you, but you should at least give people a chance to surprise you. And there are other less obvious things you can do, like join networking groups for your cause or link to the website of your favorite cause a lot from your blog and other sites where they might not be mentioned quite so much. That way, they can consistently turn up higher in Google searches.

6. Give money – Spreading awareness can only accomplish so much. Money is still the ultimate meta-tool for accomplishing everything. There are millions of excuses not to give, but at the end of the day, this is the highest-leverage way for you to contribute to that already high-leverage cause that you identified. And don’t feel like you’re alone in finding it difficult to give. Most people find it incredibly difficult to give money — even to a cause they deeply support. But even if it’s a heroically difficult task, we should still aspire to achieve it. If this were easy, someone else would have done it already.

7. Give now (rather than later) – I’ve seen fascinating arguments that it might be possible to do more good by investing your money in the stock market for a long time and then giving all the proceeds to charity later. It’s an interesting strategy but it has a number of limitations. To name just two: 1) Not contributing to charity each year prevents you from taking advantage of the best tax planning strategy available to you. That tax-break is free money. You should take free money. Not taking the free money is implicitly agreeing that your government knows how to spend your money better than you do. Do you think your government’s judgment and preferences are superior to yours? and; 2) Non-profit organizations can have endowments and those endowments can invest in securities just like individuals. So if long term-investment in the stock market were really a superior strategy, the charity you’re intending to give your money to could do the exact same thing. They could tuck all your annual contributions away in a big fat, tax-free fund to earn market returns until they were ready to unleash a massive bundle of money just like you would have. If they aren’t doing this already, it’s probably because the problem they’re trying to solve is compounding faster than the stock market compounds interest. Diseases spread, poverty is passed down, existential risk increases. At the very least, don’t try to out-think the non-profit you support without talking to them – they probably wish you were donating now, not just later.

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