A very interesting article on "earning to give", featuring  LessWrong members Jeff Kaufman, Julia WiseHolden Karnofsky, William MacAskill and Toby Ord.  Some excerpts:

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn.

The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.

Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do. [...]

Two former analysts at the mega-hedge fund Bridgewater and Associates have worked to change that. Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld created GiveWell, a nonprofit that analyzes charities to help people decide where to give, rather than how much to give. They take into account, for instance, that a malaria donation can save a life, while a check sent to the New York City Ballet probably cannot. (Although it may produce a slightly better version of “Swan Lake.”) [...]

Take Jeff Kaufman. A Cambridge, Mass.-based developer at Google, Kaufman and his wife, Julia Wise, managed to live on $10,000 in 2012, they say. Together, they give away at least 45 percent of their income each year (the rest goes to savings and taxes). Kaufman and Wise meticulously document their spending on their blogs. In 2010, for example, they spent a measly $164.44 on groceries each month and gave themselves $38 apiece to spend each week on nonessentials (including all non-grocery meals). In 2012, they moved in with Jeff’s family, which saved even more money, they say. [...]

If GiveWell makes the empirical argument to the public, Giving What We Can makes the moral one.

Toby Ord, the founder, is an Australian philosopher teaching at Oxford. That’s hardly an accident. Oxford’s philosophy department is chock-full of consequentialists, or ethicists who think morality is about maximizing the good, however one defines “good.”

The group conducts charity evaluations and is a grass-roots network for those trying to live the consequentialist lifestyle. At least in Britain, the idea took off fast, and not just with avowed consequentialists and utilitarians.

The group has been profiled across Britain, in the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the BBC. The initial coverage focused on Ord’s promise in 2010 to give £1 million (or $1.5 million) to charity over his life, a tall order for an Oxford fellow making $50,000 a year. But somewhere along the line, Ord’s colleague and charity co-founder Will MacAskill hit upon an even catchier pitch. At the height of the Occupy movement in late 2011, he gave a talk at Oxford titled: “Want an ethical career? Become a banker.”

MacAskill, like Trigg, realized that percentages don’t matter. Absolutes do. Ord may be able to give $1.5 million over the course of his life, but Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein made more than $15 million in 2012 alone. Before the crisis, Blankfein was clearing $50 million annually. And investment bankers don’t even get the biggest cut. Hedge fund manager John Paulson made $5 billion in 2010. Suppose Paulson were to keep his job, move to a studio in Hoboken, reduce his living expenses to $30,000 a year, and give the rest of the $5 billion away. He could save 3,000 times as many lives in a year as Ord could save in 80 years. So why not enter finance with the express goal of using earnings to save lives? [...]

It’s hard to imagine a 25-year-old Peter Singer envisioning that an article he published in Philosophy and Public Affairs would push people like Jason Trigg into the financial sector.

But the 66-year-old Singer of today welcomes the result. In between fending off religious opponents and helping lead the animal rights movement, he’s been doing a fair bit of giving advocacy himself. He has his own group, The Life You Can Save, spun off from his book of the same name, which also organizes at universities and works as an informal ally of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours.

And he embraces earning-to-give as among the most ethical career choices one can make, more moral than his own, even. “There is a relatively small group of philosophers who actually have a big influence,” he says from his home in Australia. “But otherwise, the marginal difference that you’re going to make as a professor of philosophy compared to somebody else is not all that great.”

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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:44 AM

I think you forgot to include a link to the original article.

Fixed, thanks. :-)

EDIT: Retracted for not being nice.


They're shining examples of careful, charitable disagreement compared to the tripe in the original article's comment section.

I'm not sure I agree with the logic that "the most altruistic thing you can possibly do is to earn as much money as you can so you can donate more money." That's one way to do good, sure. But generally speaking, a worker in any field is only going to capture a small percentage of the value he creates; usually about 10%.

So, logically speaking, the total number of utils created by the work you're doing should outweigh your own income. The positive or negative effect your work has on the world at a whole may be more significant then even your total income, let alone the 5%-10% of your total income you might be able to give to charity.

That's not to say that charity's not significant, but it seems that at least in many cases it would be more altruistic to do a job with direct positive results (especially if you work hard and are better then average at that job) then to get a job with less direct positive results and then give more money to charity. A really excellent teacher who does a much better then average job educating his students, earns $50,000, and gives $5000 a year to charity, may be doing more good then that same person working as a bond trader, earning $100,000 and giving $10,000 a year to charity.

I'm not sure I agree with your example. If these people are donating to the AMF, the trader is saving the lives of two more children. Is that outweighed by educating and inspiring a classroom of students over a year?

Well, let's say the difference in charity between the teacher and the bonds trader in my example is $5000. Each year, if the teacher teaches 5 classes with 20 students each, then he probably has 100 students. If 100 students have a significantly better education that year then they otherwise would, then I would think that would be worth more utility in the long run then $50 per student, wouldn't you?

We don't want to compare education with dollars here, we want to compare education with the best thing you can easily buy with a charitable donation, and that's probably mosquito nets which save one child's life per $2500.

Yes, it's much cheaper to save lives in the third world than in the first world, but that obviously doesn't mean that we should stop investing resources into education in the first world.

If you want to figure out the value of an education in the first world, you would have to take the cost of the education and compare it to the amount of added value that that person will produce over the course of his lifetime because of that education.

Obviously something like mosquito nets to a third world country is an area where not as many resources are being invested as should be invested, but that doesn't mean that you drop all other investments in order to only do that.

I'm not sure if your objection is that our economy should put nonzero resources into first-world education. But if it is, note that the issue is where the next marginal $5000 should go — whether, given the current allocation of resources, marginal dollars do more good in first-world education than in third-world health. If our hypothetical teacher/trader's donation is somehow matched by our entire economy, or even by all philanthropists, the AMF's room for more funding would be instantly exhausted.

If you want to figure out the value of an education in the first world, you would have to take the cost of the education and compare it to the amount of added value that that person will produce over the course of his lifetime because of that education.

Agreed, and on the other side one should likewise add up all the value that two saved children in Africa would produce over their lifetimes. As I said, I'm not sure I agree that the education intervention produces more total value, but perhaps I could be persuaded of this.

But if it is, note that the issue is where the next marginal $5000 should go — whether, given the current allocation of resources, marginal dollars do more good in first-world education than in third-world health.

I don't think that's the most important issue here. If teacher A is creating more value at teaching than he would be as a bond salesman donating to charity, then the government could (in theory) then shift $5000 worth of resources from education over to foreign aid as the teacher is generating more then $5000 worth of extra education value. Or Bill Gates could donate a little more to third world charities instead of US education charities (since he does both), ect. That is, if it would cost the government more money to create as much educational improvement as person X can then it would cost them to create as much third world charity improvement as person X can. then person X is probably doing more good in education.

I realize that in practice that's not necessarily going to happen, but fundamentally, dollars are fungible; if person A can create more dollars worth of education value then he can create dollars worth of third world charity value, then that's what he should do, and let someone else who can more efficiently give dollars to a third world charity then they can to first world education do that instead.

I agree that if the economy reliably distributes resources in a manner which is fair and is best for everyone, then fungibility of money implies that the most altruistic thing to do would be to create the most value as measured in dollars.

However, the economy is in fact not like this (and you seem to agree). I don't understand why our hypothetical teacher/trader should act like it is.

There are a lot of legal perks to working in a job like Jason is doing, at a high-frequency trading firm, which I suspect allow the workers there to capture quite a lot more of the wealth they produce than the average worker.

Not to mention, he can give a hell of a lot more than 5-10% of his money to charity. Julia Wise and her husband both spend more of the money they earn on charity than on themselves, and Jason Trigg is in a position to earn a lot more money. The amount he has to spend on himself doesn't scale accordingly.

Oh, I understand that. I'm talking about the general principle of "the best way to do good is to earn as much as you can and give more to charity", which seems to be the default idea around here of how to do good. Most people are not going to give 90% of their income to charity.

Even if you did, though, I still think you also have to take into account the other value created by your job, which is probably significantly greater then your salary itself.

Where does the 10% figure come from?