Inconsistent Beliefs and Charitable Giving


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There is common tendency in human life to act in ways contrary to what we believe.

The classic example is the German people under Nazi rule, most of whom likely thought of themselves as good people—the kind of people who would help their neighbors even at risk to themselves, but did not do anything about the rounding up of Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals into concentration camps. They didn’t want to give up their self-image as a good person, but they also didn’t want themselves and their family to potentially face the wrath of the SS. So, many convinced themselves that they didn’t care about what was happening. That was far easier, less painful, than admitting that they were not quite as moral and upright as they thought or having to put themselves in mortal danger.


I used to think that I would have been one of the few who did in fact shelter the “undesirables” from the Nazis. Now, I am less confident. But I want to be better. Just recently, I realized I have been similarly inconsistent by not donating to organizations that help people dying of preventable diseases and can measure lives saved in relatively low numbers of dollars.

If you had accused me of this up until a few days ago I would have given you all sorts of excuses for why this lack of action and my belief “the death and suffering of others is bad and I should prevent it if I can” were not inconsistent. I would have told you how I feel terrible about the dying children when I think about them, but I am prioritizing other problems. And besides, I’m a college student with very little disposable income and it’s really just financially prudent to save all my money in case of an unforeseen contingency. Once I start making more money later on in life, then I’ll start contributing to organizations that send people malaria nets.


But that’s all a self-deception. The truth is that my beliefs and actions were inconsistent. Because I quite firmly believe that saving lives is more important than beer, yet I continually find money for beer and yet none for the Against Malaria Foundation.

I think the root cause of this kind of inconsistency is often a feeling of being overwhelmed. If you imagine a single child dying of malaria, feverish and convulsing weakly in her bed while her parents look on in helpless horror, you’ll probably wish you could do something to stop those people’s pain.

When you think about the thousands in the same position, when you think about the difficulty of doing something, how much money it would cost to actually save a life, the need to ensure that the organization you’re sending money to actually will use it effectively to help people in need…well, the whole thing just seems too complicated. Not only that, there are so many organizations claiming that donating money to them will save lives, and few of them are likely to admit other organizations are doing the same job better. Decision paralysis takes over and it’s very easy to decide that this is one of those things that’s better not to think about, at least for now.

On the other hand, grabbing drinks with friends is quite simple to execute, and it is very easy not to notice the opportunity cost (Note: I am not saying that I think I should or anyone should stop spending money on enjoying themselves, just that if I have enough disposable income for getting drinks with friends, I would consider that I have enough to spend on saving lives).

And that is the way I chose to be indifferent about something I would have cared about if my beliefs were consistent. I’d like to rationalize it as prioritizing other things, rather than just deciding not to care, but that is not the truth. The truth is I understand exactly how most of the German people under Nazi rule made themselves indifferent to the rounding up of their “undesirable” neighbors. When something bad is happening and we don’t quite know how to stop it, or the sacrifice needed to help stop it feels painful, choosing to be indifferent is frighteningly easy, even about truly horrific things.

Having noticed this inconsistency the problem becomes obvious. I did not think about the true opportunity cost of non-essential purchases, which is that the same money could be used to help save lives. When I look at a buying anything I do not strictly need from now on, I am going to try to remember that opportunity cost, so that, even if I do end up buying the thing anyway, at least I have not stopped caring. will help you estimate what that opportunity cost is and there are very good posts on here as well about effective giving, if you’re interested.



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From this argument it's only a small step to concluding that people who buy beer instead of contributing to AMF are Nazis.

Not too long ago this would have been ridiculous. In 2017, not so much.

I'm a little worried if it came across that way because that is not at all what I am trying to argue. The example was intended to show that if one sees something in the world that they think is bad (people dying in Africa of preventable disease) and yet they end up doing nothing by convincing themselves not to care, the mental process going on in their head is likely not very different from the one that occurred in people living under Nazi rule, who themselves felt uncomfortable about their Jewish neighbors being rounded up by the Nazis but did nothing. I am not comparing people who aren't donating to charity with the actual Nazis, and I'm sorry if it seemed that way.

Don't worry, you didn't actually come across that way, Lumifer is just being a jerk again. You're fairly new here, so you don't yet know Lumifer prefers that kind of comment. Sorry about him, and about LW not having a mute button.

I think the problem isn't that your actions are inconsistent with your beliefs, it's that you have some false beliefs about yourself. You may believe that "death is bad", "charity is good", and even "I want to be a person who would give to charity instead of buying a beer". But it does not follow that you believe "giving to charity is more important to me than buying a beer".

This explanation is more desirable, because if actions don't follow from beliefs, then you have to explain what they follow from instead.

He might not be wrong about beliefs about himself. Just because a person actually would prefer X to Y, it doesn't mean he is always going to rationally act in a way that will result in X. In a lot of ways we are deeply irrational beings, especially when it comes to issues like short term goals vs long term goals (like charity vs instant rewards).

A person might really want to be a doctor, might spend a huge amount of time and resources working his way through medical school, and then may "run out of willpower" or "suffer from a lack of Akrasia" or however you want to put it and not put in the time to study he needs to pass his finals one semester. It doesn't mean he doesn't really want to be a doctor, and if he convinces himself "well I guess I didn't want to be a doctor after all" he's doing himself a disservice when the conclusion he should draw is "I messed up in trying to do something I really want to do, how can I prevent that from happening in the future."

It doesn't mean he doesn't really want to be a doctor

You're right. Instead it means that he doesn't have the willpower required to become a doctor. Presumably, this is something he didn't know before he started school.

Right. Maybe not even that; maybe he just didn't have the willpower required to become a doctor on that exact day, and if he re-takes the class next semester maybe that will be different.

So, to get back to the original point, I think the original poster was worried about not having the willpower to give to charity and, if he doesn't have that, worried he also might not have the higher levels of willpower you would presumably need to do something truly brave if it was needed (like, in his example, resisting someone like the Nazis in 1930's Germany.) And he was able to use that fear in order to increase his willpower and give more to charity.

I think that's a fair assessment, I have an image of myself as the sort of person who would value saving lives over beer and my alarm came from noticing a discrepancy between my self-image and my actions. I am trying to bring the two things in line because that self-image seems like something I want to actually be rather than think I am.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be something you are not. But you should also want to have accurate beliefs about yourself. And being a sort of person who prefers beer over charity doesn't make you a bad person. And I have no idea how to you can change your true preferences, even if you want to.

I think there are some pretty straightforward ways to change your true preferences. For example, if I want to become a person who values music more than I currently do, I can practice a musical instrument until I'm really good at it.

I think our maps of these scenarios can be a bit limited. Like I think you have to model yourself in a world where you are also a person who has needs which have to be advocated for / accounted for, and particularly you have to think, I have access to or control over these resources, that I can turn to these needs, and my sphere of control depends on things like my psychological state and how well rested I am and how much I know, what skills I have, what tools I have, etc, which I can also sometimes spend those resources learning, buying etc. And in which all that's true of everyone else, too, of course.. that they are in a world where they may have to advocate for themselves to an extent or where some may be impaired or better able than most to do that. If you're waited on hand and foot, you may be able to afford to pour more of your 'all' into benevolent behavior - if other people are making sure you sleep and feeding you on time and everything...

Agreed, though I'd call it "conflicting beliefs" rather than "false beliefs about yourself". You seem to believe that you should be giving the same dollar to charity and to a bartender. And you probably do believe these things, at different times.

It contrasts with Akrasia, where you understand that you're acting against your beliefs, but seem to lack willpower or resolve or SOMETHING to make yourself do what you want.

I think your post is spot on.

[-][anonymous]3y 0

Its interesting to try to think about how to accomplish being benevolent to the degree you want to in a world that you are included in.
One way you might start to come up with a map that's a little less biased than where you might think to start is - after working to overcome your prejudices and the social and geographical and perceptual distortions that make other people's problems harder to empathize with, turning that lens on yourself and thinking about how you are biased against or for yourself and how you fit into this map as well, remembering that you're also deciding how to allocate the resources and energy of that one person on the map you are including, and that various people are variably selfish and helpful to others, and finding a balance that makes sense among all that. And that that one person has not only material and emotional needs but meaning needs. You may want to pencil in time to write the great american novel, or something. There are other meaningful things to spend resources on besides charity, and its arguable that its good to facilitate those things too - that there may be some good to having those self-actualization bits, where we figure out what anything means or what we're doing with ourselves, or we do things like make art or whatever, that is actually comparable to and can be measured against the good of having more people survive and so on. Come to think of it - this can work both ways. It might be that the best use of your resources might be to do things so that your group actually suffered more or some of you died, so that some /other/ group can go off and actualize or better itself in some way... weird to think about. One way you might very roughly point the whole thing out would be to assign values to each tier of maslow's hierarchy - maybe a '4' for physiological, a 5 for safety, 6 belonging 7 esteem 8 for self-actualization.. so one person figuring out the meaning of life is a state of affairs that's maybe worth the lives of two people. So, obviously not a 'perfect' point system. But from there you can say, if i take action X - who moves up or down the pyramid (or off the bottom of it) and what's the gain? There are probably better descriptions of 'the good' for an individual than maslow's hierarchy which is from the forties, but, I'm working with what I know off the top of my head and am looking forward to better ideas / corrections / etc. I'm sure there's way more elaborate / nuanced utility systems that people are into. And then compare X to other actions on that basis - based on where they move people on the pyramid. So for instance adding too many people will eventually lower the quality of life for everyone because it takes a certain amount of resources to give everyone the best quality of life and there's a finite set of resources available at any given time... only so much carbon, so much sunlight etc - we can also take steps to increase that energy and that changes the game, too...

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