What Is Optimal Philanthropy?

by alyssavance5 min read12th Jul 201235 comments


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Much has been written about the idea of optimal philanthropy. Yet, it seems like optimal philanthropy isn't a single claim. Instead, it's a collection of related, but quite distinct, claims that have all been bundled together, much like the Singularity.

Here's the website of GiveWell, and here's the main video introduction for 80,000 Hours, two of the major optimal philanthropy sites. I'll try to break them down into their component claims (written in bold), and also give my views on each of the claims. Some of them are explicitly stated, but others are more implicit, so I definitely welcome feedback if optimal philanthropists feel they disagree with some of the claims as stated.

1. We should evaluate charities according to how efficient they are, along some common metric - for example, number of lives saved per dollar, or existential risk reduction per dollar. We should then encourage charities to be more efficient, and selectively donate to (or otherwise help) the most efficient ones.

This one I support wholeheartedly. It's the main message of GiveWell, and though I have disagreements with their methodology, the basic idea (of marginal utility evaluation) is one that must happen more often. People are way too prone, by default, to donate to the Society for Curing Rare Diseases in Cute Puppies. Much has been written about this in Purchase Fuzzies And Utilons Separately, and other Less Wrong posts.

2. In order to do the most good for our fellow humans, we should start/work for/donate to/otherwise become involved in charitable organizations.

Of course, this is widely believed outside the optimal philanthropy movement. But I think this belief is inherent in many optimal philanthropy claims, and it ought to be examined more critically. It's plausible, but if one looks at the total good done over the last thousand years, the vast majority comes from science and various businesses, not popular causes like (back then) "tithe to the church" or (now, from the 80,000 Hours video) "campaigning against climate change". (Examples: electricity, air travel, enough food, trains, air conditioning... ) However, it's also true that much more total effort has been put into for-profit organizations than non-profits. Which one is more efficient per dollar, I don't know, but it's a question worth examining, rather than just ignoring it by default.

3. We should design careers around being able to donate the largest possible amount.

This one I see as highly damaging. Human psychology is such that, in order for a movement to get long-term, voluntary participation by highly capable people, stuff needs to be fun. Less Wrong itself, and the New York Less Wrong meetup group, are two obvious examples. "The more fun we have, the more people will want to join us."

Of course, the primary purpose of a community or activity doesn't have to be fun. Eg., Google doesn't exist for its employees to have fun. But working for Google still is fun, and if it weren't, Google would soon start losing people, become less productive, and ultimately go bankrupt. (Disclosure: I am a former Google intern.)

Writing a donation check can be very useful, but it isn't fun - it violates all the principles of Fun Theory. To go through the list, it isn't novel, doesn't involve tackling new challenges, doesn't engage the senses, doesn't get better over time (if we assume things work well, the marginal utility of dollars donated should go down, not up), doesn't involve long-term personal consequences, doesn't involve freedom of action, doesn't involve personal control over politics (assuming that one isn't personally involved in the charity, which is generally assumed), etc. etc. etc. (I'm referring to the actual act of writing the check here - for earning the money in the first place, see the next claim.)

Not everything in life is fun, nor can it be, at least pre-Singularity. Taking out the garbage isn't fun, but I do it anyway. However, trying to design lives around things that are inherently un-fun will probably lead to bad outcomes.

4. People can donate the largest amount through a traditional "high-earning career", like investment banking.

This one involves, to some extent, the classic American confusion between social class and income. One might think of "lawyer" as a high-earning career, since it's an upper middle class career; you need a graduate degree and dress up in suits. However, lawyer is actually a terrible career from a money-making perspective, and a law degree usually leaves people worse off financially (details here). Investment bankers themselves don't make that much money, except at the top levels (details here, and see here for general analysis of why gross pay isn't money in the bank).

In fact, all things being equal, one would expect a negative correlation between how prestigious a career is and how much money it makes. Prestige is, to some extent, a substitute for money - a musician might happily play for nothing, because being a musician is cool. "Where there's muck, there's brass" - for info on people who made millions doing boring stuff, see the excellent books The Millionaire Next Door and How To Get Rich.

But, even supposing that a "high-earning career" actually pays a lot (eg., partner at a Big Law firm), standard "career tracks" have serious disadvantages, like working insane hours doing unpleasant stuff. They sap what I call human capital and social capital - human capital is your skills, capabilities, and the value you can provide to an organization, while social capital is your network of friends and people who want to work with you. Human capital and social capital are the two critical things one needs to do anything, including world saving; they shouldn't be spent lightly.

5. People are morally responsible for the opportunity costs of their actions.

This is somewhat tricky/ambiguous, so I've deliberately made the wording vague, but the best example I've found is Peter Singer's argument (analyzed here). Singer compares philanthropy to a Trolley Problem. There's a set of train tracks, which a child is lying on, and a train is fast approaching. You're driving a luxury car, and if you drive the car on the tracks, the train will run into the car and save the child. What should you do?

In standard morality, the right thing to do is save the child, even if it means destroying your really expensive car. Indeed, we might socially shame someone who didn't. According to Singer, this means that we should be willing to donate any amount of money less than the price of an expensive car to charity, if it meant saving a life. Not donating to charity would be the same as letting the train run over the kid - murder through inaction.

I haven't figured out in detail what the real moral framework should be, but this argument doesn't work. For one thing, it produces atrocious incentives. Suppose you have a nice, cushy software job, and donate 10% of your income to charity, even though you could easily afford 20%. You work really hard, and a year later, you get another job for twice as much money. If not donating surplus money is morally equivalent to causing whatever bad outcome the donation would prevent, you are now twice as guilty, since the amount you aren't donating (20% vs. 10%) is twice as large. This is despite the fact that the total amount of good done is also twice as large. Why punish an improvement?

Another huge problem is the creation of unbounded obligations. I suspect a lot of thinking is inherently binary - you've either graduated college or you haven't, either paid back the loan or you haven't, either obeyed the rules or you haven't. With this line of argument, there's literally no point at which one can sit back and say, "I've fulfilled my duty to charity - there's nothing more to do". There's (short of FAI) always another child to save. One can never say, "I've met the goal", or even "I've gotten a third of the way to the goal", since the goal of solving all the world's problems is so huge. But if all states of the world - whether they be donating 0%, 10%, or 20% of income - result in 0% total goal fulfillment, then they're all equivalent, at least in some sense. A moral framework should make the good outcome and bad outcome as distinct as possible, not the same.

6. More people interested in doing good should become professional philanthropists.

This one I totally agree with, which might seem odd, given how closely related it is to #3 and #4. However, I think there are two important differences. A professional philanthropist is, typically, someone whose full-time job it is to figure out how to give away their money. But almost always, it's someone who already has lots of money. Historically, there isn't much precedent for people taking high-paying jobs and donating most of their salary... but there's lots of precedent for getting rich first, in whatever field, and then working full-time on donating.

The other difference is that professional philanthropists don't optimize for donating the maximum amount. They see donating as good, but they also see it as a good to be traded off against other goods, like having lots of nice stuff and social respect. Optimizing for more than one thing allows one to have a lot more Fun, as I suspect Bill Gates and Warren Buffett do.

This really does seem to be better than conventional routes of do-gooding. When I was in college, a huge number of people did stuff like fly to Africa to dig wells. This isn't just inefficient - it actually does net harm, since the cost of utilizing unskilled labor usually outweighs the benefits of such labor. Surely we can do better.