This was originally posted as part of the efficient charity contest back in November. Thanks to Roko, multifoliaterose, Louie, jmmcd, jsalvatier, and others I forget for help, corrections, encouragement, and bothering me until I finally remembered to post this here.

Imagine you are setting out on a dangerous expedition through the Arctic on a limited budget. The grizzled old prospector at the general store shakes his head sadly: you can't afford everything you need; you'll just have to purchase the bare essentials and hope you get lucky. But what is essential? Should you buy the warmest parka, if it means you can't afford a sleeping bag? Should you bring an extra week's food, just in case, even if it means going without a rifle? Or can you buy the rifle, leave the food, and hunt for your dinner?

And how about the field guide to Arctic flowers? You like flowers, and you'd hate to feel like you're failing to appreciate the harsh yet delicate environment around you. And a digital camera, of course - if you make it back alive, you'll have to put the Arctic expedition pics up on Facebook. And a hand-crafted scarf with authentic Inuit tribal patterns woven from organic fibres! Wicked!

...but of course buying any of those items would be insane. The problem is what economists call opportunity costs: buying one thing costs money that could be used to buy others. A hand-crafted designer scarf might have some value in the Arctic, but it would cost so much it would prevent you from buying much more important things. And when your life is on the line, things like impressing your friends and buying organic pale in comparison. You have one goal - staying alive - and your only problem is how to distribute your resources to keep your chances as high as possible. These sorts of economics concepts are natural enough when faced with a journey through the freezing tundra.

But they are decidedly not natural when facing a decision about charitable giving. Most donors say they want to "help people". If that's true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don't. In the "Buy A Brushstroke" campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting "Blue Rigi" in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity..

Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people's lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn't have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

If you are to "love your neighbor as yourself", then you should be as careful in maximizing the benefit to others when donating to charity as you would be in maximizing the benefit to yourself when choosing purchases for a polar trek. And if you wouldn't buy a pretty picture to hang on your sled in preference to a parka, you should consider not helping save a famous painting in preference to helping save a thousand lives.

Not all charitable choices are as simple as that one, but many charitable choices do have right answers., a site which collects and interprets data on the effectiveness of charities, predicts that antimalarial drugs save one child from malaria per $5,000 worth of medicine, but insecticide-treated bed nets save one child from malaria per $500 worth of netting. If you want to save children, donating bed nets instead of antimalarial drugs is the objectively right answer, the same way buying a $500 TV instead of an identical TV that costs $5,000 is the right answer. And since saving a child from diarrheal disease costs $5,000, donating to an organization fighting malaria instead of an organization fighting diarrhea is the right answer, unless you are donating based on some criteria other than whether you're helping children or not.

Say all of the best Arctic explorers agree that the three most important things for surviving in the Arctic are good boots, a good coat, and good food. Perhaps they have run highly unethical studies in which they release thousands of people into the Arctic with different combination of gear, and consistently find that only the ones with good boots, coats, and food survive. Then there is only one best answer to the question "What gear do I buy if I want to survive" - good boots, good food, and a good coat. Your preferences are irrelevant; you may choose to go with alternate gear, but only if you don't mind dying.

And likewise, there is only one best charity: the one that helps the most people the greatest amount per dollar. This is vague, and it is up to you to decide whether a charity that raises forty children's marks by one letter grade for $100 helps people more or less than one that prevents one fatal case of tuberculosis per $100 or one that saves twenty acres of rainforest per $100. But you cannot abdicate the decision, or you risk ending up like the 11,000 people who accidentally decided that a pretty picture was worth more than a thousand people's lives.

Deciding which charity is the best is hard. It may be straightforward to say that one form of antimalarial therapy is more effective than another. But how do both compare to financing medical research that might or might not develop a "magic bullet" cure for malaria? Or financing development of a new kind of supercomputer that might speed up all medical research? There is no easy answer, but the question has to be asked.

What about just comparing charities on overhead costs, the one easy-to-find statistic that's universally applicable across all organizations? This solution is simple, elegant, and wrong. High overhead costs are only one possible failure mode for a charity. Consider again the Arctic explorer, trying to decide between a $200 parka and a $200 digital camera. Perhaps a parka only cost $100 to make and the manufacturer takes $100 profit, but the camera cost $200 to make and the manufacturer is selling it at cost. This speaks in favor of the moral qualities of the camera manufacturer, but given the choice the explorer should still buy the parka. The camera does something useless very efficiently, the parka does something vital inefficiently. A parka sold at cost would be best, but in its absence the explorer shouldn't hesitate to choose the the parka over the camera. The same applies to charity. An antimalarial net charity that saves one life per $500 with 50% overhead is better than an antidiarrheal drug charity that saves one life per $5000 with 0% overhead: $10,000 donated to the high-overhead charity will save ten lives; $10,000 to the lower-overhead will only save two. Here the right answer is to donate to the antimalarial charity while encouraging it to find ways to lower its overhead. In any case, examining the financial practices of a charity is helpful but not enough to answer the "which is the best charity?" question.

Just as there is only one best charity, there is only one best way to donate to that charity. Whether you volunteer versus donate money versus raise awareness is your own choice, but that choice has consequences. If a high-powered lawyer who makes $1,000 an hour chooses to take an hour off to help clean up litter on the beach, he's wasted the opportunity to work overtime that day, make $1,000, donate to a charity that will hire a hundred poor people for $10/hour to clean up litter, and end up with a hundred times more litter removed. If he went to the beach because he wanted the sunlight and the fresh air and the warm feeling of personally contributing to something, that's fine. If he actually wanted to help people by beautifying the beach, he's chosen an objectively wrong way to go about it. And if he wanted to help people, period, he's chosen a very wrong way to go about it, since that $1,000 could save two people from malaria. Unless the litter he removed is really worth more than two people's lives to him, he's erring even according to his own value system.

...and the same is true if his philanthropy leads him to work full-time at a nonprofit instead of going to law school to become a lawyer who makes $1,000 / hour in the first place. Unless it's one HELL of a nonprofit.

The Roman historian Sallust said of Cato "He preferred to be good, rather than to seem so". The lawyer who quits a high-powered law firm to work at a nonprofit organization certainly seems like a good person. But if we define "good" as helping people, then the lawyer who stays at his law firm but donates the profit to charity is taking Cato's path of maximizing how much good he does, rather than how good he looks.

And this dichotomy between being and seeming good applies not only to looking good to others, but to ourselves. When we donate to charity, one incentive is the warm glow of a job well done. A lawyer who spends his day picking up litter will feel a sense of personal connection to his sacrifice and relive the memory of how nice he is every time he and his friends return to that beach. A lawyer who works overtime and donates the money online to starving orphans in Romania may never get that same warm glow. But concern with a warm glow is, at root, concern about seeming good rather than being good - albeit seeming good to yourself rather than to others. There's nothing wrong with donating to charity as a form of entertainment if it's what you want - giving money to the Art Fund may well be a quicker way to give yourself a warm feeling than seeing a romantic comedy at the cinema - but charity given by people who genuinely want to be good and not just to feel that way requires more forethought.

It is important to be rational about charity for the same reason it is important to be rational about Arctic exploration: it requires the same awareness of opportunity costs and the same hard-headed commitment to investigating efficient use of resources, and it may well be a matter of life and death. Consider going to and making use of the excellent resources on effective charity they have available.

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Reading this and your article on using dead children as currencies reminds me of an event a few years ago which might have helped stop me from becoming another religious nutcase.

I did not know anything about rationality or utilitarian ethics at the time, and I was involved in a youth group at church that was going to be making aid kits for Ethiopia. One of the items that was requested was some kind of clothing, so I picked it up from a second hand store and put the kit together. Later when we were talking about the kits, I was told that we were only supposed to bring new items. when I asked why, the person in charge said something about respecting the feelings of the people who were receiving the gifts, and wanting them to feel like they had been given something special, instead of a discarded item. Everyone else in the group seemed to accept this easily, but I asked how many more people we could have helped with bargain items. This time, they pretty much ignored what I had just said.

I think this was the point when it finally hit me that good intentions and appearing kind are horrible indicators that you are really making the world better. So anyway, I probably would never have tried to find out about websites like this without my experiences dealing with religion. Too bad we cannot all just be taught utilitarian ethics and rationality by our parents and school instead of discovering them the hard way.

Excuse my noob question, but isn't your subtle anti-religion generalizing implication somehow exactly against the pro-rational attitude this website is spreading? Also, when it comes to utilitarian ethics and rationality or anything, isn't "discovering the hard way" more fruit-bearing than having to learn in schools?
Discovering the hard way generally leads to deeper knowledge, but it's still extremely important to learn about, eg, the germ theory of disease in school. You may not end up knowing as much as its original discoverers about bacteria and their behavior, but you can still spread a lot fewer disease.
In addition to what drethelin said, there's also the problem that discovering it the hard way is hard. Most people fail. That way bears no fruit at all.

I'm going to assign this to my introductory microeconomics students to help them understand opportunity costs.

That sort of terrifies me, but in a good way.

At the risk of tooting my own horn, this essay only incidentally addresses opportunity costs, but I wrote another essay a few years ago in a different style that addresses them more directly: A Modest Proposal

I discussed the ideas in this essay with my students. I first ask my students how much an iPad costs. They give me some dollar amount, but then I say something like "I don't want the answer in dollars but rather in dead African children." Since we have just been discussing opportunity costs they catch on quickly to what I'm getting at.

Are we counting resale value, and are we buying new or used? That makes rather a lot of difference.

Have you considered submitting your essay to LW? It might not fit the general objective perfectly well, but I believe it should be promoted and that many people would enjoy reading it.

That said, I have to thank you for all your great posts. It is a pleasure to read them. Being clear and concise you provide valuable insights while dissolvig important topics.


I'd certainly upvote any such submission. I mean:

"Not like I am any saint myself. The past two years, I've spent about two dead puppies on books from alone. I am probably going to spend very close to a whole dead child to fly home for my two week winter break, and I spent ten dead children on my trip around the world this summer. I spent four infected wounds on fantasy map-making software. But at least in the back of my mind I realize I'm doing it. Can the people who spend a dead kid plus a dead puppy on the world's most expensive sundae say the same? What about the Japanese guy spending 1050 dead kids on a mobile phone strap?"

Come on!

I can't follow, are you being sarcastic about my suggestion? I guess it's a matter of taste. I thought the essay shows how our utility calculations are easily influenced by highlighting the potential of the fuel that is money. Most people just use their money to feed a fire for its warmth and the beautiful sparks. They do not realize that every banknote is worth more than the printed paper it is made up of. People do not see that a banknote can be used much more effectively. Renaming money is simple yet changes its perceived potential dramatically. As such the essay is a metaphor to caution against the burning of books that is fueling the fire of ignorance. Do not burn books if not absolutely necessary, use the potential effectively, read them!

I wasn't being sarcastic. The implied expansion of my last comment is 'Come on [, how can you not like or appreciate that paragraph among others?]!'

You know... that actually seems like potentially a good idea. Not just a tongue in cheek style good idea, but I'm thinking that this could be an actually for real good idea, and not just as a way to make "those other people" see what they're doing. I'd want this implemented as a way to make it easier for me to keep such things in mind! (The "infected wounds" link is broken, though, so mind explaining the concept re that?) The only real difficulty that I see is that as things change (tech, economic conditions, etc), the actual cost of saving a child and the relative costs of saving a child vs saving puppies, etc might shift around. So you'd need some way to dynamically rename chunks of the currency. For instance, if improving tech and such leads to the equivalent of 400$ being sufficient to save a child, then what was called a DC would have to be renamed 2 DC. This would be confusing.
6Scott Alexander
The "infected wound" originally linked to some organization that donated first aid kits to those who couldn't afford them. I'll try to fix that next time I update the site.
Ah, okie, thanks.
Float "dead children" as a currency and regulate that all prices must be expressed in US dollars and time-of-pricing equivalent value of dead children. Determine the exchange rate not through any normal currency concerns but strictly through the change in how many lives US dollars save. Passing a law that does something like this seems almost feasible.
Hrm... That might work For all shops that don't yet use electronic price tag type things, there'd obviously have to be a grace period along the lines of having a week/month/whatever to update the equivalences (due to changes in the exchange rate) Of course, a rather uglier problem would be: "How do we manage to protect the equivalences calculation from extreme politicization and such?" Even worse: How do we avoid businesses getting together to try to sabotage the efforts of efficient charities, that way leading to a higher dollar per child amount. ie, the less dead children per item, the more willing someone would be to purchase it, so there's a bit of a perverse incentive there. Finally, if we solved all this: how do we push to make it a reality?
It doesn't even need that, just whenever a price is printed out, it needs the equivalent in dead children, at the time of printing. This is an incentive to change or reprint prices when the value of dead children rises and leave old labels alone when the value of dead children has dipped, but as long as the value of dead children doesn't fluctuate wildly (ie it doesn't respond to speculation about a new dirt cheap cure, only to extensive statistics on the current cost to save a child) then it should be mostly right. The perverse incentives, political influence, and potential for Goodhart's Law and lost purposes to come into play are all serious concerns - all the more terrifying because these surely play a part in current aid schemes. ... You would need some kind of X-Rationalist Reserve Bank of Dead Children who recite the Litany of Tarski ("If this change is to the truthful value of dead children, I desire to make this change. If this change is not to the truthful value of dead children, I desire not to make this change") every morning, and have an investigative group empowered to seek out and punish interference in charitable work, preferably in the form of huge fines payable to the affected charities (the Perverse Incentive Disincentives Task Force). Yvain for President?
Some seastead somehting should try this I think.
I wrote a post with your Modest Proposal as a jumping-off point.
1Scott Alexander
Thanks for the link, and I agree with pretty much all of what you said.

This week on Facebook, Derek Sivers (founder of CD Baby) wrote that this article had more impact on him than anything else he read all year. He said: "Of all the articles I've read in the past 6 months, this one had the biggest impact on me."

8Scott Alexander
I hadn't seen that! Thanks for bringing it up.

Pretty much a corollary of this is Steve Landsburg's (for some reason controversial) point that you should only ever be donating money to one charity at a time (unless you're ridiculously rich). The charity which makes the best use out of your first $1 donation is almost certainly also the charity which makes the best use out of your 1000th dollar as well. Once you've done the calculation, spreading your money between different charities isn't hedging your bets, it's giving money to the wrong charity.

See his Slate article for a slightly more fleshed out version of the reasoning.

There is one exception to this, which is political charities (ACLU, for instance). Giving to political charities, has a signalling effect: a political charity can say "we have twelve million donors," and this tells politicians that they had better listen to that charity or those twelve million people might be voting for someone else.

That said, a $10 donation is enough to get this effect.

The advice I hear is "limit yourself to three charities"- useful because it allows you to broaden your fuzzies (like supporting economic liberty and cute animals and 3rd world development) while significantly decreasing the overhead costs to the charities. They would much rather have a $1,000 donor than 10 $100 donors, especially if that donor has made an annual commitment.
Is that compatible with points five and six here, or is it a standing disagreement among activists?
I suspect that SIAI is in a different position from most charities. I don't know what percentage of charities are low on public support, but I suspect that is not a serious issue for most donors, as most donors couldn't provide more than 2% of a charity's total income, even with a third of their total charity budget. Most charities have a practice of sending endless streams of junk mail, and so for most charities a gift of a few dollars is actually a losing proposition in the long term, since you sent the signal you would be receptive to future donation requests but don't actually send more money. The SIAI's strategy (and costs for emailing) are different from most charities, suggesting that different advice makes sense for them.
2Paul Crowley
I actually tend to argue this point first, and the more general point about efficient charity second. I'm not sure if that's the most effective way to argue it though.
I suspect convincing people optimal philanthropy is a good idea is probably one of the most important things one could do. Maybe you should find out?
What about the idea of minimizing the possibility of potential failure?

It's a useful exercise for aspiring economists and rationalists to dissect charity into separate components of warm fuzzies vs. efficiency. However, maybe it's best for the general population not to be fully conscious that these are separate components, since the spirit of giving is like a frog: you can dissect it, but it dies in the process (adaptation of an E.B. White quote).

Lemma: we want charity to be enjoyable, so that more people are motivated to do it. (Analogy: capitalist countries let rich people keep their riches, to create an incentive for economic growth, even though it might create more utility in the short term to tax rich people very highly.)

Consider this quote from the article:

If he went to the beach because he wanted the sunlight and the fresh air and the warm feeling of personally contributing to something, that's fine. If he actually wanted to help people by beautifying the beach, he's chosen an objectively wrong way to go about it.

Sure, but making the lawyer conscious of this will give him a complete buzzkill. He will realize that he was unconsciously doing the act for selfish (and kind of silly) reasons. Your hope in telling him this is that he will instead... (read more)


This is a genuine problem you're presenting, and I think it requires a third solution besides the presented options of "Let the lawyer do what he wants" and "Give the lawyer a buzzkill". What we need to do is find a way of getting the lawyer to understand what the right thing to do is, without making them feel defensive or like a jerk. If we make the bullet tasty enough, it'll get easier to swallow.

Rationalist marketing FTU (For The Utilons).

So, is my goal in explaining this stuff to someone to maximize efficiency at achieving their goals (warm fuzzies), or to maximize efficiency at achieving my goals (charity)? (Or maybe I want warm fuzzies and the lawyer wants charity, whatever.)
The lawyer wants both warm fuzzies and charitrons, but has conflated the two, and will probably get buzzkilled (and lose out on both measures) if the distinction is made clear. The best outcome is one where the lawyer gets to maximize both, and that happens at the end of a long road that begins with introspection about what warm fuzzies ought to mean.
If you learn about how to give right, some of the warm fuzzies will go away, and fewer people will donate, but the people who do donate will donate better. If all you're going to be doing is picking up litter at a beach, it really doesn't matter if you stop when you find out it's not helping people. You can find another hobby.
Not quite the same scenario, but close: often when I'm considering donating to some charity, there's a reminder in the back of my head that if I were to truly support this charity I would donate a much larger amount. This isn't a happy thought, it generates conflict: there's another part of me that doesn't like spending large amounts of money. Thus, I often donate nothing at all. I'm still working on this conflict.

I find I run into a conundrum on this question, because there is a bias I fear overcompensating for. I know as a human that I am biased to care more about the one person standing in front of me than those ten thousand people starving in India that I'll never meet, but I find it difficult to apply that information. I know that donating money to, say, those malaria nets, will probably save more lives than donating to, say, my local food pantry. By these arguments, it seems that that fact should trump all, and I should donate to those malaria nets.

However, I know that my local food pantry is an organization that feeds people who really need food, that it has virtually no overhead, and that there are children who would be malnourished without it. I also know that there are people all over the world who will contribute to malaria nets, but it is highly unlikely that anyone outside my community will contribute to my local food pantry.

I agree that it is vitally important to think carefully about how we spend our charity money, and I understand that the difficulty I am having with this topic is an indication that I need to think more deeply on it, but I keep coming up against two b... (read more)

The second point is something that really gets me. It seems to me that rather than feeling bad about donating to one charity rather than a more efficient or more "important" other charity, we should feel bad about spending money on frivolities rather than donating to charity. Nonprofit organizations are forced to compete against each other for slender resources in many ways, including donor dollars -- why can't they compete against things that have less moral value instead? It would be awesome if there were more social pressure to donate to charity rather than going to the movies or buying pretty clothes.

Interestingly, however, there is some social stigma against donating "too much". A few years ago, there was a New York gentleman who donated a much larger than "normal" percentage of his money to charity, as well as his kidney, plus some other stuff. (I'm sorry, I really wish I could remember his name, but I am very sure I have these details correct, because I read a lot about it at the time.) People speculated in the press about his mental status and other children mocked his kids at school, although his family was hardly left poor by the experi... (read more)

I (for one) have tried dedicating all my time to doing activism that seemed "more important" (HIV in Africa) rather than the activism that is most interesting to me (various types of sexuality stuff in America), and I was both less happy and less effective

There's a story I like to tell when I hear this. Louise and Claire are both concerned about global warming. Louise is full of passion for the subject and does what moves her most; through her hard work persuades a thousand people to unplug their phone chargers at night. Claire can't get worked up about it even though she understands it's important; in a drunken conversation one night she persuades one friend to turn down their central heating one degree.

Claire's choice of an efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions absolutely swamps the difference in enthusiasm; she does considerably more good than Louise.

This makes me wonder if giving out free clothing vouchers in winter might be an effective global warming hack.

Things like this are why I love Lesswrong.

we should feel bad about spending money on frivolities rather than donating to charity.

This is standard religious dogma. Secular activists rarely have the gumption to make it part of their pitches.

Interestingly, however, there is some social stigma against donating "too much".

When you take seriously something other people are hypocritical about, it makes them edgy.

most of us are sex-positive activists, and sex-positive activism is arguably an extremely "low priority" type of activism.

Not for me. Keep up the good work :D

Additionally, it is undeniable that someone has to work on the issues I care about, or else who would I donate money to even if I had a lot of it?

Comparative advantage. Compare you being an activist and your donors working (which includes you working a low-value job to donate to yourself) and you working and donating to the marginal activist. Which scenario is superior?

The standard lawyer/secretary example comes to mind- even if the lawyer types much faster, they're better off having their secretary type for them. As an activist, are you a lawyer or a secretary? If gainfully employed, would you be a lawyer or a secretary?

That isn't a counter-argument. The idea is not wrong because religious people say it, and requiring gumption also does not make an idea wrong. A completely secular presentation of the idea can be found in The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer.
It was not intended as one.
Good point re: religious dogma. I think there are studies showing that religious/conservative folks are much better at volunteering and donating to charity than liberal/secular folks. It's too bad. Re: lawyer/secretary, well, the longer I focus my time on activism the more likely it becomes that if I were more "gainfully employed" I'd be a secretary ... :P
I think the guy you're thinking of is Zell Kravinsky.
Yeah, it looks like it. Funny, I was sure he lived in Long Island, but I don't remember why. Chalk another one up to memory being fallible even when I was "very sure" about the details. Here's a New Yorker piece:'skidney.pdf
He donated his kidney? They sell in Iran for $3,000 to $5,000. I don't know when he donated it. It could be before that was legal. Edit: I accidentally wrote "Iraq" instead of "Iran".
Kidney sales are legal in Iran, but not Iraq (they are still sold in Iraq, obviously, but it's a more difficult option).
A vote for the statement that : sex-positive activism is (unarguably) an extremely "low priority" type of activism. It might be better if you can find ways to change what you feel happy about. Just my 2p.

Should I feel guilty for donating money to public radio because it doesn't save children? No.

I agree and would go even further. Guilt is a terrible motivator and one that I would does not apply to anything involving charitable contributions. Well except for, say, mugging the aid workers to steal other's contributions. In such cases guilt serves an entirely different and somewhat useful role.

This is a simple question of "What do you want?" If you want to reduce malaria infections buy nets (probably). If you want to save a radio station save a radio station. If you have multiple things you want to prioritize them and do multiplications or approximations thereof.

Never let anyone make you feel guilty for doing things that achieve your goals. Even yourself.

Really? Suppose I want to murder my old primary-school teacher, in a final revenge for all that arithmetic homework. Should I not feel guilty?
If there's any part of that you should feel guilty about, it's having the goal in the first place, not what you do to achieve it. Feeling guilty about buying poison or sharpening a knife doesn't make much difference if you keep thinking that the murder itself is a good idea.
Well if you get right down to it, feeling guilty only makes it worse. You should just not have the goal in the first place. The point is that listening to a radio station should be significantly below saving lives on your list of goals.

My point was that it is not any more wrong to spend money on public radio than to spend money on cable tv or a new iPod. Yes, in theory all my money not spent on food and shelter could go to saving children, but you are not going to do that, I am not going to do that, and no one either of us knows is going to do that.

Hence the 'if' at the beginning of my comment, though in practice I do see how guilt can be useful at that stage: Most people don't have complete control over their emotions or what they want, and given the choice between someone wanting to murder someone, feeling guilty about wanting that, and not doing it because they feel guilty about even considering it, and someone wanting to murder someone, deciding that that's a perfectly reasonable thing to want, and actually going through with it, the former is pretty clearly preferable. Not wanting to murder someone at all is preferable to either of those, but humans are pretty lousy at wanting what we want to want.
8Scott Alexander
The first question is hard but not confusing (I'd say "yes" to the developing world example, though); the second question confuses me too and I don't have a good answer. I think this whole "efficient charity" field is working in the tradition of utility theory, where people's desires are treated as givens and the only interesting question is how to maximize achievement of those desires. In that context, if you desire getting nice clothes with strength X, and desire helping other people with strength Y, then you divide your resources accordingly and try to maximize the niceness of the clothes you get with X resources and the number of people you help with Y resources. In that model, "try and help as many people as you can per charity dollar" is about all you can say. This is a terribly oversimplified model, both because desires might be more complicated (your desire might not be to help people, but to help Americans, or to help people who enjoy public radio like you do), and because people are not utilitarian agents and it is possible to change the strength of your desires. A model that takes those into account would have to, among other things, fully understand morality and what it means to "want" something, and I don't fully understand either, though they're both research interests. So this essay is only about how to avoid one particularly obvious mistake that's easy to model in utility theory, and not about how to avoid more important moral and psychological mistakes. On the harder problems, without having much philosophical foundation for doing so, I recommend Giving What We Can
Late response, but: (a) The domestic vs. international issue is not clear cut - see, e.g. GiveWell research message board posts by Elie Hassenfeld and by Jason Fehr. More generally, I think that at least at present it's quite unclear which philanthropic efforts are most cost-effective. (b) In regards to see Holden Karnofsky's post Hunger Here vs. Hunger There. (c) In regards to: You might be interested by komponisto's comments to a post that I made which are in similar spirit. See also Holden Karnofsky's Nothing wrong with selfish giving - just don't call it philanthropy and the comments to it.
I suggest the QALY, or quality-adjusted life year. Yes. Sure you want radio, but they don't want to die. Who says your wants are more important? Could you justify killing people for entertainment? Is this any different?
I consider DALY - disability-adjusted life years - better than quality-adjusted. Basically, I am leery of letting people choose their own factors when given a range of 1 being perfect life and 0 being death. For instance, a charity that cures blindness in impoverished sections of Africa, with a pro-this-charity treatment might choose 0.1 as blind, 0.9 as cured (blindness is hugely disadvantageous, giving back sight is therefore a huge improvement); an anti-this-charity treatment might choose 0.1 as blind and 0.3 as cured (the rest of their life still sucks). This means a QALY-based look at the charity could over- or under-estimate by as much as a factor of 4! Comparisons of charities based on QALYs that are gamed could, possibly, be only viable on order-of-magnitudes.
Is there a standard for DALYs? I'm told that there's some kind of difference, but I still think of them as the same unit.
My autonomy.
The fact that it's her own money?

I can't see any flaws in the argument, but the conclusion is far more radical than most of us would be willing to admit.

Am I the sort of person who would value my computer over another human being's life? I hope not, that makes me sound like the most horrible sort of psychopath---it is basically the morality of Stalin. But at the same time, did I sell my computer to feed kids in Africa? I did not. Nor did any of you, unless you are reading this at a library computer (in which case I'm sure I can find something you could have given up that would have allowed you to give just a little bit more to some worthy charitable cause.)

It gets worse: Is my college education worth the lives of fifty starving children? Because I surely paid more than that. Is this house I'm living in worth eight hundred life-saving mosquito nets? Because that's how much it cost.

Our entire economic system is based on purchases that would be "unjustified"---even immoral---on the view that every single purchase must be made on this kind of metric. And so if we all stopped doing that, our economy would collapse and we would be starving instead.

I think it comes down to this: Consequentialism is a lot harder... (read more)

This is a super-duper nice comment. Disagree. Most of the really horrible things in this world are just accidents that not enough people are paying attention to. If animals can suffer then millions of Holocausts are happening every day. If insects can suffer then tens of billions are. In any case humans can certainly suffer, and they're doing plenty of that from pure accident. Probably less than a twentieth of human suffering is intentionally caused by other humans. (Though I will say that the absolute magnitude of human-intent-caused human suffering is unbelievably huge.)
Upvoted. I really like this comment because it shows some of my own concerns about consequentialism. For example I have decided that for most cases the deontic answers fit the consequentialist ones so well that we should start out following them and only if they appear to be nonsatisfactory we should dive into consequentialist reasoning. This quite leads to some peace of mind, but it obviously is the easy answer, not the correct one... Is there a post on lesswrong for deontology as a subset of consequentialism? (According to wikipedia there seem to be some scientists that state a similar opinion.)
The utilitarian philosopher RM Hare has proposed a solution along the lines you suggest, it's called two-level utilitarianism. From Wikipedia: I think the concept has merit, but if you're smart and willing enough to do it, you'd have to act according to the "critical level" (conventional consequentialism) anyway.
Your actual values are the ones that determine "what appears satisfactory".
Of course, that's why I would call myself a consequentialist even though I mainly/very often argue by using deontic principles. I wasn't talking about theory (or foundation), but about the practicality/practical use of deontic reasoning versus consequentialism.
I have yet to familiarize myself more with effective altruism to know the details of their metrics, but it seems like the reliance on 'number of lives saved per unit money' doesn't necessarily align with the goal of helping people, which i think this post demonstrates well. And then there's the arguably relevant issue of over-population. If everyone contributed some of their education funding on saving lives, wouldn't the Earth get over-populated before sufficient technological progress was made to e.g inhabit another planet?

Most of us allocate a particular percentage to charity, despite the fact that most people would say that nearly nothing we spend money on is as important as saving childrens lives.

I don't know whether you think it's that we overestimate how much we value saving childrens lives, or underestimate how important xbox games, social events, large tvs and eating tasty food are to us. Or perhaps you think it's none of that, and that we're being simply irrational.

I doubt that anyone could consistently live as if the difference between choice of renting a nice flat and renting a dive was one life per month, or that halving normal grocery consumption for a month was a childs life that month, etc. If that's really the aim, we're going to have to do a significant amount of emotional engineering.

I also want to stick up for the necessity of analysing the way that a charity works, not just what they do. For example, charities that employ local people and local equipment may save fewer people per dollar in the short term, but may be less likely to create a culture of dependence, and may be more sustainable in the long term. These considerations are important too.

Then don't. Use two-level utilitarianism. Live like this for a brief amount of time, during which you decide how to live the rest of the time. Work out how much you can cut your budget before you start earning less or the risk of giving up goes to high, and live like that for a period before you go back and check to see if it's working well again.

Although I definitely agree with the thrust of the article, I don't feel that lives-saved is necessarily a very good metric of utility. A child in the Third World might be saved from malaria, but grow up nutrient deficient leading to reduced mental capacity, work on a subsistence farm, contract HIV, and die after having three kids, who subsequently starve. A charity that prevented fewer deaths in a predictable causal sequence might still be a better utility maximizer if it had a greater positive effect on people's quality of life.

Of course, a lot of us already agree on the best available utility maximizing charity, but even among the more "mundane" options I think that causes such as promoting education in the third world may beat out direct life-saving maximizers.

I agree with Desrtopa in that "I don't feel that lives-saved is necessarily a very good metric of utility." Death is binary (dead / not dead), but human pain and suffering is not. This should impact the analysis. Assuming the same cost to save the life, if forced to decide between saving someone from a fatal gunshot wound (perhaps in a war or encampment somewhere) versus saving someone from pancreatic cancer (according to Livestrong, one of the most painful terminal diseases), the outcome (life-saving) may be the same in either case, but there is more utility in saving the latter because overall pain would be reduced. Thanks for this article; it's a fantastic read.
Perhaps a better idea would be to spend money on education of women in poor areas, something that is known to reduce the fertility rate. By reducing the fertility rate we also reduce the number of poor, starving, dying in HIV etc children born into this world. I think that simply measuring the number of dead children may be useful as a simplification, but it's too simplistic. Really, to me it seems like it's just something that people believing in axiomatic morals are having problems dealing with. "But, think of the children!" If the answer to "is it better to spend this money on saving a kids life?" is always yes, I'd say you have a problem with your value system.

"The lawyer who quits a high-powered law firm to work at a nonprofit organization certainly seems like a good person. But if we define "good" as helping people, then the lawyer who stays at his law firm but donates the profit to charity is taking Cato's path of maximizing how much good he does, rather than how good he looks."

Wouldn't that depend on how much harm the lawyer might do by remaining at the high-powered law firm? What if the law firm specializes in socially-harmful activities, like defending corporate malfeasance or (pick your example). How does that fit into the equation?

In other words, I don't think it's that simple, although it's an excellent place to start, and I will certainly check out GiveWell for our next charitable tithing session.


I have a question. This article suggests that for a given utility function there is one single charity that is best and that's the one one should give money to. That looks a bit problematic to me - for example, if everyone invests in malaria nets because that's the single one that saves most lives, then nobody is investing in any other kind of charity, but shouldn't those things get done too ?

We can get around this by considering that the efficiency function varies with time - for example, once everybody gives their money to buy nets the marginal cost of e... (read more)

What happens in that situation is that people continue to invest in malaria nets, so much that the marginal cost of saving another life goes from say, $500 to $700, and for $600 dollars you can dig a well, saving another persons life. In essence, you donate to the most efficient charity until that money has caused the charity to have to pay more to save lives, and therefore stops being the most efficient charity.

I've thought about this problem before, but in the context of peer peer-to-peer file sharing. The problem is that everyone is acting independent and with limited knowledge. It's hard to know what other people are choosing. There may also be long delays between you and others paying and the cost changing. Say that the optimal outcome is that out of $1000M, $200M is spent on insect nets and $800M on wells, and that you can only donate to one charity (too bothersome or high transaction costs or something). Now, if everyone is rational they are going to donate to the wells, and no one to nets. This is a suboptimal outcome. It'd also be difficult to coordinate the millions of people donating, so that just the right amount choose nets instead of wells. A solution to such coordination is to roll a dice. If everyone makes a random selection and lets the probability of choosing nets be 2/10ths then the expected outcome is just what we want. Now, you can adjust this to how many (you think) are playing like yourselves. E.g. if you know most people are going to give to wells, perhaps it'd be better if you put higher probability on nets (perhaps 100%).
The thing about that is, is that not everyone is donating at the same time, so that they can see the expected value change.
Yes, but there can be long delays between a donation happening and updates. Coordinating donations can be non-trivial, especially when flash crowds appear (e.g. sob story on reddit). Also, such a randomized approach is not necessary if one can just donate small amounts to multiple projects instead (i.e. if transaction fees are not a problem).

I once donated some money to VillageReach a few minutes before getting the GiveWell newsletter issue announcing that VillageReach wasn't going to be among the top charities in the next update because their founding gap had mostly closed and encouraging people to wait for the next update before deciding whom to donate money to. True story!


If you are to "love your neighbor as yourself"

Why use that particular phrase? I think I don't need to love my neighbor as much as me to be interested in charity. And while I suppose the phrase sits well aesthetically in the text, I think it might unfortunately evoke with it a few Christian cached toughs. Pure selflessness rewarded in afterlife don't really seem applicable to what people here want to do.

I think this might be correct but that humans are prone to prioritising the welfare of kin and close friends, and so someone working directly with people and forming some kind of relationship with them may be more likely to donate financial resources to that group in future. The lawyer may be more willing to spend money to keep a beach safe and free of litter if he or she has some personal experience which increases the importance of that beach in his mind. Most of us don't give much weight to mosquito nets because our own experience doesn't even put that ... (read more)

Welcome to LessWrong! I'd like to mention that here on LessWrong we will try to quantify the value of loving kindness and encouragement, and after quantifying we're going to find that it would fall well below the value of immediate food, shelter, and medical needs. I suspect this is a stronger reason than the preceding paragraph ;)
It helps in this regard to be really sure of the security of one's own immediate food, shelter and medical needs. (Can this be claimed of all LessWrong participants? If so, then LW's participant base is not wide enough.)
Yes. This is my major disagreement with the "give until it hurts" slogans you sometimes see. Also, I guess yes to your parenthetical. This is a selection effect caused by LessWrong's medium (generally, shelter is a necessary condition for internet access, and food and medical needs are probably - hopefully? - prioritized over internet access).
Actually, no, it turns out your view of the world is incorrect and in need of updating. I spent a chunk of 2002 couch-surfing, living on the kindness of friends, looking for work in London. I seriously put rather a high value on Internet, because it was the rational choice in securing a job. "Well, yes, it's a house ... but there's no net there." It's that important.
Wow. I definitely do not treat the internet as that important. Clearly I generalised from my own example instead of seeking out any data. I can even see how it makes rational sense to prefer internet over shelter, food, and medical needs; it's an instrument to achieve all three terminal goals. I just didn't think that way. Man, that one-mind fallacy is insidious.
In the situation, it would have been irrational - blitheringly stupid - not to make damn sure I had internet access in the prospective new place. Medical needs are fine in the UK (here's to the NHS!), cheap food exists in small quantities, shelter is the crippling expense in London. Fortunately my friends are sysadmins. I would characterise my situation at the time as closer to "distressed gentleman" than "bum". (1) In any case, I owe the world (and said individuals) lots of kindness points, and am quite proud to pay a sizable chunk of my income in tax, because I know personally what it pays for ... More broadly: yes, you actually need Internet to participate in Western civil society these days. Restricting it from the homeless is a way to keep them there. They have phones too these days, and not just as some sort of frippery - why do they need them? And also, loving kindness and encouragement are how to treat humans; positing that as somehow dichotomous with food, shelter and medical care is a twist of thought I find confusing. 1. And hadn't been the former long enough for it to smell like the latter.
What was that t-shirt (from slightly earlier than 2002) 'bout drugs, sex and 'net access?
One of the several alt.gothic T-shirts, dating to the mid-1990s. (I had several but appear to have only the original 1994 one left.)
The security of one's own access to physical necessities is an interesting factor in this. Are those whose security has been unstable more or less likely to donate time or money to charity? For me personally, uncertainty about my own circumstances is a double-edged sword. If I am feeling a bit skint I'm unlikely to give money to someone begging on the street, and if I know my budget will be limited I am stingier than usual about charity boxes in shops. At the same time, an awareness that it is only because of the kindness of others that I am not homeless myself makes me eager to pass that kindness on in unstructured ways (being kind to others where I can in the course of my work and leisure) and more formally (this winter, volunteering at a local night shelter).
Possibly the people who give the most, albeit to relatives, are immigrants from less developed to more developed countries. Even though for many it means lowering their standards of living in the US (or wherever), they know the remittance they send is sending their younger sister to school, buying a new roof for the family house in Bolivia, etc. In the US, the lowest income bracket gives a larger percent of their income than any other bracket. I haven't seen numbers on whether this includes people on the brink of not having their basic needs met, but I bet a lot of them have been there at some point.
Note that it's possible that a substantial fraction of these donations are made to community organizations (churches, etc.) and so may effectively serve as membership dues. Despite this I think that this statistic makes a good rejoinder to middle/upper class people who claim that they can't afford to give.
On the other hand, perhaps the poor give too much! They should be receiving the aid, not giving it out! Consider all the economic opportunities that poor immigrants are giving up by remitting so much of their income to relatives where they came from. Perhaps it would be better if they saved and invested instead, and then after securing themselves financially, then start giving back?
If you consider yourself as, say, a Mexican 30-year-old who comes to the US and works as a carpenter, would you prefer to save your earnings and invest them (despite having little formal education, and thus being unlikely to invest well) while your wife, son, and parents continue living in a shack in Chiapas? Knowing that they would despise you for hoarding your earnings while they scraped by? I bet you would send them part of your paycheck. The opportunity cost of saving that money is too high.
Thanks for the welcome. I wonder how it's possible to quantify encouragement and the value of relationships. I have been on the receiving end of a good deal of care and encouragement at a time when my physical health was poor and nothing could immediately be done to improve it. This gave me great hope and is experience I still draw courage from when I find life challenging. I don't have a spare me to experiment on so can only imagine how I might have fared without that support, but I know it has seemed more influential than the practical support I had, and in some cases I would not have sought practical support had I not had steady emotional encouragement. I am fortunate in that I have never been without sufficient food or adequate shelter, but that would not have been the case had I been left to my own devices. I can only experience the world as myself, but for me, loving kindness and unconditional positive regard have been extremely important, and are probably the deciding factor in my subsequent attempts to help others. On a wider scale, I've often wondered why we don't simply set up a tax system such that everyone can have a decent physical standard of living. Population concerns aside (given the lower birth rate that appears to result from increases in standard of living this should sort itsrlf out) I think some of this comes back to our tendency to prioritise kinship or clan groups over the common good. I would argue that not having a direct relationship with the people we are trying to help makes us more likely to withdraw aid at the first hint of danger. Certainly those withdrawing benefits or financial aid from the most disadvantaged in Britain right now are not those who work with the disabled and the homeless on an ongoing basis. Yes, good people ought to donate to charity, and funds should be used efficiently, but the idea that paying taxes, voting, donating a bit to charity and perhaps writing to an MP or going on a protest is enough seems flawed. I t
This is an important point: perfectly spherical rationalists of uniform density in a vacuum at absolute zero might make a more productive contribution to charity by working and donating rather than personal contribution of time, but perfectly spherical rationalists of uniform density in a vacuum at absolute zero are in somewhat short supply. In the world of humans, a bit of hands-on participation makes it far more likely that they will bother to continue to contribute to that charity at all.
Exactly what I was trying to say, but much shorter! Thanks.

I wonder how many people would just give up on charity altogether if they accepted this argument. I know I did, I pretty much see charity as supererogatory now.

Don't people normally see it as supererogatory?

Anyone know what the probability of a whole blood or platelet donation saving a life is? That isn't rated by GiveWell, and I failed at finding the data in a Google search.

The Red Cross claims that 1 pint saves "up to 3 lives". I'm not sure what to make of that, given that it's an upper bound and presented by a non-partial source. If anyone can do better, I would be very interested in knowing the answer. I always try to give blood as often as possible under the assumption that I save at least one life each time, but a more robust figure would be nice.

I always try to give blood as often as possible under the assumption that I save at least one life each time

That can't possibly be right, not on the margins.

Given you and wedrifid's responses, I am now updating my estimate of number of lives saved significantly downwards. However, I am curious as to why it's obvious to you that 3 lives is too high of a number on the margins.

Maybe I'm just being naive here, but in a case that straightforward and that possible for the average person to understand, where there's nothing odd or unprestigious about the action and lots of people are doing it already, where, on the margins, an additional American life is saved each time another person donates blood, I have trouble believing that even a world this insane wouldn't push blood donations a little harder.

I take it that you're suggesting marginal analysis based on the standard correct classical causal decision theory (in which no one is responsible for saving a life by donating blood unless someone would have actually died had that donation not been made) out of either belated humility about the probability of an SIAI-originating decision theory being correct, or because you're planning to actually convince someone and you don't want to invoke Hofstadterian superrationality in place of the standard correct decision theory? :) My guess would be that at the margin, a blood donation saves less than 0.00001 lives. (Otherwise, compensation would be increased for the paid donors). But, if you want to use a TDT/UDT style analysis, here are some relevant statistics from the American Red Cross: * The number of blood donations collected in the U.S. in a year: 16 million (2006). * The number of patients who receive blood in the U.S. in a year: 5 million (2006). Given these numbers, I would estimate that roughly 0.5 million (US) lives are saved (more accurately, extended) by blood products annually. If you adopt the assumption that all blood comes from voluntary, uncompensated donations, and divide those 0.5 million lives among the 16 million annual donations, you get one life saved for every 32 pints donated - not as much as jsteinhardt hoped, but still significant enough to earn a major warm-and-fuzzy.

I happen to administer a lot of blood to my patients, so let me answer some of the factual questions.

  1. The way they calculate "up to 3 lives" is in the most trivial way: blood you donate is fractionated into red cells, plasma, and platelets. Each of those may go to a different recipient.

  2. All blood administered to patients comes from voluntary, uncompensated donations. Plasma used in research studies may be compensated, but may not be transfused. This is the most important factor keeping our blood supply safe, and is far more effective than laboratory testing alone.

  3. Given that blood banks need to keep a sufficient store of blood available of each type, rarer blood types are generally in greater need than, say, A After all, a larger proportion of blood of those types must be discarded. O blood is obviously highly useful in trauma situations, and is therefore in high demand as well.

  4. The distribution of donors' and recipients' blood types should not be assumed to be equal: people with blood type A are significantly more likely to donate than people with blood type B. This exacerbates the discrepancies due to point 3.

  5. The number of lives saved can be calculated in tw

... (read more)
I've donated blood a few times and I'm type A+. Why is it that B's are less likely to donate, or is that unknown? Are my donations likely to be marginally useless? I have mostly donated blood in the past for signaling reasons, conversational high ground, and a vague desire to match the 15-gallon mark that my grandfather got his name in the paper for. There's a plaque of the newspaper mention in my grandma's house and I've been looking at it my whole life. Also I figure the Red Cross will let me know if I come down with one of the diseases they screen for, and it's a free way to get my iron levels checked (attempting to donate blood was how I found out I was anemic in the first place). These reasons aren't likely to evaporate if I find that I have been saving only tiny fractions of expected lives, but I would probably endure less inconvenience in order to donate for only these reasons as opposed to these reasons on top of lifesaving.

Your donations are not marginally useless! (unless you've been pregnant a couple times - in that case, consider stopping).

The reason for the discrepancies in donation rates between types A and B is both simple and complex: ethnicity. In the interests of safety (avoidance of Hepatitis C, HIV, etc) we've set up a system that subtly encourages certain types of donors and discourages others. The system is not racist per se, but it is most effective in obtaining donations from white, middle-aged, middle-class males.

Regarding signaling reasons: we are obviously very afraid of blood donated for signaling purposes. Accordingly, we do not allow people to donate to their relatives except under very unusual circumstances. Additionally, we give people an "out" by checking a box which tells the center to draw and discard their blood. That way people who fear they may be high-risk donors can get the social approval of donating without harming any patients.

I've never been pregnant, but what is it about multiple pregnancies that renders the blood non-preferred?
3Eliezer Yudkowsky
Obvious guess: Your blood then contains antibodies to the blood type of your babies.
Essentially this. The A/B/O blood groups represent the most relevant antigens in human blood. There are a host of others (Rh, Duffy, Kell, etc.) which typically create only minor problems in a transfusion and which can be ignored in an emergency. But a person who has been exposed to allogeneic blood via multiple transfusions or pregnancies becomes more likely to develop antibodies to some of these antigens. The donor's antibodies or white cells can react to the person being transfused, causing lung damage.
In the case of the Rhesus factor it should be noted that it is minor once and then only minor for males. Being thereafter unable to safely give birth to healthy Rh+ children is definitely not a minor consequence even if it is better than 'probably going to die today'. (Unless, I suppose, you happen to some Rh+ antiserum lying around but no Rh- blood, which will usually avoid the future difficulties.)
I use "minor" differently than you do, to mean "unlikely to cause death". Obviously cross-matched blood is always preferable for a variety of reasons (including possible infertility, in the case of young females). I would avoid RhoGam in the case of a patient who needs a RBC transfusion, incidentally. It would be unlikely to be safe or effective.
I would like to express that my approval of this phrase extends beyond the capacity of upvoting and into the capacity of a comment expressing approval.
And having both your arms removed is "Just a flesh wound!".
Oops, I see that this has already been asked. ---------------------------------------- While we've got you here, can you explain why gay men cannot donate? This upsets a lot of gay people that I know. I understand that it's easier to catch STDs (not just HIV/AIDS) from a man than from a woman. But the current U.S. rule (A man cannot donate if he's had sex with a man; a woman cannot donate if she's had sex with a man who's had sex with man.) is lopsided. The even-handed rule that you cannot donate if you've had sex with a man would keep the supply safe without having to rely on people's being able to trust their partners. But it would keep most women from donating, so maybe it's not worth it. The even-handed rule that you cannot donate if you've had sex with man who's had sex with a man would still keep out most gay men, but it would probably help to heal the rift.
If a man is gay and sexually active, he's almost certainly had sex with a man who's had sex with a man, even if the men he has had sex with has only had sex with him. I don't see how this phrasing of the rule would be an improvement.
My phrasing was unclear; make it "if you've had sex with man who's previously had sex with a man (other than you)". There wouldn't be any point in forbidding me from donating (if I'm male) because the man that I've had sex with has had sex with me! This change would include more people; it includes monogamous gay male couples who began their relationship as virgins (as well as some other people). Not many more, but it makes it clear that the blood collector is only willing to trust you and your partners, no further. Frankly, the first even-handed rule (no sex with a man, period) makes more sense to me. Why should the blood collector trust that I know (if I'm a woman) whether all of the men that I've had sex with have had sex only with women? (No doubt many women are donating contrary to guidelines because they don't know this about their partners.) But because this would cut the potential donor pool in half, the blood collector is basically forced to trust me about my partners too. In fact, the blood collectors trust women to know the sexual history of their partners, but not men. They are not asking everybody the same questions.
Another possible solution, not even-handed, but more honest: Just don't ask women anything about the subject. The idea that a person can be trusted to know about their partners' partners is preposterous; no other question (in the U.S.) asks the donor about other people's behaviour, and for good reason. Instead of half-assedly trying to be even-handed about it, just admit what they're doing: ruling out men who've had sex with men, because many of their partners will have had sex with other men, and so on back (in many cases) a long way; but accepting women who've had sex with men, because most of their partners won't have had sex with men, stopping the transmission-from-men sequence. I'm confident that they already accept blood from most women who've had sex with men who've had sex with men (because the women don't know this about their partners), and they are surely aware of this (if I am correct) fact. So why are they asking questions of people who don't actually know the answers? Gay people will still be upset that they can't donate, but I at least would be more willing to trust that the blood collectors are actually making an honest decision.
Mostly, my faith in the quality of the blood supply derives from what testing they're doing to the blood, not from what unenforceable policies they're suggesting to the donors. I'd actually be surprised if the latter significantly affected the quality of the blood. Mostly, I think the problem they are a solution for is maintaining public confidence in the blood supply. Which I acknowledge is an important problem. And it may well be that being perceived as excluding gay men and their partners is a better solution to that problem than anything else they might do; I don't know. That said, if I'm wrong and these policies really do solve a problem related to the blood supply, yet another possible solution is: don't allow people who have had unprotected sex to donate. Or, if that's too big a chunk of your potential donor base, make it people who have had unprotected sex outside of a monogamous relationship.
The original rule bars 'a man who has had sex with a man' - X - and then any women who've had sex with X. It's a logical phrasing but unfortunately X maps exactly onto "gay man", so it feels like gay men are being specifically targeted. The rephrasing mollifies that sense of targeting without, as far as I can tell, changing the included or excluded people. The original phrase is even-handed, however. If you overspecified an even-handed rule and said "1) You cannot donate if you're a man who has had sex with a man who has had sex with a man, and 2) you cannot donate if you're a woman who has had sex with a man who has had sex with a man" - ie, prevent "man who has had sex with a man" from coming into sexual contact with any donor - you could reduce 1) down to "man who has had sex with a man" (it logically implies three, four, and so on iterations). This, therefore, reduces down to the actual rule they have in place.
There are not many times I see a line of reasoning and have to reject it at every single step. Apart from being conceptually absurd the very thought is morally objectionable. It totally devalues the value of 'saving a life' to the point of utter meaningless. How could that ever make someone 'feel-good'?

It totally devalues the value of 'saving a life' to the point of utter meaningless.

Which part? I thought that started silly (it's explaining the logic behind a non-profit's puffery, did you expect it to be rigorous?) but then got better. The idea of "saving a life" is pretty meaningless when you poke at it- it's all just lifespan extension. And so the idea that each emergency treatment extends lifespans by the 'natural span of a life' is silly. If someone would die if they don't receive a unit of blood at 50 separate occasions on their life, should each transfusion get the full moral weight of saving a life? If so, we just gave this person 50 lives. If not, then we need to abandon the language of "saving a life" and talk about "extending a lifespan" (because we can say those units of blood each added a year to the person's life, for example).

Thanks, this is exceptionally informative. I didn't realize that donations were sufficient for usage. Is this barely maintained by calling people when blood supplies are low, or does blood regularly get thrown out, or is there some other reason that supplies closely match need?
A combination of the above. We have a core group of donors who can be called in emergency situations, we increase the intensity of blood drives when supplies are low, we reduce marginally-beneficial uses of blood when supplies become low, and we are better able to discard the oldest least-effective blood whenever supplies increase. We are likely to face challenges in meeting future need. The cohort that most regularly donates blood is aging...
I'm assuming you are from the US, do you think the same is true for other countries? Also which demographic are you referring too?
I'm more interested in the cohort that isn't aging. What is their secret? A new and improved Calorie Restricted diet? Perhaps that explains their inability to generate sufficient excess blood for donation.
They could also be brain uploads, which would also explain the inability.
Good point. I wonder if they would consider donating CPU time instead!
Thanks for data! Only vaguely relatedly: if you have pointers to (or are willing to synthesize) a reliable calculation of expected lives-saved/deaths-caused by maintaining or discarding the existing Red Cross policies about who is "allowed" to donate blood, especially the relatively controversial ban on male donors with homosexual acts in their sexual history, I would be interested. Full disclosure: I do have a personal/emotional stake in this question, but I really really don't want to set off a political/ethical conversation about it. I'm asking it here because, as with a lot of politically charged topics, the arguments I've found on both sides are mostly a case of framing the question so as to give the answer one wants to give, rather than so as to answer the question that was asked, and I'm looking for a more objective analysis.
I also wanted to ask this question. Giving blood is important to me. It is so important that I have chosen not to pursue relationships with other men in order than I can continue to give blood without lying to do so. I expect that sooner or later, I will choose otherwise, and a sexual relationship will be important enough to me to sacrifice my ability to ever give blood again, and this distresses me. I can accept that the risks of HIV may be high enough to make this a reasonable choice on the part of United Blood Services / Red Cross. However, I would like to be quite sure that this is the case, or to be told that my blood isn't as important as I previously though it was. I was previously giving blood on the impression that each donation saves around a twentieth of a life; this thread doesn't change that estimate enough for me to feel like I can stop donating in good conscience.

Giving blood is important to me. It is so important that I have chosen not to pursue relationships with other men in order than I can continue to give blood without lying to do so.

On the margins, I expect that each marginal pint of blood saves only a very small fraction of a life. As several readers pointed out, this doesn't mean that we should ordinarily be calculating on the margins, since it's not like you can use a pint of blood for something else instead; in terms of moral credit, you should think of yourself as part of a reference class of people who all choose to donate blood for around the same reasons, and who all get an equal share of the lives saved.

However, the Red Cross has already decided that they're willing to X out the entire homosexual community, and I would expect the reference class of those who refrain from sexual activity in order to continue donating blood to be small, and I would guess that if this entire reference class refrained from donating blood, not a single additional life might be lost.

Modern-day hospitals are not, so far as I know, blood-limited. They need a routine flow of blood in order to routinely save lives. They do not need more blood t... (read more)

I think I was accidentally misleading by failing to add that I'm bisexual. Not giving blood reduces my pool of potential romantic partners by roughly 10%, and doesn't prevent me from having fulfilling relationships. I don't think I would abstain from sex in order to give blood even if I knew I could save a life with each donation. Even if that's an incredibly selfish decision, I'm just not that good a person. Regardless, the support of everyone who replied is very much appreciated.
...technically, doesn't speeding up a negative singularity also save lives-- the lives of those who would otherwise have been born and then killed but were instead never born and therefore couldn't be killed? In fact, I think speeding up a negative singularity actually "saves" more lives than speeding up a positive one using this calculation-- a quick Google search indicates ~250 people are born every minute and ~100 people die every minute.
Replace "save lives" with "extend lifespans." All the math will suddenly start working out better.
Agreed, I retrospect I should have phrased the original question in terms of QALYs or some similar metric.
In a fairly meaningful sense, no life has ever been saved before. Nobody has actually been prevented from dying yet. A positive singularity could change that.
I believe you can make an easier calculation: change the denominator from lives to units of blood. How much effort/money/social capital would it take you to convince one more person to donate one more unit? [ignore the cost to that person, as it's likely zero or slightly beneficial]. Calculate the effort it therefore would take you to replace yourself as a donor while keeping the blood supply constant; this should serve as an upper bound for the self-sacrifice you should make in terms of sexual restraint.
You make an excellent point. I clarified that the sexual restraint required is not as great as it may seem, but convincing other people to donate regularly (I have done so at least twice in my life) is still much less of a sacrifice.
(nods) For me, it's not a pragmatic question of whether I donate or not: after ~20 years in a mutually monogamous relationship, I am confident that my donating blood reduces the percentage of infected blood in the supply, regardless of my gender, and that's the metric that matters. But I spent some time trying to make sense of the arguments pro and con, a few years back, and mostly came to the conclusion that I didn't trust anyone's arguments. It is certainly true that if you divide the community of potential donors into two groups, and the frequency of blood-born pathogens is higher in group A than group B, and your filtering mechanisms aren't 100% reliable, then the blood supply is N% safer if you remove group A from potential donors. It is equally certainly true that you can do that division in thousands of different ways, and each way of doing that division gets you a different N. I was hoping to find a comparison of estimated Ns for different plausible policies, and perhaps a recommendation for the best policy. What I found instead was that defenders of the existing policy were making the first argument and saying "See? The policy makes the blood supply N% safer! We have to keep doing it, to do otherwise would be unsafe!" while at the same time disregarding questions about how large N actually was (i.e.., how many lives were actually at stake? 1000? .001? Somewhere in between?) and whether a different policy might get you a much larger N, while opponents of the policy were disregarding the first argument altogether.
My conclusion is somewhat related. I have no particularly good reason to believe that I am better able to establish blood donation and usage policy than the Red Cross or the medical practitioners. I just give them my blood and they can use it or not as they see fit. I'd do it just for the health benefits anyway.
For my own part, I appreciate that the Red Cross (and etc.) is trying to satisfy multiple constraints, only one of which is the actual safety of their blood supply, and I don't object to that. But the constraints that apply to them in articulating a policy don't necessarily apply to me in donating blood.
On the other hand you have constraints that they do not have, not least of which is the lack of scaling benefits for your research and decision making efforts. We are left with an optimal approach of considering what we know of our own blood that the collection agency does not (or is forbidden from discriminating on). We can approximate whether this knowledge would make the blood more suitable or less. Only if 'less' do we need worry about how significant that extra knowledge is.
We also need to worry if the answer is ‘more’ and because of that we decide to lie on the answer form so that we can donate. I kind of get the impression that TheOtherDave is doing that, or at least would condone it under circumstances very much like his.
I don't do it, mostly because I'm so irritated by the policy that I've worked my way into a completely counterproductive "F--k it, then, donate your own f--king blood, see if I care" kind of sulk about it. I'm not proud of this, but there it is. Yes, I condone it... indeed, I endorse it... in situations very much like mine.
They aren't assessing that risk in a logical fashion. If they were, they would have similar restrictions on donation by ethnic group. (It is possible that the Red Cross would like to do that also but knows that it is political unfeasible.)
Will Saletan has an article on this.
Thx. This article on the ethics and pragmatics of blood source - compensated vs uncompensated - was fascinating, IMO. Though it may be somewhat out-of-date.

This is Holden Karnofsky, the co-Executive Director of GiveWell, which is referenced in the top-level article and elsewhere on this thread.

I think there is an important difference between discussing the marginal impact of a blood donation and the marginal impact of a vote. When it comes to blood donations, it is possible for everyone to simultaneously follow the rule: "Give blood only when the supply of donations is low enough that an additional donation would have high expected impact", with a reasonable outcome. It is not possible for everyone to behave this way in elections: no voter is able to consider the existing distribution of votes before casting their own.

I am only casually familiar with TDT/UDT, but it seems to me that that "Give blood only when the supply of donations is low enough that an additional donation would have high expected impact" should get about the same amount of credit under TDT/UDT as giving blood, and thus the extra impact of actually giving blood (as opposed to following that rule) is small regardless of what decision theory one is using.

I bring this up because the discussion of marginal blood donations is parallel to analysis Giv... (read more)

Completely agree with your general point on marginal analysis (although I'm a TDT skeptic), and am a fan of GiveWell, but this is trivially wrong: This seems to assume away information about the size of the electorate as well as any predictive power about the outcome. Surely the marginal benefit of a Presidential vote in a small swing state is massively higher than in a large solidly Democratic state, for example. And in addition to historical results, there is polling data in advance of the election to improve predictions. Besides this being theoretically true, we can see it empirically from the spending patterns of both Presidential campaigns and political parties on Congressional races. They allocate money to the states / races where they believe it will do the most marginal good, which is often a very inequal distribution. Thus they do, in fact "consider the existing distribution of votes before casting" their advertising dollars.
Patrissimo, fair enough. I was thinking that voters can't vote with the same degree of knowledge of the existing situation that they can have with blood donations. Arguments over TDT certainly seem more relevant to voting than to blood donations. But you are right that voters have lots of relevant information about the likely distribution of votes that can be productively factored into their decisions regardless of the TDT debate. Glad to hear you're a fan of GiveWell.
0.00001 sounds low to me. Given that hospitals aren't normally blood-limited, there are always fluctuations around the average, and I'd be surprised if becoming blood-limited happens less than 1 day in 10^5. Two trauma cases can be enough to create a local crisis
My actions and your actions aren't perfectly correlated, because we're somewhat different. No matter how you handle this, it seems to suggest that my donation would acausally affect some fraction of other people's donations. So it might count as, e.g., +/- 2 million, which is still more-or-less marginal, since the costs are multiplied as well. Maybe more than that? It's stil a far cry from just dividing 5 million/16 million. Edit: Isn't utility maximized if the abstract computations "What humans do" and "The thing with greatest marginal benefit" equalized, though? If utility is convex, yes. So there should be some other rule, like, if you're at a bad equilibrium, act so as to break it. I am unsure how this works.
I know that plasma and such are compensated, but where is blood paid for? Places where it's cheaper than transporting it from areas that have surplus volunteer efforts? Or they don't publicize that compensation is available because that would shrink the volunteer base?

However, I am curious as to why it's obvious to you that 3 lives is too high of a number on the margins.

Around 15 million pints of whole blood are donated per year in the US. At 3 lives per pint that comes out to 45 million. We can also assume that if lives per pint is 3 at the margin then the more efficient cases it will be even more than that. The population of the US just isn't high enough to account for that.

Oh, then there there is the fact that a lot of cases use a whole heap more than one pint of blood. (For example.)

Dead babies or children are a bad metric precisely because of this reason. Years in good physical and mental health seem a better way to measure what people are going for. A donation of blood saves less than one life in my estimates, but it improves quality of life and adds in my opinion a few years of healthy happy life.
I wonder if getting too focused on the best (or worst) case scenario is a named logical error. I'm also not sure whether giving a rare blood type is likely to save more lives than giving a more common blood type.
It seems odd the more people of a certain blood type would sustain injuries requiring blood, or that people of a certain blood type would care more about blood donation So if the people who heard about blood banks and were interested, and the people who needed them are nearly randomly distributed in the population, I would expect the demand vs supply of each type to average out to the same figure. However, I have heard blood banks ask specifically for people with rare blood types to donate, so it would appear that this theory is wrong. Alternatively, there is an equal shortage of all types, and someone in marketing thought that the specification would attract more people. (Even though if I was going to use the dark arts to make a group more likely to come, I would target the largest one)
Blood types vary by ethnicity, SES varies by ethnicity, injuries and donations vary by SES.
For the same reason donating organs if one is mixed race is worth more (than organ donations by individuals of predominantly monoracial ancestry) because of complications in compatibility for the demographic.
4Simon Fischer
The reason for this is the compatibility of the blood types, for example O-negative-blood can be donated to everyone and is therefore used in emergencies where the blood type of the recipient is not known.
I know pretty much nothing about the mechanics of saving and donating blood, but I'd expect logistical effects to push demand for rare types up even if the actual need for them is proportional to their rarity.
I presume it means that the first pint of blood donated, if allocated with efficient triage, could save three lives. At the margin I assume the figure is a small fraction of a life per pint donate.
Thanks to both of you. Yes, what I'm curious about is essentially the figure at the margin,

The points made here are sound. I was particularly awakened by calling out the rule about overhead as wrong, since that has been a major factor in my charitiable giving in the past.

However, if we imagine everyone behaving according to these rules, we wind up with very few (incompetent) people running a few charities with piles of cash. If no lawyers take time off and contribute their expertise to a charity, then how do charities protect themselves from lawsuits, for example? The optimal charity solution is not for everyone to follow your guidelines, but for almost everyone to follow your guidelines, and a few people to deviate. Yet, how do we know whether we should be the ones who deviate?


However, if we imagine everyone behaving according to these rules, we wind up with very few (incompetent) people running a few charities with piles of cash.

If the choice is between charities making antimalarial drugs run by competent people, and charities making (more useful) mosquito nets run by incompetent people, then yes on the short term you might see incompetent people with loads of cash, but then other charities will probably pop up making malarial nets with low overhead, and then they'll get the most donarions.

Or if you're concerned about competent people all getting a "real" job and donating money: it's only rational to do so when the marginal utility of volunteering is less than the marginal utility of working and donating. If that's the case now (too many volunteers, not enough money), that doesn't mean that all volunteers should stop and go get a job.


If no lawyers take time off and contribute their expertise to a charity, then how do charities protect themselves from lawsuits, for example?

The lawyer example wasn't about lawyers donating lawyering to charities, it was about lawyers buying fuzzies by doing volunteer work like picking up litter or working at a food bank instead of doing overtime legal work and using the extra money to generate ten times as much charitable work.

Under some circumstances, the most efficient thing might be for a lawyer to provide pro-bono legal work to a charity, if a good lawyer is willing to do that, but in general, the answer to "how do charities protect themselves from lawsuits?" is "by paying for legal representation with part of the money people donate to them".

The answer is that until the world's culture of giving changes massively, you should not be the one to deviate. And you'll notice when the world's culture of giving is changing massively. And then we can solve the new problem of "but the marginal gain of one lawyer from zero really is large!", but until then, it's nothing more than a hypothetical. Unless! I haven't thought about this before, but what if the great majority of people of important-to-charity category X who currently donate their time are also the sort of people who will switch to these much better guidelines before it becomes a worldwide phenomenon? Does such a category exist? It's the only thing that would make a "just switch to these guidelines and fix the other problems if these guidelines are widely adopted" policy turn out badly if implemented, I think...
this was covered here: "If the soup kitchen needed a lawyer, and the lawyer donated a large contiguous high-priority block of lawyering, then that sort of volunteering makes sense—that's the same specialized capability the lawyer ordinarily trades for money. But "volunteering" just one hour of legal work, constantly delayed, spread across three weeks in casual minutes between other jobs? This is not the way something gets done when anyone actually cares about it, or to state it near-equivalently, when money is involved."

I just had a conversation with my father on this subject which significantly clarified my thinking, and resolved most of my internal dilemma. The argument put forward in this post is correct, but there is one significant problem. I care about more than just saving children. I also care about how efficiently it is done, what peripheral good a charity is doing in the community by, say, employing locals, and any number of other things. "Children saved" is an important metric and should absolutely be considered, and it is a decision that should b... (read more)

Unless you have a huge "they are in another country" discount on children's lives, or a huge "they are in my community" boost to the other goals, I can't name any goals off the top of my head that can compete with saving children's lives.
I didn't say that other goals could compete, but there are other goals that can be considered simultaneously. If one charity saves ten children for $100 and another saves nine and accomplishes a few other things, that is not a choice we should make mindlessly. we can't let "saving children become a buzzword that cuts off thought. What if the second charity saves the children from death and gives them some skills that will help them make a living and help their communities? In that case, I would probably choose the second charity. Think of it as a linear algebra problem, with numerous parameters with different weights. You end up with an optimal solution for all variables together rather than for a single variable alone. Just because saving children is the most heavily weighted variable doesn't mean that it is the only one.

At the risk of provoking defensiveness I will say that it really sounds like you are trying to rationalize your preferences as being rational when they aren't.

I say this because the examples that you were giving (local food kitchen, public radio), when compared to truly efficient charities (save lives, improve health, foster local entrepreneurship), are nothing like "save 9 kids + some other benefits" vs. "save 10 kids and nothing else". It''s more like "save 0.1 kids that you know are in your neighborhood" vs. "save 10 kids that you will never meet" (and that's probably an overestimate on the local option). Your choice of a close number is suspicious because it is so wrong and so appealing (by justifying the giving that makes you happy).

The amount of happiness that you create through local first world charities is orders of magnitude less than third world charities. Therefore, if you are choosing local first world charities that help "malnourished" kids who are fabulously nourished by third world standards, we can infer that the weight you put on "saving the lives of children" (and with it, "maximizing human quality-adjusted life years") is basically zero. Therefore, you are almost certainly buying warm fuzzies. That's consumption, not charity. I'm all for consumption, I just don't like people pretending that it's charity so they can tick their mental "give to charity" box and move on.

I agree with you completely about consumption vs. charity, and had even mentioned the concept in my point about NPR donation guilt. I also agree that the close number is wildly inaccurate, but even in context it wasn't applied to local charities and it was intended to make the point that multiple factors could and should be considered when picking charities, even when the importance multipliers on some factors are orders of magnitude higher than for other factors. I hope this clarifies my meaning without defensiveness, because none was meant.
Ok, great, I'm glad I misunderstood.
Let's say you want to start a school, because you like education. You could found a very large school that educates lots of children, but at a so-so quality. Or you could spend the same amount of instruction to make a tiny, amazing school, a little gem. Some people might find it more fulfilling to build the small, wonderful school. When you've achieved your goal, a tiny corner of the world is just perfect, and it's a part you have control over. I think this is part of the reason people sometimes are more motivated to improve conditions in their own country than abroad. On some level, I'd rather make one person really happy and successful than make 100 people just barely better off than dead.
This is what I had in mind; I just felt that that the "saving childrens' lives" variable would have a multiplier of a few hundred in front of it (because lives are important) and the other variables like "improves their community" would have multipliers of two or three at best. I couldn't think of any other variable that would have a similar multiplier to "child's life".
Some of those other variables will feed back in to the "child's life" variable, a generation or two down the road.
Feeding back into "child's life" a few generations down the road is not a multiplier of a few hundred. That it feeds back gives it an extra 10% or so; even with the feeding back, doing anything that isn't directly saving as many lives as possible right now is an objectively worse option.

I'm bothered by the intertemporal implications of this, i.e. if I have $100 that I will spend to help the most humans possible, then I could either spend it today or invest it and spend $105 next year (assumed 5% ROR). Will I then ever spend the money on charity? Or will I always invest it, and just let this amassed wealth be distributed when I die?


Assuming that charities can invest and borrow at prevailing interest rates (and large charitable trusts can in fact borrow from their endowment), you should be indifferent to this choice. Robin Hanson has addressed this issue here.

The good you do can compound too. If you save a childs life at $500, that child might go on to save other childrens lives. I think you might well get a higher rate of interest on the good you do than 5%. There will be a savings rate at which you should save instead of give, but I don't think we're near it at the moment.
Or, of course, go on to harm them. Or be neutral. It seems almost certain that on average there is some benefit from the standard trade and comparative advantage reasons, but I have no idea how to even approach that calculation.
This, incidentally, is also an argument for supporting less immediately-efficient charities. If you spend $500 on mosquito nets, you are saving the life of a child whose expected lifetime earning potential is low. This is wonderful, but the rate of "interest" may well be small. If you spend $500 on saving the painting Blue Rigi, you have not saved a single life in the short run. But it contributes to the education of thousands of British children, many of whom will grow up to create and donate large amounts of wealth/knowledge. Your incremental impact on their education may plausibly prevent more malarial deaths than your donation of mosquito nets, though I've no idea how to calculate this. At the very least, I'd suggest that analogy of "setting out on an Arctic journey" sets us up to mentally discount future benefits in favor of immediate results. Instead we might imagine that we've set up an Arctic village, or are planning a journey a decade from now. Our spending habits would change accordingly.

If you spend $500 on saving the painting Blue Rigi, [...] it contributes to the education of thousands of British children, many of whom will grow up to create and donate large amounts of wealth/knowledge

Contributes how much? For each child, how much more knowledge do you expect they will create because they saw the original, rather than a facsimile, Blue Rigi? My estimate for this is so close to 0 that I can't conscience paying even $1 for Blue Rigi, except for aesthetic reasons.

Is this another way of saying that schools should focus on math and science, ignoring art? Or is this an argument that we need to restructure the way public museums work, slashing the cost by replacing the paintings with copies?
It's just an argument that art is not in the same bucket as saving lives. I'm not going to tell you how to spend your money, but if your stated objective is to help people, saving Blue Rigi is not a cost effective way of doing that. The way we run schools, math and science aren't very useful to begin with. Slashing art budgets is probably not a useful place to start.
Well, I want to make sure I understand it. Which of the following do you mean: a. If British people become more productive that productivity won't translate into more charity/inventions that will save lives? b. Education does not improve productivity? c. Art museums are not an important part of education (at least not in terms of scientific/economic productivity)? d. Blue Rigi does not improve the overall quality of the Tate? e. Actually none of the above, but Blue Rigi was simply priced too high? To clarify/address ArisKatsaris's points: I am not attempting to make an argument in this post. I am trying to identify the point at which datadataeverywhere first has a problem. For instance, I don't need to discuss whether the cultural given (fetish?) that our museums will seek out originals is easily mutable if his objection really starts earlier in my list. For instance, is it possible that the education of British children is a better way to save African lives than the immediate purchase of mosquito nets? If that's implausible, then the question of how one educates a child is irrelevant to this discussion.
Aris' expanded explanation is excellent, and what I would have tried to say at first. I find it pretty implausible that the education of British children in the artwork of an 18th century British landscape painter is a better method of saving African lives than a proven method that currently saves lives and is reckoned to be one of the cheapest methods per life saved. Over the long term, how we educate children probably determines a great deal about what our world looks like in the future. However, unless you have an oracle, or are educating them in something specifically related, such as the concept of Efficient Charity, I would place the upper and lower guesses of the median increase in QALY/DALY well below and above zero, respectively, indicating that you shouldn't do it on that basis.
Downvoted for extreme amounts of muddled thinking, and a line of argumentation that's so hole-ridden it gives me a headache. Also he has answered you already: He argued that displaying the original Blue Rigi as opposed to a facsimile doesn't contribute one iota to the education of any child. You either didn't pay attention, or are trying to wear him out by keep on asking something he already answered.
Maybe. But I still don't know if that's because art doesn't contribute or because originals are the same as facsimiles. Anyway, can you help me understand what you consider the holes/muddle?

Muddled thinking is when your line of argumentation "painting contributes to museum, museum contributes to education, education contributes to productivity, productivity contributes to charity" implies there's some single metric each of these increase, which can be traced from one to the other simply, step by step.

An original painting may contribute to museum's "quality", but it needn't contribute to the educational quality of the museum, so you can't transfer that sort of contribution down that next step.

An art museum contributes to education, but it needn't contribute to education in such a manner that it becomes the sort of "productivity" that saves lives. Art is about aesthetics, which contribute to quality of life, but not the preservation of such. Art contributes, but it contributes differently - and you were told that already.

Education may contribute to productivity, but depending what you're educated to value, it may increase or decrease the amounts of charity provided. For example, if you're taught to value the presence of original paintings, you'll probably give money to keep original paintings in your nation, not to save lives.

Wanting an ori... (read more)

Upvoted, but disagreed with: It seems to me that scarcity and authenticity can both play into aesthetics, but besides those two contextual variables that's spot on.
I don't think the preference for original paintings is just a fetish. Accurate color reproduction is hard [1], and in many cases, it's possible to get close enough to the original to see the brushstrokes and texture. I don't think we're at the tech yet for really excellent reproductions, but please let me know if I'm missing something. Originals vs. reproductions may not be worth the cost, but that's a different question. [1] The colors in a painting may change with time, but reproductions add another layer of inaccuracy. I don't know how good color reproduction can be if a major effort is made. I do know that if I go to the museum shop after an exhibition, I'm always struck by how far off the colors are compared to the paintings.
Texture reproduction is actually an easier problem than color reproduction, and is pretty much solved at less than a $5000 cost. Color is hard partially because people want the painting to look the same under all lighting conditions; under just one, we can solve the problem pretty well, but under all, we nearly need to use the same materials as were originally used. Needless to say, the cost of reproductions scales with the quality, and can become quite high.
I wonder if enough people would go to a museum of high quality reproductions to make it worthwhile.
I think that's the point.
What's likely to happen is that the RoR and benefit of charity will fluctuate over time and over the size of your pot- so your pot will grow until there's a need, then you'll spend, and then it'll go back to growing. The problem is that requires active management (which is hard to continue after your death) and typically the view is that if you value warm fuzzies, you can find some charity that returns more than the RoR of profitable ventures. There is quite a bit of warm fuzzies in generating a giant pot of cash and then endowing it to stand perpetually- but beyond stability effects I'm not sure there is much to recommend that model of charity.
In order this to be true forever, the world would have to never end, which would mean that there's infinite utility no matter what you do. If this is false eventually, there is no paradox. Whether or not It's worth while to invest for a few centuries is an open question, but if it turns out it is, that's no reason to abandon the idea of comparing charities.
That doesn't sound right... even if I'm expecting an infinite future I think I'd still want to live a good existence rather than a mediocre one (but with >0 utility). So it does matter what I do. Say I have two options: * A, which offers on average 1.. utilon per second? (Are utilons measures of utility of a time period, or instantaneous utility?) * B, which offers on average 2 utilons / s The limits as t approaches infinity are U(A) = t, U(B) = 2t. Both are "infinite" but B is yet larger than A, and therefore "better".
You can switch between A and B just by rearranging when events happen. For example, imagine that there are two planets moving in opposite directions. One is a Utopia, the other is a Distopia. From the point of reference of the Utopia, time is slowed down in the Distopia, so the world is worth living in. From the point of reference of the Distopia, it's reversed. This gets even worse when you start dealing with expected utility. As messed up as the idea is that the order of events matter, there at least is an order. With expected utility, there is no inherent order. The best I can do is assign the priors for infinite utility to zero, and make my priors fall off fast enough to make sure expected utility always converges. I've managed to prove that my posteriors will also always have a converging expected utility.
So we need to formalize this, obviously. Method 1: Exponential discounting. Problem: You don't care very much about future people. Method 2: Taking the average over all time (specifically the limit as t goes to infinity of the integral of utility from 0 to t, divided by t) Conclusion which may be problematic: If humanity does not live forever, nothing we do matters. Caveat: Depending on our anthropics, we can argue that the universe is infinite in time or space with probability 1, in which case there are an infinite number of copies of humanity, and so we can always calculate the average. This seems like the right approach to me. (In general, using the same math for your ethics and your anthropics has nice consequences, like avoiding most versions of Pascal's Mugging.)
Why is this a problem? This seems to match reality for most people.
So does selfishness and irrationality. We would like to avoid those. It also is intuitive that we would like to care more about future people.
Excessive selfishness, sure. Some degree of selfishness is required as self-defense, currently, otherwise all your own needs are subsumed by supplying others' wants.. Even in a completely symmetric society with everybody acting more for others' good than their own is worse than one where everybody takes care of their own needs first -- because each individual generally knows their own needs and wants better than anyone else does. I don't know the needs and wants of the future. I can't know them particularly well. I have worse and worse uncertainty the farther away in time that is. Unless we're talking about species-extinction level of events, I damn well should punt to those better informed, those closer to the problems. Not to me. Heck. I'm not entirely sure what it means to care about a person who doesn't exist yet, and where my choices will influence which of many possible versions will exist.
Expected-utility calculation already takes that into effect. Uncertainty about whether an action will be beneficial translates into a lower expected utility. Discounting, on top of that, is double counting. Knowledge is a fact about probabilities, not utilities. Let's hope our different intuitions are resolvable. Surely it's not much more difficult than caring about a person who your choices will dramatically change?
How about this: If you have a set E = {X, Y, Z...} of possible actions, A (in E) is the utility-maximising action iff for all other B in E, the limit dt'%20-%20\int_0%5Et%20{Eu(B,%20t')dt'%20\right)) is greater than zero, or approaches zero from the positive side. Caveat: I have no evidence this doesn't implode in some way, perhaps by the limit being undefined. This is just a stupid idea to consider. A possibly equivalent formulation is %20\implies%20\left(\int_0%5Et%20Eu(A,%20t')dt'%20\geq%20\int_0%5Et%20Eu(B,%20t')dt'\right)) The inequality being greater or equal allows for two or more actions being equivalent, which is unlikely but possible.
Side comment: that math equation image generator you used is freakin' excellent. The image itself is generated based from the URL, so you don't have to worry about hosting. Editor is here.
I prefer this one, which automatically generates the link syntax to paste into a LW comment. There's a short discussion of all this on the wiki.
Functions whose limit is +infinity and -infinity can be distinguished, so your good there. I think it's the same as my second: As long as the probability given both actions of a humanity lasting forever is nonzero, and the differences of expected utilities far in the future is nonzero, nothing that happens in the first million billion years matters.
The difference in expected utility would have to decrease slow enough (slower than exponential?) to not converge, not just be nonzero. [Which would be why exponential discounting "works"...] However I would be surprised to see many decisions with that kind of lasting impact. The probability of an action having some effect at time t in the future "decays exponentially" with t (assuming p(Effect_t | Effect_{t-1}, Action) is approximately constant), so the difference in expected utility will in general fall off exponentially and therefore converge anyway. Exceptions would be choices where the utilities of the likely effects increase in magnitude (exponentially?) as t increases. Anyway I don't see infinities as an inherent problem under this scheme. In particular if we don't live forever, everything we do does indeed matter. If we do live forever, what we do does matter, excepts how it affects us might not if we anticipate causing "permanant" gain by doing something.
Can't think about the underlying idea right now due to headache, but instead of talking about any sort of limit, just say that it's eventually positive, if that's what you mean.
Bostrom would disagree with your conclusion that infinities are unproblematic for utilitarian ethics:

Very well presented.

Just a minor technical note: All the links that linked to other LW pages are broken. It looks like somehow the links ended up having those articles's names being appended to the link for this one.

For instance, the one that was supposed to link to money being the unit of caring instead tries to link to this:

1Scott Alexander
Hm, never seen that particular error before. Thanks and fixed.
No prob. I'm guessing it was something along the lines of those links somehow ending up being turned into relative links.

And likewise, there is only one best charity: the one that helps the most people the greatest amount per dollar.

I disagree. Giving money to charity is not different from spending money on a latte at Starbucks. I spend money according to my values. And I still buy lattes. I am not Zachary Baumkletterer. Even Jesus said, "The poor you will have with you always", to justify spending an INCREDIBLE amount of money (enough to buy ten people's entire lives, in an era with no inflation, making it comparable to ten million US dollars today) on pou... (read more)

To some degree, this article is less about moralizing and more of a "how to" guide. If you want to help people, this is how to do it. If you don't want to help people, and you prefer to have lattes or works of fine art or whatever, then a how-to guide on how to help people isn't relevant to your interests.

To the degree that it is more than that, the article is an attempt to expose certain thought processes into consciousness so that they can be evaluated by conscious systems. People may be donating to these inefficient charities because they feel like it and they don't examine their feelings, even though if they were to consciously think the problem through they would give to more efficient charities. If, after realizing that the choice is between one kid's life or 1/1000 of a painting, someone still prefers the painting, I don't really have anything more I can say - but my guess is that's not a lot of the population.

You made a really good point in your mysticism post on Discussion, about the difference between categorizing things by their causes and categorizing things by their effects. When you talk about spiritual and unselfish choices, you're categorizing things by th... (read more)

It should be noted that if you want to help people then donating something helps more people than being discouraged to the point of not donating at all due to the possibility that your contribution might be used some orders of magnitude less effectively than possible. Many people do not (yet) have the ability (or nerves/time etc.) to read up on and make sense of the arguments, or the data, to subsequently compute the answer of what would be the most effective way to spend their money in case they want to help other people. So before you give up and do not donate anything at all, better split your money and give some to the SIAI (or even Wikipedia etc.). Additionally use a service like GiveWell. And also don't worry helping to exhibit some painting. All of those contributions will help some people, if only by making them happy (as in the case of the painting). It will make a difference! And it will make a huge difference compared to doing nothing at all.
Indeed, it's remarkable how little we would have to spend to end the worst poverty and injustice in the world today, if only people were willing to do it. We literally spend more on cat food than it would take to eliminate the UN absolute poverty level.
The specific quote the grandparent was replying to is about moralizing. One could strip the moralizing element from the quote (and the article) in a fairly straightforward manner. The best charity someone can donate to is subjectively objective: the one that achieves the most benefit per dollar according to that persons values, altruistic or otherwise.
2Scott Alexander
The problem with the word "best" there is the same problem the word "good" always runs into - the difference between "a good car" and "a good person". I'm using "best charity" in the same sense I would use "best Arctic survival gear" - best at achieving the purpose you are assumed to have. Although I think there is a case for that also being the morally best for most moral systems in which "morally best" makes sense, that would be way outside the scope of this discussion.
I understand what you are doing in the post and follow the sense of 'best'. What I am observing is that the claim "you are moralizing" is factually correct. The moralization is not in the form of a direct 'should' nor is it in the way in which you use best. It can be seen here: That is an extremely powerful moral gambit.
What a provoking article - excellent! It's healthy for us to be asking these questions. But I wonder about the dualistic nature of the questions posed in your 'how to guide'. Sometimes, in fact often, it is not a simple choice between two. Biodiversity, like culture, is much more complex than a graph can depict. The multiple layers move at different rhythms & speed and are instructed by differing motivations such as hormone, instinct, sex, survival, power, empathy (to name only a few). My point is that systemic change is not a matter of choosing between the best charity - that approach only has one outcome which is how many lives to save in one monetary act - if we look at the world in a connected web than demonstrating empathy & care by looking after one's place (cleaning up the local beach) or protecting a rainforest for the future health of the planet - these are all responsibilities with different impacts that contribute to a greater whole. Helping a rainforest now may save millions of lives in the future compared to 10 lives treated for malaria now. And this is not just about humans! I don't think you can measure what you are trying to measure - it denies the complexity of life and reduces it to an economic plan. Yes you can look at a 'how to guide' if you want to find the best charity and you do make great examples of how to make that decision - but sustaining life and survival is much deeper, chaotic and unknown.

Even Jesus said, "The poor you will have with you always", to justify spending an INCREDIBLE amount of money (enough to buy ten people's entire lives, in an era with no inflation, making it comparable to ten million US dollars today) on pouring perfume once on Jesus' feet

"Even Jesus"? Does it occur to you that making this a religious example is actually even MORE likely to get us to notice the moral dissonance, not convince us to excuse it?

This seems a false dichotomy; the unfortunate will also be helped by money spent on education, roads and other measures which increase the common good (so long as they do not make the plight of the unfortunate worse). Whether to spend money on medicine for the sick, education for those who cannot get access to it with their own resources, or art and etertainment by which a culture might examine these problems strikes me as being a bit like medical triage in an emergency room. Perhaps it makes sense to treat personal resource management similarly.
Well, think of it this way: What would an economy look like, if everyone in it obeyed the maxims of Peter Singer? It seems to me it would be a complete mess, far worse than what we have today. Now, if everyone in the world gave just a small amount of their income (5%? 10%?) to a wide variety of charities they care about---e.g. scientific research, medicine, economic development, and yes, arts and culture---we would get all the benefits of our present system and eliminate a lot of the worst flaws. US GDP is $14 trillion. US development aid and private charity are more like $300 billion (about 2% if you're playing at home). Step that up to $600 billion, or $1 trillion, and what we could accomplish! But I don't think we're going to get there by making people feel guilty about supporting one thing rather than another. Far better, it seems, to get them to just make a habit of writing a check---think of it like another bill to pay---and not worrying so much about whether it is going the best possible place.
They would donate up until the point of diminishing marginal returns as determined by experts in the relevant fields and then spend on themselves. Seems like a pretty good world.
It seems like a world in which most resources are controlled by "experts in relevant fields." When I consider this possible world should I imagine it with the experts we have now, or with more idealized experts?
How about the existing experts that the existing Singer recommends in his existing books, and not some straw Singer as pnrjulius seems to be thinking of?
Singer wants us to donate to these organizations. Seemingly, he wants us to donate a lot, but not so much as he personally gives. I don't know what Straw Singer wants us to do.
(Sorry for bad html, I'll try to learn to use the interface when I'm next at a real computer.)
When replying to a comment, click the "help" link to the right of the "cancel" button (it's all the way over in the corner).

With respect to the lawyer example, I understand that the lawyer can maximize the good he does by remaining a lawyer instead of working for a non-profit. But if all the most talented/productive people (and thus those with the highest potential salaries in the private sector) took private sector jobs, then only the least talented/productive people would be available to start and run the non-profits. Given that we can expect this low talent pool to make many mistakes, a lot of the high talent pool's donations will be squandered and wasted. So having all ... (read more)

For the "lawyer work for another hour and donate the money vs. volunteer", it also what matters what the side effects of his labor are, right? If the lawyer can make $1000 an hour, but only in ways that actually harm society (working on frivolous lawsuits against hospitals, for example), then working for another hour and donating the money isn't necessarily the best thing he could be doing. Now, on the other hand, if his work also genuinely helps society and creates more wealth for people, then it's even better then the null case.

Then the equation becomes ($1,000 - damage-per-hour + damgage-per-hour-if-the-next-lawyer-available-did-it > next-best-value-opportunity). It is highly unlikely that the lawyer choosing to not involve himself in such lawsuits will make much difference at all, at the margin. Lawyer availability isn't a particularly limiting factor. Participating in the society-destructing behavior, taking huge amounts of money for doing so (and using it well) while still voting for laws that prohibit or limit such behavior in general is probably the correct thing to do.
It's possible that that might be true, in theory, but considering that we are running on corrupted hardware, I would be very suspicious of actually trying to put any plan into effect that sounded like an excuse for "I'm going to do something unethical to make myself really rich, but I'll make sure I use the money for good, and if I don't do it someone else will anyway." Even if that is actually your plan, in reality you will probably end up doing more harm then good.
I implement ethical inhibitions too. The difference is in a different understanding of the economic implications of the behavior. Putting "be a lawyer who is willing to work on 'frivolous' lawsuits" in the class of things that must be inhibited for ethical reasons is a mistake.

There's one flaw in the argument about Buy a Brushstroke vs African sanitation systems, which is the assumption/implication that if they hadn't given that money to Buy a Brushstroke they would have given it to African sanitation systems instead. It's a false dichotomy. Sure, the money would have been better spent on African sanitation systems, but you can say that about anything. The money they spent on their cars, the money I just spent on my lunch, in fact somewhere probably over 99.9% of all non-African-sanitation-system-purchases made in the first-worl... (read more)


This speaks in favor of the moral qualities of the camera manufacturer

Why is this? Is it unethical to profit from trade? This made my little inner Objectivist cringe pretty hard... but otherwise, I like this post a lot. It makes an important point about efficiency that isn't obvious and needs to be reinforced.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
It can speak in favour of the moral qualities of the camera manufacturer without speaking against the moral qualities of the parka manufacturer. Of course it's fine to profit from trade, but generosity is still praiseworthy. (Though, in practice, selling a $200 camera at no profit is probably not nearly the best way for a camera manufacturer to be altruistic anyway, so that may not be the best example.)

This is an excellent article. A quick comment on one of the sentences:, a site which collects and interprets data on the effectiveness of charities, predicts that antimalarial drugs save one child from malaria per $5,000 worth of bed medicine, but insecticide-treated bed nets save one child from malaria per $500 worth of drugs.

I find this sentence somewhat confusing. Should the "worth of bed medicine" be just "medicine", and the "worth of drugs" be "worth of netting"?

2Scott Alexander
Thank you, I have no idea what happened to my brain there.

The Pollination Project is run by a guy who gives $1,000 a day, to a different recipient every day. Rational justifications for this approach include minimizing the model risk - i.e., perhaps the model you used to decide which single charitable cause is the best is wrong. Also, small donations seem likely to produce a high velocity of the money donated.

Interesting article.

But if you really really want to do more good, you also have to change the way you see people in need. This might involve buying a ticket to Sudan and seeing children face to face while they are starving to death.

So in the long run, your $5k trip to Sudan might do more good than giving a one time $5k donation to an organization, because by changing the way you think about starving people, you will have the urgency of actually changing your priorities. So you will literally work for those who die of starvation in other countries, and deprive yourself from buying useless stuff or entertainment in order to feed more children in Sudan.

... unless you're psychopath, of course. ;-)

It is important to be rational about charity for the same reason it is important to be rational about Arctic exploration: it requires the same awareness of opportunity costs and the same hard-headed commitment to investigating efficient use of resources

In his Mars Direct talks, Robert Zubrin cited the shoestring budget Amundsen expedition through the Northwest Passage in comparison to around 30 contemporary government funded expeditions with state of the art steam frigates and huge logistics trains. The Amundsen expedition traveled in a cheap little sea... (read more)

Congratulations! I Liked the article very much.

I just have some doubts about two specific points:

In the part that there's the text:

"And when your life is on the line, things like impressing your friends and buying organic pale in comparison."

I got the impression that it's missing the end of the sentence. As my english is not good, maybe it's my fault. Sorry if that is the case.

The other thing is that I found a little problematic the math comparing U$ 10.000 spent on a U$ 500 charity with overhead of 50% and the one spent on a U$ 10.000 charity with 0% overhead. It's said that in the first case we could save 10 people and in the second just 2. Isn't that 20 people in the first case?

Parse it as follows: And when your life is on the line, certain other things (like "impressing your friends" and "buying organic foods") pale in comparison.

I agree with the idea that efficiency should be taken into account when considering charitable actions, but I do not know if I agree with your conclusion of what is most efficient. Alleviating a problem does not cure it. While paying for malaria nets, cleaning up the beach, donating to charities alleviates real social issues, it does not address the issue of their causation. In my opinion, what is most efficient is not concentrating on recuperation, but attacking the sickness. Without changing the causal conditions the disease will continue to grow endl... (read more)

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.
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.
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.
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
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.
" 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.

I apologize if I am rehashing somebody else's post; I find that skimming the comments and then putting my own .02 in is a more valuable use of my time than thoroughly reading the comments (and thus allocating less time to an English paper I have coming up) and trying to sound like I'd exhaustively researched the topic (which would take way too much time). The payoff in terms of lives saved per work unit expended (either directly through volunteering or indirectly via donating money) varies from person to person. Even among those who consider themselves r... (read more)

Nice post. You could write a similar one on helping the environment. How often do you hear people say, about helping the environment, that "every little bit helps"?

I finally remembered to post this here

Good timing, though: now this is fresh in our minds during the challenge.


Would anyone of average intelligence who wants to do as much good as possible fail flagrantly in giving where it maximizes welfare? Why then the drastic difference between personal buying and donation? Someone planning an Arctic trip will not make the contemplated mistakes, which is why you used personal buying to contrast with donation practices. Whether the desire to benefit mankind is powered by warm fuzzies or some other expression of altruistic motivation, if contributors were human-welfare maximizers they would do a lot better at maximizing welfare. ... (read more)

Isn't that obvious?

Yes. It should also be obvious that it succeeds because "appearing to desire welfare maximization and warm fuzzies" is the signal. If you donated to a charity that burned your money to reduce inflation your signal would fail.

It is less obvious but hopefully inferred by many that one of the intentions of this post and posts like it (and one of the intentions of charity-rating initiatives) is to break conventional giving, turn it into a failed signal, and replace it with efficient giving. That way, all the signalling donors will continue to donate as they did before, signalling the same things, achieving the same status gain, and accidentally helping the world more.

How does trying to prevent wars and/or stop them rate as charitable activity? On the one hand, wars are tremendously destructive and on the other, it's hard to be sure how effective opposing a war is.
I am not sure. One of my nodes for "charitable activity" is non-profit organisations working in the area in question, so I hadn't even considered prevention/stopping of wars as charity. Some very light research suggests that peace activism has had a measurable impact, although by imparting the kind of pressures I think a lobby group would have more success applying. This suggests to me some sort of lobby group should be formed, and made powerful through charitable donations. Stopping the Iraq war, to work with an example, would have saved about 110,000 lives; if it cost a lobby group around 20 million dollars to achieve the non-invasion of Iraq then you're looking at 180 dollars a life - for comparison, VillageReach gets about $200 a life and Stop TB Partnership gets about 150-170 a life. The non-disruption of citizens' lives should beat the improvement in citizens' lives when charities begin operating in a town; I don't know how to treat it more rigorously though. My intuition is that formalising the disability-adjusted life years lost due to invasion and occupation should blow all the other charities out of the water (at 20 million). Could a lobby group stop a war with 20 million dollars? Maybe. The numbers are in the same ballpark. Lobbying against war might have some better leverage with timing (they might no need constant pressure against, they might just need to cancel out the highest points of pressure for), but declared lobbying might vastly underrepresent actual lobbying. Again, I don't know enough to treat this possibility properly. So it rates as possibly up there with the very best of charities, definitely worth investigating, but not a very warm or fuzzy cause at all. Edit: GiveWell's recommendations on cost-effectiveness give the upper limits of $100 per DALY prevented and $1000 per life significantly changed; without DALYs for war (I can find no figures) this gives us at most 110 million lobby dollars before GiveWell would stop recommending the lo
Thanks. I think stopping wars is a warm and fuzzy cause, but perhaps peace activists are apt to position themselves as outsiders and this has made it less likely for them to create a formal lobby. On the other hand, demonstrations may have become less effective, which may make a lobby more plausible. Not sure how you'd add this to the figures, but veterans make up 1 in 4 of the homeless and Homeless adults have an age-adjusted mortality rate nearly 4 times that of the general population their average life span is shorter than 45 years. I don't have stats for the effects on children of having one or both parents with PTSD, but I expect it to be serious.
Hmm. Watch out, more numbers. Trying to take into account those and other factors of war besides being shot in battle led me to this statistical estimate of the effect of the Iraq War. The lowest bound was 400,000, and treating excess mortality as happening on the average between 16 and 67 (an overtly optimistic hope that people under 16 remain the least affected-by-war group), we get 10.2 million expected life years lost. Assume that for every person killed, there is one person disabled in some way (a quick check suggested 3:1 serious injury:death ratio for soldiers and 1.8:1 for civilians, I went with 1:1 because disability doesn't always follow from serious injury, but concerns like PTSD can bring the ratio up to equal) and the figure is just above 20 million DALYs lost to the Iraq war. GiveWell's figure of $100 per DALY being the upper bound of efficient charity means that a lobby group or charity that could have stopped the Iraq War given 2 billion dollars would have been a gold-standard efficient charity. I believe this answers your query, Nancy. Stopping wars most definitely rates as some of the best charity around.
I've been amazed for a long time how much people don't add up the costs of war.
There's another level, I think. Afaik, wars are less likely between democracies than for other permutations of government types, so charities which spread democracy might also be a good choice, depending on one's estimate of their effectiveness.
Indeed. To the extent that a charity spreads democracy, and to the extent that democratization reduces likelihood of war, these democracy charities are stop-war charities.
"Excess mortality" is a difficult concept. Most estimates I've seen calculate excess mortality based on a pre-hostilities baseline because this is relatively easy to calculate and produces the highest possible figure for excess mortality. But the number we really want would compare that mortality to the expected post-war mortality. In the case of Iraq, this would provide a higher expected value than the rate immediately pre-war.
I aimed for the lower bound. If you go by strictly what has been confirmed then something like 400 million dollars is the efficiency cut-off.
This argument is based on completely ignoring future costs and benefit analysis and the available alternatives. To accept this as a (implicit?) axiom seems unnatural. Imagine a powerful lobby group stopped American involvement in the Korean war and all of South Korea ended up like the North. Imagine NATO did not strike Serbia and Milosevic continued to reign. Even the Iraq war did have some positive effect - Hussein was evil, and potentially the new government in Iraq would lead to less suffering, both internally and because of other - local and global - conflicts avoided. The particulars of these arguments are debatable (the Iraq government may collapse into chaos; even if it does not, we will never know the ultimate costs of keeping or not keeping Saddam in power), but the larger point stands. Other comments mentioned promoting democracy as a means of promoting peace. War can be a radical mean of promoting democracy (at least in Serbia it seems to have worked), and this should not be ignored.
If you take the after-invasion Iraq government and subtract that from Hussein's governing, you get the improvement in governance. Is that improvement going to save 400,000 lives in its reduction of local and global conflicts? Please keep in mind it is not a dichotomy of "Invade and fix Iraq XOR abandon countries to the whims of evil dictators". It is closer to "Improving Iraq: Military intervention, or other means?". Assassinating Hussein and backing a democratic coup is a much better way of radically promoting democracy in Iraq. I accuse you of completely ignoring available alternatives.
Good, now we are talking. Shall I contribute to charities promoting assassinations of evil foreign leaders (there are still a few left) and backing democratic coups instead of the blanket pro-peace movements?
Charities aren't well-suited to radical political tasks. You would be better off pursuing a career in international diplomacy or statesmanship, focusing on networking with espionage rather than the military-industrial complex, if you wish to achieve these kinds of changes.
It doesn't have to be all one thing or the other.

Good guide, indeed having more money to spend through whatever career may allow for being more useful for charity.

The expedition analogy is good. I'll get into discussing the specific goal or utility function. What is the goal we're heading to?

I'd say the goal as I see it is to increase the intelligence (or cure the lack of it) to make the agents of this world able to willingly solve their problems, and thereby reach a state of technological advancement that allows them to get rid of all problems for good, and start doing better things such as spending t... (read more)

I think you're falsely assuming that "Africa" is a single monolithic recipient for that "sea of resources" - that ignores both the spectacular variation between and within African nations, and the difference between resources given to a corrupt government aand resources applied by non-government organisations for the benefit of people there. I think it is fair to say that the staggering sums of money given by Western nations to African governments has been at best a complete waste of money - in fact I consider that money to have caused significant net harm. It props up corrupt regimes, increases and strengthens class differences, and generally results in increased oppression and widespread misery of various kinds. Your argument applies very well to this - "Africa" does indeed receive billions of dollars, and there is indeed something broken (most of the governments receiving the money). This argument does not apply to the international NGO's working in Africa. Some of those organisations are short-term oriented and thus arguably pointless in the long term, but some are not. A classic example would be Kiva, which offers micro-loans for people to start small businesses to support themselves and family (incidentally not just in Africa) - there are a fair few organisations doing things like this, and it is "teach a man to fish" rather than "give a man fish". These initiatives, when they work right (which they often do) help lift Africans out of poverty and put them in a position to do something about their own future (and Africa's future). A lot of worthwhile initiatives centre around education, for instance, for fairly obvious reasons. I think you're conflating "intelligence" with other concepts such as education and good judgement (which are what's actually needed here). Rephrased like that, it becomes obvious that a much more practical action is to fund and organise education of African people - give them the means with which to figure out the solutions to their o

A good article, if your goal is to save as many lives as possible from perishing. But I'm going to say, for most people, this is not their goal. Yes, if you ask someone directly "would you save a painting, or save 1000 lives", they would almost all say "lives of course". But in reality, people don't have an emotional attachment to 1000 people they have no idea about.

In my case, I really don't care if 1000 lives are lost if I don't do something. I know that makes me sound like a bad person. But what are people really? We're a self-repli... (read more)

So, clearly, the best way to optimize your utility function is to start a gene bank for freezing tissue samples from every species. You can clone them back if they turn out to be useful. It's a lot cheaper than conservationism, I assure you.