Tag Archives: altruism

Why it should be easy to dominate GiveWell’s recommendations

GiveWell’s charity recommendations – currently Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative – are generally regarded as the most reliable in their field. I imagine many readers here donate to these charities. This makes it all the more surprising that it should be pretty easy to start a charity more effective than any of them.

All you would need to do is found an organisation that fundraises for whoever GiveWell recommends, and raises more than a dollar with each dollar it receives. Is this hard? Probably not. As a general rule, a dollar spent on fundraising seems to raise at least several dollars. It’s a pretty simple and fast multiplier that obviously beats putting your money in the stock market. An independent organisation raising money for GiveWell’s top charities should do even better than a typical fundraiser, thanks to:

  • the strength of evidence, which is especially compelling to big donors
  • the independent recommendation, which looks particularly credible and removes the perception of any ulterior motive
  • a willingness to maximise (for example by targeting the wealthy, and focussing on regular or legacy donors)
  • an intrinsic motivation to do good
  • the freedom to choose which of the three organisations they promote, depending on who they are talking to.

Putting your money into fundraising, rather than just giving it directly, does impose additional costs on the donors you inspire, and may ‘crowd out’ gifts to other charities. However, the logic of giving to GiveWell’s top rated charities is that they make (much) better use of money than most other individuals or organisations. So if you have a fundraising ratio significantly above 1:1, these downsides shouldn’t much matter.

You might ask: if fundraising is the best thing to do, why wouldn’t AMF, SCI or GiveDirectly just spend the money you give them on fundraising? My guess is that it’s simply a bad look. If they spend too much on fundraising, it will irrationally scare off their existing and potential donors. Even if a charity should ideally spend most of its receipts on further fundraising in order to grow more quickly, the option simply isn’t available. The social norm against ‘optimising fundraising‘ is generally helpful, because intense competition between charities for donations would cause ‘rent dissipation’, and less total money would flow to charity recipients. But if your charity actually is much better than other charities, and so it’s good when you ‘take’ their money, this social norm does harm by preventing you from doing so.

So, if you are unlike most donors and are willing to have your money spent on effective fundraising, you can easily increase your impact several times over. Just help GiveWell’s top charities take their fundraising efforts ‘off the books’ by founding or giving to a separate organisation that does it for them.

This isn’t actually an impractical plan. Starting up a lean and effective fundraising organisation is difficult, but much easier than building a global team to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets. Any bright and energetic person in a rich country who went and received the necessary training would have a decent shot at getting such an organisation off the ground. If you would like to discuss the first steps required to make this happen, drop me an email (robertwiblin [at] gmail [dot] com) and I can put you in touch with a team already working on this approach, who could direct you towards legal and financial support.

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Paternalism can be kind, just not to present-you

You may want to file this under ‘incredibly obvious’, but I haven’t seen it noted elsewhere.

Liberals and libertarians have an instinctive aversion to paternalism. Their key objection is: how can anyone else be expected to know what is good for you, better than you do?

This is usually true, but it neglects a coherent justification for many paternalistic policies that doesn’t require that anyone know more than you. The paternalist could be fine with their policy being bad for ‘present-you’ if it benefits ‘future-you’ even more. But don’t you care about your future self’s welfare too? Sure, but maybe not as much as they do, relative to your current welfare!

Confusion about the intent of the paternalistic policy is generated by the fact that it is natural to say “this policy exists to help you”, without noting which instance of ‘you’ it is meant to help – you now, you tomorrow, you in ten years’ time, and so on.

While this justification would make sense especially often where people engaged in ‘hyperbolic discounting’ and as a result were ‘time inconsistent’, it does not rely on that. All it requires is that,

  • there are things you could do now that would benefit your future self, at the expense of your present self, and;
  • the paternalists’ ‘altruistic’ discount rate for the target’s welfare is lower than the discount rate the target has for their own welfare.

The first is certainly true, while the latter is often true in my experience.

In the near-far construal theory often used on this blog, us-now and immediate gratification are both ‘near’, while ourselves in the future, other people, and other people in the future are all ‘far’. In far mode we will want to encourage other folks to act toward their future selves in ways our far view thinks they ought to – usually patiently.

More intuitively: it’s easier to stick to a commitment to help a friend stay on their diet, than it is to stay to our diet ourselves. We don’t enjoy seeing our friends go without ice cream, but we like to see them reach their and our idealised goals even more. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.” You could add that we all have strength enough to bear the delayed gratification of others.

If a paternalist really does have a lower discount rate in this way, they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s future self: preventing suicide, reducing smoking, encouraging exercise, requiring people to save for emergencies and retirement, and so on. I often find these policies distasteful, but as I support a moral discount rate of zero (on valuable experiences), and almost all people are impatient in their own lives, I can’t justify a blanket opposition. We don’t give people an unrestricted freedom to harm their children, or strangers, just because they don’t care much about them. Why then should we give a young woman unrestricted freedom to hurt her far-off 60 year old self, just because they happen to pass through the same body at different points in time? I care about the 60 year old too, perhaps even more than that young woman does, relative to herself.

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If elections aren’t a Pascal’s mugging, existential risk shouldn’t be either

A response I often hear to the idea of dedicating one’s life to reducing existential risk, or increasing the likelihood of a friendly artificial general intelligence, is that it represents a form of ‘Pascal’s mugging’, a problem memorably described in a dialogue by Nick Bostrom. Because of the absurd conclusion of the Pascal’s mugging case, some people have decided not to trust expected value calculations when thinking about about extremely small likelihoods of enormous payoffs.

While there are legitimate question marks over whether existential risk reduction really does offer a very high expected value, and we should correct for ‘regression to the mean‘, cognitive biases and so on, I don’t think we have any reason to discard these calculations altogether. The impulse to do so seems mostly driven by a desire to avoid the weirdness of the conclusion, rather than actually having a sound reason to doubt it.

A similar activity which nobody objects to on such theoretical grounds is voting, or political campaigning. Considering the difference in vote totals and the number of active campaigners, the probability that someone volunteering for a US presidential campaign will swing the outcome seems somewhere between 1 in 100,000 and 1 in 10,000,000. The US political system throws up significantly different candidates for a position with a great deal of power over global problems. If a campaigner does swing the outcome, they can therefore have a very large and positive impact on the world, at least in subjective expected value terms.

While people may doubt the expected value of joining such a campaign on the grounds that the difference between the candidates isn’t big enough, or the probability of changing the outcome too small, I have never heard anyone say that the ‘low probability, high payoff’ combination means that we must dismiss it out of hand.

What is the probability that a talented individual could averting a major global catastrophic risk if they dedicated their life to it? My guess is it’s only an order of magnitude or two lower than a campaigner swinging an election outcome. You may think this is wrong, but if so, imagine that it’s reasonable for the sake of keeping this blog post short. How large is the payoff? I would guess many many orders of magnitude larger than swinging any election. For that reason it’s a more valuable project in total expected benefit, though also one with a higher variance.

To be sure, the probability and payoff are now very small and very large numbers respectively, as far as ordinary human experience goes, but they remain far away from the limits of zero and infinity. At what point between the voting example, and the existential risk reduction example, should we stop trusting expected value? I don’t see one.

Building in some arbitrary low probability, high payoff ‘mugging prevention’ threshold would lead to the peculiar possibility that for any given project, an individual with probability x of a giant payout could be advised to avoid it, while a group of 100 people contemplating the same project, facing a probability ~100*x of achieving the same payoff could be advised to go for it. Now that seems weird to me. We need a better solution to Pascal’s mugging than that.

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Covert virtue – the signal that doesn’t bark?

An attitude I often come across is that if you do a virtuous thing, it is impolite to blow your own trumpet about it. ‘Give privately!’ is the catchcry. Even those who are open about their good deeds are likely to hold a special admiration for anyone they discover has been secretly helping others for years, and never even mentioned it.

I asked around and apparently this norm exists because when you go on about your altruism, it calls into question  your motivation. Perhaps you made that donation just to be able to show off your virtue and wealth to everyone else, rather than being motivated by ‘pure’ compassion. Someone who only cared about helping others would apparently keep their hands busy, and their mouth shut.

I think the reality is the complete reverse. A culture of ‘private altruism’ has some seriously perverse effects, and anyone who really cares about doing good in the world should be working to undermine it.

Firstly, it means we are less inclined to talk about and share the information we have about which causes are most valuable and effective. Given that donations to charity and other approaches to making the world a better place vary in cost effectiveness across many orders of magnitude, this is a huge loss.

Secondly, if people can’t gain social acceptance from altruistic acts, those acts will tend to be crowded out by alternatives that are unavoidably conspicuous – impressive cars, holidays, degrees and so forth – that will do a better job of signalling how rich, noble and interesting they are. On top of this, people will become biased towards conspicuous but ineffective ways of helping others. It’s easy to keep a (very valuable!) bank transfer secret, and pretty gauche to post the receipt on social media sites. But flying to Africa to help build a school, or signing up to a Facebook group? Everyone will find out about that! Sadly, signalling ‘arms races’ over conspicuous consumption and slacktivism, rather than ‘effective altruism’, are exactly what I observe around me.

In light of this, private giving, far from being consistent with a pure and virtuous motivation, is actually deeply suspicious. Someone who really cared about helping others as much as possible, and was making substantial sacrifices to do so, would want to bring up the fact whenever they could get away with it, in order to draw attention to the merits of their cause and prompt others to join in. Those who ‘give privately’, must care more about blindly following harmful social norms – or more likely, getting extra admiration for their deeds when people ‘accidentally’ discover what they have secretly been up to. This could be a ‘signal that doesn’t bark.’

So next time you do something good, find a way to shout it from the rooftops, especially if the act is particularly big, valuable or easy to do discreetly. If anyone tries to call you out for ‘showing off’, politely explain why the pure of heart have no choice.

Update: Here’s an amusing video on the topic. (HT David Barry)

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