liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
[personal profile] wildeabandon posted something thoughtful about giving to charity a while ago, and it made me realize just why I am uncomfortable with the idea currently fashionable among my friends of trying to maximize the efficiency of charitable giving. Unfortunately I started getting into a debate based on my new insight just a few days before I got married, so didn't really have time to follow up.

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, certainly, but I don't really agree with the principle that there's a moral imperative to use your money to save as many lives as possible. On the face of it that's a seductive idea, because saving lives is obviously a good thing, so saving more lives is obviously better, right? Also using resources efficiently is obviously better than wasting money. What kind of twisted person would disagree with that?

I think part of my issue is that I am not by nature a utilitarian. There was a discussion at Veizla recently where someone I don't know was claiming that utilitarianism is the only "rational" moral system. IJ pointed out that utilitarianism fails to take into account the possibility that one may have a stronger moral obligation to people one is more connected with. That felt like a succinct summary of where I'm coming from morally. It's tricky, because it's easy to use the idea of connectedness carrying moral weight to justify untenable positions like "rich, white, English people like me have more value than poor brown foreign people". That's not my belief at all; I believe I have more obligation to my family, my close friends, my local community, and to some extent my region and country than to random strangers. But I don't believe that my family and friends are inherently superior to anyone else.

OK, that's a little abstract. Let's talk about practical details. I'm aware that the efficient giving approach can be extremely nuanced, and I don't want to argue against a complete straw man version of it. But in a lot of cases it pretty much boils down to, give as much as you can reasonably afford to charities which spend the money efficiently on treating easily curable childhood diseases in resource-poor countries. The thing is, if your calculus is based on how many lives you can save for a fixed amount, that particular kind of giving is pretty much always going to come out on top. I'm not against doing that, but I don't think it's the only possible moral thing to do. Partly because I do believe that people also have specific moral obligations to themselves and the people they immediately interact with, not just to humanity in the abstract.

But also partly because I am just not convinced by the concept of "efficiency" in this sense. Efficiency might be trying to ensure that the largest possible number of people live for the longest possible amount of time. If you have one choice between saving a child and saving an older person, there's a case to be made for saving the child as you have potentially provided them with more years of life. But if you always prioritize children over adults and working adults over the elderly, well, it's easy to see the problems with that. And if you always prioritize financially efficient saving the lives of children dying of dysentery now over expensive long-term goals like building infrastructure to provide clean water so future children don't get dysentery, you're kind of making the wrong calculus. I am aware that many people who think seriously about efficient giving do think about long-term and infrastructure issues, not just how many lives can be saved right now. But once you start considering those factors, there isn't a simple, linear measure of what counts as "efficiency".

And now we come to the nub of the issue, for me. You can save more lives for the same amount of money if you spend it on basic medicines for simple, acute conditions, and calories for people who are right now in danger of starving to death. But particularly, you can save more lives for the same amount of money if you spend it in resource-poor countries, and even more in some ways if you spend it in war-torn countries in the throes of humanitarian disasters. And that's where I really have a moral problem. I mean, there's a fundamental unfairness about the fact that some countries have no functional economy and no rule of law, while our country has generally excellent infrastructure including high-quality healthcare and a functioning if less than ideal welfare state. This didn't "just happen" by chance, it was caused by colonialism and continues to be exacerbated by unfair international trade practices etc. It's bad enough that we benefit from cheap consumer goods produced by people in countries with terrible wages and terrible labour practices. And in turn it's that unfairness that means that people like me have plenty of spare cash (and time!) to even be having philosophical debates about how to use it most "efficiently" for humanitarian purposes. But I really can't stomach the idea that I get cheap humanitarian benefit by spending my money in the developing world rather than at home.

That's not just a moral squick. It's also the fact that injecting cash from rich countries where its value is relatively little into countries where its value is relatively great perpetuates inequality. That is to say, the very fact that I can spend 50p on a bar of chocolate over here (or lose it down the back of the sofa and not really notice the difference), but the same money buys enough medicine to cure several sick children in a different country, well, that's very nice in the sense that I managed to save several children's lives for a trivial sum of money. But it's probably long-term bad for the recipient country because it's so much easier to buy the medicine with my casual, almost valueless donation than it is for local people who might have to do a whole day's labour or more to be able to afford the same medicine. And that just contributes to the cycle where people in resource-poor countries are aid dependent and basically never have a chance to build up their own economies.

My belief that people are entitled to fair compensation for their labour still applies when that labour is directed towards humanitarian ends. Medicine in resource-poor countries is cheap because fuel is cheap, which means that the people who extract it and distribute it are underpaid, and because the people who maintain the roads and transport the medicines are underpaid and because most of the people who build, clean and work in the clinics are underpaid (even if the actual doctors and nurses are volunteers from richer parts of the world.) And the marginal costs of treating additional sick children are tiny because the people doing the treating have access to all the infrastructure of former colonial powers, factories to produce medicines and vehicles to transport them in, education to produce the kind of skilled workers needed to handle the logistics (let alone the doctors, nurses, educators etc who are going to be part of any aid programme). Maybe the benefit of saving children's lives outweighs all these disadvantages, but it's not a straightforward calculus.

I don't think it's necessarily morally wrong to give some money to support this kind of aid; I just don't think it should be everybody's priority to make sure as much of their income as they can possibly afford goes to this kind of cause. In particular, I think it's right to give some or all of your charitable money to local causes, even though it's relatively expensive to help someone who lives in the UK. Perhaps even more controversially, I also think it's right to give some or all of your charitable money to causes that are inherently "inefficient" in terms of return on investment: political lobbying, where most of the money gets spent on things like fancy dinners for politicians who may or may not have any influence, and scientific research.

Yes, research. I'm aware that part of the reason why I react negatively to the efficient giving style of thinking is that I'm a professional cancer researcher. And cancer research is the Big Bad in the minds of the efficient giving people. I'm quite aware that it's inherently going to cost a lot of money; after all I've spent the last three years desperately trying to raise funds to run a very small cancer project. Just think how much rehydration therapy could have been provided for children with diarrhoea in resource-poor countries for £70,000! That's barely the minimum threshold needed to carry out the smallest possible experiments for three years. Cancer research is carried out in fancy labs, using a lot of high-tech equipment and extremely expensive biochemicals, and it's done by highly trained personnel who may earn less than some professionals but are still paid fairly generous salaries even by the standards of a rich country. The great majority of it doesn't lead directly or at all to life-saving treatments. Even when it does, those treatments are themselves extremely expensive, partly because of drug patents but also partly because pharmaceutical and medical tech companies have to recoup the extremely high costs of research, and because doctors are highly paid and the infrastructure costs of running hospitals are astronomical, and cancer treatment takes a long time and takes up a lot of medical resources. Further, most people with cancer are elderly, so you're only saving them a few years of life anyway!

I have still chosen to devote my life to this, rather than earning five times as much in a city finance job and giving away most of my salary to cost-efficient development charities. That's partly because I am somewhat selfish and care about my own quality of life and job satisfaction and so on. But also because I think cancer research is a genuinely worthwhile thing to be doing, even if it's not financially efficient. I believe increasing human knowledge is a morally valid goal in its own right. I also believe that a lot of these inefficient ways of spending money contribute are efficient if you think on the right scale. It's similar to my argument that spending money on clean water infrastructure, or political action to ensure better trade arrangements between the developed and developing world, or working to prevent and mitigate the conflicts that lead to large numbers of people depending on pocket-money amounts of foreign aid to have the basic necessities are efficient in the long term in the sense of improving overall quality of life and tackling the root causes of the satisfyingly cheap to treat problems. In the same way, high-tech medical research is efficient on the long term scale because the aim of development charities is (or should be, in my opinion!) to do something about the situation where half the people in the world are barely subsisting, so eventually we get to a situation where everybody lives to 60 or more in relatively good health, which means that everybody is going to need treatment for the diseases that currently primarily affect rich, elderly westerners.

I do agree with many of the principles of efficient giving. I mean, once you've chosen which cause matters to you, it's a good idea to do research to find out which charities are actually putting most of their donations into actually tackling that cause, and which are using most of it on the salaries of overpaid directors or unsuitable interventions which feel good to donors but don't have much benefit (or are actively harmful) on the ground. If you care about breast cancer, it's almost certainly right to give money to Breakthrough Breast Cancer rather than some company that sells tacky pink shit and donates a few pennies out of their profit to vaguely cancer-related causes. Should you prefer Breakthrough Breast Cancer, who fund cancer research, over the kinds of organizations that provide emotional support to people going through cancer? Really hard to argue on "efficiency" grounds; emotional support is vastly, almost immeasurably cheaper, but the benefits are nebulous and hard to measure too, and are unlikely to save many lives. Emotional support helps pretty much everyone with breast cancer; most scientific research produces only negative results (that would be why it's research rather than "stuff we know already!"). Or should you bypass charitable giving altogether, and lobby politically for the government to assign more tax money to breast-cancer related causes?

However, when you're choosing which causes to support with your charitable donations, I don't think it's morally right to always gravitate towards the cheapest causes. Particularly if they're cheap because of systematic inequalities, rather than because they're actually cheap (eg treating a child with diarrhoea in the UK through our high-tech medical infrastructure with doctors, nurses and other health professionals involved in their care, versus treating hundreds of children with diarrhoea in resource-poor countries with marginal costs of pennies per case for oral rehydration salts and boiled water to make them up with.) But even if you're comparing dealing with something inherently expensive to tackle with something inherently cheap within the same economic context, I'm very wary of making it a moral absolute to prefer the cheaper problems. Because it's very easy to slide from that to start valuing financial efficiency over actual people; for example, quite reputable moral philosophers have argued not just for healthcare rationing, but for actual euthanasia, for people with severe disabilities. Not just on the grounds that all the money spent on their care and needed adaptations could help hundreds or thousands of starving children in resource poor countries, though that's bad enough, but because living with a major disability means that your quality of life is going to be too low to be worth it no matter how much money is poured in. I reject that view completely, though I'm aware that it's not shared by all proponents of efficient giving.

There's also the issue of how much of your money should go to humanitarian causes. I think most people agree there's a sensible balance between spending every spare penny on efficient charity, and always prioritizing fun toys and entertainment over worthwhile causes; other than teenagers who have just discovered utilitarianism, everybody understands that this is a nuanced issue. Still, efficiency alone can't be the only criterion; for example, where should the balance be between paying tax, which includes giving some of your income to things that are generally good for society and even these days some foreign aid, and buying things which directly effect the happiness of yourself and the people who depend on you, and spending money on officially charitable causes? Where's the balance between spending your time earning the highest possible hourly rate which can then be used to support worthwhile causes, and spending your time actually doing practically beneficial things for other people? Some charitable efficiency people argue that highly paid professionals should basically never do volunteer work, because it's always more efficient to work longer hours and use the extra cash for cost-efficient causes. I disagree with that, because I think volunteering has benefits beyond the merely practical; again, this is tied up with my view that people have moral obligations towards those they are personally connected to.

Where I do agree with the efficiency people is that it's far better to actually make positive decisions about which charities you want to support, and how much you can afford, and make a regular donation to your chosen cause, than to just give money randomly whenever you happen to encounter a moving appeal. Partly because just giving on a whim almost always means giving less, and if you can afford more and morally think it's right to give more, then you should set yourself up to do so, not set yourself up to forget because you're not in the habit or because you saw a shiny thing which took up all your spare money this month. Partly because haphazard giving rewards causes that spend a whole bunch of money on advertising and chuggers and generally encouraging people to importune you in order to pick up your haphazard donations. I do agree that it's better to support charities that spend their money on the actual problem, not superfluous stuff.

I wonder how many people I've mortally offended with this post...

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 01:33 pm (UTC)
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)
From: [personal profile] rmc28
I agree with much of what you say - I have been brewing a post about my own giving for about 18 months (because I have a certain amount of discomfort about it to break through) and while I have found the "efficient giving to help lots of people a long way away" compelling, it is not the whole of what I want to fund. It doesn't cover all the ways in which I would like to see the world improve.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 01:41 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack

I think (along with just about every other philosophical idea ever), utilitarianism was a great idea that solved a major problem and is an excellent way to think about things, but is not the magic endpoint where it's the only sort of thought we ever need. So does "being a utilitarian" mean "thinking utilitarian thought was a useful advance over the ten commandments" or "think that we can turn our brains off and not consider how to advance knowledge into the gaping holes utilitarianism leaves unfullfilled?"

I think utilitarian thought is useful, but I agree that any sensible system of morality has to make people more responsible for the people close to them, if only because people are going to act like that anyway.

The question of "how much are we responsible to our own country" is a difficult one for me. On the one hand, for politics, infrastructure, rights, etc, it's pretty much avoidable that people should be responsible for making sure their country is ok. On the other hand, I don't want to say "an english person's life is worth more than a nigerian's life" because that sounds abominable!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-25 08:42 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
Problem is that step 1 is to choose the uttility function... It's not clear to me the right thing is 'save greatest number of lives', although it might be a good start.

People here>
I think that mostly in the UK my effort is better spent lobbying the government to help people; whereas disaster victiims need urgent help. Sense? Not sure.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 01:56 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack

I think you're right that anything that can improve matters long term is almost certainly a top target for any sort of development, and if people are ignoring that it's a problem.

But I think you may need to make the case that it's being ignored in the efficient giving ideas (not just that IF it is THEN it's a problem, with which I agree) -- this may well be right and be obvious to you, but it wasn't obvious to me, and I suspect it's not obvious to people more involved with those ideas either, which may make them just confused and defensive, rather than convinced.

PS. *hugs*

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Date: 2012-06-22 02:08 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
cancer research is the Big Bad in the minds of the efficient giving people.

I think this is something else where I've not been exposed to that idea.

I can see why it arises, if one thinks cancer is over researched at the expense of other diseases which can be equally bad but less in the public consciousness. Although I don't want to think that because (a) I want to think that scientific knowledge is always good and (b) I want Liv's work to be awesome.

But because I've not been personally lambasted with it, it always seems to come out of left field when someone rebutts it. Is this really entrenched? Or is it a bad example people coming back to? I can imagine how it would make me feel awful (whether or not it were correct), but I only get it in second and third hand echoes, so I keep forgetting it's an issue.

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Date: 2012-06-22 03:12 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (reflect)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
I think this is something else where I've not been exposed to that idea.

Quite, and I've never come across this concept of utilitarianism or efficiency in donation either. (This happens from time to time on your ([personal profile] liv's) blog.)

As far as I'm concerned, I want to help cancer research for purely selfish reasons: so that the cancer I'm statistically not unlikely to get in later life is curable, or at least treatable, by the time I get it. But OTOH I recognise the point about cancer research being prioritised at the expense of other diseases, which is why I give to Alzheimer's research too, thanks to Terry Pratchett's drawing attention to the inequality of funding there.

I don't know how prevalent this argument of utilitarianism is; for me, and probably many people too, the question is not how can I most efficiently give to charity, but what is a sensible amount to give to charity, and how can I best split what I'm giving amongst what I care about?

As you know, Bob, Jewish tradition encourages giving 10% of one's income; but this is complicated for us because we live in a world where a substantial portion of our income is siphoned off by the government through income tax and other taxes, which government then gives a proportion of it to charity.

I wish there was an easy way of knowing how much of the money I give to the government ends up going to charity, so I could calibrate how much I give. (But with different taxes going to different places, and Gift Aid, and GAYE, it's all probably too complicated to work out.)

In about 1990 New Scientist published a piece about the "personal pound"—turning the telephone-figure sums governments deal in into amounts in pounds and pennies for each of the people in the UK. That would be quite useful here too.

Hmmm, I seem to have sidetracked the scope of the discussion somewhat...

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Date: 2012-06-22 02:13 pm (UTC)
crystalpyramid: crystal pyramid suspended in dimensional abnormality (Default)
From: [personal profile] crystalpyramid
You make a lot of really good points here, and you've managed to articulate some arguments that were just nebulously floating around in my head. A couple of my friends are very focused on efficient giving — there was an odd thread awhile back about trying to maximize their earnings so they could donate the most possible to charity, rather than trying to maximize their job satisfaction or the direct impact of their actual work, and it seemed very wrong to me.

In the upper-middle-class (American) circles I run in, people tend to overvalue independence and undervalue interdependence. Those people who have strong friend networks that act like family are very proud to have discovered such a thing; actual family ties seem severely deemphasized, and forget about things like ties to one's local community. Other than buying local food and supporting local rather than chain coffee shops, I mean! We believe in local economic/commercial support, but much less in the social safety net one's community ought to provide.

I thought this sentence
But I really can't stomach the idea that I get cheap humanitarian benefit by spending my money in the developing world rather than at home.
was gold. Look, we can even outsource our charitable giving to the third world! The return on investment is so much greater there! It's so completely and utterly distasteful when put that way, and it's supported by valid arguments, too.

Would it be okay if I linked to this?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 02:45 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
that just contributes to the cycle where people in resource-poor countries are aid dependent and basically never have a chance to build up their own economies

I am aware this is a significant problem (although that's all I know, I wish I knew more about it). But what _is_ helpful? Are roads and medicines something that do need an initial injection to get the system kickstarted?

PS. Sorry if I sound disagree-ing, I just always focus on the things I'm not sure of in a long essay... :)

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Date: 2012-06-22 03:16 pm (UTC)
aphenine: Teresa and Claire (Default)
From: [personal profile] aphenine
I thought about this a while back and came to the conclusion that the real problem of any form of efficient charitable giving was that it rendered unnecessary any feeling of kindness on the part of the giver. Being efficient requires a rational approach, where one thinks and quantifies the potential gain and acts to maximise it. Yet I've found a sense of charity and kindness tends to come from having emotional traits like empathy and caring, which make one feel bad when someone else is suffering. So by getting too rational about it, one loses sight of the whole reason for giving aid in the first place.

Empathy is not always the most efficient approach, but it's pretty good. Those suffering immediately around us are always more prioritised than those suffering far away and that isn't right. Yet I've always felt that, if you can't feel for the people suffering close to you, you have no business trying to feel for the people suffering far away, even in a statistical sense. It strikes me as bizarre that people have developed a sense of empathy evolutionarily and now people think that it can be bypassed for better results by completely avoiding any sense of sentiment and emotion.

When I think about it, I can see why it's worked well for millennia. First of all, to help someone, you need to know something about them. Giving to charity is a lot like more pre-Credit Crunch investment has turned out to be. Most of the information about how you have helped someone is stripped out, as a consequence of distance and organisation, and it's crazy to think that you know how to help people better than they do, when you know nothing about them. But that's what efficient giving causes to happen.

Locally, resources can be deployed much more efficiently because you have the knowledge to do so. You know your community, your area, the people in it, the legal and ethical frameworks you live in. You know what's necessary and how to go about making it better.

Given how much the mind and body are linked, I've found that rational forms of support usually work against themselves. For example, giving someone medicine to fix something, but giving them no emotional support while they're on it, causing them to get depressed, stop eating and looking after their health, causing the medicine to stop acting causing them to die. That's just so efficient... That's why empathic people are drawn to work on both material and emotional aid. You have to look after both.

Although empathy causes you to focus on groups of people you know, statistically, it tends to to be that, even if you focus on groups you know, everyone gets covered eventually because all people are linked. And it's easy to empathise with people far away, since many people choose to do voluntary service overseas, which they follow up by more material donations. They've lived and worked with the people they're helping and they don't suffer from any of the informational problems that dog so many of us.

Also, I've found that trying to be efficient introduces a sense of hopelessness, since you can't solve all the word's problems by yourself, just those you can, so why bother doing anything at all? Yet usually helping people out on the small scale is how people get helped out on the big scale. To paraphrase The Art of War, helping a large group of people is the same as helping a small group of people, it is merely a matter of organisation. So if you cripple charitable giving on the small scale, there isn't anything to work with on the big scale.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 04:41 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
The thing about utilitarianism... which I blow hot and cold on... is that there seems to be a gamut of positions on how deep it should be. At one end of the spectrum there's treating it as a decision procedure; making decisions case-by-case from first principles, towards the other end there's a much more meta-ethical approach where you use it to derive practical moral/ethical principles to live by, or to critique existing principles, or to have lying around so that you can squint at some existing principle and say "yep, I bet I could derive that from utilitarian principles if I tried hard enough" or "nope, I really can't see the point here", or just say "I've got a first philosophy lying around here somewhere, I've a hunch it could justify the bulk of my thoughts and practises, no need to worry then, now how's about that game of backgammon you were talking about?"

It reminds me a bit of the sorts of debates between people who like to use "reductionism" as a pejorative and then claim all sorts of ideas and practises aren't reductionist, and the people who like to defend reductionism, often by claiming that most of those things are reductionist after all. One feels they are using different meanings of "reductionism", but I don't feel the debate can be reduced to just that.

The term I learned quite recently was "self-effacing utilitarianism" - the idea is you start off from utilitarian principles and quite swiftly deduce that following the following principle would maximise utility: "don't promote utilitarianism".

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 07:03 pm (UTC)
ajollypyruvate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajollypyruvate
I very much like Orwell's take on so many humanitarian efforts:
"All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite..."

The "cheap consumer goods" very much highlights this attitude. In the U.S., there are -still- people who believe that child labour is just fine. I've seen news articles and blog posts of outrage at such an idea... so long as one is talking about the U.S., of course. (Yes, many people oppose these practices wherever they occur but they're still buying those products.)

In Burma Chronicles by Mr. Delisle, one of the several conversations he recounts has to do with why certain NGOs left the country: Because they aid they were giving simply allowed the dictatorship to ignore its responsibility to the people of Burma and instead continue to grossly exploit them. (I was going to read more about the ruby trade but I don't think I can stomach it right now.)

Men are not potatoes

Date: 2012-06-22 07:07 pm (UTC)
elf: Rainbow sparkly fairy (Default)
From: [personal profile] elf
There's a passage in Starship Troopers (the book, not the bug-hunt movie with all the philosophy removed):
"Are a thousand unreleased prisoners sufficient reason to start or resume a war? Bear in mind that millions of innocent people may die, almost certainly will die, if war is started or resumed."

I didn’t hesitate. "Yes, sir! More than enough reason."

" ‘More than enough.’ Very well, is one prisoner, unreleased by the enemy, enough reason to start or resume a war?"

I hesitated. I knew the M. I. answer — but I didn’t think that was the one he wanted. He said sharply, "Come, come, Mister! We have an upper limit of one thousand; I invited you to consider a lower limit of one. But you can’t pay a promissory note which reads ‘somewhere between one and one thousand pounds’ — and starting a war is much more serious than paying a trifle of money. Wouldn’t it be criminal to endanger a country — two countries in fact — to save one man? Especially as he may not deserve it? Or may die in the meantime? Thousands of people get killed every day in accidents . . . so why hesitate over one man? Answer! Answer yes, or answer no — you’re holding up the class."

He got my goat. I gave him the cap trooper’s answer. "Yes, sir!"

" ‘Yes’ what?"

"It doesn’t matter whether it’s a thousand — or just one, sir. You fight."

"Aha! The number of prisoners is irrelevant. Good. Now prove your answer."

I was stuck. I knew it was the right answer. But I didn’t know why. He kept hounding me. "Speak up, Mr. Rico. This is an exact science. You have made a mathematical statement; you must give proof. Someone may claim that you have asserted, by analogy, that one potato is worth the same price, no more, no less, as one thousand potatoes. No?"

"No, sir!"

"Why not? Prove it."

"Men are not potatoes."
The "most efficient" forms of aid assume that all humans are equal blobs of no specific value, and with no relation or connection to each other. The idea that we "should" spend our money helping hundreds of total strangers overseas rather than our neighbors or our families is ridiculous. (Certainly, no sane parent says, "I'm not treating my child's broken leg; I've spent all our money on medical treatments for children in other countries. After all, that way I've helped hundreds of children be healthy, not just one.")

The drive for "efficient charity", I think, comes out of guilt: if we try to help locally, we're stuck trying to figure out what's valuable and what's not, which organizations are corrupt and which ones actually help, and what causes are worth our support. In short, involves an endless string of judgement calls.

Helping charities overseas that feed and provide medical aid to third-world families, however, bypasses all that. It doesn't matter if the management is corrupt and skimming money--whatever money gets through *is* helpful. It doesn't matter if they're working for long-term changes to alleviate the problems in the future if there's the excuse of immediate help now. It doesn't matter if they fail to fight sexism or racism; they can claim to be too busy feeding people and providing antibiotics to care about "politics."

Which is not to say they're bad causes; it *IS* good to feed people now and worry about social dynamics later. It's just that no, "the most aid to the most people as fast as possible" is not the only possible moral decision. Our relationships and our communities aren't built on the idea that we're all interchangeable units of humanity, and charities that acknowledge that we have a vested interest in caring for the people close to us are not doing it wrong.

(I am not saying that it's worth going to war over one prisoner. I am saying that the value of individuals to a community is not based on their numbers. Moral obligations and empathy are not universally transferable.)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 07:08 pm (UTC)
merrythebard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] merrythebard
This is a really interesting post, thank you. :-)

I feel somewhat... well, genuinely ambivalent about the whole issue. A lot of the utilitarian, efficient-giving arguments weigh with me quite highly, and I am and remain very happy that I'm giving 10% of my income (such as it is) to SCI.

But I'm not a utilitarian. And the infrastructure issues worry me, and I knew there was something about the wording of some of the efficient giving stuff that was squicking me, and that felt dehumanising and appropriative. Thank you for expressing it so well! And I had no *idea* that GWWC has a picture of a would-be killer of disabled people on the front - that is utterly disgusting. :-( (And argh, the use of "Disability Adjusted Life Years". It is Very Problematic. My life did not suddenly become more worthwhile when I stopped being a wheelchair user. *growls*)

I also completely, *thoroughly* agree that we have an extra responsibility to those we have a connection with - our partners, families, friends, communities, land-masses. It is difficult because the UK is so much wealthier than a lot of other countries, and while I have on occasion needed to lend or give money to friends for food, it doesn't happen often. En masse, the people I am extra responsible are better off than the vast majority of other people on the planet. And three of the reasons for that are the British Empire, slavery, and perpetuated economic injustices. I think part of the trick with charitable giving is to balance both of these considerations. Plus an awareness that we do have *some* responsibility for everybody else on the planet.

If everyone gave to SCI and no one gave to any charities based in wealthy nations, I think this would be a Bad Thing. (Especially living in a country where the government are doing their best to abdicate responsibility for a lot of things that should be achieved through taxation.) So, on top of my 10% giving, I buy from and donate things to charity shops from a range of charities, and I will happily sponsor people and I will put things in collecting boxes, etc. etc. And my plan is to make larger one-off donations on months when I have the spare money to do so. And so on.

I think overall my perspective is.. it *all* needs doing. All of it. The social justice campaigning, and the treating preventable diseases in poor countries, and the famine relief, and the homeless shelters and the helplines and the medical research and the animal welfare and environmental campaigning and... *ALL* of it. Most charities and NGOs exist for very good reasons. And part of the solution to that is mass political and economic changes, to create a much more just, equal and peaceful world (and, preferably, one that's going to adjust well to Peak Everything). And part of that is that, well, probably most people need to do more than they are doing, in terms of both giving and volunteering, if we really are going to achieve the kind of world that we are collectively capable of achieving. So while, "this charity is really awesome because" makes complete sense to me (and I do think that SCI is awesome). "This charity is rubbish because your money doesn't go very far" doesn't seem like a good argument to me if the thing the charity is trying to achieve is a genuinely good thing. Which in most cases it will be.

Edited Date: 2012-06-22 07:12 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-23 01:24 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I got puzzled by the Singer-hate, as I mainly know him as a pretty bright ethicist.

Singer is on the front page of Giving What We Can because he's doing the philosophical heavy lifting for the organisation, by the looks of it (and himself gives away over a fifth of his income, according to

I looked for stuff he had written on killing disabled people and it appeared to be a consistent application of the law that a disabled foetus may be aborted at any point (the primary source is by his lights, Singer is not in favour of killing disabled people at all, since he does not regard any babies (whether disabled or not) as people.

Likewise, his thoughts on QALY are consistent with the idea that disabled people would prefer to be cured if possible (see for example).

The point of QALY and giving efficiently is that governments (or whoever pays for health care) and individuals cannot in fact do it all, because our resources are finite, so we need some way of deciding who gets what. What Singer and NICE are doing is aiming for consistent utilitarianism (which may not be the ethical system everyone prefers, but which at least gives them a model into which to put some numbers).

Paul, (I would have logged in with OpenID but LJ is down again).

(no subject)

From: [personal profile] merrythebard - Date: 2012-06-23 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] - Date: 2012-06-23 11:12 pm (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 07:33 pm (UTC)
lavendersparkle: (Ood)
From: [personal profile] lavendersparkle
I think as a government economist I get a similar kind of visceral reaction against people arguing against trying to come up with ways to compare and work out the more efficient ways of doing good with limited resources that you, as a cancer researcher, get from people arguing against giving to cancer research charities.

I'm not a utilitarian and I do agree with some things you've said. I'm tired and need to get ready for Shabbat, so I'll have to leave my bid to win the Moral Vacuum of the Year award by arguing against giving to cancer research charities the day after I attended the funeral of someone who died of cancer until after Shabbat goes out (by which time it will be at least two days since the funeral).
Edited (sentance didn't make sense because I'd missed out some words) Date: 2012-06-22 07:42 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 08:27 pm (UTC)
ephemera: celtic knotwork style sitting fox (Default)
From: [personal profile] ephemera
thank you - that's interesting reading. I haven't hit up too hard against hard-line "efficient giving" - more on the "making sure your support is turned into the impact you were looking for" efficiency than the more meta version of how you choose those causes / impacts.

Personally, I've felt the need to make peace with the fact that I can't give all the money to all the good causes - however good they are - and to just do *something* with what I can, both time, money, and attention-wise, because something is better than nothing, even if it's not everything.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 08:42 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
I've set aside a small amount of my (small) income to give to charity this last year, and then kind of dithered about what organizations to give the money to and not spent it. (The current plan is to give it all to a marriage equality charity in honor of my wedding.) There are so many good causes I'd like to support, and the amount of money I have is so small that it's just a drop in the bucket. Still if I can one put a drop in one bucket it's hard to decide which one bucket, but many smaller drops in more buckets doesn't seem that great. I'm sure that give money is better than dithering though.

With cancer charities I'm rather irritated at the way many of them frame their mission as about a cure for cancer, because it treats cancer as unpreventable and ignores the environmental health issues that can cause cancer. And I guess I am a bit utilitarian here -- because I think more focus on prevention and environmental issues could prevent more pain and suffering then finding a cure. This may be more of an issue here in the US where the standards of what chemicals are used in everyday products is much loser than in Europe.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-23 12:10 pm (UTC)
pj: (Default)
From: [personal profile] pj
I am unexpectedly working today so short and sweet. Thank you for a well-thought out essay. I do not prize efficient giving over other forms such as what you mentioned with strengthening infrastructure. I do not prize infrastructure giving over "can help NOW" giving. I want balance and both to be done.

What I want most is people to know enough about their charities to be comfortable giving to them and I prefer a mix of international, national, and local charitable helping. This is my preference because this is what I do and I am highly biased that my way is the best way. (If I weren't I'd being doing something other, obviously.)

I have a monthly allotment that goes to Doctors Without Borders. When I got the solicitation phone call mor than a year ago the man on the other end of the line was floored that I quickly agreed to a monthly amount. He stammered something about, "What if you lose your job?" (I generally engage people on the phone and we'd roundabouted to jobs, economy, my hours being cut at work, etc. before I said I'd commit to the monthly amount) I laughed and said I was perfectly capable of discontinuing the charity if need be due to there not being enough funds to put food on my own table. I was so enamoured of the fact that he wasn't only pulling his charity, but concerned with the givers that I don't see me discontinuing unless I can't even afford rice for sustenance.

I give "local" in-country to St. Jude's Children's Hospital (also monthly) because I believe in research and the future value of it. And local in my personal community I do not give a monthly thing to any one place, I spread it around. Some is money, some is goods, some is body participation.

And occasionally I fund things on Kickstarter for folks who are trying to get on their feet through a business venture or project.

If I am ever forced to stop giving to any of the places I will cut the international DWB first because of my desire to help in my corner of the world first. I am filled with the arrogant belief that if everybody worked to do this in their own corner of the world then as a whole the world would be "good, and right, and fair". <----- I know this is false, but it makes me feels good to believe it. Charitable giving is about both empathy and selfish conceit. Doing good to do good and to feel good about the doing. Outward and inward reward keeps the giving going, so to speak.

And look - my reply was not short at all and now I must run!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-23 07:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?
Will Bailey: I don't know, sir, but it is.
("Equatorial Kundu" is the fictional African basket-case state in The West Wing.)

I guess one utilitarian get-out for helping people near you is "Purchase utilons and fuzzies separately" ( no-body said you couldn't do the stuff that makes you feel good and limbers up your altruism muscles, it's just that that comes out of your "feeling good" budget, not your "making the world better" budget.

The "cheap virtue" thing didn't really make sense to me: the people you help are helped whether it was easy or hard for you to come up with the money. Do you have the feeling that if something was hard to come by it's thereby better? That's awfully Protestant of you :-)

I don't really understand the objection that because it's cheaper to help developing countries because of bad stuff in the past, we shouldn't do it, as long as by doing it we're not perpetuating the effects of the bad stuff. In this case, I don't really understand how this perpetuation of bad stuff is supposed to occur.

I do think there's the danger here of prioritising short term certain interventions over long term uncertain ones. Under a "shut up and multiply" regime, I guess Givewell would factor in a probability that they'd get the desired outcome, but it's not clear how you come up with that probability in the case of pure research.

I think that the Givewell types are also assuming that utilitarians must have a utility function which doesn't differentiate between people, but I'm not sure that's a requirement of utilitarianism, it's just a popular version of it. (It might be that there's no way to consistently do it without it leading to other weird conclusions, but I haven't thought about that very hard).

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] - Date: 2012-07-03 11:59 am (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-24 10:42 am (UTC)
shreena: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shreena
I'm probably just being slow but there a couple of bits of this post that I just don't follow.

This point that you make - "And that just contributes to the cycle where people in resource-poor countries are aid dependent and basically never have a chance to build up their own economies." So, I think what you're saying is that giving aid prevents resource-poor countries from building up their economies. Does that mean that you're saying that not giving aid would help resource-poor countries to build up their own economies? If that is what you're saying, can you explain how you think that would help? Because I just don't see it. I think giving aid is perhaps not the best long-term solution for these countries but I think not giving aid would be even worse so I think giving aid is the less-bad option rather than the awesomely great option.

The other thing that I'm finding hard to follow in your post is that you say that you think we have a higher moral duty to those who we are closer to. I think I agree with that - if my father were dying, I would spend pretty much as much money as it took to get myself to his deathbed, even if I could save lots of starving children in Africa for that money and I would not feel in the tiniest bit guilty for it. But you seem to extend that to a moral duty to help local charities, "I think it's right to give some or all of your charitable money to local causes" - and I don't really understand that slide you're making from "people close to you" to "people geographically close to you". Can you explain this a bit?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-24 03:22 pm (UTC)
lavendersparkle: (Ood)
From: [personal profile] lavendersparkle
This conversation reminds me of this cartoon.

I'm not a utilitarian. I'm never quite sure whether I'm an ontological ethicist who looks like a virtue ethicist or a virtue ethicist who looks like an ontological ethicist. Either way my ethical views come from a theistic position. I think I might be a nihilist if I had a purely materialist world view. So I'm coming from a pretty different position to Peter singer fanboys, but still I may be one of those horrible efficient giving types who has in the past explained to people why I don't give money to cancer research charities and shocked them even more by telling them that I've never even given a penny to any organisation researching my husbands incurable chronic illness that our children may inherit from him.

I do think that we have greater obligations to those closer to us than those more remote from us. As [personal profile] elf pointed out, you'd get pretty short shrift if you neglected your own children and justified it by giving money to feed and clothe many more children overseas. I think people vary in which people they think of as closer to them and how much they think that closeness increases the level of obligation. There are lots of reasons why this obligation might be greater, from giving being about relationship rather than just redistribution, to having a better idea of what is needed by those closer to you.

Unfortunately, in a world where wealth, power and other resources are unequally redistributed and the wealth and power of people close to you is correlated with your own, feeling more of an obligation toward those closest to you may actually perpetuate and even exacerbate societal inequalities. Someone might donate to their old independent school, further increasing educational inequalities. If everyone donated to medical research charities related to the disease their relatives suffered from or died of it could widen the disparity in life expectancy between income groups, because the diseases which tend to kill rich people will receive much more research funding than those which kill poor people. (My husband's illness is positively correlated with income and quite common among Ashkenazi Jews, so there's likely to be a cure in our lifetime.)

Another issue is that is hard to work out where exactly 'I have a stronger moral obligation toward people closer to me' shades into racism. I think it really is difficult to work out where that line is. I also think that quite a lot of people don't give to overseas NGOs because they're racist and really do think that African lives are not worth as much as British lives and see Africans as a dependent hopeless blob which is overpopulating and could probably do with there being fewer of and then try to justify their position with flaily about statements about corruption and dependency. (I hope that doesn't sound like I'm accusing you of being secretly racist. I'm not.)

I find it interesting that you're response to being a beneficiary of colonialism is to shy away from donating to the victims. To me it seems like the least I can do to hand my cash over to them.

I think something which annoys people who are into cost effective giving is that a lot of people put very little thought into who to donate to. That doesn't mean that anyone who put thought into it would give to SCI, but a lot of people have very little idea what their money will be used for and how effective the charities they give to are. I think most people would put more thought than that into their financial investments and I think we do have an obligation to put at least as much thought into the resources we handle to benefit others as those we handle to benefit ourselves.

I think in your post you have some misconceptions about what advocates of cost effective giving advocate. Charities which are cost effective tend not to be disaster relief or war zones. Those kinds of places tend to relatively expensive to operate in because they're dangerous and have less infrastructure. Also, charities tend to use disasters to raise donations so: a) there's lots of funding for disaster relief, decreasing the marginal benefit from more funds and b) NGOs can act in some pretty unhelpful ways within the disaster because it's their big chance to raise some serious cash. The charities Give What We Can recommends don't do disaster relief.

You also seem to think that cost effective giving advocates only care about short term aims and life saving treatments. In fact if you look at the charities Give What We Can recommends, they actually mainly reduce morbidity rather than mortality rates. A lot of the benefits from treating neglected tropical diseases are from the long term benefits of people getting a better education and being less prone to medical complications later in life due to the effect of the worms during childhood. Also, concerns about infrastructure and aid disrupting local economies in a way which is unhelpful in the long run are things which efficient giving advocates are really concerned about and part of the reason they favour charities putting resource into actually rigorously investigating the impact of their work, to avoid these kinds of problems.

You also seem to think that a cost effective giving approach isn't compatible with giving to political advocacy groups but Give What We Can right on their website say that some political advocacy groups may be more cost effective than the charities they recommend but they don't have enough research to make a call either way at the moment.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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