Category Archives: Effective Altruism

Humble Charlie

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch.
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door.
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

-Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire

In my series on GiveWell, I mentioned that my mother's friend Charlie, who runs a soup kitchen, gives away surplus donations to other charities, mostly ones he knows well. I used this as an example of the kind of behavior you should

I recently had a chance to speak with Charlie, and he mentioned something else I found surprising: his soup kitchen made a decision not to accept donations online. They only take paper checks. This is because, since they get enough money that way, they don't want to accumulate more money that they don't know how to use.

When I asked why, Charlie told me that it would be bad for the donors to support a charity if they haven't shown up in person to have a sense of what it does.

At first I was confused. This didn't seem like very consequentialist thinking. I briefly considered the possibility that Charlie was being naïve, or irrationally traditionalist, or thinking about what resembles his idea of a good charity. But after thinking about it for a moment, I realized that Charlie was getting something deeply right that almost everyone gets wrong, at least where money was involved. He was trying to maximize benefits rather than costs, in a case where the costs are much easier to measure.

Donations are a cost. Charlie had enough basic humility not to try to impose costs for no specific reason, even though he could easily do so.

Donors who know what the charity they're supporting does, who have personally inspected it, are following a heuristic that actually does something. Donors who give based on branding and buzz are putting their money somewhere that's well-optimized for branding and buzz. What do you do if you want to cooperate with the first heuristic, and not accidentally promote the second? What do you do if you don't want your own attention drawn towards things that will please the second crowd, at the expense of the first? Charlie's strategy seems like a reasonable answer.

Attention is a cost. Charlie's strategy avoids imposing this cost, except where it is most needed.

When I was writing my series on GiveWell, I asked Charlie for permission to tell the story about him. He asked me not to mention the name of his soup kitchen, because if other charities knew he had surplus money to give away, he'd be deluged with solicitations. This would waste their time asking him for money, and his own time responding.

Right now, if someone mentions a giving opportunity to Charlie, it's a high-quality signal. Charlie felt the need to hide his good works, because developing a reputation as someone with money to give away would destroy his ability to find high-quality giving opportunities.

Of course, there are benefits to honest openness as well, if you are humble enough to open yourself up to judgment, both positive and negative. But not everyone can pull that off in every context. Some people just don't like being criticized, for instance. And if you hide the things about yourself or your institution that are most likely to draw criticism, while publicizing the parts that attract positive attention and resources, then you're not really capturing those benefits. You're just engaged in brand image management, part of our society's cost-maximization machinery.

If you seems like a promising best strategy for implementing convergent strategies in a divergent world: Stay humble. Minimize the costs you impose on others. Hide from the machinery of cost-maximization. Send out signals optimized for audience quality rather than quantity, to help like-minded people find you.

Against neglectedness considerations

Effective Altruists talk about looking for neglected causes. This makes a great deal of intuitive sense. If you are trying to distribute food, and one person is hungry, and another has enough food, it does more direct good to give the food to the hungry person.

Likewise, if you are trying to decide on a research project, discovering penicillin might be a poor choice. We know that penicillin is an excellent thing to know about and has probably already saved many lives, but it’s already been discovered and put to common use. You’d do better discovering something that hasn’t been discovered yet.

My critique of GiveWell sometimes runs contrary to this principle. In particular, I argue that donors should think of crowding out effects as a benefit, not a cost, and that they should often be happy to give more than their “fair share” to the best giving opportunities. I ought to explain. Continue reading

GiveWell and the problem of partial funding

At the end of 2015, GiveWell wrote up its reasons for recommending that Good Ventures partially but not fully fund the GiveWell top charities. This reasoning seemed incomplete to me, and when I talked about it with others in the EA community, their explanations tended to switch between what seemed to me to be incomplete and mutually exclusive models of what was going on. This bothered me, because the relevant principles are close to the core of what EA is.

A foundation that plans to move around ten billion dollars and is relying on advice from GiveWell isn’t enough to get the top charities fully funded. That’s weird and surprising. The mysterious tendency to accumulate big piles of money and then not do anything with most of it seemed like a pretty important problem, and I wanted to understand it before trying to add more money to this particular pile.

So I decided to write up, as best I could, a clear, disjunctive treatment of the main arguments I’d seen for the behavior of GiveWell, the Open Philanthropy Project, and Good Ventures. Unfortunately, my writeup ended up being very long. I’ve since been encouraged to write a shorter summary with more specific recommendations. This is that summary. Continue reading

The humility argument for honesty

I have faith that if only people get a chance to hear a lot of different kinds of things, they'll decide what are the good ones. -Pete Seeger

A lot of the discourse around honesty has focused on the value of maintaining a reputation for honesty. This is an important reason to keep one's word, but it's not the only reason to have an honest intent to inform. Another reason is epistemic and moral humility. Continue reading

Honesty and perjury

I've promoted Effective Altruism in the past. I will probably continue to promote some EA-related projects. Many individual EAs are well-intentioned, talented, and doing extremely important, valuable work. Many EA organizations have good people working for them, and are doing good work on important problems.

That's why I think Sarah Constantin’s recent writing on Effective Altruism’s integrity problem is so important. If we are going to get anything done, in the long run, we have to have reliable sources of information. This doesn't work unless we call out misrepresentations and systematic failures of honesty, and these concerns get taken seriously.

Sarah's post is titled “EA Has A Lying Problem.” Some people think this is overstated. This is an important topic to be precise on - the whole point of raising these issues is to make public discourse more reliable. For this reason, we want to avoid accusing people of things that aren’t actually true. It’s also important that we align incentives correctly. If dishonesty is not punished, but admitting a policy of dishonesty is, this might just make our discourse worse, not better.

To identify the problem precisely, we need language that can distinguish making specific assertions that are not factually accurate, from other conduct that contributes to dishonesty in discourse. I'm going to lay out a framework for thinking about this and when it's appropriate to hold someone to a high standard of honesty, and then show how it applies to the cases Sarah brings up. Continue reading

Claim explainer: donor lotteries and returns to scale

Sometimes, new technical developments in the discourse around effective altruism can be difficult to understand if you're not already aware of the underlying principles involved. I'm going to try to explain the connection between one such new development and an important underlying claim. In particular, I'm going to explain the connection between donor lotteries (as recently implemented by Carl Shulman in cooperation with Paul Christiano)1 and returns to scale. (This year I’m making a $100 contribution to this donor lottery, largely for symbolic purposes to support the concept.) Continue reading

References   [ + ]

1. This phrasing was suggested by Paul. Here's how Carl describes their roles: "I came up with the idea and basic method, then asked Paul if he would provide a donor lottery facility. He did so, and has been taking in entrants and solving logistical issues as they come up."

Mic-Ra-finance and the illusion of control

Microfinance charities make small loans to very poor people. The Unit of Caring has a post up answering a reader’s question on microfinance:

intomeans asked: So based on your post about microloans, do you think it's better to give $1000 to one person one time, or to lend it out through microloans and then, as the money's repaid, keep relending it to other people indefinitely? That's the main argument that pushed me to lend through microloans (in addition to giving to charities like AMF), and I don't think Givewell's analysis addresses that.

I think it’s better to give $1000 to one person one time.

The business model of micro loan organization is to loan $1000, take back $1200 if the recipient is able to pay it back, hope the additional $200 covers the money they are spending on identifying recipients and ensuring repayment, and loan $1000 again.

That this constitutes ‘the money doing good indefinitely’ is listed on GiveWell ‘six myths about microfinance’, which also links this really useful article. Basically: there is a lot of overhead involved in selecting and monitoring recipients, such that every time the loan is re-loaned out a significant fraction is lost. Overhead isn’t inherently bad but even if all the loanees repay the loans, it’s misleading to suggest that with some fixed amount of money to start, a microloan charity could make loans indefinitely. And not all the loans are repaid. (And sometimes, charities that report really high repayment rates, higher than American banks achieve, are a sign they have a lot of coercive power to get their money back, not a sign that the program is going brilliantly.)

So, a thousand dollars enables more than one thousand-dollar loan. But almost certainly less than ten, and some of those people repaid at great personal cost and ended up in a worse position than they started in (because they didn’t understand the terms of the loan or similar.)

This seems true as far as it goes - but even if the empirical premise were true, this case for microlending seems pretty weird. This argument for microlending is that each time you make a loan, you help the borrower - and because they typically pay back the loan, you can keep relending the principal, thus continuing to help people.

Let’s think about it disjunctively. For any microloan recipient, either they have a good way to invest the money, or they need the loan for short-run consumption. If they’re financing consumption, then either having to pay back the loan puts them even worse in the hole, or they’re using it for consumption smoothing and what they really need is savings.

If, on the other hand, they have a good way to invest the money, then they might pocket a profit even after paying back the microloan, which can then be lent out to someone else with an investment opportunity, a clear instance of “the money doing good indefinitely.” But what happens if you keep not making them pay you back? If they reinvest that money, then that’s also an instance of the money doing good indefinitely! Reinvestment of earnings is a thing, even in poor places, and so is helping one's neighbors.

When deciding between microloans and cash transfers, you’re not deciding between doing good one time and doing good indefinitely. The only thing that makes microloans feel like the impact is longer-lasting is because you can feel like you’re holding onto control for longer. The charity doesn’t just give the money and go away - at the end of the loan’s term, it gets to decide who gets the money next - and again, and again, and again. [UPDATE: Per Paul's comment below, there are some reasons to think that this kind of control control can be a good thing. My problem is with the assumption that it is.]

You the donor don’t even have the control here. You aren't lending to people you know or have otherwise personally verified can use the money. The only question you get to decide is: should your donation be administered by a big official charity? Or should it be administered by some random person in a poor village who knows the people and situation there? If they end up with a lot of money - and microlending would be a good idea - then wouldn’t the recipient of your cash transfer be motivated to do their own microlending?

The first option, picking a charity to administer your donation, might do better at weeding out obviously irresponsible recipients, but on the other hand, it comes with massive overhead costs that likely outweigh this benefit.

(As usual, the form itself is not the problem. I expect there are cases where microfinance is in fact helping. I expect that most of these are for-profit. The problem is the automatic deference to the form.)

I’m embarrassed not to have noticed this obvious flaw in the argument for microloans earlier. This seems like the sort of pathological thinking Sarah Constantin was trying to describe in Ra. Long-run wealth accumulation due to cash transfers doesn’t count because it’s in the hands of some specific individual as real concrete things. Repeatedly re-loaned microcredit keeps counting because it stays under the control of a large respectable institution, as the abstraction of money.

This is bonkers. It has little to do with doing the most good, and a lot to do with the worship of smooth, respectable official-seeming vagueness. Where else am I still making this mistake?

On Philosophers Against Malaria

A philosopher friend told me about a fundraiser urging philosophers to give to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), and asked me for my thoughts on it. They were especially interested in making sure there were multiple public perspectives on this because some philosophers seem to have been responding by giving more than they can afford.

I applaud these philosophers for putting the ideal of taking basic rational argument seriously into practice, and taking responsibility for trying to use this power for good. This fundraiser is part of a broader event called Philosophers Against Malaria, which is affiliated with the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, and it seems like a natural expansion of the ideas and methods of that movement. This is extremely appropriate; philosophers are some of the key founders of and proponents of EA, and for good reason – giving a large share of one’s developed-world income to charities focused on health interventions in poor countries is an unconventional action, but follows from clear and simple reasoned arguments based on common moral intuitions.

However, I think that there are some limits to the way EA’s recommendations are applied in practice, that are going to predictably lead to underperforming your true potential at doing good. To be a bit more specific, there’s an obvious argument that if you live in a rich country, care about the well-being of the people around you, and don’t have a principled reason to care less about those far away, then it should look like a great deal to give to charities operating in much poorer countries where money goes farther. This is true as stated.

This, however, is often tacitly conflated with the claim that it is morally obligatory to give a large share of your income to such charities – generally the ones endorsed by some specific organization such as GiveWell or Giving What We Can – and that if you commit to doing this, you can stop worrying about your impact on the world. This doesn’t necessarily follow, for a few reasons:

  • You may not be the core audience for charity recommenders like GiveWell or Giving What We Can.
  • For uncontroversial interventions, money may not be the limiting factor.

Moreover, the broader EA movement that produced these recommendations has some methodological issues that should make you doubt that it’s giving you the most relevant information on how to do good:

  • In recommending ways to do good, it centers the role of giving money to charity, implicitly at the expense of more direct ways to do good.
  • In evaluating actions, it implicitly uses an act-utilitarian or -consequentialist framework even in cases where rule-utilitarianism would be much more appropriate.

Continue reading

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 6

This is the last of a series of blog posts examining seven arguments I laid out for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. In this post, I articulate what it might look like to apply the principles I've proposed. I then discuss my prior relationship with and personal feelings about GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project.

A lot of arguments about effective altruism read to me like nitpicking without specific action recommendations, and give me the impression of criticism for criticism's sake. To avoid this, I've tried to outline here what it might look like to act on the considerations laid out in this series of posts in a principled way. I haven't constructed the arguments in order to favor, or even generate, the recommendations; to the contrary, I had to rewrite this section after working through the arguments. Continue reading