Sunday, July 12, 2015

Beyond lip service: betting for beliefs, donating for values

"Talk is cheap."  So we're told to "put our money where our mouth is," to ensure intellectual integrity.  On the (esp. econ) blogs I read, this principle is most commonly applied to beliefs: Alex Tabarrok writes that "a bet is a tax on bullshit".  Bryan Caplan respects the loser of a bet as having "far more honor than the mass of [people] who live by loose and idle talk."

Part of what's so challenging about effective altruism, I think, is that it extends the principle to our values. (Another part is that many people don't like ranking the sacred.  But it's related: both stem from the demand to take values seriously, and move beyond cheap talk.)  Interestingly, it's a challenge that applies more or less whatever our values are.  If we really care about X, for any X, why aren't we investing more of our resources (time, money, or whatever) into X, when effective opportunities present themselves (or into searching for effective opportunities in the meantime)?  The honest answer, I guess, is that we often don't really care about these things as much as we'd like to think we do.  But we surely do often care at least some, and then it may just be a kind of habitual inertia that prevents us from doing more.  The challenge from EA -- to put our values into practice -- might then prompt us to bring our behaviour more into line with our reflectively-endorsed values. (Or so I hope!)

Some possible examples:

* Care about poverty and human suffering?  GiveWell's top charities save lives and/or improve health for around $50 per quality-adjusted life-year gained.  So that's a baseline.

Maybe we can do even better via indirect / speculative means: pursuing systemic change, averting global catastrophic risks, etc. Your dollars can support these means too. (Keep an eye on the Open Philanthropy Project for ongoing research into unconventional charities.)  But if you'd rather use "systemic change is needed" as an excuse for doing nothing at all, you might need to reconsider whether you really care about others' suffering at all.

* Care about climate change and the environment? I'm not aware of much research into effectiveness here, but GWWC's analysis recommends Cool Earth.

* Consider yourself an "animal lover"?  Animal Charity Evaluators has you covered (assuming you value relieving suffering independently of how cute the animal in question is).

* Care about preventing injustice? You could fund, e.g., research or advocacy work on criminal justice reform or more open immigration.  I'm sure there are other examples.

Other suggestions / examples are welcome.  In general, if you're dissatisfied with the current giving opportunities you're aware of, you can pre-commit to donate later (say, when better informed) by now putting your charity budget into a donor-advised fund.

Questions for readers:

(1) Do you share my sense that there's something a bit... odd... about professing to have certain values whilst showing no interest in actually promoting said values in the wider world?  What do you think are the main barriers to contributing (whether time or money) to effective organizations that advance one's values?

(2) Can the particular recommendations in my examples above be improved upon?  What other useful value-charity pairs would you add to extend the list?


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