Sunday, March 06, 2016

Philanthropic Focus vs Abandonment

This seems a lamentably common way of thinking:
[Chief Executive of Oxfam GB] Goldring says it would be wrong to apply the EA philosophy to all of Oxfam's programmes because it could mean excluding people who most need the charity's help. For a certain cost, the charity might enable only a few children to go to school in a country such as South Sudan, where the barriers to school attendance are high, he says; but that does not mean it should work only in countries where the cost of schooling is cheaper, such as Bangladesh, because that would abandon the South Sudanese children.

Fuzzy group-level thinking allows one to neglect real tradeoffs, and pretend that one is somehow helping everyone if you help each group a little bit.  But this is obviously not true.  If there are more Bangladeshi children in need of education than your current budget can provide for, then by spending the rest of your budget on educating a few kids in South Sudan, you are abandoning a greater number of Bangladeshi children.

If we don't have the resources to help everyone, then (inevitably) some people will not be helped.  To put it more emotively, you could say that we are "abandoning" them. That's a good reason to try to increase our philanthropic budgets.  It is not any sort of reason at all to spend one's budget inefficiently, leading to the philanthropic "abandonment" of even more children.

Goldring's reasoning is 'collectivist' in the bad sense: treating groups rather than individual persons as the basic unit of moral consideration.  That you have already helped some Bangladeshi children is cold comfort to the other Bangladeshi children you have spurned for the sake of instead helping a smaller number of South Sudanese.  They would seem to have a legitimate complaint against you: "Why do you discount my interests just because I share a nation with other individuals that you have helped? You have not helped me, and I need help just as much as those you chose to prioritize in South Sudan.  Since you chose to help a smaller number of South Sudanese children when you could have instead helped a greater number of children in my community, you are effectively counting my interests for less.  That is disrespectful and morally wrong."

By contrast, if you focus your philanthropic resources on providing as much good as possible, no-one has any legitimate complaint.  You may imagine a South Sudanese child asking, "Why did you not help me? Just because it's more expensive to provide schooling in my country, does not make my educational needs any less morally important than anyone else's!"  To which the obvious answer is, "Indeed, I give equal weight to the interests of all, including yourself; but that is precisely why I must prioritize the educating of a larger group of individuals over a smaller group, if my resources only allow for one or the other. If we could fund your education without thereby taking away the funding for multiple other people's education then of course we would!  But it would not be fair on those others to deprive several of them of education in order to educate just you.  I count your education as being equally as important as the education of any other one individual.  If I can then educate a second individual as well for the same amount of resources, then that is what treating each person's interests equally requires me to choose."

We may vividly demonstrate the irrationality of the collectivist's thinking by mentally subdividing the group of Bangladeshi children into two groups.  Call 'B' the group that is helped by the current budget, and 'C' the group of additional children who will be aided if and only if funding is redirected to Bangladesh from South Sudan.  Call 'S' the group of children currently aided in South Sudan, who stand to lose funding if we instead help C.

By stipulation, C is a larger group than S.  And we may suppose that "all else is equal": the individuals across each group are equally deserving, and stand to gain just as much from being educated.  I submit that it is plainly irrational to prefer to aid B+S rather than B+C.  The argument that the latter choice "abandons the children" in S is more than counterbalanced by the fact that choosing B+S abandons the (even greater number of) children in C.  It's wrong, and it's a completely irrational and unmotivated form of wrongdoing that could be easily avoided if only people were to think more clearly about how to justly adjudicate moral tradeoffs.

We absolutely should focus our philanthropic efforts towards the most efficient opportunities.  It's true, but inevitable, that when under-resourced we will be forced to "abandon" some in need.  But we should seek to minimize the burden of that abandonment: to abandon fewer individuals (or else those with less urgent needs, or less to gain) where possible.  One does not achieve this by fuzzy group-level thinking that obscures the number and needs of individuals.  Helping some members of a group is not the same as helping all members of the group; it is not an intellectually honest way to avoid dealing with the burdens of abandonment.


  1. Surely indirect or non-welfarist reasons might be behind the thinking of people making these moves? It's a bit like classic economic liberalism vs protectionism: if maximising utility were the sole economic ideal then any local industry that was less than fully competitive on the global market would be left to its fate. At least some of them get propped up though, for a variety of reasons that don't appeal to utility maximisation.
    So in the EA case, perhaps these moves are cloaked in fairness talk, but they're really motivated by signalling that this or that community haven't been abandoned, or indirect considerations like keeping basic aid program going that can be scaled up more effectively when circumstances change, or even marginal utilty considerations (e.g. educating 5000 number of people in a community with 5% literacy will likely have a better economic effect than educating 6000 people where literacy rates are already at 90%).
    Anyway, not sure if any of that is a plausible reading, or even a particularly charitable one (won't defend any of those reasons in any case), but seems more so than if they were simply and straightforwardly failing to do their maths right, as you're framing it?

    1. My main reason for thinking it's not about indirect reasons (or marginal utility, etc.) is that this would be a reason for thinking that Effective Altruist principles actually support maintaining widespread programmes, not a reason for rejecting the EA philosophy as Goldring claims to be doing. So I'm trying to take his statements at face value here.

      I don't think the mistake I diagnose in the main post is a matter of "failing to do their maths right", but rather a confusion about the ethics of "abandonment" and individual vs group-level thinking. You suggest as an a possible alternative that "they're really motivated by signalling that this or that community haven't been abandoned", but focusing on (national) groups or "communities" is precisely the mistake I'm arguing against: Having nationalistic labels like "South Sudanese" and "Bangladeshi" occludes the fact that some group of people are going to be "abandoned" whichever choice you make. If you help B+S, then you are abandoning group C -- and why shouldn't they matter just as much as S?

    2. Fair enough re taking them at face value, it was a fairly weak/sketchy thought (the Oxfam quote here is hardly a deep and comprehensive treatise, so I felt licensed to speculate a bit).
      For signalling purposes though I'm not sure we're on the same page. There's a fairly big difference between merely mereological groups and national/cultural/regional groups that individuals engage with in terms of group identity. The second type can be leveraged for psychological purposes in the way the first can't.
      People think of themselves as members of cultural-defined communities (the psych lit is clear enough on the proportions here to lend that statement at least statistical accuracy). So if you think it's good to signal that everyone matters (and have that message received) then to do that effectively (given group think) you're going to have to spread the resources sub-optimally by trying to at least touch base with a diverse spread of communities in need. And then back up that strategy with statements like the Oxfam CEO's.
      This is of course compatible with your argument: by doing this they're obfuscating and muddying the case for EA (and helping keep group-think alive). It's just a less naive, more pragmatic motivation and might even be deliberate and knowing.
      Again, this is purely speculative.

    3. Ah, right, I see what you mean now -- thanks for the clarification!


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