Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.

Altruism and profit

When I suggest that supporting technological development may be an efficient way to improve the world, I often encounter the reaction:

Markets already incentivize technological development; why would we expect altruists to have much impact working on it?

When I talk about more extreme cases, like subsidizing corporate R&D or tech startups, I seem to get this reaction even more strongly and with striking regularity: “But that’s a for-profit enterprise, right? If it were worthwhile to spend any more money on R&D, then they’d do it.” Recently I’ve encountered this argument again, in the context of working to improve governance broadly. I sympathize with the sentiment, but the actual arguments don’t seem strong enough to carry the conclusion. Ultimately this is an empirical question about which I’m uncertain, but at this point it seems very unwise to take profitable opportunities off the table.

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Against moral advocacy

Sometimes people talk about changing long-term social values as an altruistic intervention; for example, trying to make people care more about animals, or God, or other people, or ancestors, etc., in the hopes that these changes might propagate forward (say because altruistic people work to create a more altruistic world) and eventually have a direct effect on how society uses available resources. I think this is unlikely to be a reasonable goal, not necessarily because it is not possible (though it does seem far-fetched), but because even if it were possible it would not be particularly desirable. I wanted to spend a post outlining my reasoning.

Disclaimer: this is a bit of an odd post. The impatient reader is recommended to skip it.  Read the rest of this entry »

The best reason to give later

I’ve written about saving vs. giving before, focusing on the issue of interest rates vs. returns on good deeds. But for now, I think there is a much more compelling reason to save: there is a very good chance that the best giving opportunities we can identify in the near future will be better than the best giving opportunities we can identify this year.

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My outlook

This will be a relatively short post, sketching my overall view of valuable altruistic endeavors. Read the rest of this entry »

Contributing to tech progress

I think that contributing to technological progress may be one of the most efficient ways to make the world richer. I don’t yet know much quantitative justification, so this impression could easily be wrong. In any case it seems to be worth asking: “How effectively can we increase the pace of tech progress?” Read the rest of this entry »

What is the return on giving?

Suppose I have $1 to spend and I want to use it to make the world as rich as possible.  How far can my dollar go? Can I use $1 to to make the world $2 richer? $50 richer? $1000 richer? It’s hard to know what to even expect a priori, and people seem to have widely varying estimates. Let’s call this figure the return on giving. This seems like an important number, and I’ve seen lots of implicit speculation. I think it would be great to have much more explicit discussion, though it seems worthwhile to first clarify what exactly we are talking about. Read the rest of this entry »

Beware brittle arguments

Often there is a tension between a simple argument suggesting that a trend is positive on average, and more subtle arguments suggesting it might be negative at the moment. For example, all of the following are arguments I have encountered in the last few months: Read the rest of this entry »

The value of prosperity

“Making the world richer” seems like a useful abstraction for thinking about impact; I’m quite interested in understanding how valuable making the world richer actually is.

For concreteness and simplicity, I want to think about an across-the-board change, where everyone’s real income increases by 1% (due to some exogenous increase in supply, improvements in efficiency, or whatever). Of course no intervention would have such a simple effect. But nevertheless it seems like a good starting point for similar analyses. Read the rest of this entry »

Making people richer

Many interventions seem to have the effect of “making people richer.” In addition to understanding the long-run impacts of prosperity, I am interested in looking in more detail at what happens when you make someone richer, and looking at a few examples to understand whether the intuitive model of a small across-the-board increase in real income is reasonable.

As a first example, I’ll look at cash transfers in the developing world. I think very similar ideas are needed for the analysis of many interventions in the developing world (e.g. health interventions) and also for many interventions in the developed world (e.g. supporting self-driving cars). But it seems useful to first go through the analysis with a particular case in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

The efficiency of modern philanthropy

Summary: The most important inefficiency in philanthropy may be the philanthropist’s desire to make decisions that look good in retrospect.

In financial markets, if you encounter an investment opportunity which looks like it will significantly outperform the market, it is reasonably safe to conclude that either (1) finding the opportunity required some special ability, info, disposition, or connection you have that others lack, or (2) you are mistaken about the goodness of the opportunity, or there are associated costs.

We might ask: to what extent is the same thing true in philanthropy? If it looks to me like a cause is obviously important, but others are ignoring it, does that mean that I’m overlooking something they know? Of course, there is a spectrum of possibilities. In general I should ask: how hard should I expect to have to search before I can expect to find something important that others have overlooked?

Holden from GiveWell has recently commented on this question. His conclusion, roughly, is that while there are probably still neglected high-impact causes, you should expect to have to do a lot of effort to identify them. In particular, one can’t appeal to simple a priori arguments about what people are likely to miss and expect to thereby find great neglected opportunities. Read the rest of this entry »


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