Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.

Month: March, 2013

Consequentialist-Recommendation Consequentialism

An act consequentialist evaluates possible acts by the goodness of their consequences. In some situations this leads to bad consequences. For example, I may decline to trust a consequentialist because I am (justifiably) concerned that they will betray my trust whenever it is in their interest. This outcome is widely considered unsatisfactory, and is often taken to imply that a person should not willingly become an act consequentialist. Read the rest of this entry »

Giving now vs. later

It has been observed that money spent helping the poor compounds over time in the same way that profit-oriented investments do (see Holden Karnofsky, or Giving What We Can). When I support the world’s poorest people I’m not just alleviating their suffering, I’m increasing the productivity of their lives. The recipients of aid go on to contribute to the world, and their contributions compound in turn.

Moreover, one can argue that the returns to aid are much higher than achievable financial returns. Equities make around 5% in real terms, while the world’s poorest earn returns upwards of 20%. And that’s not surprising—more people are interested in making money than are interested in improving the world, so we should expect it to be harder to find opportunities to make money than opportunities to improve the world.

So, the argument goes, altruists ought to donate as quickly as possible, doing good works that will compound out there in the world much faster than they will compound in their bank accounts. Make sense?

I think this argument is mistaken. Read the rest of this entry »


Some disasters (catastrophic climate change, high-energy physics surprises) are so serious that even a small probability (say 1%) of such a disaster would have significant policy implications. Unfortunately, making predictions about such unlikely events is extremely unreliable. This makes it difficult to formally justify assigning such disasters probabilities low enough to be compatible with an intuitive policy response. So we must either reconsider our formal analyses or reconsider our intuitive responses. Read the rest of this entry »