Monday, April 27, 2015

The Most Good You Can Do

I was excited to see Peter Singer's new book, The Most Good You Can Do.

He's letting the internet decide to donate $10,000 of the royalties. Play the Giving Game to vote!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Charity begins at home?

Sometimes people ask Jeff and me if we plan to raise our daughter in some special way as an effective altruist. The answer is “not really.” Some have asked if we consider her a sort of recruit, hoping that her future donations will outweigh the cost of raising her. The answer is “definitely not.”

Of course, we hope that Lily will become a kind and generous person. (Currently she’s at the stage of taking other babies’ books from them at the library, but we trust that will change.) But we wouldn't want to count on her donating a certain amount, or curing malaria, or anything else. It doesn't seem very realistic, and pushing her too hard to be like us might backfire and cause her to reject the whole idea.

Celebrating one year of being neither effective nor altruistic

I've seen some people react with dismay that anyone would give away a large portion of their income while also choosing to become a parent. They don't like the idea of "putting other people before your child."

If Lily really needed anything, we'd do our best to be sure she had it. Even after giving away half our income, we're left with more than the average American family. (And far more than the average world family.) As one friend says, "It's obviously possible to live on this amount of money, because almost everyone does it." So we're at least as able to provide for Lily as most other families you might meet.

And part of raising a child is teaching them that their wants don't always come first. You can't always have the biggest slice of cake, or your friend's toy, or the first turn on the swing when other children are waiting. Learning to share and to prioritize others' needs as well as your own is an important part of learning to live in human society.

I hope that giving will be a normal part of family life as Lily grows up. My mother grew up in a household where her parents tithed 10% of their income, and none of them considered that remarkable. My grandmother taught her children to allocate their 20-cent allowance with "a dime to spend, a nickel to save, and a nickel to give away." There are some attractive children's banks out there with different compartments for saving, spending, investing, and giving. I've also seen homemade ones if you're galled by the idea of paying for a piggy bank.

We hope to teach Lily to be kind in her personal life, and also to think of herself as part of a larger world in which she can help many people (even if she doesn't know them personally).

I like the idea of charity beginning at home. I wouldn’t want it to end there!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How much to push the envelope?

This sprang out of the last post on how to talk to people about giving.

If you're trying to persuade people, it's unclear how far to push things. I hope there are studies out there on the optimal approach, but I haven't seen them.

John Woolman was an 18th-century American Quaker who was ardent about the abolition of slavery before abolitionism was really a thing. His friends found him kind of embarrassing because he would do things like refusing to use silverware at his friends' houses because silver was mined by slaves, or paying his friends' slaves for their work when they served him dinner. But he was successful in persuading some of his friends to free their slaves, and in retrospect his actions look heroic because he brought abolitionism onto the map.

I once assumed that Woolman was the kind of person who found it easy to do socially provocative things  I think we've all met That Guy at some point. But when I read his account of his life, he actually describes finding it really difficult and embarrassing to break social convention. He did it despite his discomfort, because he believed it was really important. That makes me respect him a lot more.

I often find myself getting annoyed with vegan activists for breaking social convention. Then I wonder if I'm dining with modern day Woolmans.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X embody two different strategies about how much to push the envelope. King's civil rights movement was extremely careful to stay within conventional morality and to represent themselves as upstanding, respectable citizens. (Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington, was sidelined due to embarrassment about his being gay. Claudette Colvin was arrested nine months before Rosa Parks for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, but was not highlighted by the movement because she was unmarried and pregnant. Those decisions sound pretty awful now, but I think they were probably the right thing for that particular movement to do at the time, given that white Americans were not even okay with black ministers in suits eating at lunch counters.)

Malcolm X was not worried about offending white sensibilities, calling King a "chump" and demanding social change rather than going the more incremental route. And yet he, too, was very careful about some aspects of presentation  I challenge you to find a picture of him not wearing a tie. There's one picture of him wearing a dashiki, but he's actually wearing a tie underneath.


Related: Peter Hurford on using weirdness wisely.

It might be good for a movement to have some of both strategies. Some people/organizations play it safer and gain respectability. Others push the envelope. This is probably an argument for having multiple branches/organizations within a movement, so that some can try more radical strategies while other go for more mainstream appeal.

Friday, March 13, 2015

How to talk about giving

Recently someone asked me about much to talk about effective giving. Some thoughts:
  • Blogging (or other forms of writing) are nice because reading is optional. If I write a blog post and link to it on Facebook, my Facebook friends can either choose to go read it or not. If they're not interested in the topic, it's not awkward in the same way that it could be in conversation. Because I'm not afraid of seeming pushy, I end up saying more in writing than I would in person, with the result that people who are interested can easily find what I have to say on the topic.
  • There's value to just casually mentioning that giving is something you do and that's important to you. I think of it kind of like vegetarianism - if you didn't know any vegetarians, it would probably seem like a weird and difficult lifestyle. But once you are in an environment where you know several vegetarians (for many of us, this happens in college), it starts seeming much more feasible and normal. Likewise, if you've never met anyone who gives 10% of their income, that might seem like a freakishly large amount, but once you know a couple of people who do it, you might start to consider it yourself.
  • For people with a tight budget, I think donating even a token amount every year is valuable because it lets you talk about your decision. You can say to a friend, "I try to donate some every December, and I was trying to figure out where to give this year. I was reading about [xyz charity] and found out [interesting fact], so I think I'll go with them because..." etc. 
  • I know a few people whose strategy is to talk about their favorite causes as much as possible and try very hard to persuade people. It's not necessarily a bad strategy  the Mormons have done very well for themselves by having a lot of earnest conversations with a lot of people  but I also think it's okay to take a more relaxed approach. 
  • If you're excited and ardent about this, it's fine to come across as excited and ardent, but please be careful of being obnoxious or looking like a crackpot.
  • Please don't exaggerate your data. I've seen people using very low estimates for the cost to save a life, usually ones that are years out of date. GiveWell used to be a bit more forward with estimates like "It costs $X to save a life with mosquito nets," but after they found serious mistakes in even the best data out there, they're less more cautious about that kind of statement. You should be cautious, too. If you're slinging around numbers like $800 from an essay written years ago, and the current best estimate is more like $3,500, you're not helping the situation.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Thomas Cannon


I grew up hearing about Thomas Cannon, the "poor man's philanthropist" of my home town. He was a postal clerk known for leaving $1000 checks to strangers. Recently I received a book about him (thank you, David!) and have been enjoying reading about his life.

After his death in 2005, the Washington Post wrote:
He gave away more than $150,000 over the past 33 years, mostly in thousand-dollar checks, to people he read about in the Richmond Times-Dispatch who were experiencing hard times or who had been unusually kind or courageous.

Mr. Cannon supported his wife and himself, their two sons and his charitable efforts on a salary that never topped $20,000 a year. As one of his sons recalled, "There was nothing special about our home life. He went to work every day, helped us with our football and baseball, made sure we were taken care of." 

When he retired from the postal service in 1983, he and his wife lived in virtual poverty on his pension. "We lived simply, so we could give money away," he told the Times-Dispatch this year. "People say, 'How can you afford it?' Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means. I get money from the same place people get money for those other things."


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

2014 charity recommendations

GiveWell's charity recommendations for 2014 are out! They are recommending:
Giving What We Can recommends a similar list, with the substitution of Project Healthy Children rather than Give Directly.

I think GiveWell's process is the most rigorous in the field of poverty (process described here).  Giving What We Can also explains their process, so you can see if their value system might be closer to yours. If you believe animal welfare work is most important, Animal Charity Evaluators are the only people I know making recommendations in that field.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Hosting an effective altruism discussion

(Edit: Xio points out that there's a more complete post about these resources on the EA forum.)

Recently a friend and I were talking about hosting effective altruism meetups in our respective cities. If you're considering hosting a gathering for people to discuss effective altruism, how do you get started?

First, find out who's already in your area. Here's a list of upcoming events, Giving What We Can chapters, and The Life You Can Save groups. There's also a map of individual EAsmaybe you'll find someone near you.

If you'd like to host a gathering, this document has some ideas from different people (including me). If you've ever hosted an EA meetup, please add your thoughts to this document.
How to host an effective altruism meetup

If you want to start a group at a university, Ben's writeups are especially well-done:
Thoughts on outreach
Student group notes

Jeff talks about how to start a discussion at work:
Effective altruism at your work

This is probably an especially good time of year to host a gathering, since so many people donate in December. GiveWell expects to publish their 2014 charity recommendations by December 1, so consider organizing an informal gathering a little after that. Maybe just sending out an email and staking out a table in your workplace's lunch room for those who want to discuss charity selection.

I've also found that a lot of good conversations happen one-on-one when someone says, "I'm passing through Boston! Want to meet up for coffee?" Take a look at the map of EAs, add yourself to it, and consider having a chat with people near you or near where you travel.