Thursday, April 03, 2008

Principles of Charity

I have had an interesting request from a member of the studio audience, to

Write a list of worthy causes that rich readers like me (ha, ha) could contribute to that you think are doing good work.

This reader provided his own lists of likely candidates that I will include at the end of this post. Ultimately, he said that the main objective for such a post:

. . . would be to spark a discussion in the comments section of the post, and to create a de facto permanent list of charities where like-minded desire utilitarianists can go when they want to do some good.

When it comes to charity, there are some initial observations that I think are useful.

We are working in the shadow of some massive charitable organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates run their charity like a business. Do you want some money? You need to submit a proposal showing that your activity will produce a reasonably high return on investment. Return in not measured in the amount of money that will flow back into the charity (like a for-profit business), but that you can do the most good with the least amount of money. They not only have a huge stash of resources that they can use, but they know how to use it efficiently. There is no way that I can do the same thing with the money that I have.

Warren Buffett gave his money to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation precisely because the organization was already well set up to determine where to put charitable investments to have the greatest effect.

I could, of course, watch where they placed their money and contribute to the same causes. However, there is an economic law of diminishing returns. To the degree that the Foundation is doing an efficient job, then it donates to a particular cause to the point at which an additional dollar produces less benefit than having that dollar going someplace else.

No matter where I put my money, in the shadow of an organization that has so much and has solid ways of determining where their money is most needed. My own charitable donations are going to suffer from ‘diminished marginal returns’. Not only can I not do as much as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I cannot even do as much with each dollar as they can, because I lack the resources to determine where each dollar could best be spent.

In light of this, there are still things we can do. Here is my recommendation.

(1) Invest in Yourself

The first place for anybody to invest their money is in themselves. Make yourself into a better, more valuable resource first. Then, as a more valuable resource, you will have more to offer to whatever charity can use your services.

Back when I was sitting in that American History class, making my decision to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, the very first place that I decided to invest my time and effort was in understanding what a ‘better’ world would be like.

I found myself surrounded by people who were asserting different and conflicting opinions on the matter. One thing that I did know is that, in these areas of conflict, at least one of the two people was making a mistake – defending a position that actually would make the world a worse place. Yet, he was defending it with absolute certainty that he was right. I did not want to spend my life defending something that turned out to be a mistake. Even if I was absolutely convinced that I was right, even though I was happy fighting what I thought was the good fight, my life would be a worse than a waste unless I was fighting the good fight as a matter of fact.

So, I invested in myself. I invested in 12 years of college studying value theory.

This was an extremely expensive investment. After I graduated from college, before going to graduate school, I took a year off. At the end of that year my boss made me a very lucrative job offer if I would stay and work for him. If I would have accepted that offer, I would almost certainly have had a lot more money and influence than I do today. However, I would have missed out on an education that would help to answer the question of what I should be doing with that money and influence. Is it better to have more money and influence but not know what to do with it, or to have less power and money but to have a better understanding of what ‘better’ was?

I choose the latter.

(2) Specialize

It would be foolish for all of us to invest in exactly the same thing. We can do far more if each of us picks a separate part of whatever jobs need to be done, and learns to do that job particularly well.

At one point in my study of moral philosophy, I encountered the related field of philosophy of psychology. My views on ethics make heavy use of the concepts of belief and desire and the differences between them. I became aware of people – very intelligent people – studying beliefs, desires, and alternative theories of mind. I knew at the time that I did not have the resources to develop to understand that field of study completely and still maintain my focus on ethics. So, I made a choice to listen to what the people in philosophy of psychology were saying, but to maintain my focus on theories of value.

In fact, I make heavy use of experts in other fields that I do not have time to become experts in myself – experts in medicine, engineering, psychology, sociology, history, chemistry, economics, astronomy, and the like.

I also make use of the skills and resources that others have in web design, graphic arts, book manufacturing, even the driving of busses, the manufacturing and shipping of laptops, and the growing of food.

There are a great many way to contribute, and each of us has our own interests. So, my next piece of advice regarding where to put one’s resources in order to do the more good, is to find a way to contribute that suits one’s own skills and interests.

For me, it is the studying of moral philosophy (ethics) and writing. For you, maybe its construction work and you can help build homes for Habitat for Humanity, or maybe it is web programming and you can build a web application that teaches logic to children, or maybe it is writing stories with good characters that teach readers something about the world.

(3) Use Your Comparative Advantage

In economics, there is a law that is known as 'the law of comparative advantage'. It is built on the fact that we all have limited resources and different skills. Even if one person has an absolute advantage over another in all areas, it is still beneficial to have the person with the lesser advantage doing what he is best at so the person with the greater advantage can focus more energy on her greatest skills.

When Warren Buffett gave the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (which already had a $30 billion endowment) a promise of another $30 billion, I asked myself what good I could possibly do with the few thousand dollars that I could contribute to charity. For every dollar that I could donate, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could donate $1 million out of the interest alone from their money.

So, others have a 1 million to 1 advantage over me in terms of cash. However, when it comes to free time, their advantage is only 10 to 1 – assuming that they do not have to work for a living, and I do. So, it would seem that my time is more valuable than my money.

When it comes to votes, the advantage is even more favorable. We have a 1 to 1 ratio in terms of votes. So, an argument could be made that how I use my vote is more valuable than how I use my money or my time.

Finally, in my case, I have an absolute advantage over Bill and Melinda Gates when it comes to an understanding of value theory. Indeed, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cannot even do its job efficiently unless it can accurately determine the value of its different options. A better understanding of value theory would do them some good. Since my greatest comparative advantage is in value theory, the best expenditure that I can make is in making improvements in people’s understanding of value. That better understanding of value will help them to make better choices on how to utilize the resources they have.

(4) Fulfill Your Own Good Desires

You are going to find it easier to do more work, and do a better job, if you are doing something in an area where you have a personal interests. If you have family members suffering from diabetes or Alzheimer's and, as a result, you have studied the subject and know it well, then this would be an excellent place to invest your efforts.

If you love computer programming – if you go home from a job in which you program computers and find yourself programming computers in your spare time as well – then this is a valuable service that you could offer to any organization that interests you.

If you like business management, then perhaps you should look into an organization that looks to invest in businesses in developing countries.

If you like automobile mechanics then perhaps you can offer your services fixing up vehicles that an organization can then put to use driving senior citizens to their doctor’s appointments or delivering meals to the needy.

Whatever you do in fulfilling your own (good) interests, you will likely need to spend some money to do it well.

(5) Personal Choices

Having said that, here is where I have put my resources for the last couple of years.

(a) Several hours worth of time have gone into writing and publishing 900 essays on ethics, along with two books finished and one in the works.

(b) I have sent money to The Science Network for providing, free of charge, some highly educational content.

(c) I have given money to Camp Quest because in order to solve future problems, future citizens are going to have to be able to think and reason through those problems – preferably better than our generation.

(d) I have already set aside money to offer as prizes for short stories directed at children in which the main characters are unapologetic reason-based atheists and good role models to boot.

(e) My next investment will likely be to pay to have copies of my book, "A Perspective on the Pledge" distributed where I think they may be able to do some good.

1 comment:

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The member of the studio audience that asked the question that became this post included his own list of potential charities.

Here's a list of organizations that I have either given to or considered:

Kiva (microloan your money to entrepreneurs in developing countries, repeat -- my personal rule is that for every loan that gets paid back, I put another $25 on my account and loan again)

Doctors without Borders


Co. Pub. Radio

Public Citizen (watchdogs)

Open Secrets (watchdogs of money in politics)

Project on Gov't Oversight

Jimmy Heuga Foundation (MS incidence is higher in Colorado than anywhere else. People with MS have a higher suicide rate than
the general population.)

One Laptop Per Child

Also, my brother and I have also loaned money to a nephew for college at a rate of 4.5%, or half of what a traditional loan would cost. It accrues interest indefinitely, but the payback schedule is completely flexible.

Happy to send a blank spreadsheet for the do-it-yourselfer, with the caveat that sometimes loans within a family can cause emotional strife.

I would contribute to something like an independent investigative reporter's salary, if such a thing were possible. I think that news is so important to society that it shouldn't necessarily be for profit... Or that it's worth supporting above and beyond the cost of a subscription. The atheist TV network, as you suggested.

I like Kiva because it uses my money without just taking it.

I like the idea of One Laptop Per Child -- don't just throw money at a problem, but create an opportunity for great things. Plus the design process was really smart, which I want to reward.

I like the idea of giving locally and putting my money to use in my own community.