New research on moral weights

by GiveWell 2 min read4th Dec 20194 comments


Each year, GiveWell identifies more great giving opportunities than we are able to fully fund. As a result, in our charity recommendation decisions, we necessarily face very challenging questions, such as: How much funding should we recommend for programs that reduce poverty versus programs that reduce deaths from malaria? How should we prioritize programs that primarily benefit children versus adults? And, how do we compare funding those programs with others that have different good outcomes, such as reducing suffering from chronic health issues like anemia?

We recently received results from research we supported to help us answer these questions from the perspective of communities similar to those our top charities operate in. This blog post provides a brief summary of the project and results. Additional details are available on this page.

Background on the project

We assess charities based on their overall impact per dollar. In order to compare the impact per dollar across programs, we assign quantitative “moral weights” to each good outcome. We have invested a significant amount of time to arrive at these weights, but we still find our conclusions unsatisfying, in large part because of the fundamental difficulty of these questions. We have worked to improve our process for valuing different outcomes over the years, but we believe our current process is far from ideal.

Moral weights seems to be a highly neglected research topic. Limited information exists on how people value different outcomes. In particular, very few researchers have asked people living in low-income countries how they would make these tradeoffs. We see this as a potentially important input into our weights but have been unable to incorporate this information because it largely did not exist.

We recently supported a project intended to help address this gap in the literature. We provided funding and guidance to IDinsight, a data analytics, research, and advisory organization, to survey about 2,000 people living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Ghana in 2019 about how they value different outcomes.

Survey results

The results from this research are now available here. Among other findings, they suggest that survey respondents have higher values for saving lives (relative to reducing poverty) and higher values for averting deaths of children under 5 years old (relative to averting deaths of individuals over 5 years old) than we had previously been using in our decision-making.

Although we see these study results as adding to our understanding, we would caution against putting too much weight on them. Research methods like those used in the survey have major limitations, discussed here. This study is one that should be put in the context of a larger literature about these questions and represents one approach to moral weights among many.

Nevertheless, we see this research as a valuable contribution to the literature on preferences and moral views in communities with high rates of extreme poverty. It seems to be the first study of its kind conducted in sub-Saharan Africa, and the people surveyed for this study had a substantially lower average consumption level than other studies using similar methods.

Preliminary conclusions and updates

We have provisionally updated our moral weights to place more emphasis on programs that avert deaths (relative to those that reduce poverty) and to value programs averting deaths at all ages more equally (relative to our previous assumption of valuing programs that avert deaths of individuals over 5 years old more highly). The direction of these updates was driven by this study and other, independent arguments for putting more weight on health relative to income. However, we have not yet thoroughly debated how to revise our framework for moral weights or fully completed our analysis of these results, so we see our current, provisionally-updated moral weights as a work in progress. We plan to revisit our framework for moral weights in the future.

These updates did not have a major impact on our recommended funding allocation to charities in 2019.

Additional details

We share additional details on the survey and our early interpretation on this page.