There's Lots More To Do

byJeff_Kaufman17d29th May 201928 comments


Benjamin Hoffman recently wrote a post arguing that "drowning children are rare":

Stories such as Peter Singer's "drowning child" hypothetical frequently imply that there is a major funding gap for health interventions in poor countries, such that there is a moral imperative for people in rich-countries to give a large portion of their income to charity. There are simply not enough excess deaths for these claims to be plausible.
As far as I can see, this pretty much destroys the generic utilitarian imperative to live like a monk and give all your excess money to the global poor or something even more urgent. Insofar as there's a way to fix these problems as a low-info donor, there's already enough money. Claims to the contrary are either obvious nonsense, or marketing copy by the same people who brought you the obvious nonsense. Spend money on taking care of yourself and your friends and the people around you and your community and trying specific concrete things that might have specific concrete benefits.

Imagine that the best intervention out there was direct cash transfers to globally poor people. The amount of money that could be productively used here is very large: it would cost at least $1T to give $1k to each of the 1B poorest people in the world. This is very far from foundations already having more than enough money. That there are extremely poor people who can do far more with my money than I can is enough for me to give.

While I also think there are other ways to spend money altruistically that have more benefit per dollar than cash transfers, this only strengthens the argument for helping.

How does Ben reach the opposite conclusion? Reading his post several times it looks to me like two things:

  • He's looking at "saving lives via preventing communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional diseases" as the only goal. While it's a category of intervention that people in the effective altruism movement have talked about a lot, it's definitely not the only way to help people. If you were to completely eliminate deaths in this category it would be amazing and hugely beneficial, but there would still be people dying from other diseases, suffering in many non-fatal ways, and generally having poverty limit their options and potential. And that's without considering more speculative options like trying to keep us from killing ourselves off or generally trying to make the long-term future go as well as possible.
  • He's setting a threshold of $5k for how much we'd be willing to pay to avert a death, which is much too low. I do agree there is some threshold at which you'd be very reasonable to stop trying to help others and just do what makes you happy. Where this threshold is depends on many things, especially how well-off you are, but I would expect it to be more in the $100k range than the $5k range for rich-country effective altruists. By comparison, the US Government uses ~$9M.

I do think the "drowning children" framing isn't great, primarily because it puts you in a frame of mind where you expect that things will be much cheaper than they actually are (familiar), but also because it depends on being in a situation where only you can help and where you must act immediately. There's enough actual harm in the world that we don't need thought experiments to show why we should help. So while there aren't that many "drowning children", there is definitely a lot of work to do.

(Crossposted from