Who should I help: My friend or my pet?

Note from Elie: I don’t stand by this post, and it’s been left up only as a matter of historical record.

This post was made very early on in GiveWell’s history, when GiveWell was a part-time project and Holden and I saw the blog as a place to experiment, have fun, give exaggerated versions of our thoughts, etc. The blog has since evolved to focus more on clear communication on issues important to GiveWell, but early posts should not be interpreted in that light.

I value the welfare of animals significantly, though less on a per-individual basis than the welfare of humans.


See also Holden’s April 2010 followup on this post in the comments below.


The Charity Navigator blog, and this post in particular, is a great resource for the conventional view of charity. What makes me say that? Trent Stamp writes about a Scottish charity that created an ad campaign criticizing (and that’s putting it delicately) people who give to animal-charities when there are poor people who are in need. Here are some excerpts from his latest entry:

I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with the sentiment here, and I’m even less sure that it’s a good idea for charities to start bashing other charities missions or to try and steal their donors.

I really don’t understand why anyone would waffle on this issue because it seems incredibly clear. In case anyone forgot, we eat animals; we use them for hard labor; we keep them as pets. We don’t generally assign animals the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Why? Because they’re animals. Supporting organizations which help people over organizations that help animals seems like an incredibly easy choice, and I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t “agree with the sentiment here.”

When you start telling people that some charities are more important than others, you run the risk of losing your supporters when someone convinces them that their cause is worthier than yours.

This is the conventional view of charity – don’t criticize others because they may criticize you, and your cause may lose support. But, why is everyone so afraid of criticism? Perhaps, through criticism, some organizations will go under, but it will be because they’re not as good. And perhaps, through open debate and criticism, the best organizations will prove themselves. Wouldn’t that be terrible. And maybe, just maybe, a few more people will live happy lives and a few more animals won’t. I think I can live with that.

Plus, based on their popularity in this country at least, picking on the animal charities and their supporters might not be the most brilliant strategy around for those who want to stick around for the long haul. Those people don’t play.

If we criticize those who choose to give to animal charities, they may stop giving altogether. Well, that may be true. And, if it is, I don’t think it’s that big of a loss. We’ll return to this topic later, but a central tenet of the conventional view of charity is that giving is good in and of itself; that’s wrong. Giving is good when it effects good. Giving to charities that help people effects good; giving to charities that help animals effects almost no good.

Comments

Who should I help: My friend or my pet? — 20 Comments

  1. Helping animals is generally more cost effective than helping people with diabilities; a dog or cat can be vaccinated and spayed or nuetered for a few hundred dollars, while therapy for, say, dislexia, can easily go into the thousands of dollars.
    There is also the issue of disability charities generally trying to “normalize” autistics, including high-functioning ones, as opposed to helping them use their special talents. It can only be imagined what would of happened to, for instance, Albert Einstein had he been subject to such therapies; considering that their purpose is to wean autistics off their special interests and force them to socialize instead, I doubt that he would of published his first physics paper while still a teenager.

  2. I have a lot of issues with disability-focused charities, and without knowing much I’d say that the concern you raise seems like a valid one.

    RE animals, though: when you vaccinate and spay/neuter an animal for the few hundred dollars you mention, is that it? Don’t you then have to house and feed the animal until it’s adopted? And aren’t there generally more animals needing a home than people looking for a pet? It seems like really fixing an animal’s life gets quite expensive, and I would guess that it’s cheaper to help an impoverished African than a U.S. animal. (Which would really leave no argument for the animal, if you ask me.)

    I could be wrong about all of these assumptions, which is why I’m asking.

  3. I forgot to mention that the few hundred dollars includes food and housing, and that animals are only vaccinated and spayed/nuetered after someone adopts them.

    I personally prefer to help low-income people in third-world countries instead of animals as it is cheaper, and humans suffer more because they can understand ideas like death.

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  5. Why can’t we do both? I contribute to several charities, some that help humans and some that help pets. I’m not sure why we need to understand which is more important, other than the fact that giving to others that are less fortunate should be encouraged by everyone, to the causes that move them. If everyone did that, we would all benefit.

  6. We can’t do both and donate the money in the most efficient way, because you have to factor in the opportunity cost of each gift.

  7. I am an ethical vegan. My favourite charity is UNICEF but I also give a bit to Animal Liberation and I used to volunteer for them before I started working in China. I am joining Toby Ord’s “Giving What We Can” group when it gets started in 2009.

    It may be a fair point that the charities that help animals are not very cost-effective and that you would get more value for your dollar helping poverty-stricken humans in the third world. One way to help animals which may ultimately have very good outcomes is to invest in veganism advocacy organisations like Vegan Outreach, but it remains to be seen whether that can deliver real results. Another approach is to try to help homeless animals; here too, there may be cost-effective strategies.

    I don’t agree with your stance that helping nonhuman animals is somehow a less worthy goal. Nonhuman animals are my friends as well. I don’t think that belonging to a different biological species somehow makes you less deserving of help. That’s my perspective on the matter anyway.

    My question is simply, where will my money do the most good? I don’t care about the species of the individuals being helped.

  8. Mr. McCallum’s post shows exactly why a simple (or complicated) cost-benefit analysis doesn’t capture the entire story with respect to philanthropic giving. People value non-measurable aspects of life as well as measurable, and that is legitimate.

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  10. Why shouldn’t someone be able to donate their money where they want to, free of judgment? Whatever you do, or don’t do is going to be judged, No?
    I am appalled that I have to support MOST teenagers and their children when stupid, concious, decisions were made. 120 BILLION of our tax dollars were spent on that PREVENTABLE B.S! Parent’s should take full responsibility of their ACTIONS,CHOICES, AND CHILDREN!
    Animals have no choice, and are living, breathing, loving, creatures, that suffer worse cruelty and fates, than most “capable” humans.
    People rape, murder, molest, torture, and can turn on you faster, quicker, and nastier than any pitbull could, and I’m suppossed to think of their needs first? Umm no!
    AN EXAMPLE OF THE SUPERIOR SPECIES:
    When I was diagnosed as Manic-Depressive, EVERYONE! including immediate family, and childhood friends vanished, leaving me alone in my DARKEST hrs. Take a guess what didn’t leave my side? (for the record, I WASN’T the crazy out- of-control type, I was the paralyzed with depression type, that had to CRAWL to the bathroom b/c thoughts were racing to the pt. of nausea). (No excuses!) My DOG however, dutifly paced himself behind me.
    My decent into hell, was accompanied by a rescuded animal who had already been, thanks to natures finest!
    This is the case for alot of abadoned, traumatized, disabled people.
    So don’t judge people for catering to animals instead/before people, because you didn’t have the same experiences.

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  12. I would second Rupert: It’s not clear to me why we should count the suffering of animals differently from that of humans. I would be glad to see a GiveWell evaluation of animal-welfare causes, if there’s any interest in doing that.

    On Vegan Outreach, there are no hard studies, but I think anecdotal evidence supports the suggestion that promoting vegetarianism is highly cost-effective. Promoting in vitro meat could also be quite efficient, though I haven’t seen specific calculations.

  13. I went to GiveWell to find a well-run animal charity. Sorry, I gave up on humans a long time ago.

  14. Elie,

    I have respect for GiveWell to the point of intimidation because of your no-nonsense incisive approach. In spite of that, your view on this topic reminds me of a poet’s description of a certain philosopher as having “a stainless steel mind.”

  15. If you stand in front of a starving dog and a starving person and give your only hamburger to the dog, I think you deserve to be judged: It’s a morally wrong choice. That doesn’t mean that you should not have the right to make that choice; there are lots of morally wrong things that are (or should be) legal. When Givewell says “don’t give to animal charities”, I don’t think they are suggesting that such charities should be illegal, or banned. Just that there are more important causes to worry about.

  16. In response to:

    “In case anyone forgot, we eat animals; we use them for hard labor; we keep them as pets. We don’t generally assign animals the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Why? Because they’re animals.”

    ..I support animal welfare organizations to help protect animals from the abuse and exploitation that so many rationalize “because they are animals”. Animals experience fear and pain and in most cases have no means to protect themselves against the suffering humans inflict upon them. Just because “we don’t generally assign animals the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have not always been rights assigned to people viewed as “less than” and just because that was (or is) so did not make it right. I am not saying we should all become vegan and set all animals free in the streets, I am saying we have a long ways to go in terms of taking care of people and animals and I am thankful for the charities that do a good job of either. Elie’s statement that “giving to charities that help animals effects almost no good” and Givewell’s lack of evaluation of animal welfare charities undermine the credibility and usefulness of this website and organization, in my opinion.

  17. This is a very old post, but I wanted to comment since it continues to get strong reactions.

    I personally agree with the basic idea that, all else equal, it’s much better to help a human than to help an animal. However, I do not agree with the words above: “giving to charities that help animals effects almost no good.” I place value on the welfare of animals, and I would be interested in giving money to improve their lives – if I didn’t feel (as I currently do, though this is open to revision) that there are humans who can be helped as significantly and as cheaply.

    I also disagree with the general “black-and-white” presentation of the post. I think that my viewpoint on humans vs. animals is a judgment call and a philosophical issue, and reasonable people can strongly disagree. We do eventually want to cover animal welfare charities and help donors who have different philosophical priorities from ours.

    A few things explain the difference between the sentiments I’m expressing here and the sentiments Elie expressed in the post:

    1. The blog’s general tone. This was one of the first posts ever on the blog, and in the early days of the blog we were largely “having fun with it,” using hyperbole among other things. Though I don’t remember for sure, I doubt that either Elie or I ever placed no value on animal welfare.
    2. I’ve also increased the weight I put on animal welfare, simply because other people I respect feel strongly about it and I largely see their viewpoint vs. mine as a philosophical question and somewhat of a toss-up.
    3. Me vs. Elie. I think I put more weight on animal welfare. However, he agrees with me that “giving to charities that help animals effects almost no good” is an overstatement and that the confidence level / “black and white” tone of this post is excessive.
  18. I’m a latecomer on this old post. If animal wellbeing does not weigh zero, wouldn’t it be fitting to include in charities assessments the burden they (directly or not) shift on animals? I mean, if developing cost-effective drugs involves testing them in harmful ways on many non-human animals, isn’t that a cost that a cost-effectiveness assessment should include?

    I’m an ethical (still moderate) vegetarian, and I give my fair (for now too small) monthly share to SCI. I also happen to give a small amount to animal charities (annual subscription fees) and I adopted a stray cat. This would make me sort of an animal friend, as well as someone contributing to human welfare. But this may not be the most cost-effective way to do so, or so it seems.

    Yet I feel concerned that I have to give some weight to animals because of the certainty that, if no one does, then this will considerably increase the amount of their suffering. Some animal charities do a fairly nice job of making people aware of the harms animals suffer as a result of our living. And such living includes experimenting on them in order to improve human wellbeing. This seems to show that calculations may be much more complicated than it seems once you take that into account.

    As someone who is concerned with the fate of all, I am truly concerned that I’m contributing to harm non-humans by willingly contributing to save human lives.

  19. I’m an ethical vegan myself, and I recommend other sources for information on animal rights charities such as:
    http://80000hours.org/animal-welfare &
    http://www.effectiveanimalactivism.org/

    I think it is generally harmful to attempt to value different subjects of problems against each other, so energy is spent on anger and hurt feelings instead of charity, but of course in extreme cases it might make sense, provided the people involved are likely to continue doing activism or donate to a different charity. If not then it is merely harmful. I think the stance in OP about human animal issues being generally more important than non-human animal issues is BS and based on nothing but prejudice.