The GiveWell Blog

Reason “versus” emotion

We’ve been accused many times (including here and here) of trying to take the emotion out of charity. That doesn’t make any sense to me – I can’t think of any reason to do charity other than emotion (call me crazy, but I’ve found that disobeying the Categorical Imperative doesn’t bother me).

It is true that we want to use logic, math, statistics, estimation, judgment, and every other tool at our disposal, to figure out which charities are actually accomplishing the most good, and it is true that we distrust glossy brochures with heart-rending pictures. That must be where the argument comes from: “Imagine,” says the Straw Man, “that you are considering two charities – one which is shown by charts and statistics to save 5 lives per $100, and another that sends you pictures of the 4 adorable, suffering children your $100 will save. Which would you choose?”

Well, Mr. Straw Man, let me put a question to you. Think of someone you deeply love and care about – your child probably works best for this analogy, but it can also be your significant other or just someone who is wikkid cool. Imagine that this person is demonstrating worrisome physical symptoms. Imagine that a doctor sits you down and shows you charts and statistics that suggest to you, strongly, that this person will die unless she takes her prescribed medicine. But the person you love doesn’t agree with the analysis, and doesn’t want to take the medicine. When you ask the person to take it, she gets angry and hostile; when you force her to take it, she cries.

So you’ve got your two pieces of evidence: the crying, suffering, and emotions of the one you love, vs. the dry charts and statistics that show you how to save her life. Which one do you trust? EASY. YOU GET YOUR LOVED ONE TO TAKE THE MEDICINE, EVEN IF IT MEANS CLUBBING HER OVER THE HEAD AND SHOVING IT DOWN HER THROAT. YOU KNOW IT.

It’s when we really care that we find ourselves trusting our brains.


  • The GiveWell Blog - Exploring how to get real change for your dollar. » BRB on May 18, 2007 at 1:51 pm said:

    […] In short, I’m a charity nerd. And while some believe GiveWell to be over-intellectualizing giving, I’d say our attitude comes from caring more, not less, than traditional “Show me a picture and I’ll write you a check” donors. […]

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