The GiveWell Blog

The moral case for giving doesn’t rely on questionable quantitative estimates

In light of Peter Singer’s TED talk and Dylan Matthews’s piece on “earning to give,” there’s been a fair amount of discussion recently of what one might call “Peter Singer’s challenge,” which I’d roughly summarize as follows:

  • By giving $X to the right charity, you can save a human life.
  • This fact has multiple surprising consequences, such as (a) you morally ought to give as much as possible (b) a reasonable path to doing as much good as possible is to pick a maximally high-paying job, to facilitate giving more to charity.


A common response to this reasoning – which one can see in Felix Salmon’s recent post – is to attack the first bullet point. This means disputing the robustness of the “$X saves a life” figure (a figure that is often quoted based on GiveWell’s analysis), and questioning the quantification exercise that generates this figure as being distortive and costly.

We believe that these objections to quantification have serious merit, and in fact we have produced a great deal of content that supports such objections. GiveWell is about giving as well as possible, not specifically about quantifying the expected value of donations. This distinction has become increasingly important to us since the start of our project, and we’ve continually moved in the direction of making our evaluations more holistic. (Some details on how we’ve done so below.)

But we also believe that these objections miss the real heart of Peter Singer’s challenge. In many ways we think that Peter and others do their own argument a disservice when they rely on the “$X saves a life” figure: such a figure is both open to reasonable attack and unnecessary to make the core point.

To us, the strongest form of the challenge is not “How much should I give when $X saves a life?” but “How much should I give, knowing that I have massive wealth compared to the global poor?” Perhaps the most vivid illustration comes not from Against Malaria Foundation (our #1-rated charity) but from GiveDirectly (our #2). If you give $1000 to GiveDirectly, ~$900 will end up in the hands of people whose resources are a tiny fraction of yours. GiveDirectly’s estimate – which we believe is less sensitive to guesswork than “cost per life saved” figures – is that recipients live on ~65 cents per day, implying that such a donation could roughly double the annual consumption for a family of four, not counting any long term benefits. We may not know exactly how many lives that saves, if any, but we find it a compelling figure nonetheless, and one that calls for far more generous giving than what’s “normal.”

Those figures aren’t precise, and we believe our #1 charity accomplishes even more good per dollar, but we believe the broad point to be quite robust: whether or not the money I spend on luxuries could have literally saved a life, it’s money that could do a lot more for someone else than it does for me. Jason Trigg’s attitude is, in my view, defensible based on this consideration alone.

This version of Peter Singer’s challenge relies not on the fragile estimates GiveWell produces, but on an extremely robust and nearly undisputed set of observations about extraordinary global inequalities. And it challenges us to give not just money, but time, thought, and whatever else we can spare.

We believe strongly in the value of healthy skepticism toward charities and toward cost-effectiveness estimates. What we don’t believe in is using such skepticism as an excuse to dodge questions about the appropriate level of generosity. We fear that Peter Singer and his advocates sometimes enable this dodge by relying so heavily on “cost per life saved” type figures.

The global distribution of wealth is mind-bogglingly uneven, and the readers of this blog are mostly on the privileged side of the divide. We have the informational and technological tools to help others enormously just by writing checks. These are facts that are hard to dispute, and they’re facts that raise some uncomfortable questions about how we should manage our lives and our budgets. We welcome (and instigate) debates over both our methodology and our particular recommendations, but such debates shouldn’t distract us from the moral case for giving.

Some notes on GiveWell’s relationship to “quantified giving”

We think it’s worth addressing some of the specific objections that Felix Salmon gave to the methodology of “quantified giving,” because in many cases we feel that we have not only acknowledged such objections but have put substantial work into fleshing them out, supporting them, and embracing their consequences. Specifically:

We believe that “systematically examining all options with the aim of doing as much good as possible, and being highly transparent about our reasoning” is often conflated with “making decisions based on explicit quantifications of good accomplished.” As long as the two are held equivalent, the project of “effective altruism” will be on shaky ground. But we believe the two are not equivalent – that it is possible to be simultaneously holistic, systematic and transparent. We will be writing more about the distinction.


  • M.M. on June 11, 2013 at 5:30 pm said:

    I think there is more debate to have on what it means to “do as much good as possible.” Is extending a human life an infinite good? Or is reducing / preventing suffering, without any prejudice based on species, a better metric of good?
    IOW, is making “human life” the bottom line any different than, say “American’s life” or “charity begins at home”?
    E.g., would you extend a human life if it caused more net suffering? Or if doing something with the same money could reduce / prevent significantly more suffering?

  • Holden on June 11, 2013 at 5:40 pm said:

    We agree that there is much debate to be had around these questions, and we are encouraging such debates (example). But I don’t think that the moral case for giving generously is very sensitive to the outcome of such debates.

  • Daniel Bigham on June 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm said:

    Your post is very appreciated. I found Peter’s TED talk (which I found via this post) to be extremely good… and yes, it does ignite a lot of questions around the “X dollars saves a life idea”. We all know that concept is a very rough concept at best, and that saving lives is very hard to quantify, … I like the emphasis on this post, and agree with it. Even so, I think it can be a very useful thing to be able to do calculations as best as one can and say that “the math says this”. Even if the math isn’t perfect, and it’s not, it helps us see just how wide the gap is that exists, and the incredible opportunity that we’ve been given to help people. So let’s do this.

  • Jonah Sinick on June 12, 2013 at 10:47 am said:

    I agree with the bottom line that there’s a strong moral case for giving.

    I feel that it’s important to address cost-effectiveness. The “double the consumption of a very poor family for $1000” figure isn’t compelling on its own. Doubling my own consumption would have negligible social value. One has to make a case for doubling a family’s consumption helping it a lot.

    Some of GiveDirectly’s recipients use a large fraction of their cash transfer to buy an iron sheet roof to replace a thatched roof. I think that facilitating a family buying such a roof is a great use of money relative to luxury expenditures in the developed world. But this point of comparison, while compelling, isn’t nearly as compelling as Singer’s “child in a pond” hypothetical.

    My reason for mentioning this is that I worry that the community of people interested in effective altruism has placed undue weight on giving to charities that implement direct interventions in the developing world, relative to other ways of making the world a better place. The article by Dylan Matthews describes Jason Trigg as having gone into finance in order to give to charities such as AMF. Whether this is optimal hinges on the details of his situation, but I generally think that earning to give is suboptimal. I wrote about one aspect of this here (

  • Jonah Sinick on June 12, 2013 at 10:48 am said:

    (I formerly worked as a research analyst at GiveWell — all views are my own)

  • Alexander on June 12, 2013 at 2:37 pm said:

    Jonah – Holden may respond with his own view, but I think it’s worth distinguishing Holden’s claim about a robust argument from what’s likely to make the most compelling case. The question of whether talking about a drowning child or talking about the fact that small contributions from a U.S. perspective have large significance for the global poor are more likely to convince people to give is separate from the question about which is the more robust argument. Holden’s argument, on my view, is about the epistemology of the arguments rather than their rhetorical effectiveness; one would presumably want a different kind of (empirical) evidence to assess the latter.

    Separately, I agree with you that the situation of the global poor is quite different from your situation but I’m hesitant to overemphasize the fact that people tend to report using their transfers to buy metal roofs for the same reason that Holden points to above: I think it’s a highly contingent fact. I see the robust argument for cash transfers as stemming from the well-established fact that some people in the developing world are extremely poor, and the general fact that people typically use their money to advance their welfare. And for what it’s worth, I’m suspicious of your view that doubling your own consumption would have negligible social value, at least to the extent that you mean it as a general claim about “people in your income bracket.” I place a moral priority on the welfare of the least well off, and of course it’s much easier to disproportionately help people who are much poorer, but I nonetheless regard stagnating median wages in the developed world as a sizable social problem.

    Another way to put this is that it all depends on your prior. My prior, expressed above, is that money is an all-purpose good that people are likely to use in ways that advance their welfare. Accordingly, I initially regarded the claim that doubling an extremely poor family’s income will benefit them a lot as being overwhelmingly likely to be true. Of course, I believe that the empirical evidence on cash transfers supports this view, but it’s a view I held before examining the empirical evidence.

  • Jonah Sinick on June 12, 2013 at 6:09 pm said:


    I guess my earlier comment wasn’t completely clear. Let me flesh out my thinking.

    Assuming that GiveWell’s recommended charities are the best giving opportunities for casual donors to help poor people in the developing world, we don’t live in a world in which you can save a child’s life for the cost of a pair of shoes. GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness estimate for AMF is substantially worse than what Singer originally had in mind, and there’s reason to be concerned about cost-effectiveness figures being nonrobust, because updates to the figures in response to new information have generally skewed toward worse cost-effectiveness.

    I read Holden’s post as saying “If nothing else, you can donate to GiveDirectly to perform cash transfers, and there’s a huge differential in wealth between US citizens and GiveDirectly’s clients.”

    But while I agree with you that there’s an *a priori* case for cash transfers helping people, I don’t think that it’s at all clear that cash transfers helps people *a lot*, and it seems very unlikely that it would help them so much that the cost-effectiveness of giving to GiveDirectly is as high as the cost-effectiveness that Singer had in mind when he originally formulated his argument.

    So I think that the questionable character of past and current quantitative estimates *does in fact greatly weaken Singer’s argument.*

    There’s some merit to the argument “people in the developed world are impoverished and we have a lot more money than they do, so to make the world a better place, we should give them money,” but I think it’s only one of many arguments that should factor into one’s philanthropic decision making. I’m concerned that many people who are interested in effective philanthropy have been relying too heavily on Singer’s argument, to the exclusion of other important considerations.

  • Alexander on June 12, 2013 at 8:15 pm said:

    Jonah – I’m not sure I follow. What do you take Singer to be arguing?

  • Jonah Sinick on June 12, 2013 at 11:24 pm said:

    Peter Singer has argued that

    (1) Moral common sense says that we should be willing to jump into a pond and save a child even if it ruins our shoes.
    (2) We can pay to save the lives of children in the developing world at a cost of one pair of shoes per life saved.
    (3) Therefore, we should pay to save lives of children in the developing world, or more generally, should pay to alleviate global poverty.

    The point (2) doesn?t seem to be true for casual donors, and my impression is that Singer no longer stands by it, but the form of his argument seems to have remained the same over time.

    The common sense intuition in (1) is coming from the ratio of ?benefits to others? to ?personal cost? being enormous. The size of the ratio is crucial. For example, nobody would argue that someone should allow his or her own child to die in order to save the lives of two foreign children.

    The actual opportunities for casual donors to alleviate global poverty are at least an order of magnitude worse in cost-effectiveness than the figure in (2). In view of this, Singer?s argument loses much of its force.

    I still think that the ratio of ?benefits to others? to ?personal cost? is high enough so that people in the developed world should seriously consider to donating to AMF or GiveDirectly. But I think it?s important to highlight the fact that the empirical data substantially weakens Singer?s argument.

    There are many opportunities to do good (e.g. through one?s work, through helping friends, through parenting, through volunteering or through donating to charities in other causes), and Singer?s argument unwarrantedly singles out donating to alleviate global poverty as especially promising relative to other opportunities to do good.

  • Alexander on June 13, 2013 at 10:48 pm said:

    Jonah – I think that Singer’s argument and Holden’s both reach the conclusion that typical people in the developed world ought to be giving more to (effective) charities than they are, and I don’t think this is especially sensitive to the multiplier. (That is, as Holden argues above, I think the uncontroversially large asymmetry in wealth between typical developed world individuals and the poor in the developing world is sufficient to get the “you really ought to give more” argument off the ground.)

    How far one should rationally go with one’s giving might depend on these expected value estimates, but my guess is that much more prosaic considerations about personal sustainability are far more likely to bind than cost-effectiveness estimates are.

    I guess the way I’d put this is that I agree that the empirics are far worse than what Singer reported in 1972, but when you write that this “substantially weakens Singer’s argument,” it’s important to define the counterfactual. In both 1972 and today, only a vanishingly small portion of people take Singer-type arguments remotely seriously. So while it’s true that the empirics could matter for that group, for the vast majority of people who do nothing differently in response to Singer’s argument, it’s not all clear to me that empirics (within the range of Singer’s 1972 claim and today’s GiveDirectly) matter at all in practical terms for deciding how much to give.

    I think the same issue applies to your final paragraph. While it’s certainly possible that there exists a group of people who take Singer’s parable too literally, my guess is that the vast majority of people pay insufficient attention to Singer’s argument, not too much.

  • Doug S. on June 14, 2013 at 1:26 am said:

    Honestly, there really is a big difference to me if X is different by orders of magnitude.

    The U.S. federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour. Payroll taxes are 7.5%, so take-home pay becomes $6.70 an hour. It takes 343 hours – two months, working full time – working a minimum wage job to earn the $2300 it takes your #1 charity to save a life.

    There’s a big difference between $200 and $2000, between one week of minimum wage work and two months of minimum wage work. And I also think there’s a big difference between what I’m morally obligated to do to save lives and what I’m morally obligated to do to fix leaking roofs.

  • Holden on June 14, 2013 at 3:10 pm said:

    I think Jonah and Doug are both looking for more precision than is reasonable. Robust facts about disparities in wealth – which you will also see qualitatively if you travel to the developing world – are sufficient to make the point that you have a great deal of power to help others a lot by giving up a little. If you’re looking for any sort of precise “dollar cost per quantity of good accomplished” (over and above the kind of robust comparisons I just described) such that a factor of 5-10 is crucial to how much you decide to give, I think it is – and long knowably has been – unrealistic to get such a thing. I think nearly all targets of Peter Singer’s argument have long implicitly recognized this fact.

    Perhaps there are some arguments for which such precision would be necessary, but if so they aren’t arguments that I see as having much traction. I don’t empathize with the view that such precision is necessary in order to make the broad argument that you ought to give generously.

  • Jonah Sinick on June 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm said:


    My comments above aren’t about precision — they’re about the value of donating to alleviate poverty relative to the value of other altruistic activities.

    I know people who previously thought that donating to alleviate global poverty is among the most important things that they could do, and who acted on it, who would not have done so if they had known how far Peter Singer’s parable is from the truth, because there are higher value activities that they could have been engaged in. Jason Trigg may be an example of such a person – he may not be aware of the effect size of Bayesian regression in the context of philanthropy.

    As I said in my initial comment on this thread, I agree with the bottom line that there’s a strong moral case for giving. What I’m concerned about is the disproportionate emphasis on giving relative to other altruistic activities, and also the disproportionate emphasis on poverty alleviation relative to other charitable causes. Many people have accepted Singer’s argument uncritically, and in some cases this has done more harm than good.

  • Holden on June 14, 2013 at 4:25 pm said:

    Jonah, I can’t honestly say that I’m aware of a single person who fits your description: “previously thought that donating to alleviate global poverty is among the most important things that they could do, and who acted on it, who would not have done so if they had known how far Peter Singer’s parable is from the truth.” I’m not disputing that such people exist, but I think there are vastly more people who aren’t thinking hard enough about – or acting on – how relatively privileged they are. For this reason, I think it is more accurate to think of Peter Singer’s argument as underappreciated than as overappreciated. I think one factor in why it is underappreciated may be the reliance on figures that many people rightly intuitively feel don’t pass the “smell test” as being reliable, as opposed to figures that are quite robust.

  • Jonah Sinick on June 14, 2013 at 7:52 pm said:


    Thanks for clarifying. I agree that Peter Singer’s argument is generally under-appreciated rather than over-appreciated.

    It’s much less clear that this is the case if one restricts consideration *to people who follow the GiveWell blog* (who I assume are generally on board with the idea of donating to help those in need), and I was taking your post to be addressing this audience. Maybe you had a broader audience in mind in writing the post. Or maybe I’m mistaken about the demographics of GiveWell blog followers.

    I think that when discussing an argument with a community of people who are sympathetic to it, it’s important to carefully qualify the argument, as a guard against confirmation bias.

  • Vipul Naik on June 14, 2013 at 11:07 pm said:

    Holden, Alexander, Jonah, Doug et al., thanks for a very illuminative and informative exchange. The exchange was very thought-provoking.

    @Holden: It’s not clear to me whether you are trying to steelman Singer’s original argument, or offering an alternate argument to replace it. It seems that the argument that you ultimately end up offering is completely different from Singer’s, and both weaker and stronger for it. Weaker in the sense that it would compel fewer people to give and would compel them to give smaller amounts. Stronger in the sense that it is more grounded in the empirical reality that GiveWell has uncovered through its painstaking investigative work over the last few years (kudos to you, Alexander, Jonah, and GiveWell’s other current and former staff for that!).

    The interaction between Jonah and Alexander in the comments brings to the fore a point I independently thought of when reading the original post: that there is a tension between the tactically optimal approach for convincing a larger number of people to donate more, and the argument that is most grounded in empirical reality. It seems to me that you (Holden) strive to minimize rather than confront the tension in the original post. I think it would be more courageous and epistemically admirable (and therefore more in line with what GiveWell is rightly known for) for you to admit openly and very explicitly that Singer-style (implicit or explicit) “you-can-save-a-life-for-the-price-of-a-pair-of-shoes” *if true*, would be far more compelling a reason to donate than the diminishing returns/implicitly egalitarian position you outline. See also, where Carl Shulman writes: “I think it’s bad news for probably mistaken estimates to spread, and then disillusion the readers or make the writers look biased. If people interested in effective philanthropy go around trumpeting likely wrong (over-optimistic) figures and don’t correct them, then the community’s credibility will fall, and bad models and epistemic practices may be strengthened.”

    You claim that Jonah’s argument (namely, that learning more about the falsehood of Singerian cost-effectiveness estimates reduces the case for donating), while perhaps theoretically plausible, simply doesn’t match real-world experience. It does match my experience — my desire to donate to charity has gone down considerably as you updated your cost of saving a life estimates (note that I didn’t take the estimates too literally to begin with). I’m pretty sure that there are certain donations I made in the past that I would either not have made or have made in much lower quantities if I were aware of GiveWell’s current cost-effectiveness estimates. Perhaps I’m an outlier, but my position prima facie seems to me to conform to the Law of Demand, which has strong prima facie validity. So I would contend that the burden of proof is on you for claiming that this is not a concern or trade-off.

    I’m curious to know wherefore you derive confidence in your belief. Does it stem from an analysis of the growth of GiveWell’s donor base or the growth in the total money moved by GiveWell? There would be a number of confounding factors that make measurement difficult, but it’s possible you have given more thought to this issue than it appears. I would genuinely appreciate it if you are willing to share your reasoning process publicly if possible.

    Thanks once again for a very engaging and thought-provoking post. I’m also deeply grateful to Jonah, Alexander, Doug, and others for sharing their thoughts about this issue in the preceding comments.

  • Uri Katz on June 16, 2013 at 6:10 am said:

    I strongly doubt whether my moral imperative to help others has anything to do with how much better off I am compared to them. If I can help Bill Gates (which, admittedly, seems highly unlikely), why am I not morally compelled to do so? Obviously, many parameters need to be factored in: how significant is my help, how costly is it to me, who else could I have helped with the same resources, my own replacability, and so forth, but the bottom line remains the same: I have a moral duty to help others (an imperfect duty – meaning it depends on contingent circumstances). All other considerations are absolutely critical from a practical point of view, but have little to do with the moral issue.
    If my doubt is well founded, the question “How much should I give, knowing that I have massive wealth compared to the global poor?” is still not the right question to ask morally. The only question that I need to ask is how many resources I can spare. In answering this I may find a good argument that allows me to factor in a hobby or two. Once I provide a suitable answer, then I can go on to consider what the most effective giving option is. Here other moral questions emerge, such as giving close to home vs. to those in greatest need, human vs. other life, future generations vs. existing people, and so on. Yet even here the moral issue is decided in advance of the empirical data, but it may be decided contingently – consider future generation so long as you do not significantly hurt existing people, or something of this nature.
    Of course, I might want to base my answer to the above question on a cost benefit analysis. If I am not very rich, I have to give something up for every dollar I donate (and this is true for anyone donating their time, energy, etc.), so the effects of my giving must be greater than what I am giving up, for me to be morally obliged to give under these particular circumstances. Notice, however, that this means that if saving a life costs more, I may be justified, and want, to give more. Assuming a bigger difference in terms of moral value between providing one mosquito net vs. no nets, and providing 100 nets vs. 99 nets, the right course of acton might be to give more, not less, when I discover that the resources I thought will buy 99 nets can actually buy none, but that with a little bit more I can buy a net.
    This is not merely a hypothetical, precisely because the costs of helping the world’s poor are still rather low, and the benefit enormous.

  • Ian Turner on June 17, 2013 at 7:42 am said:


    The reason that large economic disparities lead to a moral imperative to give is that money has decreasing marginal utility. In other words, if you give to GiveDirectly, the recipient of your funds will obtain tens or even hundreds of times more satisfaction from that money than you would if you consumed it yourself.

    If you had a way to make Bill Gates dramatically happier, then I think you should do that, although I think the opportunity is unlikely to arise through the spending of money.



  • Alexander on June 17, 2013 at 2:35 pm said:

    Uri & Ian – I agree with Ian.

    Vipul – I’ll let Holden reply on his own to the extent that he wants, but I think he’s offering an argument that’s related to but different than your own. What I take him to be saying is that we believes that there is a large group of people, potentially including himself and Felix Salmon, who are turned off by naive $X/life saved estimates, and that that group of people would be likely to donate more if they considered the more robust global disparities in wealth.

    I’m somewhat pessimistic about the size of this group – like I perceive you to be – and so I agree with you that it’s possible that in spite of the fact that robust comparisons of wealth may be a better reason to give more than “$X/life saved” figures are, “$X/life saved” may be more likely to compel donors to give more.

    Very roughly, I’d summarize this discussion as Holden saying that “$X/life saved” figures could turn off some rational donors who might otherwise give, and you and Jonah saying that “robust disparities in wealth” are less rationally motivating than “$X/life saved” taken at face value. I don’t have much of a view on this debate because I don’t think many donors (even amongst GiveWell’s audience) are rational in this sense; you may be a counterexample. (You ask for evidence about this: I’d point to the fact that people overwhelmingly don’t use GiveWell or any other resources in their charitable giving and tend to be quite scope-insensitive in charitable decisions.)

    That said, my intuition about what is likely to be generally compelling to individuals (not necessarily on a rational basis) falls closer to Jonah and Vipul’s take than Holden’s, but I think this is an empirical question that speculation is unlikely to resolve. On the other hand, I continue to agree with Holden that robust disparities in wealth are sufficient to ground the claim that people ought to give more. The fact that you wouldn’t repeat some of your previous donations knowing what you know now is unfortunate, but I don’t think it says much about the moral weight of various arguments.

  • Holden on June 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm said:

    My argument isn’t so much that people are “turned off” by questionable figures as that they aren’t compelled by them, because the figures are intuitively sketchy-seeming and generally don’t seem to command broad consensus. In other words, I think it’s common to respond to Peter Singer’s argument with “That figure can’t be right.” Yet if he made the argument I advance instead, “That figure can’t be right” responses would run up against a broader, stronger consensus that the figures are in fact roughly right.

    Vipul, I’m happy to concede that the $X/life figure would be more compelling to many (though not to me!) if it were robust. I don’t think I’ve said anything inconsistent with this idea.

    Vipul and Jonah, I haven’t claimed that there are no people/actions for whom the $X/life version is necessary. I’ve claimed that I don’t know of any (Vipul’s report is the first I’m aware of) and that I’d guess there are many more people who underappreciate the case for generosity than people in this category. I think this statement holds true for readers of this blog and not just for the general population.

  • Uri Katz on June 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm said:

    Ian – My point was to make an argument that separates the practical considerations for giving from the moral ones. Obviously, decreasing marginal utility belongs to the former.
    The reason I think this is important is because confusing these considerations can lead to less effective giving. Once we realize generosity is a moral imperative, than we can start asking how much we ought to give and where it should go. If we think our moral duty is only due to $X/life, for example, we might miss important giving opportunities elsewhere, and we might get discouraged when the ratio goes down. It is as if someone says, I will only give if I can save the world, and since that is impossible he never gives.
    The discussion going on here about motivation is another example of why this distinction matters. First figure out what ought to be down, then how to motivate people to do it. You loose sight of the great benefit of Peter Singer’s TED talk when you think his $X/life figure was anything but a highly effective publicity stunt. Sure, it does not work for the more sophisticated givers, but it is the general public he is after, and most of them don’t care about the accuracy of the numbers too much. Those that do can check them out, and it is important to show them that they should give no matter that particular ratio.

  • Ian Turner on June 23, 2013 at 10:27 am said:


    Frankly, if the cost per life saved were much higher (say $1 million per life instead of $2000), and global inequality were not so extreme, I would not give much at all. I’d be more likely to dedicate my efforts to education or the arts.

  • Uri Katz on June 24, 2013 at 12:13 am said:

    Ian – I think we agree on this point. My reasoning is precisely that we need to put our duty to be generous first, and then search for effective giving opportunities. Perhaps I mistook the moral case for “giving” for the moral case for “being generous”.
    In any case, I am afraid I am being unclear and convoluted, so I will end this thread. Thank you for reading and responding to my posts.

  • Daniel Spohn on June 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm said:

    So, should GiveWell stop trying to perform estimations for quantitative measures such as $ per life saved?
    Despite the problems associated with such quantitative measures that have been mentioned in this post and in the comments,  I believe this would be very unfortunate.

    There are a number of  donors who for whatever reason wish to guide their giving by quantitative measures and the research done by GiveWell may be one of their most important sources to rely on in their giving decision.

    It would be desirable if this type of donor could also in the future rely on GiveWell’s research  in assisting in the giving decision.

    In line with what you did in the past I would wish that also in the future GiveWell tries to estimate quantitative measures such as “$ per life saved” where applicable in the context of a top charity, outlines the limitations and uncertainties, and elaborates in the top charity recommendations how far quantifiable and non-quantifiable criteria have influenced the decision on how to rank the top charities. This approach may widen the audience to which the GiveWell research is meaningful and it may convince some donors who are purely focused on quantitative measures to consider non quantifiable criteria as well. 

    … the “X$ per life saved” estimate is very powerful to start reflecting generally on the tremendous impact donating money can have. Personally I assume X being 1000$ or 6000$ would not make a big difference in the decision whether to give or how much to give.

  • Holden on June 26, 2013 at 6:14 pm said:

    Daniel, we intend to continue doing cost-effectiveness analysis. We find it a helpful tool for sharpening our own thinking as well as for making it transparent, and we believe there are cases in which it facilitates useful comparisons. We don’t endorse taking the estimates literally, but we agree with you that they have substantial value, and we plan on continuing to provide them.

  • Interesting discussion.

    important to include the impact that ‘upstream’ changes make ie getting a government to implement a health policy that includes free immunisation to all children against preventable diseases or increases access to education for all children acros an entire country. Such interventions have undoubtedly massive long term impacts for individuals and for a country in terms of reduced health costs, improved work opportunities etc.

    A real issue with Singer’s reductive arguement is that it fails to include these scale interventions that have the potential to dramatically shift the wellbeing of an entire nation. Such interventions are often difficult to cost – and equally as difficult to monitor in the short term, though are crucial to changing the environment for positive development outcomes.

  • Kata Mutiara on September 6, 2013 at 8:33 am said:

    there is always two side, black and white

  • cara meng on January 17, 2014 at 11:35 am said:

    I think there is more debate to have on what it means to “do as much good as possible.” Is extending a human life an infinite good? Or is reducing / preventing suffering, without any prejudice based on species, a better metric of good?
    IOW, is making “human life” the bottom line any different than, say “American’s life” or “charity begins at home”?
    E.g., would you extend a human life if it caused more net suffering? Or if doing something with the same money could reduce / prevent significantly more suffering?…..

Comments are closed.