Why I’m going cold on rational charity optimising

People don’t decide to give, then choose where.

They see a problem they want to fix and try to help. Maybe that’s saving the world’s cutest fauna or trying to fix homelessness in their own suburb.

I’ve written lots about optimisation of charitable giving. So to me, that’s wasting money. But not to them.

Obsessing over worthiness of charitable donations assumes the amount of giving is fixed. It’s not. The amount of giving depends enormously on emotions. And not every charity causes emotions.

In fact, the ones that measure their impact and do the most good don’t necessarily create the biggest tidal wave of fellow-feeling. The Schistosomiasis Control Inititiative doesn’t exactly bring a tear to the eye.

If I criticise giving to the guide dogs, as I did in May, I’m applying an economic framework that doesn’t occur to the donor. They don’t want to optimise their return. They want to feel a good emotion. They don’t actually give a shit about the opportunity cost and the additional good they could be doing. They just want to feel warm and fuzzy.

Who am I to point and laugh at that? Warm fuzziness is what electrifies the philanthropic sector. Without warm fuzziness there would be no philanthropy.

Altruism is not rational in and of itself. Why should we expect it to be applied rationally?

Telling people warmth is weakness and fuzziness is foolishness is the quickest way to cut off philanthropic donations at their source. And we don’t want that.

There was a really amazing story in Vox today about “effective altruism” and how even supposedly rational giving can easily get trapped in a cul-de-sac where people give to what makes them excited. It’s a really terrific article and I recommend clicking it.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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