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Future People and Giving

October 7th, 2011
giving  [html]
In talking to someone on Wednesday about what my goals and values were, they asked whether I valued the happiness of future people, or just current people. For example, if we could somehow make one hundred future children be born happier or healthier, is that equivalent to one hundred children now having the same gains? What seemed strange to me is that he seemed to think this was a question without a clear answer. But how is it different to help someone currently living far away that I will never meet than someone who won't be born for a decade who I will also never meet?

There are practical issues with knowing whether I'm actually making a difference. Helping people in the future is riskier and harder to tell when you're doing well. Similarly, if you help people now, they may then go on to help others, doing more good the sooner they can start. I see these as practical reasons to do work now, however, not an issue of values. If a giant asteroid were 90% likely to hit earth in the next decade, I would spend money on helping some people be more likely survive long enough to reestablish humanity, even if that were nowhere near the most cost effective way to make current people happy.

Which gets us into the question of existential risk. There are things that could end humanity. Nuclear war, asteroid impact, nanotechnology, major climate change, epidemics, and biowarfare, among others. Perhaps I could do more good trying to avert one of these very bad outcomes than by giving to effective charities trying to help people now.

Evaluation for an existential risk organization is very difficult. If my charity administers vaccines, you can determine how effective it is by comparing some of the following metrics with a control group:

  • The number of people vaccinated
  • The number of people getting the disease
  • Self reported happiness
  • School drop out rates
  • Employment rates
  • Income

What is a metric I can use to evaluate a charity that claims to be working to limit the risk of nanotechnology? How do I know if they are effective? Most charities are not effective, even with the best intentions, because it's really hard to do a good job without the feedback of the market. This makes me skeptical of charities like the SIAI that are trying to reduce a very unpredictable future risk.

While I do think an effective charity working on limiting an existential risk might do more good for my dollar than village reach, I'm not sure there is one.

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