::  Posts  ::  RSS  ::  ◂◂RSS  ::  Contact

What should "counterfactual donation" mean?

November 24th, 2017
giving  [html]
Sometimes people will describe a donation as "counterfactually valid" or just "counterfactual". For example, you might offer to donate a counterfactual dollar for every push-up your team does. [1] The high level interpretation is that you're doing something you wouldn't have done otherwise. For example, if you hire a mason to repoint your wall it's definitely not something that would have just done on their own, while when charities offer donation matching your donation doesn't generally affect how much of the matching funds the charity receives. The former is fully counterfactually valid while the latter isn't counterfactually valid at all.

Say I offer to make a counterfactual donation of $50 to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) if you do a thing; which of the following are ok for me to do if you don't?

  1. Donate $50 to the AMF.
  2. Donate $49 to the AMF.
  3. Donate $50 to the AMF tomorrow.
  4. Donate $50 to another long-lasting insecticide treated anti-malaria net distribution charity.
  5. Donate $50 to another of GiveWell's top charities.
  6. Donate $50 to another group that is commonly supported by EAs.
  7. Donate an extra $50 to the AMF next year.
  8. Donate an extra $50 to the AMF next year, not because of intentional dishonesty, but just because not having given $50 this year I happen to have more money available next year when it comes time for me to figure out how much to donate and at that point I still think the AMF is a good choice.
  9. Spend an extra $50 on myself (go out to eat when I wouldn't otherwise, etc).
  10. Light a $50 bill on fire. [2]

The first example is exactly what counterfactual doesn't mean here: I'm just going ahead and doing my half of the deal whether you do your half or not. The last example is pretty clearly counterfactual. Which of the ones in between are ok?

I would draw the line as allowing only the last two. The goal of clarifying that something is counterfactual is to allow the other person to reason as if they're causing the thing to happen. On the other hand, maybe that's an unreasonably high barrier, and if we decide that's what "counterfactual" means no one will be able to use the term for anything, so we should adopt something weaker?


[1] This is philosphy-inspired EA-jargon, and as jargon I'm mixed on it but I think it's helpful to think about what we've been using it to mean and what it should mean.

[2] We could add a final one here, something like I donate $50 to a malaria promotion organization, but that's extortion. (For some reason this is commonly referred to as 'blackmail', even though it doesn't involve threats to reveal information.)

Comment via: google plus, facebook

Recent posts on blogs I like:

Trip Chaining, Redux

There’s been an ongoing conversation about how public transport can be used for non-work trips (and what it means for women) that makes me go back to something I wrote in 2012 about trip chaining. In that post I asserted a distinction between long and sho…

via Pedestrian Observations June 13, 2019

Unintended pregnancy in folk songs

I’ve been listening to a lot of the Watersons and Waterson:Carthy this week. It’s reminded me how absolutely full British folk music is of songs about unintended pregnancy. Most commonly the result is unhappy motherhood: “But if I had kent that I now ken …

via The whole sky June 1, 2019

Programmer migration patterns

I made a little flow chart of mainstream programming languages and how programmers seem to move from one to another. There's a more common kind of chart, which shows how the languages themselves evolved. I didn't want to show the point of view of …

via apenwarr March 18, 2019

via openring

More Posts:


  ::  Posts  ::  RSS  ::  ◂◂RSS  ::  Contact