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Effective Altruism Hurts People Who Donate Too Much

I was having an extended discussion with CB from EA when the licensing rules were changed so I quit the EA forum. So I asked if he wanted to continue at my forum. He said yes and registered an account but got stuck before posting.

I clarified that he couldn’t post because he hadn’t paid the one-time $20 price of an account. I offered him a free account if the $20 would be a financial burden, but said if he could afford it then I request he pay because if he values conversing with me less than $20 then I don’t think it’s a good use of my time.

Despite (I think) wanting to talk with me more, and having already spent hours on it, he changed his mind over the one-time $20 price. He said:

I don't think I will pay $20 because all the money I earn beyond my basic needs is going to charities.

That makes EA sound somewhat like a cult which has brainwashed him. And I’ve heard of EA doing this to other people. Some highly involved and respected EA people have made admissions about feeling guilty about buying any luxuries, such as a coffee, and struggled to live normal lives. This is considered a known problem with EA for many years, and they have no good plan to fix it and are continuing to hurt people and take around the maximum amount of money you can get from someone, just like some cults do. Further, EA encourages people to change careers to do EA-related work; it tries to take over people’s entire lives just like cults often do. EAs dating other EAs is common too, sometimes polyamorously (dating an EA makes EA be a larger influence in your life, and weird sexual practices are common with cults).

I don’t recall ever accusing anything of being a cult before, and overall I don’t think EA is a cult. But I think EA crosses a line here and deserves to be compared to a cult. EA clearly has differences from a cult, but having these similarities with cults is harmful.

EA does not demand you donate the maximum. They make sure to say it’s OK to donate at whatever level you’re comfortable with, or something more along those lines. But they also do bring up ideas about maximizing giving and comparing the utility of every different action you could do and maximizing utility (or impact or effectiveness or good). They don’t have good ideas about where or how to draw a line to limiting your giving, so I think they leave that up to individuals, many of whom won’t come up with good solutions themselves.

CB’s not poor, and he wants something, and the stakes are much higher than $20, but he can’t buy it because he feels that he has to give EA all his money. I think he already put hundreds of dollars of his time into the conversation, and I certainly did, and I think he planned to put hundreds more dollars of his time into it, but somehow $20 is a dealbreaker. He works in computing so his time could easily be worth over $100/hr.

I wonder if he considered that, instead of talking with me, he could have spent those hours volunteering at a soup kitchen. Or he could have spent those hours working and making more money to donate. He might need a second job or side gig or something to adjust how many hours he works, but he could do that. If he’s a programmer, he could make an phone or web app on the side and set his own schedule for that additional work. (What about burn out? Having intellectual conversations also takes up mental energy. So he had some to spare.)

Anyway, it’s very sad to see someone all twisted up like this. From what I can tell, he’s fairly young and naive, and doesn’t know much about money or economics.

Note/update: After I finished writing this article, before I posted it, CB claimed that he exaggerated about how much he donates. That partial retraction has not changed my mind about the general issues, although it makes his individual situation somewhat less bad and does address some specific points like whether he could buy a (cheap) book.

Investing In Yourself

Buying a conversation where he’d learn something could make CB wiser and more effective, which could lead to him earning more money, making better decisions about which charities to donate to, and other benefits.

I wonder if CB also doesn’t buy books because they aren’t part of his “basic needs”.

People should be encouraged to invest in themselves, not discouraged from it. EA is harming intellectual progress by handicapping a bunch of relatively smart, energetic young people so they don’t use financial resources to support their own personal progress and development.

This one thing – taking a bunch of young people who are interested in ideas and making it harder for them to develop into great thinkers – may do a huge amount of harm. Imagine if Karl Popper or Richard Feynman had donated so much money he couldn’t buy any books. Or pick whoever you think is important. What if the rich people several hundred years ago had all donated their money instead of hiring tutors to teach their kids – could that have stopped the enlightenment? (Note how that would have been doubly bad. It’d prevent some of their kids from turning into productive scientists and intellectuals, and it’d also take away gainful employment from the tutors, who were often scientists or other intellectuals without much money to fund their life or work.)

On a related note, basically none of EA’s favored charities are about finding the smartest or most rational people and helping them. But helping some of the best people could easily do more good than helping some of the poorest people. If you help a poor person have a happier, healthier life, that does some good. If you help a smart, middle-class American kid become a great thinker who writes a few really effective self-help books, his books could improve the lives of millions of people.

Admittedly, it’s hard to figure out how to help that kid. But people at least try to work on that problem and brainstorm ideas and critique their initial plans. There could be ongoing research to try to develop a good approach. But there isn’t much interest in that stuff.

The least they could do is leave that kid alone, rather than convince him to donate all his money above basic needs when he’s a young adult so he can’t afford books, online courses, and other resources that would be useful and enjoyable to him.

Also, at EA, I’ve been talking about criticism, debate and error correction. I’ve been trying to get them to consider their fallibility and the risk of being wrong about things, and do more about that. So, for example, I think EA is mistaken about many of its causes. CB could estimate a 1% chance that I have a point he could learn, and assume that would only affect his own future donations, and talking to me would still be a good deal, because he’ll donate more than $2000 in the future, so even multiplied by 1% it’s better than $20. So talking to me more would be cost-effective (in dollars, which I think is CB’s concern even though time matters too). Not considering things like this, and seeking to invest in risk reduction, is partly related to not investing in yourself and partly related to poor, irrational attitudes related to fallibility.

Also, I do tons of work (philosophy research, writing, discussion and video creation) trying to make the world better, mostly for free. Isn’t investing in me a way to make the world better? If you pay me $20, why is that any worse than donating it to a charity? Some people literally donate money to me like a charity because they respect and value what I do. Similarly, some EA charities give grants to intellectuals to do work on topics such as rationality, so I could receive such a grant. Donating to a grant-making organization that gave me a grant would count as charity, but giving me money directly counts less so, especially if you’re buying something from me (forum access). The marginal cost of forum access for me is $0, so this isn’t like buying a hand-made table from me, where I had to put in some time and materials to make it, so my profit margin is only 25%. My marginal profit margin on forum memberships is 100% because I’m going to keep running the forum whether or not CB joins. EA focuses people’s attention on charities, has an incorrectly negative view of trade, and biases people against noticing that buying from small creators actually generally helps make the world better even though it’s not “charity”.

What CB Donates To

Are CB’s donations doing good?

For around $20, he could pay for six visits to a vaccination clinic for a baby in rural northern Nigeria. It can be half a day of travel to reach a clinic, so paying people a few dollars makes a meaningful difference to whether they make the trip.

I wonder which vaccinations are actually important for people living in small, isolated communities like that. Some vaccinations seem much more relevant in a city or if you come in contact with more people. How many of them will ever visit a big city in their life? I don’t know. Also even if vaccinations provide significant value to them, they’re really poor, so maybe something else would improve their lives more.

I looked through charities that EA recommends and that vaccination charity looked to me like one of the best options. Plus I read a bit about it, unlike some of the other more promising ones like a charity that gives people Vitamin A. Some charities get distracted by political activism, so I checked if they were taking a political side about the covid vaccine, and they didn’t appear to be, so that’s nice to see. I think finding charities that stay out of politics is one of the better selection methods that people could and should use. EA cares a lot about evaluating and recommending charities, but I’m not aware of them using being non-political as a criterion. EA itself is pretty political.

I’m doubtful that CB donates to that kind of cause that provides some kind of fairly concrete health benefits for poor people in distant countries. Based on our discussions and his profile, I think his top cause is animal welfare. He may also donate to left-wing energy causes (like anti fossil fuels) and possibly AI Alignment. I think those are terrible causes where his donations would likely do more harm than good. I’m not going to talk about AI Alignment here, which isn’t very political, and the problems are more about bad epistemology and moral philosophy (plus lack of willingness to debate with critics).

Animal welfare and anti fossil fuel stuff are left wing political activism. Rather than staying out of politics, those causes get involved in politics on purpose. (Not every single charity in those spaces is political, just most of them.)

Let me explain it using a different issue as an example where there’s tons of visible political propaganda coming from both sides. The US pro-life right puts out lots of propaganda, and they recently had a major victory getting Roe vs. Wade overturned. Now they’re changing some state laws to hurt people, particularly women. Meanwhile, the pro-choice left also puts out propaganda. To some extent, the propaganda from the two sides cancels each other out.

Imagine a pro-choice charity that said “Next year, the pro-lifers are expected to spend $10,000,000,000 on propaganda. We must counter them with truth. Please donate to us or our allies because we need $10 billion dollars a year just to break even and cancel out what they’re doing. If we can get $15B/yr, we can start winning.”

Imagine that works. They get $15B and outspend the pro-lifers who only spend $10B. The extra $5B helps shift public perception to be more pro-choice. Suppose pro-choice is the correct view and getting people to believe it is actually good. We’ll just ignore the risk of being on the wrong side. (Disclosure: I’m pro-abortion.)

Then there’s $25B being spent in total, and $20B is basically incinerated, and then $5B makes the world better. That is really bad. 80% of the money isn’t doing any good. This is super inefficient. In general, the best case scenario when donating to tribalist political activism looks kind of like this.

If you want to be more effective, you have to be more non-partisan, more focused on rationality, and stay out of propaganda wars.

In simplified terms, pro-choice activism is more right than wrong, whereas I fear CB is donating to activism which is more wrong than right.

Saving Money and Capital Accumulation

I fear that spending only on basic needs, and donating the rest, means CB isn’t saving (enough) money.

If you don’t save money, you may end up being a burden on society later. You may need to receive help from the government or from charities. By donating money that should be saved, one risks later taking money away and being a drain on resources because one doesn’t have enough to take care of himself.

CB’s kids may have to take out student loans, and end up in a bunch of debt, because CB donated a bunch of money instead of putting it in a college fund for them.

CB may end up disabled. He may get fired and struggle to find a new job, perhaps through no fault of his own. Jobs could get harder to come by due to recession, natural disaster, or many other problems. He shouldn’t treat his expected future income as reliable. Plus, he says he wants to stop working in computing and switch to an EA-related job. That probably means taking a significant pay cut. He should plan ahead, and save money now while he has higher income, to help enable him to take a lower paying job later if he wants to. As people get older, their expenses generally go up, and their income generally goes up too. If he wants to take a pay cut when he’s older, instead of having a higher income to deal with higher expenses, that could be a major problem, especially if he didn’t save money now to deal with it.

Does saving money waste it? No. Saving means refraining from consumption. If you want to waste your money, buy frivolous stuff. If you work and save, you’re contributing to society. You provide work that helps others, and by saving you don’t ask for anything in return (now – but you can ask for it later when you spend your money).

Saving isn’t like locking up a bunch of machine tools in a vault so they don’t benefit anyone. People save money, not tools or food. Money is a medium of exchange. As long as there is enough money in circulation, then money accomplishes its purpose. There’s basically no harm in keeping some cash in a drawer. Today, keeping money in a bank is just a number in a computer, so it doesn’t even take physical cash out of circulation.

Money basically represents a debt where you did something to benefit others, and now you’re owed something equally valuable in return from others. When you save money, you’re not asking for what you’re owed from others. You helped them for nothing in return. It’s a lot like charity.

Instead of saving cash, you can invest it. This is less like charity. You can get interest payments or the value of your investment can grow. In return for not spending your money now, you get (on average) more of it.

If you invest money instead of consuming it, then you contribute to capital accumulation. You invest in businesses not luxuries. In other words, (as an approximation) you help pay for machines, tools and buildings, not for ice cream or massages. You invest in factories and production that can help make the world a better place (by repeatedly creating useful products), not short term benefits.

The more capital we accumulate, the higher the productivity of labor is. The higher the productivity of labor, the higher wages for workers are and also the more useful products get created. There are details like negotiations about how much of the additional wealth goes to who, but the overall thing is more capital accumulation means more wealth is produced and there’s more for everyone. Making the pie bigger is the more important issue than fighting with people over who gets which slice, though the distribution of wealth does matter too.

When you donate to a charity which spends the money on activism or even vaccines, that is consumption. It’s using up wealth to accomplish something now. (Not entirely because a healthy worker is more productive, so childhood vaccines are to some extent an investment in human capital. But they aren’t even trying to evaluate the most effective way to invest in human capital to raise productivity. That isn’t their goal so they’re probably not being especially cost-effective at it.)

When you save money and invest it, you’re helping with capital accumulation – you’re helping build up total human wealth. When you consume money on charitable causes or luxuries, you’re reducing total human wealth.

Has EA ever evaluated how much good investing in an index fund does and compared it to any of their charities? I doubt it. (An index fund is a way to have your investment distributed among many different companies so you don’t have to guess which specific companies are good. It also doesn’t directly give money to the company because you buy stock from previous investors, but as a major simplification we can treat it like investing in the company.)

I’ve never seen anything from EA talking about how much good you’ll do if you don’t donate, and subtracting that from the good done by donating, to see how much additional good donating does (which could be below zero in some cases or even on average – who knows without actually investigating). If you buy some fancy dinner and wine, you get some enjoyment, so that does some good. If you buy a self-help book or online course and invest in yourself, that does more good. If you buy a chair or frying pan, that’s also investing in yourself and your life, and does good. If you invest the money in a business, that does some good (on average). Or maybe you think so many big businesses are so bad that you think investing in them makes the world worse, which I find plausible, and it reminds me of my view that many non-profits are really bad… I have a negative view of most large companies, but overall I suspect that, on average, non-profits are worse than for-profit businesses.

EA has a bunch of anti-capitalists who don’t know much about economics. CB in particular is so ignorant of capitalism that he didn’t know it prohibits fraud. He doesn’t know, in a basic sense, what the definition of capitalism even is. And he also doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. He thought he knew, and he challenged me on that point, but he was wrong and ignorant.

These people need to read Ludwig von Mises. Both for the economics and for the classical liberalism. They don’t understand harmony vs. conflicts of interest, and a lot of what they do, like political activism, is based on assuming there are conflicts of interest and the goal should be to make your side win. They often don’t aim at win/win solutions, mutual benefit and social harmony. They don’t really understand peace, freedom and how a free market is proposal about how to create social harmony and benefit everyone and some of its mechanisms for doing that are superior to what charities try to do – so getting capitalism working better could easily do more good than what they’re doing now, but they wouldn’t really even consider such a plan. (I’m aware that I haven’t explained capitalism enough here for people to learn about capitalism from this article. It may make sense to people who already know some stuff. If you want to know more, read Mises and read Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics and feel free to ask questions or seek debate at my forum. If you find this material difficult, you may first need to put effort into learning how to learn, getting better at reading, getting better at research, getting better at critical thinking, managing your schedule, managing your motivations and emotions, managing projects over time, etc.)


CB was more intellectually tolerant and friendly than most EAers. Most of them can’t stand to talk to someone like me who has a different perspective and some different philosophical premises. He could, so in that way he’s better than them. He has a ton of room for improvement at critical thinking, rigor and precision, but he could easily be categorized as smart.

So it’s sad to see EA hurt him in such a major way that really disrupts his life. Doing so much harm is pretty unusual – cults can do it but most things in society don’t. It’s ironic and sad that EA, which is about doing good, is harming him.

And if I was going to try to improve the world and help people, people like CB would be high on my list for who to help. I think helping some smart and intellectually tolerant people would do more good than childhood vaccines in Nigeria let alone leftist (or rightist) political activism. The other person I know of who thought this way – about prioritizing helping some of the better people, especially smart young people – was Ayn Rand.

I am trying to help these people – that’s a major purpose of sharing writing – but it’s not my top priority in my life. I’m not an altruist. Although, like Rand and some classical liberals, I don’t believe there’s a conflict between the self and the other. Promoting altruism is fundamentally harmful because it spreads the idea that you must choose yourself or others, and there’s a conflict there requiring winners and losers. I think Rand should have promoted harmony more and egoism or selfishness less, but at least her intellectual position was that everyone can win and benefit, whereas EA doesn’t say that and intentionally asks people like CB to sacrifice their own good to help others, thereby implying that there is a conflict between what’s good for CB and what’s good for others, thereby implying basically that social harmony is impossible because there’s no common good that’s good for everyone.

I’ll end by saying that EA pushes young people to rush to donate way too much money when they’re often quite ignorant and don’t even know much about which causes are actually good or bad. EA has some leaders who are more experienced and knowledgeable, but many of them have political and tribalist agendas, aren’t rational, and won’t debate or address criticism of their views. It’s totally understandable for a young person to have no idea what capitalism is and to be gullible in some ways, but it’s not OK for EA to take advantage of that gullibility, keep their membership ignorant of what capitalism is, and discourage their members from reading Mises or speaking with people like me who know about capitalism and classical liberalism. EA has leaders who know more about capitalism, and hate it, and won’t write reasonable arguments or debate the matter in an effective, truth seeking way. They won’t point out how/why/where Mises was wrong, and instead go guide young people to not read Mises and to donate all their money beyond basic needs to the causes that EA leaders like.

EDIT 2022-12-05: For context, see the section "Bad" EAs, caught in a misery trap in https://michaelnotebook.com/eanotes/ which had already previously alerted me that EA has issues with over-donating, guilt, difficulty justifying spending on yourself, etc., which affect a fair amount of people.

Elliot Temple on December 4, 2022


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