On turning down requests – Part 1 of 2

As the person currently in charge of Giving What We Can’s social media and as an activist in EA-barren New Orleans, I have encountered my fair share of non-EA charities or individuals seeking funding. A good cause is a good cause, of course, but with the basis of EA being rooted in “some good causes do more good than others” and “limited resources necessitate prioritization,” I’ve found it necessary to turn away fellow do-gooders. How do you break it to someone that you won’t support their cause or charity of choice because it doesn’t make the cut without coming off like a presumptuous/stingy/callous douchebag? To be frank, I don’t know, but I’ve given it a shot when needed and think it’s worth discussing. Part 1 (below) discusses the problem in greater depth, and Part 2 will propose ways to deal with this uncomfortable scenario.  

Let’s take an example I (roughly) remember seeing a while back on the EA Facebook page.* A woman, realizing that the Effective Altruism group is constituted of generous individuals, posted on the page requesting that we donate to save the life of her friend’s daughter who suffered from a rare form of leukemia and whose treatment her mother couldn’t afford. The post went unanswered for a while, as it was evident to all but the poster that she had made a plea to a community that wouldn’t heed her request, but who’s going to step forward to let her know that and take the brunt of what would presumably result in heated upset? Someone – I would cite him if I remembered who it was – did take on the task, politely noting that while we wished her well, she was unlikely to find support here, as this is a community oriented towards maximizing the number of lives saved per dollar, and that this means that members are unlikely to donate to save someone of leukemia when the trade-off is many more lives that are less expensive to help. Had this been someone they knew personally, he noted, they would likely allocate their funds differently, but she (the woman who posted) must understand that, given that she is equally a stranger to us as are people in absolute poverty, most EAs wouldn’t choose to donate to the girl. I believe he ended with a wish of good health and luck, or the equivalent.

That did not go over well, to say it lightly. The woman was appalled at our callousness in the face of obvious need. If not knowing the girl was the problem, that was easily remedied, as she would gladly provide a description of what a lovely little girl she is and make us familiar with her plight. How monstrous, she said, that we can call ourselves altruists when we turn a blind eye in the face of clear, remediable need.

Her request and even sentiments in this situation aren’t unwarranted. Imagine if your pre-EA self had been faced by the distress or likely death of a loved one and, turning to others in a desperate plea for assistance you denied it because numbers dictated that  anonymous African children are more important than your ailing parent or doting spouse. Perhaps even now, despite your likely EA disposition, you’d hope or expect that effective altruists might lend a hand when someone close to you was in critical need, casting aside calculations as part of a “moral holiday” or as justified by the (biased) heuristic that your productivity as an EA would decline so much if this  person to be ill or die that it would result in net negative utility. Except for a rare few of us, I expect if push were to come to shove we’d favor our loved ones over the suffering masses elsewhere. Yet with the stranger separation of the poster in the above scenario, we maintained sufficient indifference so as to be able to passively deny the request.

Assuming that EAs view this indifference as being net positive and that we morally must give elsewhere, how do we go about it denying less cost-effective causes without eliciting virulent responses like that of the woman? I feel that the responder spoke tactfully but honestly, and would like to think that had I bolstered the courage to confront her myself that I would’ve written similarly.

Maybe more harm is done than good by responding in this sort of situation; after all, it’s easy for organizations or groups to miss or ignore a post, and mightn’t affect the woman much at all were we simply to ignore her request. Perhaps instinctually it seems best to avoid any confrontation in this manner. While there may be a good argument for it, often times a passive “overlooking” isn’t so easy – say, when you are directly asked for change by a homeless person or charity enthusiast, or when speaking to an audience or interviewer and asked about your views on a trending charity. If you are so fortunate as to have an ignorable case, it is hard to generalize how to react, as people’s reaction will vary greatly depending on their particular circumstances and dispositions. A case for responding, however, is that if we are willing to be public about tough yet crucial choices such as these, it will, if properly presented and received, signal a new societal norm on par with the openness of public environmental or animal activism. And in situations of obliged response, one of course must respond, walking the tightrope between an upset correspondent and compromised morals.

What holds us back from being blunt? My guess is a combination of social norms surrounding charity, empathy with the other person’s instincts, and fear of the paradoxical perception as a bad person by abstaining in favor of more effective charities.

Having more or less covered the problem, I’ll give a shot at potential solutions in Part 2, referencing the parts of the problem each suggestion addresses.