[Question] Why do we need philanthropy? Can we make it obsolete?


(this sec­tion can safely be skipped)

Last up­dated: 2020-04-25


I wasn’t sure whether to post this as a post or a ques­tion. On one hand, I feel I’ve put enough effort /​ it’s good enough that it war­rants a post, which I feel would give it more visi­bil­ity. On the other hand, if other peo­ple want to write an­swers on this ques­tion, I feel like ask­ing a ques­tion to cen­tral­ize the dis­cus­sion on the topic is use­ful. I’m opt­ing for some­thing in-be­tween: ask­ing as a ques­tion, but writ­ing my an­swer in the post /​ ques­tion’s de­scrip­tion. I’ve seen other ques­tions like this. Do you think this is the best norm or should we re­place it with an­other one?

Alter­na­tive title

Why do we need the Effec­tive Altru­ism com­mu­nity? (How) can we make effec­tive al­tru­ism ob­so­lete?


I’m sur­prised to not have seen much on this topic (and would like to be linked to rele­vant pieces I missed). It seems to be a (the?) fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of the Effec­tive Altru­ism com­mu­nity. Some po­ten­tial benefits I’ve iden­ti­fied from hav­ing a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing on this ques­tion in­cludes: be­ing bet­ter at de­ter­min­ing which cause ar­eas are likely to be ne­glected, bet­ter un­der­stand how we can make the world less de­pen­dent on philan­thropy, and bet­ter un­der­stand the long-term con­se­quences of differ­ent so­cial norms on philan­thropy.

Epistemic status

I think I’m point­ing in a use­ful di­rec­tion, but prob­a­bly at least made mis­takes on some details


Effec­tive Altru­ism is in­her­ently rooted in philan­thropy. Whether you earn-to-give, vol­un­teer, self-fund your work, or take a pay cut to have a higher-im­pact ca­reer, you’re ul­ti­mately ex­chang­ing re­sources for so­cial good (the re­source of­ten be­ing money).


I will dis­cuss the fol­low­ing points.

On the role of philan­thropy

  • it cor­rects for co­or­di­na­tion failures

    • ie. are in­di­vi­d­u­als in the sys­tem well co­or­di­nated?

  • it cor­rects for ex­clud­ing peo­ple from the poli­ti­cal apparatus

    • ie. are there in­di­vi­d­u­als ex­cluded from the sys­tem?

  • it cor­rects for inequalities

    • ie. is wealth fairly dis­tributed in the sys­tem?

On get­ting rid of philanthropy

  • Should we ob­so­lete philan­thropy?

  • To fix or to patch: Should we pri­ori­tize ob­so­let­ing philan­thropy?

  • Are sys­temic failures a free pass on not helping the world?

  • Rad­i­calxChange: Effec­tive al­tru­ism for sys­temic changes

  • Go­ing meta: a sys­tem to fix the sys­tem (and the proso­cial basilisk!)


By dis­cussing in the com­ments, I re­al­ized that the ‘in­equal­ity’ and ‘poli­ti­cally un­em­pow­ered moral be­ings’ mo­ti­va­tions as­sume some form of prefer­ence util­i­tar­i­anism (or co­op­er­a­tion mechanism). This wouldn’t ob­so­lete philan­thropy for (all) other moral­ity.

Co­or­di­na­tion failures

Spa­tially-global goods

Prob­lem: We don’t have a global poli­ti­cal entity


Most lev­els of or­ga­ni­za­tion (fam­ily, city, coun­try) have mechanisms to fund pub­lic good. How­ever, global goods are more likely to be un­der­funded be­cause the UN lacks enough power /​ coun­tries lack suffi­cient co­or­di­na­tion.

Scott Bar­rett, in zir book Why Co­op­er­ate? The In­cen­tive to Sup­ply Global Public Goods, iden­ti­fies 5 types of global good based on what they re­quire: sin­gle best effort, weak­est link, ag­gre­gate effort, mu­tual re­straint, co­or­di­na­tion. Depend­ing on the type of co­op­er­a­tion needed, global goods can be more or less likely to be fulfilled. Ag­gre­gate effort, mu­tual re­straint, and some­times weak­est link are the most difficult to en­force.


  • Sin­gle best effort: As­teroid defense, knowl­edge, sup­press­ing an in­fec­tious dis­ease out­break at its source, geoengineering

  • Weak­est link: Disease erad­i­ca­tion, pre­vent­ing emer­gence of re­sis­tance and new diseases

  • Ag­gre­gate effort: Cli­mate change miti­ga­tion, ozone layer protection

  • Mu­tual re­straint: Non-use of nu­clear weapons, non-pro­lifer­a­tion, bans on nu­clear test­ing and biotech­nol­ogy research

  • Co­or­di­na­tion: Stan­dards for the mea­sure­ment of time, for oil tankers, and for automobiles

Source of the ex­am­ples, and for more in­for­ma­tion: Friendly AI as a global pub­lic good

Pos­si­ble sys­temic solu­tions: Ex­cel­lent global gov­er­nance /​ world government

Notable or­ga­ni­za­tion: Global Challenges Foundation

Tem­po­rally-global goods

Prob­lem: Time-in­con­sis­tent preferences

Pos­si­ble sys­temic solu­tion: Ances­tor Wor­ship is Efficient

Note: Although this could also fail into the next sec­tion with fu­ture peo­ple as the poli­ti­cally un­em­pow­ered moral be­ings.


Prob­lem: Poli­ti­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing is not a mar­ket, let alone an effi­cient one

Pos­si­ble sys­temic solu­tion: Futarchy, So­cial im­pact bond

Prob­lem: Some valuable nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ities are not cap­tured by the mar­ket, or are not trad­able.

Pos­si­ble sys­temic solu­tions: Car­bon mar­ket, In­surances for global catas­tro­phes, Plane­tary Condominium

Poli­ti­cally un­em­pow­ered moral beings

Prob­lem: Not ev­ery moral be­ings have a poli­ti­cal voice

Some moral be­ings could rep­re­sent them­selves, but they are not let. His­tor­i­cally, fe­males have been part of this group. To­day, young peo­ple still can’t vote, al­though their par­ents of­ten have a per­sonal in­ter­est in rep­re­sent­ing them.

Some moral be­ings can­not rep­re­sent them­selves even if they were al­lowed to. This in­cludes peo­ple that are cog­ni­tively in­ca­pable, such as very young hu­mans, non-hu­man an­i­mals, and severely men­tally hand­i­capped peo­ple. It also in­cludes peo­ple that can­not reach our spa­tiotem­po­ral po­si­tion, such as dead peo­ple, not-yet born peo­ple, and peo­ple in par­allel uni­verses.

As a spe­cial case of fu­ture peo­ple, this in­clude the fu­ture ver­sions of ex­ist­ing peo­ple. Some moral be­ings should ar­guably be weighted more, such as those with a higher ex­pec­tancy of re­main­ing life years given they will live with the con­se­quences for their votes for longer.

A larger pro­por­tion of vot­ers can vote for a policy even with lesser pas­sion com­pared to the minor­ity pro­por­tion of vot­ers who have higher prefer­ences in a less pop­u­lar topic. This can lead to a re­duc­tion of ag­gre­gate welfare.


Prob­lems: Some moral be­ings have less ca­pac­i­ties to gain wealth. Some moral be­ings might have a higher marginal util­ity for wealth. The way wealth gets dis­tributed might not be fair (ac­cord­ing to most op­er­a­tional­iza­tions, as de­scribed in the liter­a­ture on mul­ti­player bar­gain­ing prob­lem).

Pos­si­ble sys­temic solu­tions: Wind­fall Clause, Lux­ury tax*, Global ba­sic in­come, Trans­form­ing nature

*Also Should effec­tive al­tru­ists work on tax­a­tion of the very rich? (which I haven’t read yet)

Re­lated: Mo­ral pub­lic goods

Should we ob­so­lete philan­thropy?

Alter­na­tive ti­tle: Should the econ­omy cap­ture all so­cial good?

One of my say­ing is that peo­ple should aim to make them­selves ob­so­lete, such as by au­tomat­ing their job or cre­at­ing a su­pe­rior good/​ser­vice mak­ing the pre­vi­ous one ob­so­lete.

Of course, I’m just push­ing in a di­rec­tion: I don’t think most peo­ple should spend all their time mak­ing their job ob­so­lete with­out ac­tu­ally do­ing the job.

I think it’s similar with philan­thropy: when we can make it ob­so­lete at a rea­son­able cost, we of­ten should. Here’s why.

1. Eco­nomic in­cen­tives are more ro­bust. Philan­thropy, by it’s na­ture, is not a sure thing and re­lies on peo­ple’s good will, and effec­tive philan­thropy also re­lies on peo­ple’s ra­tio­nal­ity.

2. Philan­thropy is not enough. The op­ti­mal amount of re­sources our civil­i­sa­tion should spend on com­mon goods is more than what we cur­rently spend. If we re­duce the need for philan­thropy in some ar­eas, it will al­low philan­thropists to redi­rect their re­sources to other un­der­funded prob­lems.

3. Hav­ing philan­thropists give away their money might re­duce the power of al­tru­is­tic coal­i­tions to steer the fu­ture (see: Are se­lec­tion forces se­lect­ing for or against al­tru­ism? Will peo­ple in the fu­ture be more, as, or less al­tru­is­tic?)

How­ever, there are also some as­pects we should be care­ful about when con­sid­er­ing mak­ing philan­thropy ob­so­lete.

1. If eco­nomic in­cen­tives were enough to fund pub­lic goods at just the right amount on them­selves, pub­lic good might get over­funded as some peo­ple are nat­u­rally in­clined to donate money to pub­lic goods and might con­tinue do­ing so (men­tioned in Rad­i­cal in­sti­tu­tional re­forms that make cap­i­tal­ism & democ­racy work bet­ter, and how to get them)

2. Philan­thropy might act as a sig­nal of care, which could be an im­por­tant qual­ity for se­lect­ing the peo­ple steer­ing the fu­ture of Earth-origi­nat­ing life

3. Some sys­temic failures might can­cel each other, and fix­ing only part of might make it worse. For ex­am­ple, hav­ing billion­aires fund pub­lic good (in­equal­ity) might be good in a world where democ­racy hasn’t de­cou­pled val­ues from ex­per­tise (co­or­di­na­tion), even though ideally we might pre­fer to have other mechanisms to se­lect who in­forms us of the most valuable pub­lic good to fund.

4. I have the im­pres­sion that a lot of peo­ple see mak­ing a profit from pro­vid­ing im­por­tant so­cial goods, such as ac­cu­rate test­ing dur­ing a pan­demic crisis or valuable med­i­ca­tion against age-in­duced patholo­gies, as a bad thing. Pos­si­bly even more so than prof­it­ing by ex­ploit­ing ad­dic­tions. For ex­am­ple, Robin Han­son men­tions that “Clearly many see pay­ing for re­sults as risk­ing too much greed, money, and mar­kets in places where higher mo­tives should reign supreme. Which is too bad, as those higher mo­tives are of­ten miss­ing, and pay­ing for re­sults has a lot of un­tapped po­ten­tial.” It seems like shift­ing the cul­tural norm on this would be benefi­cial, es­pe­cially if philan­thropy is made less nec­es­sary. Other­wise, in a sys­tem where philan­thropy is ob­so­lete, or­ga­ni­za­tions might charge more for so­cial goods to com­pen­sate for the rep­u­ta­tion hit it would have on them. Note also that en­deav­ors that can be prof­itable should gen­er­ally not use philan­thropy money as philan­thropy money is cur­rently un­der-sup­plied, and money also helps with be­ing held ac­countable for be­ing effi­cient.

Over­all, I have the im­pres­sion we should move in the di­rec­tion of mak­ing philan­thropy less nec­es­sary /​ cap­tur­ing more of it in the sys­tem, but be mind­ful about the or­der in which we im­prove the sys­tem to avoid prob­lems such as the one men­tioned in the con #3 just above.

To patch or to fix?

Alter­na­tive ti­tle: Should we pri­ori­tize ob­so­let­ing philan­thropy?

Even though I think it would be good to move in a di­rec­tion of en­cap­su­lat­ing more philan­thropy within the sys­tem (“fix”), is this a pri­or­ity, or should we in­stead tar­get the prob­lems it causes di­rectly (“patch”)? Alter­na­tive names for ‘patch­ing’ in­ter­ven­tions could be tar­geted or one-off in­ter­ven­tions (I’m not sure which term to use for this con­cept).

I definitely think there should be fund­ing available to tackle both ap­proaches, but at the mar­gin, which one has the high­est ex­pected value?

In­stead of fix­ing co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems, should we ad­dress the prob­lems that arise from them di­rectly, such as re­search on ex­is­ten­tial risks re­duc­tion and brain preser­va­tion?

Some con­sid­er­a­tions:

  • If you think ex­is­ten­tial risks are im­mi­nent, then you might not have the time to change the systems

  • If you think only a few global goods have a high ex­pected value and that they would need sev­eral sys­tems to be fixed in or­der to start get­ting funded, then you might pre­fer fo­cus­ing on them directly

    • For ex­am­ple, AI safety in 2010 was ne­glected not just be­cause we don’t good global gov­er­nance, but also be­cause we haven’t fully solved the ex­pert problem

In­stead of try­ing to legally give a poli­ti­cal voice to op­pressed groups, should we di­rectly ask them (or if not pos­si­ble, then try to guess) who they would want to vote for and act as their rep­re­sent in elec­tions?

Some con­sid­er­a­tions:

  • Whether the rele­vant sys­temic is­sues are in the Over­ton window

  • How many is­sues a given op­pressed group would be in­ter­ested in poli­ti­cally (ie. if there’s only one, then maybe eas­ier to just push for that one is­sue di­rectly)

  • Is this group likely to stop be­ing op­pressed in the short-medium term (ex.: cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture might put an end to an­i­mal farm­ing)

In­stead of ad­vo­cat­ing for sys­temic re­dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth, should we aim to make as much money as pos­si­ble and re­dis­tribute it di­rectly through char­i­ties like GiveDirectly?

Some con­sid­er­a­tions:

  • If you ex­pect poverty to be re­duced a lot in the medium-term fu­ture, then you might pre­fer to give di­rectly in­stead of try­ing to re­form the sys­tem, and vice-versa

  • If you think not re­form­ing the sys­tem cre­ates se­lec­tion pres­sures against philan­thropy, you might pre­fer to fo­cus on re­form­ing the sys­tem, and vice-versa

Not a free pass

I’ve some­times seen sys­temic is­sues use as a free pass to not help the world, “Don’t blame me, blame the Sys­tem”. And I don’t think this is en­tirely wrong.

But I think we do need philan­thropy as a cor­rec­tion mechanism to fix those sys­temic is­sues: the sys­tem is oth­er­wise not as much (and plau­si­bly enough) self-cor­rect­ing.

We need philan­thropy to make philan­thropy ob­so­lete.

And there are great op­por­tu­ni­ties for dona­tions to help with those sys­temic is­sues; a few or­ga­ni­za­tions which were men­tioned above

Side note: With gen­eral ad­vo­cacy, to peo­ple that are not (as­piring) effec­tive al­tru­ists, it does seem like fo­cus­ing on in­sti­tu­tional changes is more fruit­ful than fo­cus­ing on in­di­vi­d­ual changes (see: Sum­mary of Ev­i­dence for Foun­da­tional Ques­tions in Effec­tive An­i­mal Ad­vo­cacy).

Rad­i­calxChange: Effec­tive al­tru­ism for sys­temic changes

The Effec­tive Altru­ism com­mu­nity has fo­cused a lot, al­though not en­tirely, on in­di­vi­d­ual changes. There are a lot of good rea­sons to do so, some of which have been pointed at in this post. But I think it’s also im­por­tant to pay at­ten­tion to sys­temic prob­lems.

I’ve always won­dered what the unify­ing theme was be­hind Rad­i­calxChange, but af­ter writ­ing this post, I had the sud­den re­al­iza­tion that it’s about mak­ing philan­thropy ob­so­lete. I don’t know if they know, but maybe they should use this in their brand­ing. Their web­site de­scribes Rad­i­calxChange as:

a global move­ment ded­i­cated to reimag­in­ing the build­ing blocks of democ­racy and mar­kets in or­der to up­hold fair­ness, plu­ral­ity, and mean­ingful par­ti­ci­pa­tion in a rapidly chang­ing world

In my ex­pe­rience, many Effec­tive Altru­ists are in­ter­ested in the idea of the RxC com­mu­nity, and I think they are ex­cel­lent al­lies, and com­pletes the EA com­mu­nity very well.

Go­ing meta: a sys­tem to fix the system

The Philan­thropy Prizes

With prizes to re­ward (the most) suc­cess­ful in­ter­ven­tions to­wards mak­ing philan­thropy ob­so­lete, we could cre­ate a sys­temic in­cen­tive to cor­rect sys­temic is­sues.

We could have 3 prizes:

  • The co­or­di­na­tion prize

  • The em­pow­er­ment prize

  • The equal­ity prize

The co­or­di­na­tion prize could po­ten­tially also be frag­mented into more prizes: the global good prize, the longter­mist prize (to re­duce civ­i­liza­tion-wide time-in­con­sis­tent prefer­ences), the ex­pert prize (to solve the ex­per­tise prob­lem), etc.

The prizes could be an­nual prizes, im­pact prizes, or in­duce­ment prize con­tests.

Prizes could also make those pur­suits more pres­ti­gious, al­though we should also take into ac­count the liter­a­ture on the over­jus­tifi­ca­tion effect.

For more re­lated propo­si­tions, see: Mo­ral eco­nomics — Cause Pri­ori­ti­za­tion Wiki.

Char­ter cities

Char­ter cities are a good way to ex­per­i­ment with re­forms in all 3 ar­eas.

Notable or­ga­ni­za­tions: Char­ter Cities In­sti­tute, The Seast­eading In­sti­tute

The Proso­cial Basilisk

My fa­vorite solu­tion, but seem­ingly im­plau­si­ble to work, would be to have philan­thropists buy cer­tifi­cates of im­pact from or­ga­ni­za­tions fix­ing sys­temic is­sues which the “sys­tem” (ie. gov­ern­ments) would then come to want to buy back once fixed, hence fully com­plet­ing the loop, and boot­strap­ping a good world into ex­is­tence ‘out of thin-air’. A proso­cial basilisk of some sort. Not un­like this story of “n sevraqyl fhcreva­gryyv­trapr ob­bgf­genc­c­vat vgfrys vagb rkvf­grapr” (rot13).


Also see my com­ments be­low.