What should “counterfactual donation” mean?

Originally written 2017-11-24; crossposted here after discussion on GiveWell Donation Matching

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.

What does “wouldn’t have done otherwise” mean?

  • If you hire a mason to repoint your wall it’s not something that would have just done on their own.

  • If you donate to a charity matching drive, the matching funds were very likely going to the charity regardless.

The former is fully counterfactually valid (you caused impact) while the latter isn’t counterfactually valid at all (the impact of the matching funds was unchanged by your donation).

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.)