There’s Lots More To Do

Ben­jamin Hoff­man re­cently wrote a post ar­gu­ing that “drown­ing chil­dren are rare”:

Sto­ries such as Peter Singer’s “drown­ing child” hy­po­thet­i­cal fre­quently im­ply that there is a ma­jor fund­ing gap for health in­ter­ven­tions in poor coun­tries, such that there is a moral im­per­a­tive for peo­ple in rich-coun­tries to give a large por­tion of their in­come to char­ity. There are sim­ply not enough ex­cess deaths for these claims to be plau­si­ble.
As far as I can see, this pretty much de­stroys the generic util­i­tar­ian im­per­a­tive to live like a monk and give all your ex­cess money to the global poor or some­thing even more ur­gent. In­so­far as there’s a way to fix these prob­lems as a low-info donor, there’s already enough money. Claims to the con­trary are ei­ther ob­vi­ous non­sense, or mar­ket­ing copy by the same peo­ple who brought you the ob­vi­ous non­sense. Spend money on tak­ing care of your­self and your friends and the peo­ple around you and your com­mu­nity and try­ing spe­cific con­crete things that might have spe­cific con­crete benefits.

Imag­ine that the best in­ter­ven­tion out there was di­rect cash trans­fers to globally poor peo­ple. The amount of money that could be pro­duc­tively used here is very large: it would cost at least $1T to give $1k to each of the 1B poor­est peo­ple in the world. This is very far from foun­da­tions already hav­ing more than enough money. That there are ex­tremely poor peo­ple who can do far more with my money than I can is enough for me to give.

While I also think there are other ways to spend money al­tru­is­ti­cally that have more benefit per dol­lar than cash trans­fers, this only strength­ens the ar­gu­ment for helping.

How does Ben reach the op­po­site con­clu­sion? Read­ing his post sev­eral times it looks to me like two things:

  • He’s look­ing at “sav­ing lives via pre­vent­ing com­mu­ni­ca­ble, ma­ter­nal, neona­tal, and nu­tri­tional dis­eases” as the only goal. While it’s a cat­e­gory of in­ter­ven­tion that peo­ple in the effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment have talked about a lot, it’s definitely not the only way to help peo­ple. If you were to com­pletely elimi­nate deaths in this cat­e­gory it would be amaz­ing and hugely benefi­cial, but there would still be peo­ple dy­ing from other dis­eases, suffer­ing in many non-fatal ways, and gen­er­ally hav­ing poverty limit their op­tions and po­ten­tial. And that’s with­out con­sid­er­ing more spec­u­la­tive op­tions like try­ing to keep us from kil­ling our­selves off or gen­er­ally try­ing to make the long-term fu­ture go as well as pos­si­ble.

  • He’s set­ting a thresh­old of $5k for how much we’d be will­ing to pay to avert a death, which is much too low. I do agree there is some thresh­old at which you’d be very rea­son­able to stop try­ing to help oth­ers and just do what makes you happy. Where this thresh­old is de­pends on many things, es­pe­cially how well-off you are, but I would ex­pect it to be more in the $100k range than the $5k range for rich-coun­try effec­tive al­tru­ists. By com­par­i­son, the US Govern­ment uses ~$9M.

I do think the “drown­ing chil­dren” fram­ing isn’t great, pri­mar­ily be­cause it puts you in a frame of mind where you ex­pect that things will be much cheaper than they ac­tu­ally are (fa­mil­iar), but also be­cause it de­pends on be­ing in a situ­a­tion where only you can help and where you must act im­me­di­ately. There’s enough ac­tual harm in the world that we don’t need thought ex­per­i­ments to show why we should help. So while there aren’t that many “drown­ing chil­dren”, there is definitely a lot of work to do.

(Cross­posted from