Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for October, 2010

Why a Non-Stamp Collecting Club Makes Sense

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 28, 2010

It has been said (usually by atheists) that it doesn’t make sense to categorize atheists by their non-religiousness. Then an example is given: “You wouldn’t describe someone as a non-stamp collector.”

Let’s ignore the fact that atheists frequently categorize themselves — even the same people who say it doesn’t make sense to do so. Let’s consider the example of not collecting stamps.

In fact, it can make sense to have a group of people who aren’t something (e.g. religious) or don’t do something (e.g. collect stamps). For example, what about non-meat eaters? It certainly makes sense to describe someone as a non-meat eater, because most people do eat meat so to not do so is an interesting trait. It’s the same with atheism: most people are religious, so to describe someone as non-religious actually tells you something about him.

Describing someone as a non-stamp collector doesn’t make sense, because most people don’t collect stamps. But what if 90% of everyone in the world collected stamps? In that case, being a non-stamp collector would actually be interesting. In such a world, it would make sense to have a club for people who don’t collect stamps.

Posted in Atheism and Religion | 5 Comments »

Taking Charity Assessment to the Next Level

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 23, 2010

I recently wrote a couple of posts assessing the good done by various charities. Unfortunately, these assessments left out a crucial element.

For a charity to do as much good as possible, it must be making a sustainable investment. It’s like that old saying: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life.” Which charities are giving men fish, and which are teaching men to fish?

This isn’t always an easy question to answer. In my first essay on this subject I discussed microloans, which may seem like they should promote economic growth and sustainability, but often they don’t. This is just one example of a type of charity that does not always have the results you might expect.

It is absolutely important that an investment be sustainable. If you give a man a fish, he’ll be hungry again tomorrow. Sure, you could keep giving him fish every day for the rest of your life, but there are much better ways to go about things. You could teach him to fish, and as the saying goes, he’ll eat for the rest of his life. Or, you could find an organization that will teach him to fish.

Many charities claim to place emphasis on teaching people to continue on their own. The extreme cases are organizations that provide scholarships for people who can’t afford an education. These organizations (and the people behind them) claim that with education, these newly-educated people will be able to go on to help others.

This sort of sustainable and self-propagating charity is very helpful and very important, but the downside is that it’s much more difficult to measure. This is the point where some serious subjectivity leaks in. As far as I can tell, the best way to handle the lack of information is simply to make your best guess as to which investments will have the greatest long-term benefits.

To measure the benefit of an education, you could look at the expected probability that the newly-educated person will go on to help others. This computation gets more difficult once you realize that everyone helps others at least to some extent, often too small an extent to measure. But a well-educated person can contribute much more to the world than an uneducated one. A well-educated person could go on to directly help others, or even indirectly help others. It’s possible she would help simply by working a job, contributing to the wealth of the world.

Measuring the benefit of an education, as well as any long-term sustainable gift, is extremely difficult. I certainly don’t have all the answers. Given that the subject of this essay is unresolved, I leave you with a question: How can we measure the long-term sustainable benefits of a charity? If you think you have an answer, or even just an idea of where to start, please leave a comment and let the world know.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics | 2 Comments »

Make-A-Wish Foundation Makes the World a Worse Place

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 10, 2010

The Make-A-Wish Foundation is an organization that grants wishes to critically ill children. These wishes are often heartwarming and even entertaining. And that’s a problem.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation is one of the more glorified charities. Children are granted extravagant wishes in order to make them happy. And yes, these wishes do make the children happy. But for how long? A kid gets a gift and becomes very happy, but will soon become bored with it. A kid gets an experience, which he will hold in his memory, but that first burst of happiness will never be reclaimed and the memory will slowly fade. What the Make-A-Wish Foundation is really doing is providing short-term pleasure.

But this short-term pleasure for the child often also means a big publicity stunt for the Foundation. It’s quite an entertaining charity, really. But the problem is, the purpose of a charity isn’t to be entertaining. It’s to help people.

Does the Make-A-Wish Foundation help people? Well, strictly speaking, yes. But they’re doing a pretty bad job of it. They claim that they “grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.” How about you enrich the human experience with medical research, or by helping to treat children who have preventable diseases? It seems to me that that would be far better than what the Foundation is currently doing.

By campaigning for their own cause, MAW draws funding away from causes that do much more good for the world. In this sense, it makes the world worse in a very concrete way. Donors have a limited amount of money that they are willing to give to charity, and by giving it to MAW, they fail to give it to another, more beneficial cause.

According to their website, they spend on average $7362 per wish. In 2009, they spent $135 million on granting wishes. While these wishes did provide temporary happiness for suffering children, that’s just about all they did. They didn’t solve any real problems or alleviate any long-term suffering. [1]

What could have been done with that money? The money spent on one wish could pay for the educations of dozens of children in India. It could provide mosquito nets for 1400 people and prevent approximately seven deaths. That means with their annual budget, the Foundation could save the lives of over 100,000 children who endure just as much suffering as—if not more than—the kids who get wishes from MAW. But all that is thrown away, because the people at Make-A-Wish Foundation decided that granting fleeting wishes to a few select children is worth more than all that.


[1] A number of commenters have corrected me on this statement. While I may have underestimated the amount of good that MAW does, it is inconceivable that they do anywhere close to as much good as an organization such as the Against Malaria Foundation (linked in the previous paragraph); and MAW directs funds away from other charities that do a great deal more good.

[2] Many commenters have expressed that the children who work with MAW experience a great deal of joy. I understand this. It somewhat saddens me when they fail to see that an organization such as the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) produces comparable or greater effects many times over, and they willingly give preference to the option that leaves so much unnecessary suffering in the world. For every one American child with leukemia AMF fails to serve, MAW misses thousands of children who are likely to die from malaria.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Rant | 95 Comments »

Economics? Skip the Intermediate Step!

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 8, 2010

The purpose of economics is to allocate scarce resources among unlimited wants. Why do economists want to do this? There are some underlying assumptions behind this purpose.

Why would anyone want to allocate scarce resources? The reason is that more effectively-allocated resources will foster greater utility. People will be happier. It is impossible for an economist to try to figure out the best ways to allocate scarce resources without claiming that this system of allocation will have people be better off. The very act of practicing economics contains a hidden claim that we should increase happiness, and increasing their resources will increase their happiness. All economists — whether they realize it or not — are Utilitarians.

I happen to agree with the assumption that people should be made as happy as possible. But there is a second assumption underneath economics which almost everyone will disagree with. Economics assumes that people will be happier if they have more stuff.

This assumption is certainly true to an extent. But as we all know, money can’t buy happiness. If the purpose of economics is to maximize utility, but it can only do so in a very limited sense, then it is failing to fulfill its deeper purpose. Therefore, I propose that we skip the intermediate step and create an entirely new kind of economics. Why bother going to all this work to allocate resources when we could instead spend that time trying to maximize utility? There will certainly be some resource allocation involved in the process, but there will be many other aspects as well. What exactly those aspects will be, I do not know. But that’s part of what we’ll have to find out.

I am not the first person to think economically about happiness. A handful of influential people have worked on measuring the happiness of different groups or nations. But I don’t think we should have just a handful. Every economist should be trying to maximize utility, instead of just focusing on one small part of it (the part that money can buy).

A common objection to Utilitarianism is that it’s very difficult to measure happiness. This is exactly the sort of problem that would be solved if we had more economic manpower devoted to maximizing utility. Measuring people’s wealth is a difficult problem, too, but we’ve gotten quite good at it because we had a lot of people spending a long time on it. If we focused on happiness rather than just wealth, I have no doubt that we could come close to as good at measuring happiness — or even as good — as we currently are at measuring wealth.

Economics is useful, and even serves to make people happier, but it is limited to material goods and services. As it is, economics does not know how to maximize joy and minimize suffering. It only deals with what can be bought and sold. Instead of spending so much time and effort on maximizing wealth, we should be focusing on what’s truly important. And then we will start to see a better, happier world.

Posted in Economics and Finance, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 1 Comment »

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