Charities, Tikkun Olam and Saving the World

I wanted to write a post about my charity policy, because it’s very strict, and I wanted to explain why it’s so strict.

Like every reasonable transhumanist, and like every reasonable Jew, I think human life is precious. When I go to the supermarket, I try to get the most bang for my bank. I think I owe the goal of saving human life no less consideration than I owe to getting a bag of pretzels. Money I give to charity is no longer mine — I am its custodian, and in charge of spending it responsibly.

I take the assumption that most people do not have my strict policy — they will spread their money to any charity that seems to catch their eye at that moment. Therefore, on average, charities will roughly get the same amount every year, and so my donation is not likely to significantly change their inner workings.

Given all those assumptions, the only moral thing I can do is to research the charity which I think can do the most good in the world, and concentrate all my donations on it. Sadly, it is not easy to estimate which charities do the most good. GiveWell, for example, ranks VillageReach as the top charity to give money to. However, I think they are being too conservative with their risk estimation, and after significant research, I chose to concentrate on Against Malaria Foundation which I think has better expected lives-saved/dollar spent.

All humans are created equal. Therefore, the best charity is the one that saves the most lives (on average) per dollar spent. So my policy is the following:

If a friend of mine is raising money for charity, and it looks like a worthy cause, one that I would give money to — I will give the same amount of money to the AMF, unless I see amazingly good evidence why the cause my friend is raising for is better.

Does that sound cold to you? It sounds cold to me too. But I cannot lie to myself — giving money to charity is not about feeling good, it’s about saving the world. I do other things to feel good, so that I can give to charity optimally.

You know what?  This isn’t about your feelings.  A human life, with all its joys and all its pains, adding up over the course of decades, is worth far more than your brain’s feelings of comfort or discomfort with a plan.


4 Responses to Charities, Tikkun Olam and Saving the World

  1. circlegrrrl says:

    My thoughts… Your actions do make sense in terms of pikuach nefesh. Quality of saved lives matter, too. If I have a plant that’s drying because it hasn’t been watered, water and light save it. If it’s been without these life sustaining resources for too long, I might be able to keep it alive in a literal sense, but at what cost? What would the quality of life be? I’m not saying that it should or shouldn’t be saved. It’s just food for thought in regards to a responsibility to not only save lives from death, but to ensure the right resources are in hand to make those lives count. Keeping a living form alive matters and it’s a worthwhile focus. If that’s where a person’s focus is, that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that. The need is there and always will be for literal saving of lives from death.

    Now that the life has been saved, someone like me will want to take my volunteer efforts and/or resource donation in the direction of making that saved life count and matter. That’s where most charities come into play. They’re a little higher on Maslow’s hierarchy, and that’s okay, at least IMHO. I sprinkle my plants with Miracle Grow. The goal is not simply for them to live but to thrive. And I know that we’re talking about human lives, not plant lives. The logic applies to people, too. I’m not arguing for one approach over the other. Feelings aside, both matter in tangible, quantifiable ways.

  2. Gwen Shapira says:

    1. Thank you for introducing me to GiveWell. It is a fascinating site and I enjoyed reading their posts. I really liked their approach.

    2. “most people do not have my strict policy — they will spread their money to any charity that seems to catch their eye at that moment. ”

    I’m pretty sure that you donate to eye-catching-at-the-moment charities as well as life-saving scientifically-proven charities. This makes the moral high ground approach taken in this post sound hypocritical. I’m not saying its wrong, but if even you as a strong proponent don’t practice what you preach, perhaps there are good reasons not to be as strict.

    3. I was persuaded by your approach and after some reading in GiveWell website, donated 1% of my 2010 salary to AMF. I hope I saved someone’s life.

    • moshez says:


      I am happy you like GiveWell, and even happier that you donated to AMF. According to my beliefs, you netted at least 2 lives’ worth expected utility.


      The new policy is new, but strictly followed. Note that the policy is not “I will give to AMF”, but “I will give to the charity that, at time of giving, with the knowledge I have, I believe is best” (so there was money that has gone to “Nothing But Nets” before I discovered AMF was better).

      There are two fairly narrow exceptions to the policy:

      “If there is a benefit *to me* such that I think it’s cost-effective, I’ll donate”. This tends to be in two main ways: either a fund-raiser that’s fun enough I would have done, for the same price, even if it had not been a fund-raiser, or “charities” which benefit me directly (e.g., NaNoWriMo or JND). I’ll note that this is not really an exception — I do not count that money as part of my “charitable money” fund.

      The only *real* exception is superspecific: the ritual atonement money on Yom Kippur, because I do not treat it as mine to allocate, goes to the Rabbi’s “discretionary fund”.

      However, you did remind me that there are several “match donations” I have not yet taken care of. I’ll be caught up tonight.

      • Gwen Shapira says:

        Re 2: I like the “benefit to me” exception! It makes lots of sense in my value system – I wanted a way to justify donating to local and close-to-me funds within the system you suggested.

        I occasionally donate to California State Parks, even though I suspect they neither save lives nor lack money. I counted it as eye-catching, but it could count as “benefit to me”. My donations to Breast Cancer foundations also fall under “benefit to me”, its an expected future benefit with very high probability (80% according to genetic check).

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