Student groups have long called for their educational institutions to divest from the destructive fossil fuel industry (and ideally reinvest in renewables). This passionate demand from students has seen success at various schools around the world, and their fight in the USA may have gotten easier thanks to a change in law by the Biden administration. Large schools in the states tend to have a charitable arm to give out scholarships and collect donations from wealthy benefactors (who donate to dodge taxes, but that’s a separate issue). Charities in the states are obligated to serve the public interest, and investing in the destruction of the planet is not in the public interest according to the Biden administration. Let’s hope the divestment movement continues to grow!
Like other public charitable institutions, Harvard is legally bound to serve the public interest in exchange for privileges such as tax exemption. Harvard is also required to manage its endowment prudently, in order to further its mission of educating young people and creating a more just world.
The greatest good for the greatest number of people is one tenet of utilitarianism, and this way of thinking is alive and well under a new name: “effective altruism”. The term effective altruism is questionable at best; however, their message does make a lot of sense. Basically what believers of effective altruism believe in is using empirical data to decide where to donate time and money. In this month of caring about each other it is one more way to help you make decisions on where you can donate.
Let’s distinguish between whether a cause is difficult to quantify and whether it’s political. Although it’s true that many political movements and political changes have outcomes that are difficult to measure, I don’t think the two distinctions line up quite so neatly.
Many effective altruists, myself included, have over time become convinced that the vast majority of lives we can affect are in the future. If that’s right, it’s plausible that the most important moral imperative is to make sure that the very long-run future goes well. The stakes are enormous: trillions and trillions of lives over hundreds of thousands of years.
But when it comes to influencing the long-run future, we can’t run randomized control trials. In general, we can’t have the same sort of robust evidence base that we’re used to in global health interventions, for example. So it’s not the case that effective altruists focus exclusively on things that are easy to measure.
When it comes to politics, there’s no reason in principle why effective altruists shouldn’t get involved. But we’re less likely to enter longstanding political debates, such as what the tax rate should be, where a few more voices are unlikely to make much difference. Instead, we’re more likely to look for comparatively neglected policy areas — for example, what to do with new technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology.
The Bitcoin wallet shown above belongs to the Pineapple Fund, which will be emptied to fund a variety of charities. The charities aren’t chosen through a decentralized system (like Bitcoin itself) but by a person who held on to a lot of Bitcoins. The individual is suddenly so wealthy that they feel the need to make the world better using their new found wealth. Thus the Pineapple Fund is giving away $86 million USD to international charities. (Interestingly, in Toronto an Ethereum group created the Merry Merkel tree to raise cryptocurrency for a local homeless youth shelter.)
“Sometime around the early days of bitcoin, I saw the promise of decentralized money and decided to mine/buy/trade some magical internet tokens,” states the Pineapple Fund website. “The expectation shattering returns of bitcoin over many years has [led] to an amount far more than I can spend. What do you do when you have more money than you can ever possibly spend? Donating most of it to charity is what I’m doing.”
GiveDirectly is a charity that just gives money to poor people in Kenya. There isn’t anything complicated about the idea: it’s just straight up handing out cash with no deliverables. The NPR recently investigated the operation.
Planet Money reporters David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein went to Kenya to see the work of a charity called GiveDirectly in action. Instead of funding schools or wells or livestock, GiveDirectly has decided to just give money directly to the poor people who need it, and let them decide how to spend it. David and Jacob explain whether this method of charity works, and why some people think it’s a terrible idea. (28 minutes)
For some reason there are stereotypes out there that imply that if you’re not part of the middle class then you are a jerk. Well, it looks like that maybe half true. New research has come out that started with the question why statistically do poorer people give a higher portion of their income to charity compared to the rich has now concluded with the idea that rich people are not as empathetic as the poor.
It would be nice if people who were better off gave more of their income to charities and to other worthy causes. I hope this inspires all of you to give.
Michael W Kraus, of the University of California, San Francisco, is one of a number of social psychologists who have recently been busy demonstrating that lower socioeconomic status (SES) is intricately linked to all sorts of prosocial behaviours. Everything else equal, the less wealth, education and employment status we have, the more charitable, generous, trusting and helpful we appear to become. In interactions with strangers, poorer people are more likely to use polite, attentive, respectful gestures. Most recently, in a paper just published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science, Kraus et al report that lower SES subjects show significantly greater empathy than their richer, better educated counterparts. He argues that this tendency to empathise may at least partly explain the other observations of prosocial behaviour.