Selfish Charity

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. … “

-Matthew 6:1, Bible.

I’m not a Christian any more, but I’ve decided to quote the bible because this post was written with religious people in mind.

If you desire to be selfish, let your selfishness be known. If you desire to be charitable, do so in the most optimal manner. There is a special type of hatred I reserve for those for whom signalling generosity is more important than the charity itself.

It happens far more commonly than most people assume. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that it’s particularly common amongst religious people, especially people of the Baha’i faith. For many of them, it is tradition to go on “service trips”, expensive oversea flights to 3rd world countries in order to help build a house for a few weeks, or volunteer for some menial labour, before going back to their 1st world homes. These flights can cost upwards of a thousand dollars, and the total cost of all expenses can be twice of that.

After they go home, they would feel pleased with themselves, for they have helped people in need. What’s wrong with that?

It’s wrong because that’s not charity. It’s wrong because it’s not optimal. It’s wrong because people who do shit like this are under the impression that they are doing what’s morally just and righteous, despite caring more about being seen as morally just and righteous than actually increasing the world’s utility.

The best way to increase the world’s utility is to apply some basic goddamn economic principles, and take that few thousands dollars worth of time and money, and donate it to an optimal charity, preferably at http://www.givewell.org/. I also personally recommend the SIAI, and Methuselah Foundation charities, but if you’re not donating to either of these two, get an efficient charity at givewell.com

Why is this optimal? Because money is power. If you live in a 1st world country, and if you’re reading this you probably do, then working at any job, even a minimum wage one, and donating the money to a 3rd world country, is hundreds of times more efficient and utility maximizing than taking that money to travel to that country yourself, and volunteering at a job you’re probably incredibly inefficient in. It’s called division of labour, and it’s the idea that sparked the industrial revolution. Do the thing you’re the most efficient in, and pay someone else to do the task that you’re bad in. Save the cost of the air ticket, and donate it too.

Consider that the price of a human life is about $2000. Approximately the cost (plus opportunity cost) of going to a 3rd world country.
http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/schistosomiasis-control-initiative
http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/AMF

So you can lay a few bricks, or paint a few rooms — or you could save a human life. If you chose the former, and still pretend to be charitible and generous, then with all the tact I can muster, you can go fuck yourself. If you see anyone that does this, call them out on their bullshit, and give them no mercy.

Understand that I’m not against people going on holidays. I’m not against people spending money on themselves. If your personal idea of fun is to go to third world countries to volunteer, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t think that you’re actually doing charity, or that you’re helping people. What I’m against is people doing charity in the least efficient manner, for the sake of gaining personal hedonistic pleasure, under the illusion that what they’re doing can be said to be “good”. What I’m against is people who care more about being seen doing charity than achieving charity.

Because don’t give me that shit about the intentions being more important than the action. All of your hedonistic fuzzy feel-good feelings is a feather on a scale when a life is at stake. The world does not care what you think. It needs more than people wanting to do good, it needs people who are actually competent at achieving it. To invoke Godwin’s law, consider that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all people who genuinely wanted to help the world, but then screwed it over by being incredibly incompetent at knowing how to help it.

If you genuinely want to maximize good, the best way to do that may involve never being thanked for your work. It may involve never seeing the person you’re helping. And that’s okay, because you genuinely want to help that person, and you’ve helped him the best way you could.

Similarly, if you’re trying to choose a career that will maximize good, don’t be a doctor. Be a wall street banker or a CEO, or any other job that maximizes your income, and donate 90% of your income to charity. Doctors don’t increase societal utility by much, because economically, you’re providing your services where marginal demand meets marginal costs. In other words, you’re trading your services for something equally valuable, which is money. That’s not maximizing good, and that’s not charity. Instead, you should try to earn as much income as possible, and donate all that you can spare to efficient charities.

The world needs more than good intentions. It needs efficiency. Don’t assume that having the first means achieving the second.

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