Fresh look

Oversimplifications Are Always Dangerous

With thanks to Warimu Gitau

“Imagine you are a thoughtful 22-year-old college graduate who wants to make a great difference in the world, he said, invoking one of his many thought experiments. Many such people try to get a job with Oxfam, the Gates Foundation, or any number of excellent charities. That’s fine. But if you don’t get that job at Oxfam, somebody just as smart and generous will get it instead. You’re probably not much better than that “next person up.” But imagine you go to work on Wall Street…

Yes, imagine you work in investment banking. You make $100,000 and give away half to charity. The “next person up” would not have done the same, so you have created $50,000 of good that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Even better, your donation could pay for one or two workers at Oxfam—or any effective cause you chose to donate to.”

From an article on Effective Altruism by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic*

Now, I like thought experiments as much as the next guy, maybe a little more.

But this particular thought experiment seems designed specifically to lead to a specific conclusion – that the best way to give is through effective altruism. That’s because it relies on a couple of dangerous simplifications.

1. Money is the best way of giving.

From a broader perspective, this is clearly wrong. It can work in some situations with direct cash gifts to the poor (not mentioned here, this article speaks only of charitable donations). But we also know that donating large amounts of money can lead to horrible waste and corruption. The trick is actually managing the donations intelligently. And, hey, don’t we need smart people to do that job?

On an individual level, this is at the least a massive over-simplification. Economists are fans of translating each and every variable into dollar worth: this intervention costs X, this person is worth Y, therefore the intervention is too expensive by Z. But this sort of approach doesn’t measure many things. (As the article goes on to point out, this is a problem because easily measurable causes are given greater credence by practitioners of effective altruism).

What about personal relationships that develop from your work at Oxfam or the Gates Foundation? What if doing development work makes you more committed to making a great difference in the world? The path of an individual and the effects that path have cannot be quantified in terms of money alone.

Which leads onto the second issue I have with this thought experiment.

2. All workers are of broadly similar worth.

By a) stipulating that this is about a 22 year old recent graduate and b) including the line “you’re probably not much better than that next person up” the ‘experiment’ becomes easy. Of course it’s better to just pay for more Oxfam staffers with your Wall Street profits – would you make any more (or less) difference compared to someone else? No! Of course not! That’s just your ego speaking.

But surely there is a difference?

I work in an office filled with University educated professionals doing development work. Most people are in a broadly similar age range. Some people are trained in certain fields – banking, engineering, HR – while others work in communications or project management or technical support. Do I think we’re all of equal usefulness? Of course not!

A 22 year old engineering graduate is worth more in the development job market than a 22 year old philosophy student. Otherwise why do certain jobs demand higher remuneration immediately after graduation? Even setting aside that different individuals are of different ability in a work environment regardless of educational achievements or that some people might simply be better suited to this type of work for any number of reasons, qualifications most definitely matter. Does ‘the next person’ speak three languages? Do they know stats? Can they code?

It’s crazy to put all 22 year graduates in the same basket.

The choice of a young graduate is a way of downplaying these issues of individual ability. Imagine this same thought experiment but with a 35 year old seeking a mid-career change. Is it easy to out-earn your usefulness when things like your experience and your network come into play? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s much less clear cut than at 22.

Unless, of course, you take the given advice and become an enormous success on Wall Street. But guess what, The Atlantic itself reported that the rich are less willing to give than the poor and they tend not to give to organizations that focus on the poor.

“Last year, not one of the top 50 individual charitable gifts went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.”

So there’s another complication.

What I don’t like about this ‘thought experiment’ is that it is designed to lead you to a specific conclusion – it’s a marketing ploy, in essence. But it’s presented as a purely logical piece of scientific reasoning. Even by presenting it as a thought experiment rather than as a simple argument positions the conclusion in a very particular way.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with the work done by organisations like 80,000 Hours, my instinct is to baulk at this sort of disingenuous presentation of opinion as fact. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. But then that’s a flaw that “the next blogger” might not have.

*I found this article through the subreddit ‘TrueTrueReddit‘. The whole article goes far beyond this one thought experiment and is well worth a read, it’s just the one part that got under my skin.


2 thoughts on “Oversimplifications Are Always Dangerous

  1. David Nash says:

    I think this might be a bit of a simplification of effective altruism.

    Money is the best way of giving.

    I’m not sure this is always the case, there are quite a few people who follow EA working in politics, international development and charities. It’s a topic covered by 80,000 hours and there are groups starting up to lobby for more rational government policies.

    2.All workers are of broadly similar worth.

    I think what is meant here is that when you’re looking for a career but want to do something good, people tend to think that means doing something with a direct impact wheras as going away to become a lawyer or banker will give you more power to do more good as well as more earnings to give away.

    I think effective altruism is less prescriptive than that 80,000 hours post seems to be, with becoming a banker just one option and only then for a certain kind of person. If you will burn out after two years it will probably be better to do something else that makes you happier and improves the world more than some extra money donated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, to an extent. As I say, my issue is not necessarily with effective altruism, but with how the reasoning behind it was presented — as a sort of obvious, logical progression despite there being some obvious flaws in the given scenario.


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