Scope neglect and the question of optimal altruism

JDN 2457090 EDT 16:15.

We’re now on Eastern Daylight Time because of this bizarre tradition of shifting our time zone forward for half of the year. It’s supposed to save energy, but a natural experiment in India suggests it actually increases energy demand. So why do we do it? Like every ridiculous tradition (have you ever tried to explain Groundhog Day to someone from another country?), we do it because we’ve always done it.
This week’s topic is scope neglect, one of the most pervasive—and pernicious—cognitive heuristics human beings face. Scope neglect raises a great many challenges not only practically but also theoretically—it raises what I call the question of optimal altruism.

The question is simple to ask yet remarkably challenging to answer: How much should we be willing to sacrifice in order to benefit others? If we think of this as a number, your solidarity coefficient (s), it is equal to the cost you are willing to pay divided by the benefit your action has for someone else: s B > C.

This is analogous to the biological concept relatedness (r), on which Hamilton’s Rule applies: r B > C. Solidarity is the psychological analogue; instead of valuing people based on their genetic similarity to you, you value them based on… well, that’s the problem.

I can easily place upper and lower bounds: The lower bound is zero: You should definitely be willing to sacrifice something to help other people—otherwise you are a psychopath. The upper bound is one: There’s no point in paying more cost than you produce in benefit, and in fact even paying the same cost to yourself as you yield in benefits for other people doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it means that your own self-interest is meaningless and the fact that you understand your own needs better than the needs of others is also irrelevant.

But beyond that, it gets a lot harder—and that may explain why we suffer scope neglect in the first place. Should it be 90%? 50%? 10%? 1%? How should it vary between friends versus family versus strangers? It’s really hard to say. And this inability to precisely decide how much other people should be worth to us may be part of why we suffer scope neglect.

Scope neglect is the fact that we are not willing to expend effort or money in direct proportion to the benefit it would have. When different groups were asked how much they would be willing to donate in order to save the lives of 2,000 birds, 20,000 birds, or 200,000 birds, the answers they gave were statistically indistinguishable—always about $80. But however much a bird’s life is worth to you, shouldn’t 200,000 birds be worth, well, 200,000 times as much? In fact, more than that, because the marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, but I see no reason to think that the marginal utility of birds decreases nearly as fast.

But therein lies the problem: Usually we can’t pay 200,000 times as much. I’d feel like a horrible person if I weren’t willing to expend at least $10 or an equivalent amount of effort in order to save a bird. To save 200,000 birds that means I’d owe $2 million—and I simply don’t have $2 million.

You can get similar results to the bird experiment if you use children—though, as one might hope, the absolute numbers are a bit bigger, usually more like $500 to $1000. (And this, it turns out, is actually about how much it actually costs to save a child’s life by a particularly efficient means, such as anti-malaria nets, de-worming, or direct cash transfer. So please, by all means, give $1000 to UNICEF or the Against Malaria Foundation. If you can’t give $1000, give $100; if you can’t give $100, give $10.) It doesn’t much matter whether you say that the project will save 500 children, 5,000 children, or 50,000 children—people still will give about $500 to $1000. But once again, if I’m willing to spend $1000 to save a child—and I definitely am—how much should I be willing to spend to end malaria, which kills 500,000 children a year? Apparently $500 million, which not only do I not have, I almost certainly will not make that much money cumulatively through my entire life. ($2 million, on the other hand, I almost certainly will make cumulatively—the median income of an economist is $90,000 per year, so if I work for at least 22 years with that as my average income I’ll have cumulatively made $2 million. My net wealth may never be that high—though if I get better positions, or I’m lucky enough or clever enough with the stock market it might—but my cumulative income almost certainly will. Indeed, the average gain in cumulative income from a college degree is about $1 million. Because it takes time—time is money—and loans carry interest, this gives it a net present value of about $300,000.)

But maybe scope neglect isn’t such a bad thing after all. There is a very serious problem with these sort of moral dilemmas: The question didn’t say I would single-handedly save 200,000 birds—and indeed, that notion seems quite ridiculous. If I knew that I could actually save 200,000 birds and I were the only one who could do it, dammit, I would try to come up with that $2 million. I might not succeed, but I really would try as hard as I could.

And if I could single-handedly end malaria, I hereby vow that I would do anything it took to achieve that. Short of mass murder, anything I could do couldn’t be a higher cost to the world than malaria itself. I have no idea how I’d come up with $500 million, but I’d certainly try. Bill Gates could easily come up with that $500 million—so he did. In fact he endowed the Gates Foundation with $28 billion, and they’ve spent $1.3 billion of that on fighting malaria, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

With this in mind, what is scope neglect really about? I think it’s about coordination. It’s not that people don’t care more about 200,000 birds than they do about 2,000; and it’s certainly not that they don’t care more about 50,000 children than they do about 500. Rather, the problem is that people don’t know how many other people are likely to donate, or how expensive the total project is likely to be; and we don’t know how much we should be willing to pay to save the life of a bird or a child.

Hence, what we basically do is give up; since we can’t actually assess the marginal utility of our donation dollars, we fall back on our automatic emotional response. Our mind focuses itself on visualizing that single bird covered in oil, or that single child suffering from malaria. We then hope that the representative heuristic will guide us in how much to give. Or we follow social norms, and give as much as we think others would expect us to give.

While many in the effective altruism community take this to be a failing, they never actually say what we should do—they never give us a figure for how much money we should be willing to donate to save the life of a child. Instead they retreat to abstraction, saying that whatever it is we’re willing to give to save a child, we should be willing to give 50,000 times as much to save 50,000 children.

But it’s not that simple. A bigger project may attract more supporters; if the two occur in direct proportion, then constant donation is the optimal response. Since it’s probably not actually proportional, you likely should give somewhat more to causes that affect more people; but exactly how much more is an astonishingly difficult question. I really don’t blame people—or myself—for only giving a little bit more to causes with larger impact, because actually getting the right answer is so incredibly hard. This is why it’s so important that we have institutions like GiveWell and Charity Navigator which do the hard work to research the effectiveness of charities and tell us which ones we should give to.

Yet even if we can properly prioritize which charities to give to first, that still leaves the question of how much each of us should give. 1% of our income? 5%? 10%? 20%? 50%? Should we give so much that we throw ourselves into the same poverty we are trying to save others from?

In his earlier work Peter Singer seemed to think we should give so much that it throws us into poverty ourselves; he asked us to literally compare every single purchase and ask ourselves whether a year of lattes or a nicer car is worth a child’s life. Of course even he doesn’t live that way, and in his later books Singer seems to have realized this, and now recommends the far more modest standard that everyone give at least 1% of their income. (He himself gives about 33%, but he’s also very rich so he doesn’t feel it nearly as much.) I think he may have overcompensated; while if literally everyone gave at least 1% that would be more than enough to end world hunger and solve many other problems—world nominal GDP is over $70 trillion, so 1% of that is $700 billion a year—we know that this won’t happen. Some will give more, others less; most will give nothing at all. Hence I think those of us who give should give more than our share; hence I lean toward figures more like 5% or 10%.

But then, why not 50% or 90%? It is very difficult for me to argue on principle why we shouldn’t be expected to give that much. Because my income is such a small proportion of the total donations, the marginal utility of each dollar I give is basically constant—and quite high; if it takes about $1000 to save a child’s life on average, and each of these children will then live about 60 more years at about half the world average happiness, that’s about 30 QALY per $1000, or about 30 milliQALY per dollar. Even at my current level of income (incidentally about as much as I think the US basic income should be), I’m benefiting myself only about 150 microQALY per dollar—so my money is worth about 200 times as much to those children as it is to me.

So now we have to ask ourselves the really uncomfortable question: How much do I value those children, relative to myself? If I am at all honest, the value is not 1; I’m not prepared to die for someone I’ve never met 10,000 kilometers away in a nation I’ve never even visited, nor am I prepared to give away all my possessions and throw myself into the same starvation I am hoping to save them from. I value my closest friends and family approximately the same as myself, but I have to admit that I value random strangers considerably less.

Do I really value them at less than 1%, as these figures would seem to imply? I feel like a monster saying that, but maybe it really isn’t so terrible—after all, most economists seem to think that the optimal solidarity coefficient is in fact zero. Maybe we need to become more comfortable admitting that random strangers aren’t worth that much to us, simply so that we can coherently acknowledge that they aren’t worth nothing. Very few of us actually give away all our possessions, after all.

Then again, what do we mean by worth? I can say from direct experience that a single migraine causes me vastly more pain than learning about the death of 200,000 people in an earthquake in Southeast Asia. And while I gave about $100 to the relief efforts involved in that earthquake, I’ve spent considerably more on migraine treatments—thousands, once you include health insurance. But given the chance, would I be willing to suffer a migraine to prevent such an earthquake? Without hesitation. So the amount of pain we feel is not the same as the amount of money we pay, which is not the same as what we would be willing to sacrifice. I think the latter is more indicative of how much people’s lives are really worth to us—but then, what we pay is what has the most direct effect on the world.

It’s actually possible to justify not dying or selling all my possessions even if my solidarity coefficient is much higher—it just leads to some really questionable conclusions. Essentially the argument is this: I am an asset. I have what economists call “human capital”—my health, my intelligence, my education—that gives me the opportunity to affect the world in ways those children cannot. In my ideal imagined future (albeit improbable) in which I actually become President of the World Bank and have the authority to set global development policy, I myself could actually have a marginal impact of megaQALY—millions of person-years of better life. In the far more likely scenario in which I attain some mid-level research or advisory position, I could be one of thousands of people who together have that sort of impact—which still means my own marginal effect is on the order of kiloQALY. And clearly it’s true that if I died, or even if I sold all my possessions, these events would no longer be possible.

The problem with that reasoning is that it’s wildly implausible to say that everyone in the First World are in this same sort of position—Peter Singer can say that, and maybe I can say that, and indeed hundreds of development economists can say that—but at least 99.9% of the First World population are not development economists, nor are they physicists likely to invent cold fusion, nor biomedical engineers likely to cure HIV, nor aid workers who distribute anti-malaria nets and polio vaccines, nor politicians who set national policy, nor diplomats who influence international relations, nor authors whose bestselling books raise worldwide consciousness. Yet I am not comfortable saying that all the world’s teachers, secretaries, airline pilots and truck drivers should give away their possessions either. (Maybe all the world’s bankers and CEOs should—or at least most of them.)

Is it enough that our economy would collapse without teachers, secretaries, airline pilots and truck drivers? But this seems rather like the fact that if everyone in the world visited the same restaurant there wouldn’t be enough room. Surely we could do without any individual teacher, any individual truck driver? If everyone gave the same proportion of their income, 1% would be more than enough to end malaria and world hunger. But we know that everyone won’t give, and the job won’t get done if those of us who do give only 1%.

Moreover, it’s also clearly not the case that everything I spend money on makes me more likely to become a successful and influential development economist. Buying a suit and a car actually clearly does—it’s much easier to get good jobs that way. Even leisure can be justified to some extent, since human beings need leisure and there’s no sense burning myself out before I get anything done. But do I need both of my video game systems? Couldn’t I buy a bit less Coke Zero? What if I watched a 20-inch TV instead of a 40-inch one? I still have free time; could I get another job and donate that money? This is the sort of question Peter Singer tells us to ask ourselves, and it quickly leads to a painfully spartan existence in which most of our time is spent thinking about whether what we’re doing is advancing or damaging the cause of ending world hunger. But then the cost of that stress and cognitive effort must be included; but how do you optimize your own cognitive effort? You need to think about the cost of thinking about the cost of thinking… and on and on. This is why bounded rationality modeling is hard, even though it’s plainly essential to both cognitive science and computer science. (John Stuart Mill wrote an essay that resonates deeply with me about how the pressure to change the world drove him into depression, and how he learned to accept that he could still change the world even if he weren’t constantly pressuring himself to do so—and indeed he did. James Mill set out to create in his son, John Stuart Mill, the greatest philosopher in the history of the world—and I believe that he succeeded.)

Perhaps we should figure out what proportion of the world’s people are likely to give, and how much we need altogether, and then assign the amount we expect from each of them based on that? The more money you ask from each, the fewer people are likely to give. This creates an optimization problem akin to setting the price of a product under monopoly—monopolies maximize profits by carefully balancing the quantity sold with the price at which they sell, and perhaps a similar balance would allow us to maximize development aid. But wouldn’t it be better if we could simply increase the number of people who give, so that we don’t have to ask so much of those who are generous? That means tax-funded foreign aid is the way to go, because it ensures coordination. And indeed I do favor increasing foreign aid to about 1% of GDP—in the US it is currently about $50 billion, 0.3% of GDP, a little more than 1% of the Federal budget. (Most people who say we should “cut” foreign aid don’t realize how small it already is.) But foreign aid is coercive; wouldn’t it be better if people would give voluntarily?

I don’t have a simple answer. I don’t know how much other people’s lives ought to be worth to us, or what it means for our decisions once we assign that value. But I hope I’ve convinced you that this problem is an important one—and made you think a little more about scope neglect and why we have it.


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