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Here is a good summary of the modern challenges facing philanthropists. Back when we had our student group this would have been a great topic for discussion.

Aside from the obvious Hayekian concerns about knowledge and planning, the philosophical question of whether unborn future people can and should have a claim on us is difficult. One reason I find it difficult is that it is widely believed that the world population is too large today and there is broad support for abortion. I don’t want to offer fundamental disagreements with those positions but find them in tension with the broader motivations of existentialism.

Finally, and please so answer honestly in the comments: come up with your 10 very best ideas for a philanthropic enterprise or go through the empirical list that the GiveWell folks use, and tell us honestly if you think any of that will change the world meaningfully? And compare those to 100 historical “things” that have really changed the world. I don’t think it’s close.

I think aside from these concerns that the entire approach ignores two obvious elephants in the room. First is that how do you empirically evaluate an idea that has not been tried? Perhaps I think that taking my 50 billion to buy a “country” and allow a radically different institutional approach to govern is a pretty cool way to help people? Second of course is the completely difficult to accept question begging of the entire enterprise – that philanthropy is anywhere on the list of things that could do the greatest good. If we were to be honest about it we’d have to call ourselves conditional utilitarian or even Kantian utilitarians. This is ironic given the abject dismissal in the article of such hazy notions as justice and liberty … what they are arguing is confused – replace “justice” in their quote with “doing philanthropy” and I don’t see how any of that changes.

Were Universities doing their jobs every student would be able to be fully conversant in the underlying ideas here and would be able to engage coolly without being outraged or even worse without jumping on an a priori bandwagon.

One Response to “Things Which Unnerve Me – Warning, Philosophical Pondering Ahead”

  1. Corinne Calabretta says:

    Rather than philanthropy, I’m interested in your view on for-profit social enterprises. There is an increasing pressure on businesses to both “do good” and “do well,” and my generation has seen an eruption of social enterprises both nationally and globally that arguably have a larger impact than philanthropy (based on nearly overcoming the need for “research” through the course of supply and demand). What are your thoughts on their impact and where this social enterprises are headed?

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