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Kony 2012, Malaria and Pizza

Last week this blog  mentioned the Kony 2012 video, and suggested that many of the criticisms of it were ‘dishonest’ in a particular sense, and biased. Criticisms of such a worthy cause, and other charities seeming to piggy-back on Kony 2012’s success, often meet with great anger. But such piggy-backing is entirely justifiable.

Undoubtedly, some criticisms of Kony 2012 are dubiously motivated, by those who work for an alternative charity, or had some other ulterior motive. However, others have been implied to have dubious motives when that doesn’t seem to be the case. Take this post by GiveWell, which criticises Kony 2012, and argues that malaria may be a bigger, and more easily solved problem than Joseph Kony. The article has attracted strong criticism. The first comment on the post says:  “…this mailing has really riled me. I’m very disappointed that you apparently feel it necessary to undermine another worthy cause in order to highlight your own.” A link to the article on Facebook attracts similar feelings, such as: “Using this to promote your own charity is quite sick”. These views show that we feel there’s something wrong with commenting on one charity in order to get more publicity for another, particularly if the first is being criticised. But is doing so really wrong?

To understand more about this kind of piggy-backing, consider two other examples of piggy-backing. In the first case a person posts a request for help (say, asking for a proof-reader), to which you respond with a comment also requesting help, for a more pressing project (asking someone to proof-read your own work, which is due sooner, for example). In the second case, a person posts a recommendation for a really good Italian restaurant, and you respond by recommending an even better Italian restaurant. In the latter of these cases, your response seems to be entirely appropriate. The person posting indicated that they like pizza, and you’ve helped them to get even better pizza than they might have otherwise had. On the other hand, in the case of the person asking for a proof-reader, you don’t seem to have acted blamelessly – you seem to have hijacked their publicity to help yourself. Part of what’s bad about this seems to be that you’re looking to directly benefit. If, in the pizza case, you owned the restaurant you recommended, your comment would seem much more dubious. Another moral problem with the proof-reader case seems to be that the person from whom you’re taking attention away is vulnerable: they’ve asked for help, which seems to make selfishly taking help away from them even worse.

Given how we disapprove of people piggy-backing on the publicity gained for certain charities to recommend others, we seem to treat it like the proof-reading case, rather than the pizza case. But is that reasonable? Posting about Kony 2012 or Against Malaria Foundation do seem to be requests for help. On the other hand, the people posting don’t seem to be seeking help for themselves. GiveWell does not benefit from people donating to AMF, as they are entirely separate organisations. Help is being sought on behalf of others. This may seem to make the charity case disanalogous from either of the others.

Yet there is a fundamental similarity between the charity case and the restaurant case. When you commented on the restaurant advert to recommend an even better restaurant, you were helping the person posting (and possibly readers) to better satisfy their own aims. By posting what they did, they acknowledged their liking of Italian food, and you are helping them to find even nicer Italian food. Likewise, rather than just commenting on someone else’s recommendation, you might want to say about some well-known restaurant: “if you like Pizza House, you’ll love Gina’s”. Even if there is some indirect benefit to you from others finding out about the restaurant (for example, it becoming popular makes it less likely to have to close), as long as that wasn’t your main motivation for telling others about it, you seem to be doing an unequivocally good act. Moreover, telling people some specific way in which Gina’s was better than Pizza House would be useful information to convey. In the charity case, caring about Kony 2012 seems to show an interest in helping people. Given that, if you post about Kony 2012 to say that donating to AMF is a better way of helping people, you seem to be doing a similar thing to recommending Gina’s – assisting people to achieve what they are already aiming for. Explaining the reasons why malaria is a bigger or more easily solved problem than Kony seems to be providing useful information, not being unnecessarily negative. Therefore, as you would be in the restaurant case, GiveWell is doing admirable work in publishing the post it did on Kony 2012 and AMF.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. Michael Blatherwick

    Brilliant post. This is quite possibly the first post on this site that I’ve actually understood the whole of!

    Very well illustrated, and I’ve gone from “I think I agree with what Give Well did” at the top to being confident now in my opinion.

  2. Well… maybe. But there is a selfish component to what they’re doing, or at least a self-centred one. (1) Irrespective of the content of what they say, they’re arrogating to themselves the role of moral arbiter, and this sets some people’s teeth on edge, especially when they piggy-back to do it. Even setting that aside; (2) they’re presuming to have a better insight into good/bad than others. Even aside from the public role of seizing the microphone from someone else, the claim that “I know about ethics and your ethical evaluation calculus is inferior to mine” is not going to play well with many people, perhaps especially to many informed people.**

    On (1), and building on Michelle’s example: we all know people who recommend restaurants in just the way Michelle describes, and there are occasions and contexts where it’s great to have new information. But most of us also know people who cannot let someone else’s restaurant/food/wine/etc recommendations pass without comment. “Oh, you like Pizza House? How… droll… you simply *must* try Gina’s.” There’s a scale here, between, say, “helpful friend” at one end and “pretentious snob” at the other. Michelle is, kindly, clearly inclined to see Give Well’s intervention as being at the “helpful friend” end of the spectrum. But perceptions will, legitimately, differ depending on context, existing relationships, etc. I’m not arguing that Give Well *are* at the other end of the spectrum just that it seems clear from the blog postings Michelle cites that some folks interpreted them in that way. And I think if Give Well expect to get the benefit of the doubt here they need to be alert to the nuances of conversation. Simply highjacking other people’s conversations to explain why they’ve got it horribly wrong is begging to be misunderstood, at least.

    **To their considerable credit, it sounds as though they’re aware that they struggle a bit at times with communication – on their mistakes page they admit that poor and aggressive marketing has alienated people in the past: “Our poor judgment caused many people who had not previously encountered GiveWell to become extremely hostile to it.” Good on them for identifying and highlighting this.

  3. Michael Blatherwick

    Dave, I can’t agree with your point 2’s central assessment that Give Well’s comments amount to “I know about ethics and your ethical evaluation calculus is inferior to mine”, simply for the reason that most people will not have given a huge amount of thought to how they choose one charity over another, and it is on this that Give Well is asserting a position. Were Give Well claiming that Kony 2012 is an outright bad cause then, sure, they are insulting the judgement of anyone who supports it, but they’re not: what they are saying is much more along the lines of “I know about ethics and I have a system of comparing charitable efforts; you might not be familiar with it; either way, this is what it’s helped me find out”.

    Moving inexorably back to pizza, you’re absolutely right that one motivation for ‘piggy-back’ recommendations could be smug superiority, but to assume this (I am aware you state that it is not necessarily the case here, but you offer no rebuke to the notion and describe Michelle as acting ‘kindly’ in thinking otherwise) is extremely harsh in my view. Two alternative pizza cases I’d like to put forward as better analogies for Give Well’s comments, given that Give Well are more experienced in the area of objective comparison of charities than most individuals are, and can thus reasonably be seen to have some expertise:

    1) The Kony 2012 video makers visit Oxford and have a lovely dinner at Pizza Express; they have had other pizza before, so they know the pizza is good, but it’s the only time they’ve eaten in Oxford. They obviously recommend Pizza Express to their friends. Give Well, who live in Oxford and have eaten at both Pizza Express and Gino’s many times (and have, perhaps, studied both menus in disturbing detail), see this and ‘piggy-back’ their recommendation for Gino’s on it; surely, given their expertise, they shouldn’t expect to be received as though they were just trying to be influencers for the sake of their own egos?

    2) Someone (not the Kony 2012 people themselves) visits Oxford but it’s a flying visit and they don’t have chance to stay for dinner, but they notice Jamie’s Italian; it looks cool, and it’s Jamie Oliver’s, so presumably it’s worth a try. So, when their friend is about to go to Oxford, they suggest Jamie’s Italian on the strength of its reputation and the idea that “it must be good, cos it’s famous”. However, Give Well have been there too, and it really didn’t live up to expectations; it’s fine and all, but they do still prefer Gino’s. So, again, they ‘piggy-back’ their recommendation for Gino’s and hope that, this time, their friends are grateful for their personal insight.

    To fully address your point 1 (that Give Well are supposing to be moral arbiters), one can imagine that Give Well like thin and crispy pizza bases whereas you’re much more into deep pan pizzas. This means that their recommendation isn’t necessarily going to suit you, and you may well prefer Pizza Express after all, but does that mean they shouldn’t have made that suggestion for the benefit of the thin-base fans out there? When they scream “These are the best pizzas ever! So much better than yours!”, you know already that they like different pizza from you, so to suggest they are forcing you to change pizza preference makes little sense.

    Michelle: my opinion on your pizza analogy has taken a huge downward turn! This comment would have been SO much easier had I not felt the need to torture a metaphor within an inch of its life. Come back, incomprehensible philosophy jargon: all is forgiven!

    1. Superb. I love hyper-extended metaphors like a… no… wait… that would be a hyper-extended similie… never mind. I think I probably am bordering on the uncharitable in my reading of Give Well. I didn’t care for the tone of their post. But I think you’re right to say I’m being a bit harsh. In a wider context the basic point they’re making is less irritating, and the phrase “pretentious snob” though it does describe the behaviour and motivation of some people regarding food/restaurants/wine is inapplicable to what Give Well are doing.

      On (2): effectiveness of a dollar on measurable dimensions of human welfare is one way of weighing “good”. It is attractive to some people, and I’m going to hazard a guess and say I think this way of doing it is attractive to mathematically adept young people with fancy Ivybridge* educations and burning desires to do good. [Y’all know who you are.] But I think that the boosters of this sort of approach should do a better job of flagging that this is just one among many ways of adding up the good that gets done**. It strikes me as strikingly narrow – reminiscent of high-functioning autism*** – to get seriously into the quantitative details of comparing the DALY/QALY effects of different interventions, while losing sight of the bigger picture of the multi-dimensional nature of moral responsibility. We don’t just have duties as donors. We have duties that arise from relationships (family, community, corporate, citizen), and there are virtues that it’s better to instantiate than not to instantiate. It’s not just all about the value of the marginal donated dollar. I agree that a lot of “people will not have given a huge amount of thought to how they choose one charity over another” but I don’t think some of these charities that compare charities providing very complete information, because the “here’s one way of doing it” gets lost – it becomes “here’s how to do it”. That’s how it comes across to me, at least.

      [Maybe someone ought to set up a meta-charity that lets you vary some relevant moral parameters (how you value people with distance, aversion to income inequality, consequentialism vs other ways of doing things, etc) and then lets you choose your charity portfolio based on that.]

      *Or the less glamorous sounding “Ox League”.
      **You don’t need to be a thoroughgoing relativist to make this observation. I can remain a Bayern Munich fan but point out that there are lots of other teams to support.
      ***As in, very high-functioning within a very restricted space, but a strikingly poor appreciation of wider context and social nuance.

      1. Michael Blatherwick

        I agree completely that organisations like Give Well probably are saying “here’s how to do it” most of the time, but I think this is entirely justified and very hard to avoid. And that’s not saying I necessarily agree that it is the best way, merely that:

        1) Given an overwhelmingly complex system where making a comprehensively rational choice between charities is impossible, they have sought a way to simplify it to the point where their final decision is very likely to be amongst the best.

        In my town, the very best restaurant is a Chinese; however, ALL the other Chinese restaurants (and there are dozens) are really bad, whereas the half-dozen Italian restaurants are pretty good. With no more information than that, and assuming you have no overwhelming preference for cuisine to start with, I’d say that you’d probably be best off getting to know the Italian restaurants rather than trying to wade through 50 dodgy sweet and sour porks looking for the good one. And so Give Well narrow their focus to a point where choosing is no longer a lottery. I think they do it in an entirely self-aware way, so I personally wouldn’t describe it in similar terms to autism.

        2) As for “my way is the best way”, I think they are compelled to assert themselves like this, because “here’s one way of doing it” will undoubtedly be read as “if you love ethics and maths, you could try to compare charities objectively, but it’s just one way of doing it; pulling names out of a hat is another way of doing it”; I would imagine that they could admit that there are other ways of doing things, that might be about as good, but I really don’t think they can afford to be saying that too loudly in public. I guess they need to find a way of saying “our way is the way you should be doing it” which makes people think “ok I’ll look into it” rather than “who died and made you king?”; however, Here Be Marketing and I have absolutely nothing to offer on how that could be accomplished.

        The idea of attempting to objectively compare charities in other ways is very appealing to me. Hopefully, meta-charities that compare charities based on other ways of assessing good will develop to offer alternatives to Give Well, as I don’t think the onus is on Give Well to offer what they would presumably consider to be inferior metrics alongside their current one. Until then, we are stuck with good pizza and the sweet and sour pork lottery.

  4. Michael wrote: “The idea of attempting to objectively compare charities in other ways is very appealing to me.”

    Probably the crux of the issue. I don’t believe that an objective comparison is possible, given the inherent subjectivity of the *choice* of moral framework within which the comparison is made. And I think it’s misleading to pretend that such objectivity is possible.

    1. Michael Blatherwick

      Well, I meant within the context of a chosen ethics system and definitions for its parameters; I was referring directly to this:

      Maybe someone ought to set up a meta-charity that lets you vary some relevant moral parameters (how you value people with distance, aversion to income inequality, consequentialism vs other ways of doing things, etc) and then lets you choose your charity portfolio based on that.

      And, whilst one cannot deny that the choice of moral framework has an enormous effect on which charities are deemed as best, there is still surely room to reliably compare at least those charities which do extremely similar work. The extent to which such objective comparison can be extended seems to depend only on what one is willing to quantify; to claim that charities can’t ever be compared seems little more than disagreeing with Give Well’s opinion of what can and cannot be quantified.

  5. I always get pizza every lunch and I’m enjoying it. Anywhere around you can search for a good food with different specialty of taste and you will get used to it. Happy eating everyone 🙂

    Xahnn from University Faculty Jobs

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