My Donations: Past and Present

My Donations: Past and Present

by Brian Tomasik

First written: 9 Sept. 2013; last update: 19 Apr. 2014


Currently I'm working for the Foundational Research Institute, exploring a variety of questions about how best to reduce suffering in the future. I'm also supporting Animal Ethics, a charity raising concern for animal suffering, including by animals in nature. I currently also endorse donations to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). I donated to several different organizations in the past, some of which I still support and some of which I now oppose.

Table of contents

Current projects

Right now I'm collaborating with friends in Switzerland on research about how best to reduce suffering from a broad perspective. I have high uncertainty not just about what the best project is for reducing suffering but even whether many of the conventional approaches are actually net positive or negative. There are multitude "foundational" issues that need to be explored to better shine light on these concerns. I think the best thing suffering reducers can do now is take a step back and study these questions for the next several years, before focusing too much on concrete activist projects. As Nick Bostrom says: "If we have overlooked even just one [crucial] consideration, then all our best efforts might be for naught---or less. When headed the wrong way, the last thing needed is progress."

That said, I'm also supporting and donating small amounts to a charity called Animal Ethics that seems like a relatively safe bet for being an important cause. Animal Ethics hopes to realize the dream of Yew-Kwang Ng in igniting the study of "welfare biology" by ecologists, ethologists, environmental scientists, and philosophers. We hope to encourage students and academics to take on important questions about how human actions affect wild-animal suffering. In addition, we hope to build interest in this topic among members of the animal-rights community and encourage them to examine their prior assumptions about life in the wild with unbiased eyes. Animal Ethics is a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) public charity in the US and has charitable status in Spain.

Other organizations I may endorse

As I discuss more in the next section, my views on MIRI have fluctuated back and forth, back and forth between MIRI being net positive and net negative for suffering reducers. I now think MIRI is likely net beneficial, because MIRI's work on friendliness has the potential to benefit all value systems at once through positive-sum compromise. There's significant variance in this recommendation, but because MIRI's work is so important, my current expected value for donating remains high.

Other organizations do important future-oriented research as well, and there are further charities in the effective-altruism movement that aim for similar goals at a more meta-level. I personally favor MIRI most because I think its work is both exceptional in quality and arguably more positive-sum than that by other organizations.

Past donations

In the remainder of this piece I'll describe where I used to donate. One reason my recommendations have changed recently is that Animal Ethics did not exist before 2013, and I had a full-time job that reduced how much bandwidth I had for direct research. However, I have also updated my views about the potential net impacts of the other causes as well.

Between 2009 and 2013, I gave $12K per year because my employer, Microsoft, matched employee contributions to US 501(c)(3) public charities dollar-for-dollar up to $12K. This opportunity for doubling was the main reason I donated each year rather than holding on to the money for better future opportunities.

What do I think now of past charities?

Organization type Net sign Good effects Bad effects Unclear effects
environmental preservation unclear, depending on the project Conserving natural resources may improve prospects for future cooperation
  • Preserve habitats and, along with them, lots of wild-animal suffering
  • Encourage memes of deep ecology, that nature is intrinsically valuable
Veg outreach (Vegan Outreach, The Humane League) positive with high variance
  • Encourage the idea that animal suffering matters
MIRI (formerly SIAI) very positive with high variance
  • Research on crucial considerations that can benefit suffering reducers
  • Much of the ethics promoted by MIRI is not focused on and is sometimes even antithetical to suffering reduction. That said, CEV is a step towards an optimal compromise morality, which is probably what we should ultimately shoot for with AI.
  • Not obvious whether friendly AI is better or worse than paperclip maximization

Estimating the overall impacts of a charity is really hard, and the uncertainty displayed in this table underscores the importance of foundational research before jumping to conclusions about specific activism projects.


[1] I now think this is more of a concern than I used to. When I meet new veg*ans outside of rationalist circles, they are always environmental preservationists, and they're usually more appalled by my views on wild-animal suffering than are non-veg*ans. Many veg*ans think wild-animal lives are net positive, even often those of insects. Now, there's some hope that this correlation is partly due to more general ideological trends (liberalism is associated with both environmentalism and support for animal welfare), and maybe marginal veg*ans are less likely environmentalist. Still, being veg*an will inevitably expose people to environmentalist friends and memes.

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