Peter Buffett: Philanthropy disguises itself as a fix when it’s a part of the problem

Philanthropy is a lot harder than it looks. Or is it?
Philanthropy is a lot harder than it looks. Or is it?
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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In July 2013 Peter Buffett wrote a fierce critique of the philanthropic system for the New York Times:

Because of who my father is [Warren Buffett], I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in… Philanthropy has become…  what I would call “conscience laundering”—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place… Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature…

As long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.

And Will MacAskill in Quartz responded with an even fiercer critique of his own:

Should we judge the whole of philanthropy because it can be used for bad ends? Of course not. And nor should we judge the whole of physics because it was used to create the A-bomb (though that does mean we should be careful).

Peter Buffett’s argument belies an astonishing lack of understanding of both economics and of the extremity of global poverty…

The current economic system has merits and faults, and we need to get into specifics before we can say more than that.

MacAskill didn’t expect to hear from Buffett after that. But then, in February of this year, he received an unexpected email with the following message:

…You missed my points so completely and so naively that all I could do is look forward to meeting you in 30 years to see how your views may have changed. One can only hope that through time you’ll see more of the world through a different set of eyes.

He appreciated the honesty. So he wrote the following reply:

…I now regret writing my original Quartz article using such strong language: while I continue to believe that the main claims you make in your New York Times op-ed are incorrect, I should have made it clear that I’m always interested in improving my understanding of the views of those I disagree with.

And to their surprise, the two ended up having a long and nuanced email conversation. Here are some excerpts:

Subject: Where’s the disagreement?


I’m really interested to get deeper into this issue: I want to do the best I can in my life, and I’m open to the idea that my current best-guesses about what that means might be radically mistaken.

The general philosophy I subscribe to is called “effective altruism” — using my time and money to do the most good I can. (Descriptions here and here, and Peter Singer’s TED talk about it is here.) I personally would be very interested if you think that effective altruism is the sort of thing that you were targeting in your article. Given my arguments in favor of “earning to give,” I’d imagine that it is. After your op-ed I started this Facebook thread, where I ask some of my philosopher friends to weigh in on the issue, and try to lay out the different considerations. You can see some more of my thinking on this issue there.

There are quite a few things from your original New York Times op-ed that I agree with:

  • Charity is often used for “greenwashing”—a marketing trick to make unethical companies or people look better–rather than to actually do good.
  • Even those philanthropists who are trying to help often engage in attempts to help in areas that they know very little about, and this can sometimes cause harm.
  • It is plausible that the best ways of making the world a better place involve “systemic” change — changes to the law, to policy, or to deep-rooted social norms.

But you also made a number of claims that I find implausible (I add my comments below each claim):

  • “[philanthropy] just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place.”

I agree that much charitable giving does little good, or can even be harmful. In such cases, promoting it is not a good thing, and the negative effects of cementing unjust systems, if that is a negative effect, would make it net bad. However, I think that well-targeted charitable giving or aid can do a tremendous amount of good. There are many historical examples, but my favorite is smallpox eradication: with a total cost of $1.4 billion, it saved 122 million lives and counting. Smallpox eradication has saved more lives than world peace would have done in that time. So if you wanted to say that aid is net bad, you’d have to say it’s worse than war. And that seems really implausible to me. And I think a similar analysis applies to philanthropy.

  •  “no “charitable”… intervention can solve any of these issues. It can only kick the can down the road. It’s time for a new operating system… New code.”

I don’t think that charity alone can solve all the problems in the world. But what I care about is what it’s best to do on the margin—what a person can do given the current state of the world.  As I said above, it’s plausible that the best thing I can do is to campaign for legal, political or social change. But it’s also plausible to me that promoting well-researched and well-targeted charitable giving might be the best way for most individuals to do the most good. No theoretical argument can determine that either way; we need to get into specifics.

  • “I now hear people ask, “what’s the R.O.I.?” when it comes to alleviating human suffering, as if return on investment were the only measure of success.”

I agree that business principles are often badly used in charity. But I think that the idea of R.O.I., where that’s understood as “doing the most good per dollar spent”–taking into account all the effects stemming from the intervention–is fundamentally correct, and that there should me much more thinking on those lines.



It now seems to me that we agree a lot more than we disagree. I do, however, want to make a few quick observations.

First, my own thinking has evolved over the last decade, almost entirely due to my charitable activities. So there is a deep irony in there somewhere.

Second, you and your colleagues are clearly more academically educated that I am. I dropped out of Stanford to pursue a music career. Luckily, I was successful. But it gave me a very different perspective on creativity and its necessity in all things. I’ve learned that facing most days with a client expecting you to make something where nothing existed before gives you a sense that anything is possible, and to not be afraid—but actually embrace—the unknown. This can often fly in the face of people that base decisions on reason, logic and evidence. I’ve found a much greater friend in intuition, heart and feeling.

So in some ways I think I am very suspect of “data-driven” approaches in general. Not that data can’t be useful, but it’s intuition and the willingness to see beyond data that will get society and culture to a new and more just place.

I think that we have lost our way as a global community.  Yet this is a relatively recent phenomenon. We have become a world of transactions, not relationships. Again, I was compelled to reach out to you because you’re young and smart—and somehow I must have known that you were open, too. I’m not down on all philanthropy. We need to stop the bleeding in some cases here and now. But for the people with big resources, the place to work is in the areas that seem most intractable, and that requires imagination. It was really my dad’s only directive—to go where others won’t.

Intuition vs. data


You say you’re suspect of any “data-driven” approaches to doing good. I think this might be the fundamental issue here: whereas you’re suspect of data-driven approaches, I’m suspect of “intuition-driven” approaches.

The key problem, in my mind, is just that there are too many different pressing problems in the world. Girls being abused or trafficked is certainly one. But there’s also homelessness in New York City (where I’m writing this); millions of people dying of easily preventable diseases; terrorism; war; climate change, and thousands of others. It would be great to be able to solve all of these problems at once. But we can’t. So we need a way of at least attempting to work out which problems to focus on solving first.

We could use data to answer this question, or we could use intuition. I think that going with intuition is probably the better strategy when you’re engaged in a creative enterprise, like music. But when you want to achieve specific outcomes, a data-driven approach seems to work much better than an intuition-driven approach. That’s certainly true in science, medicine, and business. So it’s likely to be true in charity, too, insofar as helping others is about achieving outcomes–namely, improving people’s lives as much as possible.

That’s not to say it’s always possible. Charity is much messier than physics or medicine: since there isn’t such clean data, the data-driven approach needs to be supplemented with reasoned judgment calls. (Though the same is true in science and business.) But that’s not to say that we should throw out use of data altogether.

You say that you want to do work on issues that seem “intractable” and to “go where others won’t.” I think it’s important to distinguish between these two ideas. I agree with the latter but not really with the former.

On the latter: if an area is uncrowded, then there’s a greater chance that an individual will make a big difference, since the area is more likely to contain “low hanging fruit” that others haven’t yet plucked. (For what it’s worth, I now believe that changing international policy is much less crowded, compared to foreign aid, than I had previously thought. So, from the learning I’ve been doing, things that might be called ‘systemic change’ are now looking more plausible.)

On the former: if one is trying to tackle a problem which one later finds out is “intractable,” I’d say that this gives one reason to focus instead on one of the very many tractable problems that exist in the world.


I completely agree that the most interesting disagreement to explore in this exchange is intuition vs. data.

I would venture a guess that nearly every scientific breakthrough had an “aha!” moment. You may think that “intuition” is not the correct term to designate such insights; maybe “epiphany” would be closer in some ways. Still, after the data is collected and the stories are told, there comes a time when gut feeling can start to shape something out of the imagination. That’s where Einstein’s quote that I used in the op-ed comes in. So I’ll use another one of his:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

I believe that this is entirely correct.

I disagree that we can’t solve all the problems you list at once (somewhat dependent on the time frame of “at once”). You can absolutely call me crazy or utopian or both… But I am convinced that all the problems you list are related. And that they are all symptoms. That was the fundamental point of my piece that many individuals got… but the critics roundly missed. I was calling out the fact that philanthropy is disguising itself (in many ways—but not all!) as a fix when it’s actually contributing to the overarching problem.

We have separated ourselves from our nature—and nature itself—over the past 10 to 15,000 years. And the speed at which that has happened has picked up considerably in the past 150. I won’t digress too far yet but everything’s connected. Violence is culture’s way to keep itself alive (this is my favorite interview about culture). And violence comes in many forms (terrorism, war, climate change, economic systems the list definitely feels endless – that’s the idea… hopelessness keeps things in check).


Let’s distinguish between “epiphany” and “intuition.” I agree with you about epiphany. The philosopher of science Karl Popper wrote a book called The Logic of Scientific Discovery. But it’s a funny title, because according to his theory scientific discovery is the one area in science where there isn’t logic—e.g. August Kekule discovered that benzene has a ring structure by having a dream about a snake biting its own tail. So I agree with you that scientific progress is more than simply crunching data.

But — and this is crucial — after the “epiphany” you need to test your ideas, and only go with the ones that are supported by the evidence.  You can’t simply have a hunch that benzene has a ring structure and then expect to do chemistry well. And, in just the same way, you can’t simply have a hunch that some particular development intervention—deworming, or some structural reform, or the Playpump—is the way to go, and then expect it to be successful at improving people’s lives without thorough evaluation and assessment.

So even if it was the case that an idea was generated by an epiphany, you need data, thorough research, and careful reasoning to test the value of that idea. Your belief that the idea is valuable cannot entirely rest on the intuitive appeal of the epiphany.

Two different world views


I will lay out my theory on the role of intuition, why it has been abandoned, and what that has done to us as a society.

Intuition is a sense. Just like sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. Because there is no dedicated organ of intuition, this idea can easily be dismissed.

I also contend that women’s intuition is stronger. It has to be. As child bearers and nurturers, women needed to sense what was “around the corner.” A potential future threat would be a valued and therefore well-developed sense in a female.

It’s not to say that men don’t have it. In the days before agriculture, I believe men had an extraordinary ability to “hear” nature. To understand weather patterns, animal movements and more. It was essential for survival for both genders to keep their intuition keen.

In man’s attempt to survive the unpredictable qualities of nature, the domestication of plants and animals was undertaken.  It was a brilliant development: suddenly the dependency on weather and other factors was diminished greatly.

But that was also the first imposition of a “grid.” Natural rhythms were disrupted by the ability to “outsmart” the natural world. Males started to lose their intuitive sense because it wasn’t as necessary.  And intuition became almost completely unnecessary over the following few thousand years.

We are now feeling soul sickness because of this process. The violence we experience throughout culture exists because we are literally crashing against boundaries of our own creation. A inept form of education, a complete lack of equality in nearly every sector of society, literal and figurative wars against… terror, cancer, drugs, poverty.

I don’t have a clear way out. But I know we have to feel our way. We’ve been blinded by science in its myriad forms.


This is interesting. I’ll lay out my view, then comment on how it might differ from yours.

My view is to go with the views of psychologists. They typically divide reasoning processes in System 1 – fast, intuitive, and associative – and System 2 – slow, deliberative, logical, and conscious.  Sometimes System 1 works better, sometimes System 2 works better.

System 1 typically works better when one is making a decision on a subject matter that one has extensive experience with, and has had extensive feedback on.  This system also works better when there are a large number of variables at play.

By contrast, System 2 typically works better in situations that one hasn’t had much experience with, or can’t get regular feedback about, and where there are a small number of variables that one is concerned with.

So I agree with you that intuition (System 1) is sometimes a much better guide than all the data in the world (which System 2 would have to trawl through). The question is which is a more reliable guide when it comes to making the world a better place.

Now, our pre-agrarian ancestors, undoubtedly had better intuitions than us regarding a whole host of things, including those you mention. But the modern world is very different from the world that our intuition evolved to handle. In our ancestral environment, we would never face a situation where one could affect the lives of millions of people. And that means we’re biased, in a whole variety of ways.  This is well documented: you can ask people how much they’d be willing to pay in order to rescue 2,000 birds from an oil spill, or 200,000 birds from an oil spill. And they say the same amount (about $80) in both cases. Our intuitive brains just can’t handle such big numbers because, in the environment to which we evolved, we rarely faced options that differed by such magnitudes.

Attempting to do good in the world is tremendously difficult. And it’s not something where we can, without a lot of work, get reliable feedback. So that’s why we need to use System 2: meticulously gather evidence and data, do cost-benefit analysis as best we can, and then follow the numbers rather than our feelings.


I would say that a balance of the two systems is best.

I think we have “progressed” ourselves away from our (probably) most valuable resource—our own common sense. It’s no coincidence that that name was on the pamphlet that fueled the American Revolution. We live in a blip of time where our ability to think of things has blown past our ability to deal with the consequences.

Dealing with bias


One problem with going with the data is bias. For instance, we think the economy is somehow driving the bus. As Jacob Goldstein writes, “If you’d asked somebody 100 years ago, ‘How’s the economy doing?’ they wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.”

You say that “meticulously gather evidence and data, do cost-benefit analysis as best we can, and then follow the numbers rather than our feelings.” Once again, I am concerned about observer-expectancy effects. Who’s gathering the data? For what purpose? What isn’t being asked? And so on.


I think I understand you. I see how, if you had the view that people (generally rich white men) are highly systematically biased to favor the status quo (which keeps them well off), you’d be skeptical of much data, even in cases where you can’t identify exactly where the data or arguments go wrong.

An analogy might be if the NRA produces data “showing” how increased gun ownership decreases homicide rate. I’d be very skeptical of that, even if I couldn’t identify any flaws with their statistics. When it comes to development, I guess I’d say that it just depends on the issue. If the World Bank says that the number of people living in extreme poverty is rapidly decreasing, then I think it’s justifiable to be skeptical—they have incentives to say they are making progress. But when academics say that deworming is a highly effective way to help the poor, I think the reasons for skepticism are much weaker.  We might expect them to be overoptimistic regarding their own field, but I don’t see how their conclusion would arise out of rich white man bias.

So perhaps a key issue between us regards how skeptical to be of the unconscious motives of those who do data-gathering for the purposes of evaluating charitable interventions.

My primary academic work concerns how to take into account uncertainty over different ethical viewpoints. And, as you might expect, I take quite a formal, quantitative approach, using rational choice theory to solve the problem. But some people—and I imagine you would be one of those people if I talked you through it—might accuse me of making a mistake in trying to use formal methods to accommodate my uncertainty. But then I really struggle to know—how do I take into account uncertainty over that? And I get this dizzying feeling, and I worry that life, at some fundamental level, involves a leap of faith—adopting a worldview, even though you can’t justify that worldview with respect to anything more fundamental. I’d like that not to be the case. Which is why I want to understand your view as well as I can.


Leap and the net will appear!