Thursday, February 11, 2010

Can't Buy Me Love

So this is my second post discussing how much a person should give, which also, somewhat coincidentally, has a classic-rock theme. In the previous one, I discussed how any advice on how much to give will be fundamentally arbitrary. In this one, I will discuss the real question behind anyone asking how much should they give:

How much is a human life worth?

Now, bear with me. In my last post, I outlined three conditions that I think need to hold true before any system can be created to determine how much an individual should be donating:
First, that your donation (investment) will be used effectively and efficiently. Second, your donation (investment) will be used with similar amounts of effectiveness and efficiency across all causes and across all organizations. Third, you will be able to measure a return on that donation (investment) that will justify the amount of money you put in. 
I write about the first condition all the time. The second two require metrics that are able to accurately measure social change and life improvement resulting from an organization's efforts.  This system of social output measurement would be able to quantify the social output from an organization, and therefore, tell you your return on a social investment. While some have tried to do this, I am not sure it is obtainable, or something investors should seek out.

This isn't obtainable because, fundamentally, it requires the measurable value of a human life--whether that be at the individual, group of societal level. To know how much change your money is creating, you would need to be able to quantify that change. Change is always centered on improving individual's lives and an improvement of a life can only be measured if that life can be measured. We, as humans, do not have the tools (or probably the consciousness) to do this. Determining the value of life has been tried, but using money to value humanity isn't much different than letting monkeys figure out how many bananas their friends are worth.

Charles at Social Edge posted this discussion on "The Fetishization of Metrics," where he compares "Quants," (those who are interested in measuring impact through numbers) with "Qualits," (those who "know there's more to human life than numbers can possibly capture.") Quants want to determine outputs and see the numbers, while Qualits recognize that real change comes in unmeasurable units.

I encourage you to be a Qualit in your investments and in all things. Quants have their place--we must measure what we can to determine what is working and what is not. (The authors of a study cited in Charles' post even propose a metric to better measure the intrinsic, unmeasurable value of social change.) But when pushed too far, social change measurements will always fall apart.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jeff, I'm digging your blog. Too bad we didn't have time over break to talk about this kind of stuff but we should try to get together next time we're in the same city. For the moment, it seems we've both devoted our lives to thinking and through action making the world a better place, with the difference being our views towards capitalist democracies being at near-opposite ends of the spectrum. Some lively discussion seems inevitable.

    To some up my perpetually indignant feelings (I've become one those now), the standard capitalist solution of helping poor countries by giving them sweatshops just gets less funny the more I think about it. Hopefully this social investment thing or anarchism catches on soon and fixes all our problems.