Gentlemen: Thank you for your philanthropy and for your recent initiative to stimulate other billionaires to pledge support for what they consider to be worthy causes. In this letter, I hope to convey some ideas about the term “worthy causes” and to provide some examples for your further consideration – examples for which (I hasten to add, in an attempt to keep your attention) I have zero financial and only philanthropic interest.
That the meaning of “worthy causes” deserves further consideration can be illustrated with the banner and frequently repeated slogan at the website of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “All Lives Have Equal Value”. Of course it’s common to try to summarize any organization’s mission in a short, memorable slogan, but surely the Foundation’s choice is not optimal: it’s not generally accepted as correct (e.g., the majority of people would probably maintain that a murderer’s life has less value than the life of the murderer’s victim) and it’s ambiguous (e.g., one can immediately ask, “Value for what?”).
I expect that the idea contained in the Foundation’s Guiding Principle #14 is closer to the intended meaning of the Foundation’s goal, namely, “To increase opportunity and equity for those most in need.” This statement too, however, seems deficient, since as Communism demonstrated, ‘need’ is a nebulous term: are those “in need” most in need of food, health, education, money, intelligence, ambition, determination, perseverance, a sound morality, “street smarts”, or what?
The first point I would therefore suggest for your consideration is that, whereas words such as ‘worthy’, ‘value’ and ‘need’ have meaning only relative to some objective, then before rationally engaging in any philanthropic activity (literally meaning “[activity showing] love of humanity”), the critical first step is to establish objectives. Once objectives are defined, than any activity’s value or worthiness can be judged relative to the chosen objectives.
Now, granted that some people may respond that any act showing love of humanity is philanthropic; love is valuable; therefore, all philanthropic activities are of value. Such an opinion demonstrates some logic, but it suffers from three major inadequacies: 1) It neglects to address the question “why is love valuable?”, 2) It provides no practical guidance for how to show “love of humanity” (one could, for example, publish a poem that conveys one’s love for humanity), and 3) For philanthropic people or foundations with finite budgets, it provides no practical guidance for determining what philanthropy contains the most value for the investment?
The guests at your first dinner meeting obviously had already attempted to address such problems for themselves, and the report of the resulting discussion describes the expected philanthropic topics: “education, again and again; culture; hospitals and health; the environment; public policy; the poor generally.” Listing such topics, however, does little to gain traction answering questions about how to proceed.
To gain some traction, a first step is to assign a meaning to ‘value’ relative to a more concrete and practical objective. One possible objective can be derived by modifying the Gates’ Foundation Guiding Principle #14. For example, perhaps Guiding Principle #14 should be changed from “to increase opportunity and equity for those most in need” to the shorter statement: “to increase human opportunities.” Such a statement, however, admittedly seems too general, especially when funds are limited.
I therefore suggest that, to gain substantially more traction, it’s necessary to start from some fundamentals. Consequently, I request your additional forbearance while I first review some fundamentals. After doing so, I’ll apply the results to suggest solutions to the problem at hand.
The basic question is: What’s the purpose? The more general and fundamental question is: What’s the purpose of life? Fortunately, a simple and obviously correct (even if somewhat tautological) answer is: the purpose of life is to live.
More complicated is to identify the prime purpose of humans, where by “prime purpose” is meant (as in systems theory) the goal (or set of goals) for which all other (then, lower-priority) goals would be sacrificed to achieve the prime goal (or goals). Identifying our prime goals may seem to be complicated, but in the end (as I’ve analyzed elsewhere), the result is rather simple and obvious. Thus, all humans pursue an interdependent trio of survival (or “thrival”) goals: of themselves, their families (whatever they recognize as the extent of their “families”), and their values.
As might be expected and as I’ve also analyzed still elsewhere, defining, understanding, and identifying the origins of the values held by a particular person or group of people can be fairly complicated. For rational agnostic or secular or scientific humanists such as yourselves, however, it’s a relatively easy task and the results are rather obvious. For example, recognizing all humans to be members of the same “human family”, we value that which (in the more general version of the Foundation’s Guiding Principle #14) “increases human opportunities.”
Other summaries with similar meaning, however, can be more transparent. For example, as Robert Ingersoll said in his last public address (in 1899):
Man has a little intelligence, and he should use it. Intelligence is the only lever capable of raising mankind.Thus, consistent with Ingersoll’s assessment and with the principle “to increase human opportunities”, other statements of the goal could be “to help solve human problems more intelligently”, “to help intelligence go on”, and similar, where ‘intelligence’ can be displayed in the full range of human accomplishments, from poetry to physics, from cooking to computing, from dancing to diplomacy, and so on.
With such statements of the overall goal in mind, one can now rationally address the question: What projects would be most worthwhile (relative to the adopted goal) and be most efficaciously undertaken by philanthropic individuals or foundations with large (but finite) financial resources? In addressing that question, it’s essential (of course) to account for other ongoing philanthropic and governmental activities, since duplication of effort certainly isn’t efficacious. It’s also important to realize that most governments are constrained from undertaking many worthwhile activities.
As a result of such considerations, one set of philanthropic activities commonly pursued deals with human health. Thus, just as health is fundamental for individuals and their families to thrive, it’s common for philanthropic organizations to consider ways to help more humans live more healthful lives – or even to help them to just survive. Whether or not such activities are efficacious, however, leads to many questions, such as the following:
• In view of the enormous ongoing investments in improving human health (by other NGOs, industries, and governmental organizations, including the WHO), what new philanthropic activity would be efficaciously undertaken?
• What are root causes of specific hindrances to human health; in particular, is the root cause of the poor health of so many of the world’s poor simply that there are too many people straining limited natural resources?
• In such cases and in the long run, would short-term amelioration of a specific hindrance to human health actually lead to even greater human misery, e.g., resulting from even more population pressures on limited natural resources?
Such questions then commonly lead to considerations of ways that philanthropic organizations might assist humanity to engage in sustainable development, which as you know, is a huge subject area. In this letter, therefore, I’ll necessarily treat the subject superficially.
The basic difficulty inhibiting sustainable development is, of course, too many people consuming too much of the world’s finite resources. In theory, a solution is for people to voluntarily restrict consumption, but indications are that, instead, many more people (e.g., in China, India, and “the Muslim world”) understandably seek to emulate “the good life” of people in the West. In the relatively near future, therefore, stresses on the world’s ecosystems are more likely to dramatically increase than decrease. Consequently, most researchers who have studied existing and future problems dealing with sustainable development have concluded that, if the problems can be solved (which is by no means certain), then during this century, it’s urgent that the world’s human population be reduced by approximately an order of magnitude and then stabilize.
An obvious need therefore exists for efficacious activities to promote birth control. As you undoubtedly know, however, many obstacles inhibit developing sound family-planning policies. Given the irrational but powerful influences of religious groups (especially Catholic and most Muslim clerics), most governments are unable to undertake the needed actions. In addition, few philanthropic organizations seem willing to endure the passions with which such policies are attacked (by clerics, their followers, and others). Nonetheless, I urge you to consider ways to stimulate humane methods for decreasing the world’s population, e.g., with worldwide distribution of free birth-control devices and methods. The cost of a successful program would probably be tens of billions of dollars; the consequences will almost certainly be worth hundreds of trillions of dollars.
In addition, though, because of objections that will be raised against promoting and assisting birth control, there is an associated critical need to undertake appropriate educational activities. To outline this educational need, perhaps it would be useful to broach the subject more broadly.
Thus, if the goal of helping intelligence expand is to be advanced, then no doubt you agree that people’s minds must be capable of critical thought and, therefore, free of dogma. At present, however, dogma (particularly religious dogma) is rampant, especially in countries contaminated by the Catholic Church and by Islam. Therefore, a most important undertaking by enlightened philanthropic organizations is to help “the masses” in such countries to (in the words of Antisthenes) “unlearn the evil”. Their own governments of course refuse to do so (or refuse even to recognize the problem), and the U.S. government, for example, apparently finds it too “politically sensitive” to meaningfully try.
The best way to bring the ideas of the Enlightenment to “the masses” is, of course, to use the mass media. Elsewhere (e.g., here and here) I’ve provided a few ideas about how to do so; Hugh Fitzgerald has provided some ideas about how to try to enlighten Muslims still shrouded in Islam’s version of the Dark Ages; many more ideas should be explored – and the best of them implemented. The hardware costs of, for example, creating a resulting worldwide television network devoted to “enlightening the masses” would probably be only a few billion, but the operating costs (for producing quality programs and broadcasting them in local languages) would probably be additional billions per year.
I hope you’ll consider adopting as top priorities the above-outlined, coupled activities. In my view they sum to a “virtuous circle of philanthropy”, consisting of improved human health from sustainable development via family planning and using mass media for enlightening education. In addition, though, and with ‘value’ continuing to be measured with respect to the goal of helping intelligence to go on and to expand (or some statement with similar meaning), then many other activities would benefit from philanthropic support. Below, I’ll mention a few.
For example, it’s understandably difficult for even the most intelligent humans to obtain financial support to study, in Donald Rumsfeld’s words, “unknown unknowns”, especially those unknowns that have the potential to terminate life on Earth. Western governments are investing in studies to eliminate the possibilities of an asteroid devastating life on Earth and of humans being eliminated by a “super bug” (both being “somewhat-known unknowns”), but imaginative studies associated with the Fermi paradox (i.e., the question: if life is common in the universe, then why has no other life form contacted us?) deserve more financial support, as do studies that attempt to identify other “unknown unknowns”.
One partially-known unknown (which requires substantial study and is related to both the Fermi paradox and to current social conditions) is related to the possibility of a future technological catastrophe. History has shown that every technological advance (from farming to industrial manufacturing) has led to social upheavals, including revolutions, but many more and more penetrating social and psychological studies are needed that attempt to extrapolate to consequences of widespread use of advanced artificial intelligence, artificial organs, genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, etc.
Special studies are needed, also, to examine the consequences of deterioration of the gene pool (e.g., via medical “advances”) and of the reality that workers with the least appreciation of leisure time are usually the ones who acquire most leisure from technological advances. To illustrate, I’d guess that, currently in the U.S., there are somewhere around 10 million unemployed who “don’t know what to do with themselves”, whereas I wonder if, during the past decade, you’ve had a single day when you felt you had nothing to do.
If intelligent life is to continue and to expand, formal education is certainly critical, but whereas essentially all governments invest in such education, philanthropic activities should be targeted precisely. In the West, for example, and particularly in the U.S. (in contrast, for example, with the case of India and Pakistan), it’s questionable if any philanthropic organization should attempt to improve the quality of formal education. In general in the West, education tools and methods are adequate; in contrast, what’s seriously deficient (in an atrociously many students) is eagerness to learn.
Psychological and sociological studies of the nature and cause of the lack of interest and ambition in western school children might usefully be funded by philanthropic organizations. Elsewhere (e.g., start here) I’ve suggested some governmental actions that might someday be possible, e.g., redefining educational funding to base it on student achievement. But from personal experiences, I found that the backbreaking job of picking crops in the searing summer heat was a powerful incentive to study harder.
In the U.S., therefore, perhaps no solution will be found until competition from other nations results in still further (and significant) deterioration in the quality of life of the majority of Americans. Yet, it would be at least interesting to determine results from a philanthropic organization’s funding the arrangement, implementation, and evaluation of summer-work programs even for elementary school children (e.g., renovating blighted urban areas), to determine if physical labor might teach youngsters some of the advantages of more eagerly pursuing their education.
Potentially of more value would be targeted philanthropic educational activities in other countries (particularly in Central and South America, Africa, some Asian countries, and most Muslim nations). If every child in such countries could read English and had Internet access, literally thousands of future Einsteins, Gandhis, and Shakespeares would probably emerge. The costs would again be tens of billions of dollars, but again the consequences could be worth trillions. Again, however, it would be necessary to overcome entrenched religious ideas and associated power structures; therefore, the above-outlined activities to “enlighten the masses” may need to precede attempts to provide every child in the world with knowledgeable access to Internet resources. And I would add even the obvious remark that it’s especially important to improve (or in some cases, to initiate) the education of girls throughout the world, since they are the primary future bearers and healers of any culture.
Admittedly there are many other projects that I hope would be funded by philanthropic organizations. For example, I would go so far as to say that no organization should portray itself as a lover of humanity that doesn’t devote a meaningful fraction of its resources to the arts, nature, science, mathematics, interpersonal relations, or to whatever its founders consider to be beautiful. But in spite of this letter’s shortcomings, I hope that you find some of the ideas mentioned in it to be useful, and in any case, I convey my best wishes for success in your philanthropic endeavors.
cc. George Soros, Ted Turner
By the way, I notice that, this week, a Pakistan court has ordered the blocking of many Internet sites, including www.islam-exposed.org, www.jihadwatch.org, www.skepticsannotatedbible.com, ww.middle-east-info.org, www.faithfreedom.org, www.thereligionofpeace.com, www.abrahamic-faith.com, www.muhammadlied.com, www.prophetofdoom.net, www.worldthreats.com, www.voiceofbelievers.com, and www.walidshoebat.com. I would hope that some philanthropic foundation (e.g., the Gates Foundation) would relatively quickly fund methods to circumvent and prevent such despicable blocking of paths to enlightenment.