In Memory of Aaron Swartz

From Holden Karnofsky, GiveWell co-founder and co-Executive Director:

Note: this post is in memory of Aaron Swartz. Aaron was a friend of and volunteer for GiveWell, and his family has recommended GiveWell for donations in his memory. We are deeply grateful for the help and support that Aaron provided during his lifetime, as well as for the outpouring of generosity that has come in the wake of his tragic death. I wrote this post to honor Aaron’s memory and provide context on his connection to GiveWell.

We take pride in our work, and we draw much of that pride not only from how many fans and supporters we have, but from who those fans and supporters are – their thoughtfulness, their intelligence, their values and passion to pursue those values. Aaron was one of the supporters who made us proudest.

We cold-emailed Aaron in May of 2011 because Elie and I had been greatly enjoying his blog, had noticed his interest in Peter Singer’s work, and thought he might be interested in GiveWell. We talked on the phone and had a great conversation. Within a week of our first phone call (before any of us had met him in person), Aaron had notified us of his intention to leave money to GiveWell in his will. He explained that he wanted to use his money to accomplish as much good as possible, and that as long as he was alive this meant funding projects of his own, but that if something unexpected happened he wanted the money to go to the next-best option.

The first time I actually met Aaron in person was at a talk I gave with Peter Singer at Princeton in October 2011. Aaron heard about the talk on Twitter at 3pm, and immediately got on a train from Boston, where he lived, to New Jersey. He arrived just a couple of minutes after the talk began, with no plan for getting home or where he was going to stay; we ended up talking for several hours after everyone else left.

When Aaron moved to New York in 2012, he and I became friends. Our relationship was largely intellectual. He was interested in GiveWell, in monetary policy, in self-skepticism, in psychology (one of his last emails to me was a theory of why people procrastinate and how one might systematically help overcome it), and in a vast array of other topics. I found him brilliant and fascinating; he was astoundingly well-read and knowledgeable; he challenged many of my beliefs in compelling ways; he was simultaneously passionate and open-minded about his views. Whenever we met up – which usually consisted of no agenda other than walking and talking for several hours – I found myself racking my brain on how to make the best use of our time, because I felt I had so much to learn from him on so many topics. He was one of my favorite people to talk to.

I believe the root of Aaron’s breadth of interests – and the reason the two of us connected – was what I call “rational altruism.” When I talk to people about why they give where they give, the answer is usually that they’ve been touched by a particular cause, organization, story or person. By contrast, I believe in putting all the options on the table and deliberately, strategically, analytically narrowing them down on the basis of which will accomplish the most good – then continuing to constantly step back and reevaluate the choice. This was the approach Aaron favored for charitable giving; it was also the approach he favored for deciding how to invest his time and considerable talent. His interests naturally went wherever he saw opportunities to help the oppressed and disadvantaged. And he was constantly rethinking and revisiting his views, always ready to leave behind an area he had invested in and become known for in order to go after the new best opportunity.

That’s why he was interested in, and worked on, such a broad range of topics. Over the last year, Aaron was facing a court case that is now inspiring people to rally against restrictions on information access and overzealous prosecution. But Aaron himself, at that time, was less interested in these issues – which were dominating his life – than in, for example, monetary policy or climate change, which he intellectually believed to be among the most important topics.

I think Aaron would be honored to see people channeling their fondness for him into a movement to combat excessive prison sentences or to promote freedom of information. I think he would be honored by the outpouring of donations to GiveWell in his memory, which we greatly appreciate. But these aren’t the only actions that I think honor Aaron. I think anyone who is struggling to make the world a better place – in any area, at any place and time – is in some sense honoring his memory. Especially if they are doing it deliberately, strategically and reflectively for maximal impact.

Aaron’s passion was his relentless quest to fight oppression and suffering as effectively as possible, whatever it took. I believe that the world desperately needs more people with that goal. I’m devastated that we now have one fewer.

We’d also like to recognize the work Aaron did for GiveWell and the value he added directly:

  • When Good Ventures asked us for help evaluating the Drug Policy Alliance – an organization well outside any field we’ve researched – I referred Aaron. Aaron and his friend, Matt Stoller, surveyed the drug policy landscape and reported what they were seeing back to Good Ventures. Their work was intelligent, strategic and thought-provoking, and it helped both Good Ventures and GiveWell get an initial handle on how to start thinking about policy advocacy.
  • Aaron also helped us, on a volunteer basis, with technical issues – things like helping us operationalize recurring donations to top charities, and helping us deal with our accidental publication of non-approved information earlier this year. This wasn’t the sort of thing he found intrinsically exciting, but he had offered to help us in any way he could, and whenever we needed his help he stepped up no matter what the task looked like.
  • Aaron paid a great deal of attention to our research and often shared his opinions on it, which we greatly appreciated. For example, he emailed our public email group about a concern he had based on a footnote in an update on one of our top charities, sparking a discussion. He also attended multiple GiveWell discussion events and conference calls and was an important contributor to the discussions.

Our hearts go out to Aaron’s friends and family. We’ll miss him deeply.

The first comment:

I had only spent any time talking with him once in person and I’m pretty sure I bored him then; I’d followed his writing and seen some of his work at PCCC and Demand Progress up close as a contract techie. From what little data I have:

He’s one of the few people I’ve ever met who’s not only an honest-to-goodness utilitarian but lived his life like it–tried to squeeze all the value possible out of every moment he could, tried to be smart and strategic as he possibly could, was willing to ignore social conventions he thought were wrong (part of what led to the JSTOR download), and didn’t put much stock in good intentions alone.

And he was just a force of nature–I can start to imagine how one person could read as much as he he did (the infamous yearly book review posts), _or_ write as much as he did (and as thoughtfully), _or_ do the technical/campaign work he did, but any two of those blows my mind. Only now finding out there were more big projects and tasks he took on on top of what everyone knew about. If someday it’s revealed there was a small city hidden in the Northeast publishing its work product under the pseudonym ‘Aaron Swartz’, that would explain a lot.

It’s incredibly frustrating that he’s gone–you know, had he stuck around, he’d’ve done (more) big things. Depression and the problems with the justice system suck. It’s good, even if it doesn’t nearly make up for the loss, that people seem motivated to useful action by his memory now. You have to figure he’d approve.





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