Holden Karnofsky

Holden Karnofsky is a co-founder of the charity evaluator GiveWell and the executive director of the Open Philanthropy Project.


  • When I look at large foundations making multimillion-dollar decisions while keeping their data and reasoning "confidential" – all I see is a gigantic pile of the most unbelievably mind-blowing arrogance of all time. I'm serious.
  • The issue, it seems to me, is that many people think of giving the same way they think of eating broccoli: they feel obligated to, they know they should, but they'd rather not. So charities, smartly, treat them like 5-year-olds: they try to trick them into it. If there were millions of dollars riding on getting some kid to eat his broccoli, the wisest move would probably be to get one of those chocolate-covering machines and douse the stuff until it's unrecognizable.
  • But on the other hand, there are a couple of dimensions where [Harvard] alumni have much higher opinions of themselves, and these are the things I think people have come to humblebrag about. One of them is positive contribution to society: 15% of us think we're in the top 10%, and 4% of us think we're in the top 1%. The much bigger one is happiness: only 4% of us think we're below average, over 30% of us think we're in the happiest 10%, and a whopping 10% of us think we're in the happiest one percent. So I think this is going to be a really interesting and really weird reunion, because it looks like our generation has become some sort of bragging hipster generation. Instead of bragging about money and fame like traditional people do, we're way too cool for that and instead we're all high on ourselves for being good people with the right priorities in life. I think we're going to be hearing a lot of conversations along the lines of "Yeah I'm kinda poor, but I'm doing what I believe in and I'm really happy and I think that's just what matters, but I don't know, maybe that's just me." "No man I totally feel you, and actually I think I'm even poorer and happier, I mean I literally love my spouse so much I'd kill myself if we split up."
    • In his 2013 speech at the Harvard class of 2003 reunion, June 2013
  • I wanted to get my partner Daniela a special and valuable engagement present, but we had long agreed that a diamond ring – or other comparably expensive present – didn't make sense for us. Instead of money, I decided to "spend" a resource more valuable to both of us: time and creative energy.
  • I update negatively on people who mislead (including expressing great confidence while being wrong, and especially including avoidable mischaracterizations of others' views); people who do tangible damage (usually by misleading); and people who create little of value despite large amounts of opportunity and time investment.
  • I have more pet peeves than anyone else I know, and one of the very biggest ones is what I call flakes: people who say they'll do something, then back out without giving me the communication I need to adjust my plans. Anyone who's ever stood me up, or even been very late to something without a heads-up phone call, or just forgotten to do something they knew I was counting on them to do, has felt my wrath … thanks to cellphones and email, there is just no excuse.
  • I model the world as having most of the impact from extreme cases, 'home-runs'. I think that's true in business, science and social impact. If you have good personal fit, your chances of being that extreme case are dramatically better – you climb the ladder, you get to see and do things that other can't, and you get to make unique contributions.
    • In an interview with Benjamin Todd, January 2014
  • I could tell you about my strengths and weaknesses. I'm creative and intelligent and able to rock the boat and do things that can create uncomfortable situations and then not be bothered about it. But I'm not the best diplomat, I don't have a lot of patience for being sunny and making people happy.
    • In an interview with Benjamin Todd, January 2014
  • Regarding (b) ["checking boxes I want to check for considering myself a personally moral/ethical person, which is related but not identical to trying for maximum expected positive impact on the world"]: every year, I want to give a significant amount to "charity" as conventionally construed, straightforwardly helping the less fortunate. I generally believe in trying to be an ethical person by a wide variety of different ethical standards (not all of which are consequentialist). And I wouldn't feel that I were meeting this standard if I were giving nothing (or a trivial amount) to known, outstanding opportunities to help the less fortunate, for purposes of saving as much money as possible for adversarial projects (such as political campaigns) and/or more speculative projects (such as work related to artificial intelligence). I think the best giving opportunities in this category are GiveWell's top charities, so I will be giving a portion of this year's donation there, following the recommended allocation.
  • My sense is that factory farms do a great deal of damage to the world that isn't included in the prices of their products. This includes environmental impact and cruelty to animals. I know very little about the former; what I know about the latter mostly comes from a book by Peter Singer (note that Prof. Singer promotes the organization I co-founded, GiveWell).
    • On the "Ethics" page of his Power Smoothie website
  • So one crazy analogy to how my morality might turn out to work, and the big point here is I don't know how my morality works, is we have a painting and the painting is very beautiful. There is some crap on the painting. Would I like the crap cleaned up? Yes, very much. That's like the suffering that's in the world today. Then there is making more of the painting, that's just a strange function. My utility with the size of the painting, it's just like a strange and complicated function. It may go up in any kind of reasonable term that I can actually foresee, but flatten out, at some point. So to see the world as like a painting and my utility of it is that, I think that is somewhat of an analogy to how my morality may work, that it's not like there is this linear multiplier and the multiplier is one thing or another thing. It's: starting to talk about billions of future generations is just like going so far outside of where my morality has ever been stress-tested. I don't how it would respond. I actually suspect that it would flatten out the same way as with the painting.
  • I think it's somewhat of a happy coincidence so far that most breakthroughs have been good. To say, I see a breakthrough on the horizon. Is that good or bad? How can we prepare for it? That's another thing academia is really not set up to do. Academia is set up to get the breakthrough. That is a question I ask myself a lot is here's an intellectual activity. Why can't it be done in academia? These days, my answer is if it's really primarily of interest to a very cosmopolitan philanthropist trying to help the whole future, and there's no one client and it's not frontier advancing, then I think that does make it pretty plausible to me that there's no one doing it. We would love to change that, at least somewhat, by funding what we think is the most important work.
  • I now believe that there simply is no mainstream academic or other field (as of today) that can be considered to be "the locus of relevant expertise" regarding potential risks from advanced AI. These risks involve a combination of technical and social considerations that don't pertain directly to any recognizable near-term problems in the world, and aren't naturally relevant to any particular branch of computer science. This is a major update for me: I've been very surprised that an issue so potentially important has, to date, commanded so little attention – and that the attention it has received has been significantly (though not exclusively) due to people in the effective altruism community.

Quotes about KarnofskyEdit

  • I'd heard people say that he comes across as a bit of an ass online, but is an absolute sweetheart in person. Then I met him and agreed with this sentiment.
  • I know some effective altruists who see [effective altruists] like Holden Karnofsky or what not do incredible things, and feel a little bit of resentment at themselves and others; feeling inadequate that they can't make such a large difference.
  • Every hour of Holden's time is worth [approximately] thousands of dollars in marginal donations, so virtually any time he uses to save money isn't worth it. I would feel fine if Holden were spending a million a year to eke out every moment of his time and happiness and never give a second thought to money.
    • Robert Wiblin, in a discussion about the trade-off between time and money, August 2017

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