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March 21, 2007


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Will you admit that there are good things about modernity, which has generated all the wealth that now makes philanthropy such a viable topic of discussion? Under normal human conditions, we are programmed to fight for the land and women and we'd never dream of spending precious time and money worrying about how to help our suffering co-people on the other side of the globe.

You often point out, and I agree, that the customer/provider relationship is one of the disturbing aspects of this. But measurement is different. Measurement is what allows you to improve things you've never literally seen in action, and that in turn is what allows us to form a global, not just local, community. If we do recover the language of common purpose, I hope it will be as a planet, not a set of villages, and to do that we need innovative ways of creating the information that's now so easy to share.

Measuring good is incredibly hard, but more viable if you keep in mind why the numbers are there and what their limitations are. It can be human, and more importantly it allows a form and scope of teamwork that would be impossible without it.


The best part of blogging is the conversation - getting set straight by those who have thought deeply about the issues. Thank you for your insights. "If we do recover the language of common purpose, I hope it will be as a planet, not a set of villages, and to do that we need innovative ways of creating the information that's now so easy to share." Yes, to that, not just villages, tribes, and particularistic communities, but an englightened world held together by wisdom and knowledged, and some of which is indeed quantifiable. - Was that not the dream of reason that was the Englightenment? It gave us Spinoza, Swift, Hegel, Napolean. The Dream of Reason, where every good question has one right answer, and all goods can be ranked like football teams, inspired many and still inspires some. All of postmodern thinking is the unraveling of that tapestry, but what has that netted us but facility, advertising, marketing, spin, and lies in high places? Measuring the good in an ideology free manner is probably a fantasy, a delusion, like a perpetual motion machine, but I think you are right that the alternative may be tribalism, fantaticism, zealotry, propaganda, xenophia, nationalism, and all the ills that the Englightenment meant to cure.

Such thoughts lead me to satire - the moral mode of the Enlightenment - in which the speaker most often pretends to be mad.

Only a madman would dream of measuring the good, all good, on a single universal scale. That is one reason I adopt the mask of the madman - to body forth what cannot coherently be asserted - a moral vision that is both englightened and tribal - the tribes of Diogenes and Jesus that make up our heritage. I would add Jeremy Bentham if you insist.


I'm not proposing that we work together based on "pure reason," or measure the good in the world on a "single scale." In fact, our group has been adamant about separating charities into groups, based on a rule of thumb no more mathematical or calculated than "Would most people trust an intelligent, competent, informed person to choose between these charities for them?"

The folly is thinking that reason is all or nothing, and that the debate over metrics is over whether to use one single scale for everything or throw up our hands. Why not just use reason where we can, and intuition and emotion where we can't? Forget about a metric to measure "GRAND TOTAL GOOD ACCOMPLISHED" - how about one that measures "Number of indebted people who were able to become self-sustaining thanks to a loan?", and another that measures "Number of diarrhea-ridden children whose lives were saved by medication?" Those seem like useful numbers to estimate; from there, the choice of which is more valuable is up to individuals' intuitions and emotions and yes, religions. Doing this helps us to work with and for people we've never met, when and how we choose, without eliminating our irrationality and identity and humanity.

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