Last July, Peter Buffett (the musician, author, philanthropist, and son of Warren Buffett) penned an opinion piece in the New York Times where he accused large-scale donors of “philanthropic colonialism.” Buffett’s piece launched healthy debates within the philanthropic community regarding the nexus of charity and poverty.

One of Buffett’s harshest critiques came from William MacAskill of Quartz, who said, “Peter Buffet’s argument belies an astonishing lack of understanding of both economics and of the extremity of global poverty.” A bit harsh, no?

Months later, Buffett surprisingly reached out to MacAskill to offer a fierce criticism of the piece; responding, MacAskill apologized for his "strong language" and proposed furthering the conversation to let both sides of the debate be voiced.

Their e-mail exchange, excerpted last week by Quartz, covered a wide range of topics, and an equally wide range of positions. Below offers a précis of their exchange.

On Their Disagreement

MacAskill commences the conversation admitting that he subscribes to “effective altruism.” He continues with a nuanced defense of the status quo in philanthropy. For example, he subtly endorses a strategic approach, but in a limited fashion; he says charity cannot fix “all the problems in the world,” but argues it can do some good.

Buffett’s riposte was two-pronged – skeptical of "data-driven approaches" as well as the direction of the world community. Overall, Buffett defends his NYT op-ed.

On Intuition versus Data

MacAskill repeats the refrain of strategic philanthropy:

[W]hen you want to achieve specific outcomes, a data-driven approach seems to work much better than an intuition-driven approach. That’s certainly true in science, medicine, and business. So it’s likely to be true in charity, too, insofar as helping others is about achieving outcomes – namely, improving people’s lives as much as possible.”

Buffett expectedly disagrees; data is important, however, even using data requires what he labels an “'aha!’ moment.” Intuition, for Buffett, influences data and is therefore quite significant.

On Dealing with Bias

Buffett’s position, regarding the issue of bias, is that individuals and philanthropy need to start asking questions. As he writes:

Once again, I am concerned about observer-expectancy effects. Who’s gathering the data? For what purpose? What isn’t being asked?”

All prescient questions.

MacAskill’s response is the opposing view: less skepticism, and an admitted bias towards formal, quantitative approaches of rational choice.


Considering the early op-ed and subsequent critique from MacAskill, one would have expected these e-mail exchanges to have gone in quite a different direction; however, one can certainly glean glimmers of truth to both points (noting as well that a plethora of opinions were not voiced in this discourse).

As this conversation continues, we will seek to follow it closely.