Holden Karnofsky '03

CEO, Open Philanthropy Project

Thesis Title: Unforced Force

I chose Social Studies because of its breadth. Instead of looking at the world through a single methodological lens, we were encouraged to take classes from a wide range of disciplines. We sought insight about how society has changed and where it's heading, using any and all intellectual tools available. I split my studies between economics, philosophy, and psychology; my thesis separately reviewed literatures from critical theory, psychology, and history of science in order to make a case for the importance of reasoned argument in pursuing truth (while acknowledging many postmodernist critiques of traditional ideas of reason and truth).            

A few years after graduating, I co-founded GiveWell (www.givewell.org), which finds outstanding charities and publishes the full details of its analysis to help donors decide where to give. I now run the Open Philanthropy Project, which spun out of GiveWell and has a similar mission, while focusing more on long-term, high-risk giving opportunities for major philanthropists. Both organizations cut across traditional disciplinary lines, integrating literatures from philosophy, economics, and a variety of other fields in order to reach bottom-line conclusions about how to do as much good as possible (defined how? That's where the philosophy comes in) per marginal dollar spent. And each organization directs over $100 million per year to the giving opportunities it finds using this approach. I'm grateful for the opportunity Social Studies gave me to craft my studies around whatever mix of methodologies best fit the questions about society I was interested in, and I've continued that habit throughout my career.