Scenario: You see a child drowning in a pond and you are the only one around to help. You can save the child by jumping in, but doing so would ruin your clothes. If you decide not to jump in, the child will die.
What do you do?
What if the child was not directly in front of you? What if instead of drowning, the child was in mortal danger due to lack of food, water, or medical treatment? And what if instead of jumping into the water, the only way you can save the child’s life is to donate to charity?
What is Effective Altruism?
Effective altruism is “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world”. It is built upon a simple but profound idea: that living a fully ethical life means using your spare resources for the “most good you can do”.
The argument is that we can do much more to help others (i.e. save many more lives) if we simply take a more objective and rational approach to what we do with our abilities, time, and money. The Centre for Effective Altruism describes effective altruism as the “desire to make the world as good a place as it can be, the use of evidence and reason to find out how to do so, and the audacity to actually try”.
If the aim is to “do the most good” when it comes to our philanthropic endeavours, effective altruism argues that we should be unsentimental and only give to effective charities. Instead of allowing emotion, intuition, or brand loyalty to dictate our giving behaviour, we should think more scientifically about who and what we support.
In 2013, as the Christmas giving season approached, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco to watch a five-year-old boy dressed as “Batkid” ride around the city in a Batmobile with an actor dressed as Batman by his side. The boy, Miles Scott, had been through three years of chemotherapy for leukemia, and when asked for his greatest wish, he replied, “To be Batkid.” The Make-A-Wish Foundation had made his wish come true.
Make-A-Wish would not say how much it cost to fulfill Scott’s wish, but it did say that the average cost of making a child’s wish come true is $7,500. Effective altruists would, like anyone else, feel emotionally drawn toward making the wishes of sick children come true, but they would also know that $7,500 could, by protecting families from malaria, save the lives of at least three children and maybe many more. Saving a child’s life has to be better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid. If Scott’s parents had been offered that choice—Batkid for a day or a complete cure for their son’s leukemia—they surely would have chosen the cure. When more than one child’s life can be saved, the choice is even clearer. Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish, when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions?
Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child like Scott from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do. They know that saving a life is better than making a wish come true and that saving three lives is better than saving one. So they don’t give to whatever cause tugs strongest at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time, and money they have.
The arguments in favour of effective altruism:
- If we decide only give to charities that drastically improve a large number of lives and create a measurable difference, effective altruism will incentivise organisations to be more transparent and demonstrate their effectiveness.
- Effective altruism inspires critical thinking by applying evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. It requires us to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact.
- Effective altruism can add meaning to our lives and can help us in finding fulfilment in what we do. Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. While effective altruists directly benefit others, they often benefit themselves indirectly as well.
- Effective altruists are extending our knowledge of the possibilities of living less selfishly, and of allowing reason, rather than emotion, to determine how we live. In doing so, it encourages global empathy by forcing us to look beyond our own interests and value all sentient life, regardless of nationality, creed, ancestry, religion, or species.
- Effective altruism is an approach that encourages utilising spare time and money (usually of amounts that are virtually negligible to us) in a more effective manner to reduce suffering, extend lives, and improve the quality of living.
The arguments in opposition of effective altruism:
- Effective altruism asserts that there is a single correct thing to do in any situation. It paints decisions as black and white when the world is messy and complex.
- Effective altruism isn’t sustainable as it assumes that charity is the solution and that we can ‘give’ our way out of the problems that we have helped to create.
- Sometimes it is impossible to know in advance how important a donation will turn out to be.
- Effective altruism does not address broken value systems, debt, imperialism, corruption, and power inequality. At the end of the day, effective altruism doesn’t change the status quo and fails to call for radical change in the world. It simply makes a broken system a little bit better.
- Since many people are driven by emotion when donating to charity, pushing them to be more judicious might backfire. Overly analytical donors might act with so much self-control that they end up giving less to charity.
- Effective altruism is akin to charitable imperialism by claiming the moral high ground in giving decisions and weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. As such, it incites a more concentrated form of giving where ‘the experts’ decide where money goes instead of individual donors.
Is effective altruism a new form of philanthropy? Is it the best way to do the most good? Or is there room to donate and give to all of ones interests and concerns? Is effective altruism actually effective?
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.