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.

Make-A-Batkid

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.

Source: https://bostonreview.net/forum/peter-singer-logic-effective-altruism

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.

Effective Altruism: Arguments For and Against

Jay

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10 comments

  • It’s really helpful to have a short summary of effective altruism like this. I’m not sure all of the criticisms are quite accurate though. The essence of effective altruism is that reason and rationality can help you work out how to do the most good. It doesn’t mean that we know the concrete, black and white answers of what does achieve the most good, it just means you feel that it is important to try and work it out.

  • The world certainly is complex, but somewhere there is a correct answer for whether option A or option B will be better. We might not know it, but we shouldn’t pretend that all answers are equivalent.

    I think most of the concerns can be covered by the notion that Effective Altruists are, in theory, rational and data driven. If those concerns are proven to be truly concerning, they would be acted on. For example, if it were shown that the best way to do good in the long term were to stop donating and spend all of ones time campaigning against some aspect of the system, I have no doubt that Effective Altruists would do that, assuming they could be convinced of that.

    In my opinion the most valid criticism is the last point about experts deciding where donations should go. I guess it depends on how much you trust the experts. On the whole, it’s useful to offload that decision making to specialised organisations, otherwise every donor would spend a lot of time working out where they should donate.

  • Thank you – this is a really clear and concise explanation of what effective altruism is and the arguments for and against it. I’m going to see if I can generate some discussion about these issues with my friends (without losing too many!).

    I’m not sure that I agree that Effective Altruists are, “rational and data driven”. I think I’m driven by a sense of justice and an emotional reaction to injustice. The rational bit of me just decides how to do try to do something about it.

    I was interested that the last section of the article refers to the issue of the “moral high ground”. It’s really hard not to sound too evangelist about effective altruism isn’t it? But it’s likely to be counter-productive. That’s a difficult challenge to overcome.

    • Hey Corinne, thank you for the kind words and discerning comments.

      Regarding “moral high ground”, check out ‘The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism’ in Stanford Social Innovation Review, as well as the healthy and robust comments section that follows.

      “The superficially enticing “logic” of effective altruism ultimately leads to a moralistic, hyper-rationalistic, top-down approach to philanthropy that can kill the very altruistic spirit it claims to foster.”

      http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_elitist_philanthropy_of_so_called_effective_altruism#sthash.WCkUdVQJ.dpuf

  • Good summary! Easy to read and concisely written.

    Effective Altruists do not claim that giving to charity is the *best* thing to do. They do argue that it is a *good* thing to do, and also that if you do it, then you ought to choose the charities more rationally.

    Giving to charities in a more rational way is probably the simplest change that a person can make, which is why that is the most common example you’ll hear about. But it is not the only current recommendation, e.g. 80,000 Hours is an organisation that provides career advice with a focus on maximising how much good one can do. One thing I remember reading is that they recommend going into politics, *if* you have the right skills for it. Another example is that one of the more famous effective altruists recommended participating in demonstrations/petitions when the Syrian refugee crisis was at peak media attention.

    Acting rationally will probably increase your charitable donations, since you will spend their money more efficiently, allowing you to donate more (and also increase your personal savings!). To exemplify this, over 1600 people have made the `Giving What We Can’ pledge to donate 10% of their pre-tax income to effective charities. Together, they have already donated over $3.6 million, so that’s averaging over $2000 donated per person.

  • […] EFFECTIVE ALTRUISM 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”. :: Peter Singer, author of The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically […]

  • Stellar work there everoyne. I’ll keep on reading.

  • I think that part of Effective Altruism is seeing the whole value, the impact, in something that a charity does. Pitting charities against each other to see which one is ‘better’ is in some ways in opposition to the spirit of giving in the first place. All the causes listed above are worthy. People will give to a cause they feel a connection to, which is different for everyone. Rationality and measuring the effectiveness come secondary to that. Once you have an emotional connection to a cause you the choose the organisation addressing that that uses it’s resources effectively.

    The mission statement of Make-A Wish is: We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.

    I think that the amazing lengths they go to to make a dying child’s wish come true has a profound affect on everyone who witnesses that. We need these stories, the joy and wonder to uplift us all.You cannot really measure that in a way that you can effectively compare. The human experience cannot be quantified like that.

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