An astounding fact: researchers at GiveWell have determined that the most effective charities in the world have as much as 1,000 times the impact per dollar of the least effective charities.
That means that—in terms of how much a gift helps other humans—donating $1,000 to an ineffective charity is equivalent to donating $1 to a really effective charity. That’s a yawning abyss of a difference, ladies and gentlemen.
For me, this is the most irrefutable reason why all of us ought to care about Effective Altruism—a philosophy and movement dedicated to pushing more people to donate to the most effective charities.
Effective Altruism is about more than donating to the best charities (more on that below), but after reading a whole lot about this movement, I think the most salient Effective Altruism-based argument is that any one of us can help others much more than we are currently simply by giving to effective charities—e.g. charities that GiveWell’s years of research and data suggest are most effective.
If you stop reading right now (which would make me sad), that’s what I want you to take away from this article: GiveWell.org: like some kind of splendidly benevolent genie, it will tell you where your money can do the most to help those in need. Bookmark it. Utilize it. Please.
If asked whether or not it’s a good idea to help others, the bulk of humans would say that it is.
And if asked if it’s a fine idea to help others as much as possible with available resources, surely most would concur.
Unfortunately, when it comes to charitable giving—one of the most obvious ways to help others—the vast majority of people give very inefficiently, helping others only a fraction as much as they could, if they donated the same money to more effective charities.
The Money for Good project researched the habits of Americans who make charitable donations and found that nearly 80% of all gifts are “100% loyal, meaning that there is a virtual certainty that these gifts will be repeated next year.”
The study found that only 35% of donors do any research, and that only 3% of donors use research findings to donate based on the relative performance of different charities.
That’s an astonishingly low percentage, especially considering that 1,000-times-the-impact statistic with which I opened this article.
It should startle us that so few people donate based on outcome-oriented research when so much is at stake.
Essentially, EA’s approach to charitable giving represents the antithesis of how most people approach it. Instead of allowing emotion, intuition, or brand loyalty to dictate one’s charitable approach, an effective altruist “combines both the heart and the head,” choosing to donate a portion of her income to the organizations that research and data have shown to reduce the most suffering per dollar donated.
“Most donors say they want to ‘help people’. If that’s true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don’t. In the ‘Buy A Brushstroke’ campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting ‘Blue Rigi’ in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity.
Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people’s lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.”
So the Effective Altruism approach recognizes that not all charities are created equal and elects to act based on that knowledge. That’s really all there is to it. The idea is simple, yet immeasurably powerful.
Again, I’m not trying to bash you over the head with it, but: you should care about Effective Altruism because caring a little bit about charity effectiveness might result in 1,000 times the impact of not caring.
And effective altruists have made it really easy for you to care. GiveWell, the organization I mentioned in the introduction, was started in 2007 by effective altruists and has spent years conducting rigorous research to determine the most effective charities in the world.
If you donate at all, simply donating to charities recommended by GiveWell could mean the difference between accomplishing virtually nothing and saving several lives.
And let me just say digress briefly to say that I realize that giving to charity in the first place is quite a difficult thing to do. I’m not trying to guilt-trip you. Though technically you and I are likely richer than 95% of other humans, it might not feel that way. You’re busy. You have a job. You have bills, student loan debt, etc. You need that daily pumpkin-caramel iced mocha latte with the whipped cream. With the whipped cream. I get it. But consider that 2.4 billion people on this planet live on less than $2 per day, that 1 billion lack access to clean drinking water, and that another billion cannot read or write.
It is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to fathom the scale of this poverty, to imagine the masses of people who would give almost anything to have the basic things that you take for granted each day. But we ought to try to imagine these people and, as Albert Einstein once suggested, to expand our sphere of compassion to encompass them:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
I think we ought to consider that for an amount of money that is virtually negligible to us, we can make a tremendous difference in the lives of those who need it most. For example, if you were to give $1 per day to the Against Malaria Foundation, one of GiveWell’s top-recommended charities, you would be able to provide ~60 insecticide-treated mosquito nets each year to people in underdeveloped countries, preventing ~20 life-threatening cases of malaria and potentially saving a couple of lives. All for $1 per day. I’m sure that you, like me, spend on average much more than that per day on things like alcohol, restaurant food, coffee, etc.
And, again, this example further demonstrates that although it can be tempting to give based on immediate, visceral, emotional impulse, incorporating a bit of reason into our considerations can help us make a much greater impact. If you were to take that same $1/day and donate it to a random homeless person, they would be fairly likely to spend it on drugs or alcohol, things that arguably worsen their condition. Even if they spent it on food, that’s hardly enough to buy a non-nutritious McDonald’s sandwich, let alone a healthy meal. And if you were to give that $1/day to some random charity that you saw an advertisement for once, your money might do next to nothing, as much as 1,000 times less than it would do if you gave it to the Against Malaria Foundation.
Understanding this is, for me, incredibly empowering. For some time, I’ve been skeptical of donating money, worried that I didn’t really know how organizations would use my funds. Effective Altruism changes that. By donating to the Against Malaria Foundation and other GiveWell-recommended charities, I can be certain that my funds will go to the people for whom they can do a sizable amount of good. This, in turn, inspires me to want to give more, knowing that setting aside just a few more dollars here and there can make a great difference.
Now that I’ve discussed what I feel is the most important aspect of EA—its approach to charity—I should explain that it really is about more than giving to the best charities.
In his recent book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, philosopher Peter Singer defines Effective Altruism as “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world.”
And on the Effective Altruism website, Effective Altruism is defined as follows:
“Effective Altruism is a growing social movement that combines both the heart and the head: compassion guided by data and reason. It’s about dedicating a significant part of one’s life to improving the world and rigorously asking the question, ‘Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?’”
“Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?”
Some effective altruists take this question very, very seriously. Some give 50% or more of their income to charity. Some live extremely frugally and elect not to have children in order to give as much money as possible to charity. Some pursue certain career paths for the sole purpose of earning as much money as possible in order to donate more. Some become vegan to try not to contribute to animal suffering.
Some go work for effective charities or devote their life’s work to the burgeoning field of charity research, trying to determine which charities do the most good. Some donate blood, stem cells, bone marrow, and even kidneys to strangers. Some dedicate their lives to researching potential global catastrophes—such as climate change, asteroid impacts, unfriendly superintelligent AI, etc.—under the assumption that saving sentient life on Earth would be the greatest possible good, if the opportunity arises.
As you can see, for many, Effective Altruism is something comprehensive, all-consuming—a lifestyle choice with profound implications for what one does with one’s time on Earth. Doubtlessly, the people pursuing these courses of action are making admirable, selfless choices and are to be commended for their good will.
However, it’s also likely that one or more of the items I just listed struck you as a total turnoff, something far more extreme than you would ever consider.
Don’t worry—I feel the same way. Yet I nonetheless consider myself a supporter of Effective Altruism and have been influenced by the philosophy. One need not become extreme/radical in order simply to recognize that some means of making a difference in the world are significantly more effective than others. And, again, that’s not to say that those who do seem rather extreme/radical aren’t doing wonderful things.
But this issue is really at the crux of one of the problems I perceive regarding EA:
Strict Utilitarianism Leads to Absurd Conclusions
At the core of Effective Altruism lies a commitment to utilitarianism, which is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as follows:
“… utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good.”
For utilitarians, there is a single, correct moral action in all situations, and that action is the one that does the “greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Utilitarians argue over what the “greatest good” actually is—pleasure, lack of suffering, economic well-being, etc.—but generally, we can think of utilitarianism as dictating that one should act so as to do the most good for the most people.
There are many things I like about utilitarianism. I like that it deemphasizes the ego—i.e. what is best is not that which most helps me, but that which most helps everyone. I like that it encourages the idea of a global community in which everyone’s well-being is of equal importance. I like that many utilitarians (Peter Singer, for example) urge us to consider non-human animal suffering to be as important as human suffering.
I think, however, that utilitarianism should serve as one possible lens of consideration on ethical matters, not as a universal rule. Because, when taken to its logical conclusion, utilitarianism suggests some decidedly preposterous courses of action.
Consider this slight variation on the classic thought experiment known as the “trolley problem”:
A runaway trolley is barreling down its tracks, heading straight toward a group of five people who are somehow oblivious to its approach. You are standing by a lever and can divert the trolley onto a different track. Unfortunately, you notice that your own mother is standing on the other track.
In this case, you’re forced to choose between allowing the trolley to kill five people or saving the five people and allowing the trolley to kill your own mother. From a utilitarian standpoint, you should pull the lever.
I, on the other hand, feel that there is no correct answer to this problem. I don’t know how I could bring myself to pull the lever and kill my own mother, and I would not be willing to say that someone made the “immoral” decision if they found themselves unable to pull the lever. In this case, I feel that a strict utilitarian calculus is an almost anti-human approach. One’s love for one’s mother must come into play, and one must do whatever one feels in that moment. Neither decision is “right” or “wrong” from my perspective. Both are tragic.
This is a classic example, but it is suggestive (to an extreme extent, admittedly) of the same sort of absurdity that can result from total dedication to Effective Altruism and utilitarian-style thinking. One could argue that I should never again eat an ice cream cone because I don’t really need ice cream, and that the money could do more good elsewhere. Or that I should stop paying for hot water, donate that money, and bathe daily in San Francisco Bay. Or that I should forget my personal interests and dedicate myself to becoming an investment banker, so that I can earn far more money and save more lives.
I’m not going to do any of those things, and I don’t think that makes me a “bad” person. The problem with strict utilitarianism’s insistence on a single correct course of action in any situation is that it paints the world as black and white when the world is messy and complex. There’s no limit to the number of changes/sacrifices one might make in pursuit of doing the “most good,” but at some point when one finds oneself a neurotic corporate banker living off of rice and beans in a cardboard box feeling totally removed from one’s original interests/personality, one might finally be forced to realize that “most” and “good” are just two four-letter words that have ruined one’s life.
Effective Altruism Makes Unverifiable Assumptions About What “Good” Means
Ultimately, we have no way of knowing, in any absolute sense, what course of action would do the “most good.” Any determination in this regard must necessarily be true only relative to a particular set of human values that we’ve selected as our basis for defining “good.” In other words, “good” is not a fixed, measurable concept. And furthermore, actions that at first seem “good” can always have very “bad” unforeseen consequences, and vice versa.
Earlier in this article, I cited Scott Alexander’s anecdote of a bunch of British people spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to keep an original painting in a museum when they could have spent the same money to save a thousand or so lives in the Third World. I really do feel this is a great example, and I support the supposition that we should value saving lives over keeping a single painting in a room.
But, what if that one painting were so magnificent that it triggered in numerous individuals an experience of transcendent bliss, a glimpse of eternity? What if those experiences were utterly invaluable, precious, life-defining moments for those individuals? How could one quantify those experiences and say that they resulted in “less good” than if the art had not been created and the resources had been devoted to ending poverty? I don’t think one could.
To further complicate things, imagine that that one painting inspired a small child to begin making art and that that child later became the wealthiest, most famous artist in the world who inspired millions more people and who donated her entire fortune to effective charities upon dying. This is a far-fetched scenario, but it illustrates the point that things are far too interconnected and complex to ever say for certain that one course of action does “more good” than another course of action would have. We simply can never know.
I’m reminded of a rather hyperbolic hypothetical scenario along these lines that is mentioned in Tao Lin’s splendidly whimsical novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee. I can’t locate the passage right now, but at some point one of the characters speculates that the universe might be so intricately interconnected—might have an order so far beyond our comprehension—that a simple decision on Earth, like a decision to eat an apple for breakfast, could cause a genocide that kills one trillion extraterrestrials in a distant galaxy. It’s an absurd example, sure, but it illustrates the fact that at this point in time, neither you nor I nor any other human can prove that my passing gas right now would not, by some twisted cosmic logic, spark a cataclysmic avalanche in a far-distant galaxy. We have no way of knowing.
For a more practical example, consider that effective altruists are tasked with determining whether the “most good” entails, say, providing vaccines in underdeveloped countries or providing infrastructure, schools, and sustainable energy to those same countries. The former will save lives and reduce suffering in the short-term, whereas the latter might ultimately help to pull the entire country out of poverty. But one can never be sure if the latter intervention would end up being a total failure. Thus it’s impossible to determine which of these will result in the “most good.”
In a similar vein, some have railed against EA’s implication that we in the affluent West should mostly ignore the needs of our local communities—where even the least fortunate are economically much better off than the least fortunate abroad—in favor of devoting all of our philanthropic time, energy, money, and resources to helping those who need it most, wherever they happen to be in the world. The people in this camp hold that local service/philanthropy is indispensable.
I agree, to some extent, with this camp, and I think their position incorporates both of my major issues with Effective Altruism. On one hand, they seem to suggest that totally ignoring the suffering in one’s local community is an absurd conclusion, and I agree. Furthermore, they seem to be arguing that even though we might be able to state objectively that it is more cost-effective to help those abroad, we cannot state objectively that taking the cost-effective route will result in the “most good.”
After all, philanthropy is more than a transaction. Local philanthropy builds relationships, increases trust among community members, breaks down barriers, pushes people to invest in their community, etc., etc. If local philanthropic efforts suddenly diminished entirely, who can say what would happen? If I had to venture a guess, I might speculate that people would slowly become more alienated from and distrustful of one another. Communities might slowly destabilize, break down. Resentment might build up, pressurize, leading to more crime, violence, riots, who knows.
My point is that there could be all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Contributing to one’s local community/tribe is an age-old means of increasing social cohesion, group bonding. If everyone were to suddenly abide the view of the Effective Altruism community and cease all local philanthropy, we might incidentally fracture and divide the population, lose touch with what makes us human, and even foment animosity and eventual civil war. It’s impossible to say. Thus, it turns out that the “most good” is much more complicated than it might initially seem.
To be honest, my personal view (at this point in my life) on morality aligns with that of the original incarnations of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. That is, I suspect that, at root, existence is amoral, that nothing is objectively “right” or “wrong,” that human beings project moral qualities onto a reality that simply is.
Having said that, I also recognize morality as an indispensable human-thing, an essential aspect of a meaningful human life. Furthermore, I see that moral consideration is indispensable to any well-functioning society and that morality makes it a lot easier and cooler to be human (it’s nice to walk down the street and not expect to be ambushed by dagger-bearing thieves). My general feeling, similar to Arthur Schopenhauer’s, is that human morality ought to consist in nothing more and nothing less than real compassion based on an almost out-of-body realization of the concreteness of other sentient beings’ suffering. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums up Schopenhauer’s view as follows:
“By compassionately recognizing at a more universal level that the inner nature of another person is of the same substance as oneself, one arrives at a moral outlook. This compassionate way of apprehending another person is not merely understanding abstractly the proposition that “each person is a human being,” or understanding abstractly (as would Kant) that, in principle, the same regulations of rationality operate equally in each of us and oblige us accordingly as equals. It is to feel directly the concrete life of another person in an almost magical way; it is to enter into the life of humanity imaginatively, such as to coincide with all others as much as one possibly can. It is to imagine equally, and in full force, what it is like to be both a cruel tormentor and a tormented victim, and to locate both opposing experiences and characters within a single, universal consciousness that is the consciousness of humanity itself. With the development of moral consciousness, one expands one’s awareness towards the mixed-up, tension-ridden, bittersweet, tragicomic, multi-aspected and distinctively sublime consciousness of humanity itself.”
If morality does have some kind of non-human basis, I would suggest that it resides in this “almost magical” way that we are able to ascertain the fact of another’s suffering. I have sometimes had the strange sense that to truly empathize with another’s suffering is to tap into an almost transpersonal will/consciousness gently nudging sentient life toward greater kindness and compassion. But that’s all speculation. Nonetheless, for me, this Schopenhauerian compassion—this deep-down understanding of universal suffering and universal human experiences—is all that is required to be a “good” person. Such compassion might compel different people to act in different ways, but in general, if everyone were to realize this compassion, I tentatively submit that something of an Earthly utopia would be within reach. Helping others would become a natural impulse, redistributing wealth/resources to provide for everyone would seem natural, and deliberately inflicting suffering upon others would be unheard of. If nothing else, I imagine we would find ourselves is a “better” world than before.
My feeling this way about morality means that I don’t feel that you or I or anyone else is under any absolute moral obligation to do anything. Even if you concur that the human experience is hardly complete without a moral outlook, we might interpret morality in totally different ways, determine different “good” courses of action. Utilitarianism, which falls under the broader category of consequentialism, would hold that because the goodness of an action is determined by its consequences, there must be just one action that will produce the “best” consequences. I have expressed my issues with this view. I am not a consequentialist, nor a utilitarian, though I see merit in utilizing those frameworks as lenses through which to examine moral problems. Despite feeling that I have no obligation to become an effective altruist, I am nonetheless presently committed to giving at least 1% of my total income and 10% of the income from my blog to effective charities. I’ve also become a flexitarian, eating meat only a couple times per week, and am considering trying to become a humaneitarian, eating only meat that comes from humanely raised animals. Compassion, for me, is the indispensable spark that has compelled me to make these choices. Compassion compels me to value helping those in need and reducing global suffering. But reason has helped me to refine my ideas about the most genuinely impactful ways to express those values in the world.
One might think that because I see problems with Effective Altruism, I wouldn’t be advocating for it. But that is not true. I think Effective Altruism has, at its core, great intentions and extraordinary potential to make the world a better place. Learning about Effective Altruism has elucidated for me the total feasibility and potential of giving a portion of my income to those in need and helped me to realize the importance of researching means of actually helping the less fortunate in a significant way. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about Effective Altruism and GiveWell.
But I also recognize the limitations of this sort of thinking. As with so many other things, I feel there is a balance. One can utilize the exciting research of the effective altruists at GiveWell to help save lives in underdeveloped countries while continuing to devote time and energy in one’s local community. One can make a profound difference through altruism without upending one’s current lifestyle (though becoming more frugal would probably be a good idea for most of us). I hope that you, like me, will consider how the Effective Altruism community and the people at GiveWell can assist you in increasing greatly your positive impact on those most in need of assistance in our world. I highly recommend checking out The Centre for Effective Altruism, GiveWell, The Life You Can Save, and Giving What We Can, all of which are projects under the umbrella of Effective Altruism. Giving What We Can has a really cool wealth calculator that determines how wealth you are compared to the rest of the world and shows you what you could accomplish if you were to donate various percentages of your income. Please take advantage of this wonderful tool. I also highly, highly recommend reading Peter Singer’s latest book on Effective Altruism, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. It’s a brilliant overview of the Effective Altruism movement that will challenge your thinking, inform you, and inspire you.
I’ll end by noting that people often consider ethical choices to be some kind of sacrifice or to think that living a moral life means depriving oneself. I don’t think this is the case. I think that expanding our sphere of compassion and acting to help others can be profound sources of meaning in our individual lives, filling the void that most of us feel living in societies that encourage purely self-interested thinking.
Of course, the paradox is that one can’t just give on the basis of trying to make one feel better about oneself. In my view, altruism is fulfilling only when it arises from sincere concern and compassion for those one is trying to help. But nonetheless, it’s important to clarify the fallacy of seeing altruistic behavior as willfully losing something. One cannot lose what one gives voluntarily, and through generosity one gains a joy in being helpful and a freedom from excessive attachment, two jewels precious in their own right. Peter Singer had something good to say about this in an essay once, and I’ll leave you with this quote from him:
“Today the assertion that life is meaningless no longer comes from existentialist philosophers who treat it as a shocking discovery: it comes from bored adolescents for whom it is a truism. Perhaps it is the central place of self-interest, and the way in which we conceive of our own interest, that is to blame here. The pursuit of self-interest, as standardly conceived, is a life without any meaning beyond our own pleasure or individual satisfaction. Such a life is often a self-defeating enterprise. The ancients knew of the ‘paradox of hedonism’, according to which the more explicitly we pursue our desire for pleasure, the more elusive we will find its satisfaction. There is no reason to believe that human nature has changed so dramatically as to render the ancient wisdom inapplicable.
Here ethics offer a solution. An ethical life is one in which we identify ourselves with other, larger, goals, thereby giving meaning to our lives. The view that there is harmony between ethics and enlightened self-interest is an ancient one, now often scorned. Cynicism is more fashionable than idealism. But such hopes are not groundless, and there are substantial elements of truth in the ancient view that an ethically reflective life is also a good life for the person leading it. Never has it been so urgent that the reasons for accepting this view should be widely understood.”
Follow Jordan Bates on Twitter @_jordan_bates.