FAR Published in Law & Liberty: Ineffective Altruism
February 15, 2023 | Rebecca Richards
The desire to make a difference is embedded in the human psyche. The effective altruism movement, recently made famous by the exploits of one of its most prominent advocates, taps into this aspect of our nature and offers a clearly defined, logical answer to the core question of which causes and organizations to support. While this confident simplicity gives the movement force, it is also its great shortcoming. EA does well to ask people to think carefully about the way they give, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges that philanthropy seeks to resolve.
Effective altruism advocates supporting the most cost-effective ways to save lives and reduce suffering. This evidence-based approach naturally directs funds toward measurable interventions, most often in developing countries because of lower costs. Beyond individual charitable decisions, EA also recommends that adherents choose an overall lifestyle that can maximize their incomes, so they can maximize their giving. Because of the ongoing scandal with Sam Bankman-Fried, a prominent effective altruist, and his company FTX, the lifestyle element has received significant attention and is expertly analyzed by Mark Mutz and Richard Gunderman in their article “FTX and the Lust for Wealth.”
Saving lives and alleviating suffering are noble goals, but they are not the only legitimate goals of philanthropy. Traditionally, philanthropy has also served to strengthen civil society by providing forums for democratic discussion, exploring cultural meaning through the arts, and cultivating a strong network of religious organizations. From something as simple as a Little Free Library down the street to the vast network of State and National Parks, Americans make it a regular practice to offer their time, treasure, and talent for the common good.
Philanthropic history shows us a rich tapestry of causes, with different ideas of the good competing in society. EA adds to this dialogue on “the good” with the claim that its way of giving is the most ethical and the most urgent. Peter Singer makes this argument throughout his 2015 book The Most Good You Can Do. Any other aims of philanthropy can wait until certain material needs are met. Singer writes, “In a world in which everyone had enough to eat, basic healthcare, adequate sanitation, and a place at school for each of their children, there would be no problem about donating to museums.” Put another way, Singer is suggesting that until we solve the problems that governments, non-profits, and markets have failed to solve so far, we cannot justify devoting resources to the cultural and spiritual goods that feed the soul.
Imagine, for a moment, the implications of redirecting all funding for museums. Museums could be seen as archaic institutions passing down an outmoded cultural inheritance. On the other hand, museums are an invitation to understand who we, the audience, are, and our values. Although museums reflect the choices of curators, they are also a public forum for discussion and a physical space that connects the knowledge of the past with the needs and interests of the present. Singer presents a false dichotomy. Philanthropy can pursue more than one end. We should not burn the Library of Alexandria for firewood.
Along with museums, Singer discourages gifts to higher education, where much of the research necessary to develop medical treatments is conducted. In her book In Defence of Philanthropy, Beth Breeze notes that effective altruism channels “funds to those causes and organizations that can demonstrate the greatest impact per dollar spent today.” This focus on immediacy overlooks the fact that “the $5 intervention is dependent on that earlier, and far more expensive scientific effort.” Building and distributing seemingly-simple goods, like vaccines or deworming medication, requires extensive research, coalition building, and international negotiations. These activities are expensive and more difficult to quantify than the number of lives saved per mosquito net. The requirement for measurable impact glosses over the complexity of the entrenched problems that philanthropy tries to address.
There are many different opinions on how philanthropy should operate, but one almost universally recognized benefit of philanthropy is its ability to absorb risk. Rob Reich, the author of Just Giving, argues that the ability of philanthropy to fund experiments for meeting social needs that can be adopted and amplified by the government is one of the only just uses of charitable giving. EA often recommends giving through organizations like GiveWell, a project that recommends charities based on their effectiveness and advocates giving to methods that have already been proven. While some funding may go toward developing more effective solutions, the emphasis on only giving to methods that are cheap and proven discourages gifts that may not work, but whose failure leads to better solutions down the road.
EA then poses a dilemma for high-capacity donors. Should they consult GiveWell and award $30 million to produce the highest number of guaranteed interventions? Or should they absorb more risk by funding research that could potentially develop better solutions? Should they invest in the classic Hallmark dilemma of saving a town landmark facing demolition, or make a more urban reinvestment in the symphony? EA would say these latter options are not the best use of funds because they do not meet the stated values of EA, and their impact is not measurable. Yet, often the most treasured parts of our lives are immeasurable. We do not conduct a cost-benefit analysis on ourselves when we fall in love—we are too busy being in love to bother with metrics.
For donors who have less financial flexibility, the menu model of EA is an appealing way to direct gifts. A $30 gift may not cure cancer, but it can potentially save a life. The emphasis on cost reveals how EA’s giving model treats donors as interchangeable wallets. It underestimates the potential impact that donors can have through serving on a nonprofit board or engaging in service, both of which can have important long-term effects. Through service, donors connect emotionally to a cause by seeing the impact firsthand rather than reading a statistic online. EA argues that relying on this emotional connection when deciding where to give is a mistake, leading to less good being done overall. Rather, disinterested investment, based on just the facts, will lead to the greatest good.
While effective altruism can have impressive results in international relief, promoting EA as the best, most ethical approach to giving does not allow philanthropy to fulfill its full potential. Philanthropy seeks to address problems beyond poverty, which, as a perpetual, deeply entrenched issue, is itself best tackled with multiple approaches simultaneously. Leading effective altruists seem to recognize the deficiency of relying on cost-per-life-saved equations in their movement toward political giving as well as funding research on AI safety. In these areas, they implicitly acknowledge that change also comes from supporting broader movements and not just low-cost interventions.
Although philanthropy can seem like a niche topic reserved for the nonprofit sector and those who fund it, much of what our society values has been established through the generosity of donors from every walk of life and with every conceivable interest. We feel the impact of charitable giving every day, from statues in the park to the painted white lines on the road.
Effective altruists dismiss the warm glow a donor feels when giving as selfish. Yet, giving is often motivated by some of the deepest emotions, like grief over the loss of a loved one to sickness or gratitude for a kindness at the right time, that are far more intense and complicated than simply feeling better about yourself. Sometimes, the donor is offering a part of his or her heart as well as a check. A robust vision of philanthropy allows donors to support solving the large-scale problems and the problems of the everyday. Effective altruism offers a refreshingly simple way to give with confidence, but donors who choose to honor their motivations—both emotional and rational—to support causes they care about also help to solve society’s problems. No singular approach is sufficient, nor should it claim to be.
"Ineffective Altruism" was originally published by Law & Liberty on January 17, 2023.