The effective altruism movement risks reducing charity to a cost-benefit analysisby Jonathan Derbyshire / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference by William MacAskill (Guardian/Faber, £14.99) The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically by Peter Singer (Yale, £14.99) A decade or so ago, I worked in an office on Tottenham Court Road in London. As well as being home to a sizeable proportion of the capital’s electrical goods emporia, the street was also a favourite of charity fundraisers—those young people with clipboards and winning smiles sometimes referred to dismissively as “charity muggers.”Like most of my colleagues, whenever I left the building I would try to avoid eye contact with them. But occasionally a snatched conversation with a representative of some charity or other would cause me to wonder how you might go about choosing between the many good causes asking for your money. Why give to a domestic charity supporting research into cancer, say, when you could be giving to one dedicated to improving the lives of millions in the poorest parts of the world? How many charities should you support? Should you be giving to one or two whose work has a measurable impact or donating to several? And exactly how much of your money should you be giving away?
William MacAskill, a young associate professor of philosophy at Oxford, attempts to answer questions like these in his new book, Doing Good Better. MacAskill, along with two other philosophers, Peter Singer and Toby Ord, is one of the leading proponents of “effective altruism.” In 2009, when they were still graduate students, he and Ord founded Giving What You Can, an organisation dedicated to “eliminating extreme poverty in the developing world.” They were inspired in part by an article entitled “Famine, Affluence and Morality” that Singer had published in 1972 and in which he argued that we ought to give a large proportion of our income to disaster relief funds.
The work of Giving What You Can is based on two propositions. The first is that the impact charities have varies dramatically and that these differences can be measured. The second, and more controversial, is that those of us lucky enough to live in the rich, developed world ought to give away a substantial portion of our income to the…