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 most effective charities (hence “effective altruism”). According to its website, Giving What You Can rates charities based on “in-depth research” into their effectiveness. It requires members to give at least 10 per cent of their income to the charities it recommends. (MacAskill also runs 80,000 Hours, a kind of glorified careers service which offers graduates advice on the kinds of jobs in which they are likely to make the “biggest difference possible.”)
“You might reasonably ask why Giving What You Can stipulates that its members donate at least 10 per cent of their annual income. Why not 5 per cent or 15?”
MacAskill observes that anyone earning more than £18,200 a year is among the richest 5 per cent of the world’s population and that this gives them a “tremendous opportunity to make a difference.” He does not say explicitly in the book, however, whether, like Singer, he also thinks this obliges the members of the global “5 per cent” to make a difference to the lives of the world’s poor through charitable giving. Nor does he deal with the question of how much they should give. But you might reasonably ask why Giving What You Can stipulates that its members donate at least 10 per cent of their annual income. Why not 5 per cent or 15? Or, as Singer argued in 1972, as much as you can afford up to the point at which the losses you incur match the gains of the recipient. And why not make giving progressive, so that the more you earn the larger a proportion of your earnings you give away, a suggestion made by Singer in his latest book, The Most Good You Can Do, which should be read as a companion volume to MacAskill’s. (In a recent interview with an online magazine, MacAskill said he has pledged to give away everything he earns above $35,000 a year—roughly, £22,500.)
MacAskill is concerned principally with the question of how we (meaning we in the developed world on decent incomes) can “make a difference.” And for him that means doing the “most good” we can. Which, of course, invites the question what we mean by the “most good.” Singer answers it in classically utilitarian terms: a world with “less suffering and more happiness in it,” he writes, is better than its opposite.
Here Singer is following the founder of utilitarianism, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who believed that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” MacAskill, though, prefers to emphasise the measurable benefits of charitable interventions in the developing world, particularly health benefits—mindful, perhaps, of the tangled controversy between Bentham and his successor John Stuart Mill over the nature of happiness. This is not, he insists, because the only way of making a difference is by improving people’s health, but because the data that allows us to assess health programmes is better and more plentiful. And since effective altruists are trying to do the most good they can, “health is a good place to start.”
MacAskill asks the reader to imagine that he or she has $100 to donate. Where should that money go? He draws up a list of five “top charities,” which he rates according to four criteria: cost effectiveness, robustness of evidence, implementation and room for more funding. First, though, he discounts charities that work in the developed world, on the grounds that it is “easier and cheaper” to save lives in poor countries—the aim, after all, is to maximise the amount of good we can do. For reasons explained, he focuses on organisations that run health-based programmes in such places.
Singer describes those who practice effective altruism along the lines MacAskill lays down as “living refutations of the cynics who say that human beings are just not capable of living as if the well-being of strangers really matters.” He takes it for granted that our obligations to the many millions of distant strangers living impoverished lives trump those causes with which we might have a close personal connection. But what if a member of your family had died of cancer? Wouldn’t you want to support charities that fund research into cures for that, even if that meant not “doing good” elsewhere?
MacAskill says he “feel[s] the pull” of this objection. Singer writes in similar terms of the “emotional pull” that knowing the identity of the person we’re helping—whether it’s a family member, friend or just someone from the same region or country—exerts on us. Both acknowledge the objection only to dismiss it, however. MacAskill allows that it is “understandable and admirable” to respond to bereavement by wanting to make a difference. But, he insists, this does not give you “good reason to raise money for one specific cause of death rather than another.” So much the worse for reason, one is tempted to say.
Singer argues that effective altruists “will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child 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 three lives is better than saving one.” It seems not to occur to either Singer or MacAskill that there may be more to the moral lives of human beings than this kind of cost-benefit analysis, or that we are often required to balance different sorts of “good” against one another. (When MacAskill is doling out careers advice towards the end of the book, for instance, he dismisses airily the idea that there might be such a thing as a “calling” or vocation. All that matters is doing the most good we can.) In this worldview, to invert the famous dictum of David Hume, the passions (emotional attachments) are or ought to be the slave of reason.
Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, an organisation that aims to help potential donors make informed choices, made a similar point in an article a couple of years ago. One of the implications of effective altruism, he suggested, is that deciding where the money goes is best left to the experts. He quoted another of its proponents, Eric Friedman, who has written that while they may not be morally superior to “do-gooders,” those he calls “do-besters” may be “intellectually superior.” Neither MacAskill nor Singer puts it quite as bluntly as that, though Singer does wonder if people with a “high level of abstract reasoning ability” might be more likely to “take the kind of approach to helping others that is characteristic of effective altruism.” He points out that many of the best-known effective altruists have backgrounds in maths or computer science.
Zell Kravinsky is an interesting case. In 2004, he and his family were living on $60,000 a year. Concluding that he still wasn’t doing the most good he could, he decided to give one of his kidneys to a local hospital. He read scientific studies which showed that the risk of dying after kidney donation was one in 4,000. So not to make the donation would have meant that he valued his own life 4,000 times more than that of a stranger. When asked whether he understood why some people might find such moral extremism alarming, he replied simply: “They don’t understand maths.”