Are some causes better than others? The “effective altruism” debate

The normally fairly staid (and it has to be said, niche) world of theoretical philanthropy has been shaken up this week by a surprising polemic in the pages of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (not an organ noted for its hysterical tone). The article, entitled “The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism” was written by two people heavily involved with the Charity Navigator rating site and it takes aim at the “effective altruism” movement embodied by givewell.org.

One might assume from the outside that these organisations should all be pulling in the same direction, but if it wasn’t apparent from the rather snide use of “so-called” in the title, it is quickly apparent from the bitchy tone of the article that the authors certainly don’t see it that way.

Effective altruism is an idea based on the work of a number of academics (most notably the moral philosopher Peter Singer), which attempts to answer the question “in a world where there are only finite resources, what is the most effective way to use the resources you have to do as much good as possible?” Singer has famously argued that it is a moral requirement to give to charity and to ensure that this is done in the most effective way possible, so for him the only valid focus of charitable endeavours is trying to maximise the prevention of human (and animal) suffering . This has led him to focus much of his attention on poverty relief and disease prevention in the developing world. Give Well takes these theoretical ideas and attempts to put them into practice by using data analysis to recommend organisations that it believes effective altruists should donate to.

There is nothing particularly controversial in harnessing the power of data to inform the choices of donors. Indeed, a large part of the charitable sector in both the UK and the US appears to be engaged in such an exercise. Where many people, including the authors of the SSIR article, take issue with effective philanthropy is in the conclusions it draws from the data it has. Whilst most in the philanthropic sector would agree that using data to determine which organisations are the most effective at dealing with a given problem is a desirable goal, effective altruists go beyond this and argue that the cause to which you give should be determined by the numerical evidence of where the most social good can be produced. The implication of this is that some causes are “better than others”.

This is anathema to many in the philanthropy world, such as the authors of the SSIR article, who believe that donor choice and passion for a cause is an absolutely fundamental building block of charitable giving and that making value judgements about the causes donors want to support is plain wrong. However, once you get over any initial distaste for the idea, it is clear that the idea of effective altruism does pose an interesting challenge: if you think its proponents are wrong, then you have to explain why. If I, as a donor, want to support organisations working towards a cause that does not meet the effective altruism test, then how do I justify this?

One option is simply to fall back on the primacy of donor choice- it is up to me what I choose to support and that is that. This is not a particularly satisfying answer though, as it rather ducks the question: am I acknowledging that I could be giving more effectively to a different cause but I don’t care because how I feel about giving is more important to me than maximising good in some data-driven way?

This is an uncomfortable position to have to maintain, as it basically means owning up to acting irrationally. However, in a pragmatic sense, I think this actually a perfectly valid position to hold. The arguments of effective altruism, which are reasonably compelling in a philosophy tutorial sort of way, are less obviously successful in a real-world context in which a whole host of psychological, social and cultural factors have a bearing on the way donors operate.

The response of proponents of effective altruism is to argue that they are actually motivated by trying to maximise the social good done with their money, irrespective of the specific cause. Ignoring the slightly sanctimonious overtones of this position, it is interesting, as it does suggest a radically different way of approaching philanthropy. This could be an important part of the giving landscape in years to come although, I suspect that effective altruists will always be in a minority in their zealous cause agnosticism.

I don’t mean to suggest in what I have said so far that we have to concede the theoretical argument to the effective altruists and merely counter them with real-world pragmatism. I think there are valid reasons to question whether effective altruism works on a theoretical level. My main problem is that current versions of effective altruism seem to rely on a fairly simplistic, utilitarian conception of what it is to “maximise good”. This appears to centre on preventing human suffering at this current moment (or possibly animals as well, if you follow Peter Singer’s view on animal welfare), which naturally leads to a narrow focus on poverty relief and preventative healthcare in the developing world because this is clearly where there is greatest marginal improvement to be made with the least amount of money.

However, I think this fails to capture the full range of outcomes that we might want to produce through philanthropy, and which we could validly argue to be valuable. What if my major concern is to combat climate change through research, because I think that is the most effective way of reducing human suffering in the long run? What if I disagree about the importance of human suffering, and think it is more important to protect ecosystems that have been around for a lot longer than the human race? Or what if I believe that the human race only achieves true transcendence through art and that great art is of higher value to our species in the long run than alleviating suffering at this precise moment? None of these would appear to meet the requirements of effective altruism, but I would argue that they are perfectly legitimate areas of focus for philanthropy.

Fundamentally I think effective altruism is an interesting idea. In applying a theoretical and philosophical approach to philanthropy it raises questions and challenges that it would be in the interests of everyone in the philanthropy world to try to answer. The only practical concern that I share with the authors of the SSIR article is whether outlets such as Give Well, which espouse the effective altruism approach, have a potentially distorting effect by rating charities as good or bad based on their own particular world view. I’m not sure this should be a major concern, however, and I’m certainly surprised by the level of vitriol in the SSIR article. If there isn’t room for debate about how to approach philanthropy and charitable giving in the most effective way, and we close our minds to new ideas, then what hope do we have of making progress in addressing the many challenging issues facing us today?

Rhodri Davies

One response to “Are some causes better than others? The “effective altruism” debate

  1. Pingback: Not a Measured Approach? Does the Hewlett Foundation’s decision indicate the failure of impact-measuring approaches to philanthropy? | Giving Thought·

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