Analysis

Can Effective Altruism really change the world?

The revolution in charitable giving is not without its blind spots

A relatively recent movement called Effective Altruism has been shaking up philanthropy. The premise is simple: People are concerned how much good the money they allocate toward charity is actually doing. Usually the metric people like to look at is the amount of money a charity spends on overhead, but this is a very gross metric. Yes, a charity that spends almost all its money on overhead is almost certainly criminally ineffective, but for two given charities that spend the same amount on overhead, one may do a lot more good than the other.

Effective Altruism instead looks not only at what percentage of a donation gets to the ground, but what it actually does when it gets there. Organizations like GiveWell look at a host of metrics to determine which charities save the most lives for a given amount of money, and rank them accordingly.

Effective Altruism is obviously a very welcome development in the world of philanthropy, where, too often, feely-goody feelingness obscures metrics and accountability.

That being said, Effective Altruism is not without problems.

First, some — a minority, to be sure — see Effective Altruism not just as a useful tool for philanthropy, but a life philosophy. For example, there is a movement of elite school graduates who get the most remunerative jobs they can find — typically in hedge funds or investment banks — and make as much money as they can, while donating everything beyond necessity. Now, of course, as a Catholic, I can only commend supererogatory almsgiving. But there is still something unsettling here. After all, the implication seems to be that taking a high-paying job selling fraudulent mortgage-backed securities is more praiseworthy than taking a low-paying job at the local homeless shelter, so long as one buys enough anti-malarial bed nets. It's almost as if charitable giving was a kind of moral offset, like compensating for your carbon footprint. But the idea of a moral offset is ridiculous: If I buy enough bed nets to save 12 people in Africa, do I get to go on a murder rampage?

Besides this rather eccentric utilitarianism, there is a problem more closely linked to Effective Altruism, which is a measurement problem, as the writer and statistician Leah Libresco notes. I mentioned bed nets because that is mostly what Effective Altruism amounts to: It measures what is immediately and visibly measurable, a problem known as the Streetlight Effect.

There is a very good argument to be made that the most pressing of the developing world's problems is the lack of strong institutions that can prevent corruption, tyranny, and war and guarantee the kind of educational and public health infrastructure the first world enjoys. The Christian charity International Justice Mission tackles precisely this problem, one grinding step at a time, working with local communities to make institutions such as police departments less corrupt. I bet that would be scored terribly by Effective Altruism methods. (Not that it could meet its utilitarian criteria for review.) The founder of IJM Gary Haugen argues in The Locust Effect that this sort of thing is a necessary precondition to fixing the third world. Maybe Haugen is wrong. But if he was right, and we were all Effective Altruists, we would never know. Zillions of bed nets later we would have done a lot of good, but we wouldn't have come closer to enabling true human flourishing among the word's poorest billion.

Or, to take another example: Medical research is inherently speculative, and any individual donation probably doesn't do a difference, but no one doubts that in aggregate medical research has been the single most powerful force in saving lives in the past century.

The point is this: Effective Altruism, while very welcome, is not an "objective" look at the value of philanthropy; instead it is a method replete with philosophical assumptions. And that's fine, so long as everyone realizes it.

Meanwhile, making the world a better place is an inherently speculative behavior — if we knew how to do it we'd have already done it. Therefore the most prudent collective thing to do is to try a very wide swath of different approaches rather than a single one. As one approach in the menu, Effective Altruism is great, but don't think it's the single approach.

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