Compassion for all; a critique of Effective Altruism

In my last post, I wrote about ways to support people experiencing street homelessness. Some of these ways involved giving money. This brings me to two important questions:

Could this money go further if I spent it elsewhere? Could I be using my money in a more effective way?

The short answer to both is yes. Effective altruism is a growing movement which attempts to make the world a better place using only the most impactful, evidence based methods. It does this in part by rigorously examining charities to see which are the most effective.

Giving What We Can, one of the organisations at the Centre for Effective Altruism, found that some charities do 1000 times as much good as others.

When it comes to making a difference in people’s lives, where you donate is as important as how much.

Giving What We Can advocates pledging a percentage of your income to effective charities, to ensure we give enough and the money we do give is used most cost effectively.

In many ways, effective altruism is about balancing a rational utilitarianism – allocating resources where they will have the biggest impact – with the human impulses that emotionally thrust us into giving in the first place. That’s why Peter Singer calls effective altruism a ‘head and heart philosophy‘. Effective Altruism featured image

But where does this leave people who need a greater number of resources (and therefore, more funding) to have a reasonable quality of life?

Instead of saving my spare change to support the UK’s street homeless, shouldn’t I be giving it to an effective charity working in the developing world? After all, it costs about 30p to vaccinate a child from a debilitating tropical disease, but thousands of pounds in hours and resources to help someone off the street for good.

I would say this is an issue of balance and compromise. To lead a truly ethical life, you need to think critically about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether it really works. You also need to be true to yourself and create ideals you can stick to.

My way of approaching this is to make a basic commitment to effective charities (currently 2.5% of my total earnings), with my homelessness jar as a side project for my loose change.

Most effective altruists would probably argue that the best thing to do is to give my homelessness jar money to effective charities as well. Indeed, Larissa, who writes most of the posts at Practically Ethics, had this to say:

‘I feel like choosing to fund one person’s treatment over several treatments in the developing world is, to me, like saying that [one life here] is worth the same as several lives in Africa.’

My personal philosophy is that every human life has the same value; no one life is worth more than another, and therefore resources should be shared out in such a way that everyone can lead a worthwhile life with limited hardships. Larissa’s philosophy is obviously very similar, and for her, funding only the most cost effective interventions is the best way to achieve this equality.

For me, giving a proportion of my money to less cost effective (but still deeply worthwhile) causes underscores the fact that I am worth the same as a sick child in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is also worth the same as someone sleeping in a doorway a few streets away.

Everyone needs support and compassion, and the right support to achieve this. The right support is different for different people, and costs different amounts of money.

This said, we are a long way from ending extreme poverty, and I do believe this should be our biggest priority. In practise, this means mosquito nets and deworming tablets, not homeless shelters and expensive, intensive support programmes to get people back on track with their lives.

Yet I still don’t think it’s right, or even logical, to stop giving to more costly causes altogether.

To give homelessness as one example, we need to increase our understanding of what works and what doesn’t to support people off the streets. This ensures we develop a strong evidence base for the most impactful and value-for-money interventions over the long term, and end up spending less but doing more overall.

Additionally, a lot of people sincerely believe we need to be helping people in our own nations before we help anyone else. If we advocate stopping our donations to local or national charities in favour of more effective ones, this may build ambivalence about giving in general, and resentment about giving to the developing world in particular.

If we aim to create a culture where giving is the norm, a balance between charities close to the heart and charities close to the head probably prevents tipping the scale into apathy and confusion.

As to your personal choices about giving, that is completely up to you.

The popular proverb says ‘charity begins at home’, while effective altruists might say ‘charity should begin where it will be put to the most effective use’. For me, charity should begin wherever it is most needed, and crucially, not stop there.

It is okay to care about more than one cause, and to prioritise causes in terms of how much they cost and how much good we can do through them. It is also okay to commit completely to one area of high impact and effectiveness.

Just make sure you commit, and don’t give up on being committed, even if the nature of your commitment changes over time.

Leading an ethical life is a complex undertaking, not least because in many cases, there isn’t one right answer or best way to be. What is vitally important is to view being ethical as a journey, not an endpoint to be reached. Along the way you have to keep learning, be critical of your own ideas and respect (perhaps embrace!) those of others. You will change your mind. You will argue with other ethically minded people.

This is good. This means you are getting somewhere.


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