Effective Altruism: Squeezing Value From Your Hoard

What is Effective Altruism?

At its core, Effective Altruism is about giving your money to the cause that will do the most good.

It also can include, in order of aggressiveness, the following ideas:

  1. If you have the capability, skills, etc. to earn more, and thus give more, then you are morally compelled to do so.
  2. If you are meeting your basic needs, you can afford to give more.
  3. You should choose an ethical career.
  4. You should give a part of yourself.

I refer to these secondary items as Deep Effective Altruism. I will talk about them in another post.

On the face of it, Effective Altruism seems like a pretty straightforward, utilitarian concept. Putting it into action, however, requires a fairly serious evaluation of your underlying philosophical beliefs.

According to Peter Singer, the renowned philosopher and author of “The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically”, there are a number of basic questions that Effective Altruists must consider before choosing a cause to give to:

  1. What counts as “the most good”?
  2. Does everyone’s suffering count equally?
  3. Does “the most good” mean you have to discount giving to your children/family?
  4. How do you quantify values like justice, freedom, equally and knowledge?
  5. What about the arts?

Heavy stuff!

The most good

Say you have $1,000 to give. You have narrowed down your choices to three organizations that you value: one will use your $1,000 to support a new full time job for a disabled individual, one will use your $1,000 to serve 150 dinners at a homeless shelter, and one will use your $1,000 to hire a specialized grant writer to apply for a $10,000 annual grant that will provide 30 beds at a domestic violence shelter for five years.

Which will you choose? There is no “right” answer, although there a philosophical arguments to be made for all three. It’s challenging to think deeply about which choice YOU would make. The point, though, is to do exactly that. By undertaking this type of thought experiment you can prioritize your dollars in a way that makes YOU feel that you are doing the most good.

Some organizations, notably GiveWell, think much more broadly about this concept. These organizations focus on maximizing the literal utility of each dollar. As a result, they prioritize international giving. After all, a U.S. dollar spent in Zimbabwe stretches much further than a dollar spent in Atlanta.

In tandem with this approach, most organizations that use the words Effective Altruism in their mission are highly engaged with tracking the actual efficacy of each dollar spent. They want evidence that the distribution of 3,000 malaria nets resulted in a reduction in hospital admissions, school days missed by children, deaths, etc. If the program doesn’t work (according to their pre-established expectations) then they redeploy their funding to another cause. Unsurprisingly, many of the proponents of this type of tracking are analytical people by nature (engineers, accountants, etc.) Looking at charity in this way doesn’t automatically result in the warm fuzzies that you get from giving to an organization with a picture of a starving child and a plea for food. That said, there are big psychological boosts to giving to an outcome based organization. Knowing that you are leveraging the monetary impact of your gift AND being able to quantify the effect you are having is a powerful combination for mental wellness!

Does everyone’s suffering count equally?

Talk about a question for the ages! Clearly this is an important, complicated, and deeply personal question. Does the suffering of a released convict who can’t find a job deserve the same moral weight as a starving child in Africa? Is suffering from emphysema caused by smoking equally important as suffering from Alzheimer’s?

If you follow one of the major world religions, then you will likely answer yes, all suffering is equal. Conceptually, it is fairly easy to know that yes is the “correct answer”. But that isn’t particularly helpful in choosing a cause, nor is it likely that deep in your heart you are free of judgement. All of us harbor beliefs about the choices, situations, and actions of others that lead us to make value judgements. And that’s okay. This post isn’t about striving for enlightenment; it’s about investigating what you value.

To get you started on thinking about this issue, I suggest you consider the following questions:

  1. Do I feel more strongly about giving locally, nationally, or internationally? Why?
  2. Which resonates most with me: causes that support people, the environment, the arts or animals? (Note: Effective Altruists choose people)
  3. Do I want to give to causes that support immediate needs or long term change?
  4. Do I feel strongly about NOT giving to a cause that will support choices / actions that I don’t approve of? (This is real. Know yourself and your values.)

What I do not suggest is getting bogged down in a doom spiral of personal judgement. You cannot give to everyone, no matter how “effective” your altruism is.  Even though I started with highly specific examples, I gave them purely as a thought exercise. In your real life, you do not have to make comparative value judgments in order to be at peace with your decisions.

Also, if you unambiguously answer that “yes, everyone’s suffering is equal!” then I highly suggest you look into giving via one of the big Effective Altruism nonprofits. They will direct your dollar to the cause that gets the biggest bang for the buck under the assumption that all causes are worthy causes.

What about giving to my family?

I will address this in another series of posts. In my opinion, giving to your family does not strictly count as Effective Altruism, although it is certainly noble.

How do you quantify values like justice, freedom, equally and knowledge?

Easy! I don’t! These causes are wonderful but they are not addressed by Effective Altruism because they are too qualitative and long term in nature for this outcome driven movement.

What about the arts?

Effective Altruists believe that in a world without suffering, money could be directed to the arts. Since we do not live in that world, they do not recommend this category of giving. It’s not that the arts do not hold intrinsic value it is that they do not provide “the most good”.

So that’s Effective Altruism in a nutshell. Follow along as I post more about this type of topic in the future by clicking the “follow” button on this page.



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