Monthly Archives: December 2014

Effective Altruism overview and thoughts

This is an essay I originally wrote earlier this year for “OpenDemocracy, Transformation” but was not published.

The expanding circle

I grew up in an area of northeast London marred by economic underdevelopment, drugs and crime. I never really understood the problems that existed around me while I was growing up. When I was old enough to be out late, I would often see a middle aged man that sat by the night time revellers outside an old Irish pub, asking for change and searching for cigarette butts. At first I would try and avoid him, as would most other passer-bys. But that all changed one cold and wet night while walking back from a friend’s house.

It was late – 2am I think – and all the shops were all closed apart from a drive through McDonalds a five minute walk up the road. I saw him curled up by a wall, soaked to the bone and huddled under a sleeping bag.  I turned back around and headed to the store, bought a cup of tea and took it back to him. He shook my hand and thanked me, while a warm look of gratitude stretched across his face. A conversation soon began that ebbed and flowed like any good conversation ought to. He told me his name is TJ, and that he’d been homeless since he was 16. That night TJ and I became friends.

So you may be wondering, why am I telling you this story? Perhaps the cynical reader may consider this to be a form of egotism. But my experience with TJ is important in that it sparked an interest in charitable giving. While a cup of tea is by no means a life changing gesture, from this initial act grew a desire to form a long lasting change in the world around me. Fast forward to today and I am now actively involved in a number of charitable organisations. Yet I found that as my interest in giving grew, so did my scepticism of how effective charity was in instigating meaningful change. I started to ask myself difficult moral questions, such as, why are we obliged to help? Who deserves our assistance? And most importantly, how can we instigate the most effective change?

The Effective Alturist movement

To begin to answer some of these questions, we must first turn to the work of the Australian bioethicist Peter Singer. The Drowning Child analogy plunges us into a simple thought experiment – if a child is drowning in a shallow pond, and we can save their lives with little harm to ourselves, are we morally obliged to do so?

From this very simple analogy came the subsequent conclusion that we are obliged to help everyone within our power, including those in distant lands unbeknownst to us, when there is little comparable harm to ourselves. This is based on the premise that all lives hold equal importance. To achieve the most effective outcome, we must then consider all causes and actions, and act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. In a sense, the act of giving becomes an investment in utility – an attempt to maximise the collective happiness of society, and reduce suffering of all as best we can.

Since these ideas first took shape, a great deal of effort has gone into turning this vision into a tangible reality. After the release of his 2009 book, The Life You Can Save, Singer and one of his Princeton University students founded a non-profit with the same name. The organisation informs the public of the facts underlying the third sector, and promotes community participation in activities it argues reduce poverty and economic inequality. The Life You Can Save also encourages people to publicly pledge a percentage of their income to highly effective aid organizations. Singer suggests this to be around 1 per cent of a person’s income. As of writing, over 17,000 people have pledged publicly.

Giving What We Can is a similar organisation inspired by the work of Singer. Founded by moral philosopher Toby Ord in 2009. So far the organisation has over 600 members, $300 million pledged, and seven chapter across the UK. Ord himself has capped his income at £20,000, and donates everything he earns above this to the most cost-effective causes.

As it stands, evidence suggests that only three per cent of donors give based on the relative performance of charities. This is a concerning statistic when we consider some of these organisations can be hundreds of times more effective at alleviating poverty than others. For instance, it costs thousands of dollars to train guide dogs in the developed world, while treating onchocerciasis, a major cause of blindness in the developing countries, costs just a few dollars per person.

If the average citizen from a developed nation was to donate 10 per cent of their income to the most effective causes, 7000 children could be cured of deadly parasitic infections a year, and the lives of countless others could be greatly improved.

So while viral appeals such as the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, or Cancer Research’s #NoMakeUpSelfie, have both been very good and generating popular support, the question remains, are these really the causes we ought to be donating to? While giving to these charities will undoubtedly improve the lives of many, we could theoretically generate more good by investing in combating malaria, which kills over half a million children every year, or tuberculosis, which is among the top three causes of death for women aged 15 to 44, according to the WHO

Both these organisations, along with many others, are attempting to transform the way in which we look at philanthropy. Proponents of Effective Altruism advocate the use of evidence and reason in working out the most effective ways to improve the world. They suggest we do this by making more informed decisions by using a non-profit charity evaluator such as GiveWell, or Giving What We Can’s research on the effectiveness of charities.

What makes a cause effective?

But this poses the question – does this mean we shouldn’t donate to any of these comparably less-effective causes at all? While this is not directly the case laid out by the EA movement, it seems that this would be the logical conclusion of their arguments.

So who defines what is a worthy cause to give to? Ultimately such judgements are based on the research these organisations conduct. But even so, in practice, responding to an emotive cause makes it difficult to take a wholly impartial view, and certainly there are many nuanced factors that affect our decision of why to give and to who.

Critics argue that the ideas outlined by Singer and his followers are objective views from detached scholars, which seemingly fail to take into account this context surrounding acts of charity. Effective Altruists argue we should give because we reason it to be an effective cause. But it is not the effectiveness of a charity that motivates people to give, as the evidence shows, but instead, biological mechanisms such as a feeling of love, a sense of injustice, empathy, guilt, or other social pressures (such as giving for prestige in some philanthropist circles).

Critics have dubbed this push for impartiality as “elitist”, and that the movement gives a particular emphasis on a small number of global health and nutrition charities. If we were therefore to adopt this viewpoint, there would be little apparent reason to invest in emergency relief, domestic causes, or the arts.

For instance, the thousands of pounds I was given by media charities could have been used to save lives in a developing country. The collective benefit to humanity would therefore far outweigh my need to acquire a profession. However, there is a less obvious benefit here, in that I can now use the skills I have learnt to bring about a tangible change in the long term, perhaps through activism and volunteerism. Similarly, the money I spent on buying my homeless friend a cup of tea could arguably have a far greater effect if given directly to a starving child in Ethiopia. Yet it was this action that sparked an interest in charity, which will continue to lead to further giving in the future.

The result therefore is that the consequences of acts of charity are often hard to quantify, and ultimately in an attempt to produce the most effective change, we may stifle social progress instead.

A deep rooted problem

Singer argues we must look beyond the evolutionary qualities that restrict our circle of compassion to those we share common bonds, and take an egalitarian, impartial approach to giving. As he puts it in his 2004 book, One World:

In a society like America, we should bring up our children to know that others are in much greater need, and to be aware of the possibility of helping them, if unnecessary spending is reduced. Our children should also learn to think critically about the forces that lead to high levels of consumption, and to be aware of the environmental costs of this way of living.”

Yet even in a developed nation like America, there are high levels of inequality that frustrate this process of transformation. Namely, it could be argued that to truly absolve the world of extreme poverty, we must first address the underlying mechanisms that cause this unequal distribution of resources in the first place. Partly this means having a more equitable society, something Singer himself argues for. It is easier to foster this kind of collectivist sentiment for instance, when our society by and large is well educated enough to think abstractly about such issues, or similarly, have the financial security necessary to devote to tackling global poverty. But to reach this goal, we need to invest our time and energy into transforming our own societies first, before any effective action could be achieved on a global scale.

So herein lies the problem – critics have lambasted the EA movement for trying to work within an inherently flawed system. For instance, David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized effective altruists who adopt an “earning to give” strategy. This means individuals are encouraged to work in finance and other high-paying, arguably unethical industries, if that money can be used to serve the poor. This Robin Hood-esque approach may seem to many of us to be a morally grey area, but the consequentialist would argue that the ends justify the means.


While it is easy to be critical of seemingly less-effective forms of charity, it is my view that we must take this sentiment of giving and nurture it using the doctrines of empiricism and impartiality. But we must refrain from condemning those who choose to give to less effective causes, the consequences of which can be hard to quantify. For example, while my act of kindness to my homeless friend may not create any significant lasting change directly, recognising this feeling of love and empathy for you fellow human being is the first step towards making an effective change, just as it has been in my own life.

In other words, to become an Effective Altruist, you must become an altruist first. Love is a biological mechanism that applies to those we share our immediate lives with, but we must strive to expand this feeling and break it free of its biological moorings, by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures. We must also seek to address the underlying issues that cause poverty in both the developing and developed world – the social and economic forces that lead to intergenerational poverty, and the tragic consequences it entails.