A series of responses to this article from Peter Singer.
What’s not to like about charitable giving based on quantitative evidence and aimed at maximum impact? Actually, I have a few misgivings.
First, on individuals and institutions: although greater altruistic feeling and behavior should be an unmitigated good, assigning to individuals and groups the roles typically reserved for societal institutions poses some dangers. We expect local and national law enforcement to fight crime, for instance. We may at first welcome vigilantes but soon discover their actions are fueled by bias, group psychology, and unchecked power. Even worse, they may start eroding society’s trust in public institutions. Why should we pay for police when others protect us?
In the case of philanthropy, the problem isn’t street justice but replacing the government’s role in, say, providing health care. “So what?” one might ask, given the track record of some states. But consider the long-term consequences. When key services we expect from states are taken over by other entities, building trust in the state and developing state capacity in other crucial areas may become harder. Correspondingly, convincing people to engage in politics and oversight of the state also becomes more difficult. In much of the developing world, from Pakistan to Nigeria or Haiti, where state-society relations are already frayed, they may become harder to mend.
Second, on effective measurement: we cannot measure accurately which organizations use resources most effectively. More evidence is always preferred, but precise measurement of the social value of a donated dollar may be impossible. What is the social value of a dollar given to Amnesty International as opposed to Oxfam or an NGO providing vaccines or textbooks? Every measurement involves value judgments. How much more valuable is to save the life of a one-year-old than to send a six-year-old to school?
But the problem is thornier still. A large body of research shows that economic development is the best way to lift millions out of poverty and improve their health, education, and access to public amenities. So one has to take into account how charities’ activities affect economic development, which is essentially impossible. If, as some economists and political scientists suggest, changes in political and economic institutions are critical for long-run economic growth, then watchdog organizations such as Amnesty may be essential for transforming dysfunctional regimes. Effective altruists don’t (yet?) see the importance of these more political organizations. If this narrow focus continues, it may divert public and media priorities from political factors underpinning economic development.
Finally, on what we value as a society: effective altruists’ imperative to maximize their earnings so they can give more might influence what society views as a meaningful life. Many of us would consider the life of a young person who foregoes the comforts of a well-paying job to work as a community activist or a doctor in a war zone not just meaningful but also highly valuable for society. But effective altruism may slowly chip away at this conception.
Perhaps Bill Gates, who has made billions and is now giving large sums to worthy causes, should be emulated. Or perhaps we should become Wall Street traders to maximize our earnings and donations. Peter Singer says there is no justification for breaking the law or engaging in blatantly unethical behavior to do so, but life’s choices seldom come in black and white. Imagine that the Department of Justice and the European Commission had not prevented Microsoft from forming a more effective software monopoly; Gates’s wealth could then be twice what it is today, and he could give twice as much. Would his have been a more meaningful and socially valuable life, even if his additional earnings came at the expense of monopoly distortions of the software market? Or suppose our Wall Street trader—now engaged in the sort of high-frequency, algorithmic arbitrage many economists view as socially useless at best—had become an innovator, earning less and giving less but creating tools that millions find valuable. Would hers be a less meaningful life? What about civic duty—being an informed citizen, an active political participant ready to speak out against injustice, and a member of society willing to help others directly? Is that not part of a meaningful life?
None of these objections will have much force if effective altruists remain a small, marginal tribe. But we may yet see the best and brightest in our colleges and high-prestige professions join them. If that happens, the unforeseen consequences of this powerful but flawed idea could be stark.
Helping others is good, not least because of the happiness it brings to the giver. And it is hard not to admire Matt Wage, or Peter Singer. But why do the world’s poor have such a passive role in all of this happiness creation? Why are they not asked if they wish to participate, if they too feel the warm glow? Singer does nothing to persuade us that they have volunteered to be the objects of the “effective” altruism he endorses; indeed, Gallup and Afrobarometer polls show that Africans’ own priorities lie elsewhere. Instead, the evidence for effectiveness, on which the recipients might have their own views, is outsourced to technical outfits, such as GiveWell, that evaluate projects and organizations. GiveWell is Consumer Reports for altruists, listing value for money and establishing the minimum cost of saving a child’s life.
It is an illusion that lives can be bought like cars. For a start, the evidence is nearly always in dispute. The alleged effectiveness of the Deworm the World Initiative—which, at the time of this writing, ranked fourth in GiveWell’s list of top charities—runs contrary to the latest extensive review of the evidence by the Cochrane Collaboration, an organization that compiles medical research data. Maybe Cochrane is wrong, but it is more likely that the effectiveness of deworming varies from place to place depending, among many other things, on climate and on local arrangements for disposing of human waste.
More broadly, the evidence for development effectiveness, for “what works,” mostly comes from the recent wave of randomized experiments, usually done by rich people from the rich world on poor people in the poor world, from which the price lists for children’s lives are constructed. How can those experiments be wrong? Because they consider only the immediate effects of the interventions, not the contexts in which they are set. Nor, most importantly, can they say anything about the wide-ranging unintended consequences.
However counterintuitive it may seem, children are not dying for the lack of a few thousand dollars to keep them alive. If it were so simple, the world would already be a much better place. Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse. The dedicated people who risked their lives to help in the recent Ebola epidemic discovered what had been long known: lack of money is not killing people. The true villains are the chronically disorganized and underfunded health care systems about which governments care little, along with well-founded distrust of those governments and foreigners, even when their advice is correct.
In today’s Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has discovered how to use Singer’s utilitarian calculus against his own people. By providing health care for Rwandan mothers and children, he has become one of the darlings of the industry and a favorite recipient of aid. Essentially, he is “farming” Rwandan children, allowing more of them to live in exchange for support for his undemocratic and oppressive rule. Large aid flows to Africa sometimes help the intended beneficiaries, but they also help create dictators and provide them with the means to insulate themselves from the needs and wishes of their people.
The industry does not ignore the evidence; indeed the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and its European counterparts use the same evidence GiveWell does, and they help to create more. They are also infinitely better organized and funded than the NGOs, so if it were possible to use this sort of evidence to eliminate global poverty, they would be better placed to do so than a handful of wealthy individuals working through NGOs. Yet these official aid agencies cannot solve the political conundrum and must bear some of the burden of responsibility for the oppressive dictatorships that fester in Africa.
Like Singer, I am privileged to teach at Princeton. I too see students who want to relieve suffering in the world. Should they go to Dhaka or Dakar? Focus on bed nets or worms? I tell them to go to Washington or London and to work to stop the harm that rich countries do; to oppose the arms trade, the trade deals that benefit only the pharmaceutical companies, the protectionist tariffs that undermine the livelihoods of African farmers; and to support more funding to study tropical disease and health care. Or they could go to Africa, become citizens, and cast their lot with those they want to help. That is how they can save the lives of African kids.
The debate sparked by the “effective altruism” movement has the potential to significantly improve donating practices, but only if what results is starkly different from the movement Peter Singer describes.
A central strength of the effective altruism movement is that it urges donors to make empirically informed decisions that focus on effects rather than good intentions, “warm glow” feelings, or the intrinsic value of actions. In this respect, it is far superior to charity appeals based on identifiable victims, charismatic megafauna (e.g., polar bears), charismatic mega-stars (e.g. Bono), oversimplified villains (e.g., Joseph Kony), and dramatic images of disaster.
For Singer and in everyday speech, being altruistic means doing as much good as possible, typically by helping people who aren’t kin or friends. Paradigmatic effective altruists, therefore, are relatively well-off individuals who donate large amounts of money to organizations that aid impoverished strangers. In contrast, a poor person who devotes all her time and resources to effectively alleviating her family’s or community’s poverty is not an altruist and so cannot be a member of the movement.
Singer is right that rich individuals face epistemic, motivational, and logistical challenges to fighting poverty that poor people do not face. The problem is that he addresses these challenges via a social movement focused on alleviating poverty that excludes poor people from its ranks. This movement therefore violates the democratic principle of inclusion, summarized in a slogan used for decades by social movements from Poland to South Africa: “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
This exclusion is compounded by the effective altruism movement’s primary strategy for attracting new members: showing how easy it is to save lives cheaply. Singer describes his student’s realization that by donating to a cost-effective charity, he can do as much good as a person who runs through flames to kick open the door of a burning building, saving one hundred lives. This analogy may be stirring, but it encourages donors to think of themselves as heroes or saviors. This orientation overlooks poor people’s central role in alleviating their own poverty and rich people’s role in contributing to and benefiting from it.
The effective altruism movement retains members by directing their emotional energies and commitments toward each other, not the people they aim to assist. Singer thus profiles effective altruists for his readers to emulate; he does not depict poor people using assistance to exit poverty. Likewise, organizations such as Giving What We Can encourage their members to make commitments to, and engage in community-building with, each other—not poor people. These strategies rightly avoid using pity as a motivational tool, but they also preclude more promising forms of connection, such as political solidarity.
By excluding poor people and encouraging a savior complex and insularity among its members, the effective altruism movement fails to meet normative criteria of democracy and equality. A supporter of this movement might respond that democracy and equality are less important than improving individual welfare. Yet in the medium-to-long term, the movement will likely fall short in this regard as well. As the low-hanging fruit of basic health programs and cash transfers are exhausted, saving lives and alleviating suffering will require more complicated political action, such as reforming global institutions. Undertaking this action will require outsiders to work with, and follow the lead of, activists in poor countries. Yet the effective altruism movement as Singer describes it does not cultivate the expectations, attitudes, or relationships necessary for this kind of work.
While Singer does not address these difficulties in his book, other adherents of the effective altruism movement are trying to do so. I hope their debates, with each other and external critics, result in a more pluralistic approach that includes poor people as partners or follows their lead, even if this means less certainty about doing the most good. This pluralist approach would have to jettison “social movement of altruists” as an organizing frame, but it would retain the effective altruism movement’s crucial twin insights: some donations do vastly more good than others, and donors should focus on those that do more good.
This pluralist alternative might also inspire new initiatives, such as a database of effective social movements. This database would direct donors’ attention outward, toward existing social movements, especially those based in the global South, that want external support for their efforts to promote individual welfare, inclusion, equality, or rights. Whatever its flaws, such a database could help donors resist the siren song of international aid: the belief that technically savvy, well-meaning outsiders can kick down doors and save the day.
Effective altruism encourages people to do “the most good they can,” typically by contributing a portion of their income to the best-performing aid organizations. This is a plausible account of what morality requires in a world riven by extreme poverty, but before we heed the call to action, we need to know more about what it means to do good. We also need to know more about the kind of outcome effective altruists believe should be promoted.
In practice, effective altruists tend to answer these questions by drawing on their giving philosophy's utilitarian roots. The core message is that suffering and premature death should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. In this calculation, other values such as social justice tend to lose out. As Holden Karnofsky, cofounder of GiveWell, puts it, “Justice as an end in itself, liberty as an end in itself—those aren’t things we’re interested in.” Of course, effective altruists know there is good instrumental reason to promote equality, focus on the worst off, and respect human rights. Yet when the cards are on the table, their failure to value these things as ends in themselves induces forms of moral blindness.
For example, effective altruists do not care about who benefits from an intervention or in what way, only that the greatest total gain in well-being is achieved. This means they often overlook the weakest and most vulnerable members of a population, who are frequently illiterate, victims of discrimination, and consigned to geographically remote places. Many of them also suffer from disabilities that place out of reach the welfare gains able-bodied people can achieve. Therefore effective altruists tend to focus their efforts elsewhere. This approach leads to systematic neglect of those most in need, something that strikes many people as unjust.
Peter Singer's response
The most striking passage in these responses is Larissa MacFarquhar’s description of effective altruists being moved by the suffering of anonymous people, or by suffering in itself. This should dispel the myth that effective altruists are coldly calculating, lacking emotion.
At the same time, MacFarquhar worries that by encouraging people to donate not to the charity that researches a disease from which someone close to them has suffered but to the charity that will do the most good with their donation, effective altruism will “suppress emotional connection” and “crush their moral roots.” But effective altruists are concerned about consequences, so if this does happen, they will have to change tactics. Giving doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision. Someone whose child has died of leukemia might be encouraged to make a modest donation to leukemia research and a larger donation to a charity that is more effective because it helps children in developing countries.
Paul Brest’s support for effective altruism is also tempered by worries about its emotional toll. Yet the portrayal of effective altruism he takes from MacFarquhar’s Stanford lecture—“a young couple who live in total self-denial according to Singer’s mandate”—is at odds with the way the couple (who now have a child) see their lives. I asked Julia Wise, one half of the couple, to comment, and she wrote: “We don’t feel deprived—though we give half our income, the remaining half is still a princely sum by world standards. There’s plenty of room in that budget for the things that matter most to us, including raising our daughter.”
Most respondents, however, worry that effective altruism overestimates its ability to identify the most effective interventions and achieve positive, long-term outcomes.
In his book The Great Escape (2013), Angus Deaton writes some positive things about aid, including: “I think the case for aid to fight disease such as HIV/AIDS or smallpox is strong.” Here, however, he claims that evidence about the amount of good done by specific aid programs is “nearly always” in dispute. The science of assessing the impact of such programs is relatively new, and more and better studies should help. Deaton criticizes GiveWell’s recommendation of treating intestinal parasites in children, claiming that it is contrary to “the latest extensive review of the evidence by the Cochrane Collaboration,” but he fails to mention that GiveWell responded to the Cochrane Collaboration report and indicated why they believe it does not directly challenge their recommendations. Readers may judge for themselves who is right.
I am also puzzled by Deaton’s claim that in aid programs the poor are not asked to participate. As Saunders-Hastings notes, most of the charities recommended by effective altruists work in the health area, where they “do not pose significant tradeoffs between welfare promotion and respect for beneficiary choice.” Other programs, such as GiveDirectly’s cash grants to extremely poor families, are surely immune to accusations of denying beneficiary choice; no one is forced to accept the money or told how to spend it. The available data suggest that GiveDirectly’s grants are also effective in increasing welfare, thus rendering moot Saunders-Hastings’s difficult question about how we trade off beneficiary choice against welfare. Where that tradeoff cannot be avoided, I believe our answer should depend on the terms of each case.
Deaton, Daron Acemoglu, Iason Gabriel, and Jennifer Rubenstein all suggest that effective altruists are likely to neglect the large-scale political and economic reform that would treat the causes, rather than the symptoms, of poverty. It is true that we can’t assess such action by randomized trials, but if large-scale reform offers some prospect of reducing poverty, then effective altruists will try to assess its chance of doing good, and if the expected value of such action is higher than the expected value of more limited interventions, they will advocate working for the large-scale reforms.
The same point holds for Leila Janah’s suggestion that the most effective way of helping the poor is to support fair trade programs or start social businesses that are environmentally sustainable and pay a living wage. It holds as well for Rubenstein’s claim that once the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked, efforts to reduce poverty will succeed only if they work with and follow the lead of activists in poor countries. Effective altruism cannot be refuted by evidence that some other strategy will be more effective than the one effective altruists are using, because effective altruists will then adopt that strategy. In The Most Good You Can Do, I describe and recommend examples of advocacy work for the poor, some of it in conjunction with political activists in developing countries. It is not easy to assess the efficacy of such work. But as long as we can rank some interventions as having an expected value that is several times greater than other interventions that are currently being funded—and this is beyond dispute—effective altruists have an important role to play in helping people to do more good than they otherwise would.
In any case, if the objection to effective altruism is that it often takes a Band-Aid approach to poverty, treating its symptoms rather than its root causes, then we should not forget that sometimes we don’t know what the root causes of poverty are, and even should we come to know what some of them are, we may still be unable to change them. In those circumstances, treating the symptoms of poverty will be the best we can do—and we should not forget that this will mean saving lives, alleviating hunger or chronic malnutrition, eliminating parasites, providing education, helping women to control their fertility, and preserving sight. Not bad for Band-Aids.
Finally, several respondents raise suspicions about the politics of effective altruism.
András Miklós asks interesting questions about why effective altruism focuses only on the responsibilities of individuals. I agree that corporations have an important role to play in effective altruism.
Rob Reich asks whether effective altruists prefer technocracy to democracy, but it is no accident that Bentham and his utilitarian followers were leaders of the movement for democratic reform in Britain. Democracy helps to align the interests of the government with those of the governed. I don’t know how many effective altruists believe that democracy has intrinsic, rather than just instrumental, value; most likely some do and others do not. Iason Gabriel makes a similar point about justice, but again, there is no party line on these matters, and not all effective altruists will agree with Holden Karnofsky in allowing justice only instrumental value.
Catherine Tumber asserts that Matt Wage’s work “furthers the suffering of global have-nots.” Wage himself doesn’t think this is the case, so if Tumber knows better, she should tell us how she knows it. She also says that he is being “deskilled and degraded,” again without indicating why we should accept that view. Effective altruists require evidence for their views, which may be why Tumber finds them uncongenial. She makes it clear that she objects to effective altruists’ insistence on quantifying the amount of good done by the various options available to them. That implies that she would be willing to support a charity that, say, will prevent blindness in a small number of people even when the same resources donated to a different charity would prevent blindness in many more people. It is hard to know what to say about such a preference.