The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism
The superficially enticing “logic” of effective altruism ultimately leads to a moralistic, hyper-rationalistic, top-down approach to philanthropy that can kill the very altruistic spirit it claims to foster.
It is one of the unfortunate truisms of the human condition that there is hardly a good idea, noble impulse, or sound suggestion that can't be (and isn't eventually) adopted and bastardized by zealots. It is sadly thus that the very human impulse to help others and the mantra of Charity Navigator since its inception—that people should become informed donors and give with their heads as well as their hearts—have been infused with logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it. One iteration of this tendency is in the idea of “effective altruism.” We believe a more accurate phrase for this concept is “defective altruism” and will therefore use that term for the remainder of this article.
The drive to support charity is seemingly embedded deeply in our DNA and codified in all of the world’s great religions. One would think it needs no additional explanation, since nearly all of us feel this drive and understand it. Indeed, it is often so automatic and reliable that charlatans, tricksters, and outright thieves sometimes use it against us. To assure that this noble drive is respected in its implementation, we believe that all donors, whatever the origin of their impulse to give, should be informed and see their donation as an investment. Being an informed donor means using facts to help make a giving decision, and looking beyond the slogans and the emotion triggered by appeals. It also means not falling for buzzwords and simply assuming that an organization using them is, in fact, well managed and doing some good. Above all, being an informed donor means using the information one gathers to help guide resources toward those organizations that are doing the best work in whatever field or cause area one chooses to support.
By contrast, defective altruism is—by the admission of its proponents—an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.
In recent articles extolling the virtues of this approach, the GiveWell blog has cited the work of several allies, among them Peter Singer, who spoke about the concept in a recent TED Talk. In an example of the Sophie’s Choice that the movement offers the donor community, Singer posed the following question: Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2,000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.”
Eric Friedman’s new book Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving presents a similar take. In the book, Friedman goes even further than Singer by contrasting the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospitals with Malaje Provincial Hospital in Angola. After contrasting two patients served at the different hospitals for life-threatening medical conditions, he concludes, “I’d probably also be very angry at the donors who are continuously funding St. Jude and leaving Malanje Provincial woefully under-resourced. Why are [the patients of St. Jude] so much more worthy of life…?” This seems to us an absurd contrast and presumes a callousness by St. Jude donors that bears no resemblance to reality. Of course it is worthwhile to support both institutions if they both provide life-saving results; but Friedman and others indicate that one should support Malanje and not St. Jude as the “best” choice, and support that claim with nothing other than a decidedly skewed morality.
Later in the book, Friedman uses the analogy of buying a friend a birthday present to make his point. He asks us to imagine wandering through a mall and arbitrarily selecting a gift for our friend rather than choosing something they’d really appreciate. He then suggests that making a donation based on “thoughtful consideration” requires that we determine what would have the greatest impact. But the cold and hyper-rationalistic birthday giver who followed the defective altruism model would have to opt not to give a present to their friend at all; they would be required by this logic to scour the planet for the person most “worthy and in need” of that birthday gift.
This approach amounts to little more than charitable imperialism, whereby “my cause” is just, and yours is—to one degree or another—a waste of precious resources. This approach is not informed giving. Were such opinions limited to a small audience, we could reasonably dismiss them as a danger only to those unfortunate enough to hear them. However, in taking on this cause and using the bully pulpit of its website as its forum, GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.
Perhaps more alarming is the seemingly reasoned advice that the blog’s author(s) provide. Ranging from the insulting (“Focus on how one’s actions are likely to affect the world, rather than on how they affect oneself and one’s feelings”) to the banal (“Be open to unconventional approaches to doing good”), they culminate in the following prescription: Choose what you’re passionate about. Unfortunately, as Singer’s TED presentation demonstrated most effectively, the defective altruism movement has determined that only those causes about which it is passionate are worthy of making the cut—American children dying of life-threatening diseases need not get in line but Angolan children can.
In GiveWell’s case, this bizarre approach led to its recommendation to not assist the victims of the Japanese Tsunami. In fact, it discourages support for disaster relief in general. Long-time GiveWell supporter Friedman notes, “Most of those killed by disasters could not have been saved with donations.” Instead, GiveWell has a particular fixation with global health and nutrition charities. It at least implicitly recommends that one should support charities only in those cause areas. It is therefore not surprising that it has recommended only a handful of charities to its users. If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to:
- Domestic efforts to serve those in need?
- Advanced research funding for many diseases?
- Research on and efforts in creative and innovative new approaches to helping others that no one has ever tried before?
- More local and smaller charitable endeavors?
- Funding for the arts, and important cultural endeavors such as the preservation of historically important structures and archives?
- Volunteerism for the general public, since most “worthy” efforts are overseas and require a professional degree to have what Friedman calls “deep expertise in niche areas”?
- Careers in the nonprofit sector? Since the spokespeople for this opinion suggest that it might even be ethical to have a “lucrative job in an immoral corporation” so that you can be a so-called “do-bester” and give all the money away, it is unclear who would then run the charities to which defective altruists would give.
Furthermore, we anticipate that defective altruism inevitably will move us toward a more centralized form of giving where the experts decide where the money goes, rather than individual donors. As Friedman accurately notes, the defective altruism distribution plan “requires a level of expertise that few individuals have.” Thus, over time, we would require a very centralized and top-down approach to marshal and manage social investment and charitable giving decisions in a manner acceptable to the proponents of this approach. Friedman hammers this point home when he observes, “Though not necessarily morally superior to do-gooders, do-besters may be intellectually superior …” (our italics).
Ironically, he notes in the last paragraph of his book, “Putting together all the pieces of the do-bester puzzle is difficult—in fact, it is impossible.” We could not agree more!
Charity Navigator does not judge whether one type of charity is better than another, because we rely on the intelligence of our users to make charitable decisions that are best for them and the causes they care about—decisions informed by both heart and head. That—and not Big Brother in the guise of defective altruism—comprises the informed giving that we think truly honors the altruistic spirit.