Effective Altruism?

By Robert Bernstein   |   January 10, 2023

I am writing this during the end of year “Season of Giving.” Most of us will ask the same question: What is the most effective giving? How do you decide? There is a difference between feeling good and actually doing good. There is a new movement of “Effective Altruism” led by philosophers including Peter Singer, Toby Ord, and William MacAskill.

A group “Giving What We Can” offers an online Effective Giving Guide. Start by identifying the most important causes. Then identify the most effective organizations working on those causes. They claim that some organizations are 100 times more effective than others. They note that some organizations even make things worse!

If we send food to a region suffering famine, we have to be careful not to put farmers out of business in that region.

Their advice on identifying the best causes? “Find big, tractable, and neglected problems.” Tractable means there are known solutions that can be put into practice. Neglected means low-hanging fruit that has not yet been picked. “Big” means getting to the root of the problem on the biggest scale possible.

They identify three “high impact cause areas”: Global health and development; animal welfare (primarily ending the cruelty of factory farms); safeguarding the long-term future.

With regard to the latter, the Climate Crisis is an obvious target. But they include less obvious issues like Artificial Intelligence safety and Biosecurity.

They note several factors in evaluating effectiveness: Transparency, proven track record, theoretical basis of action, room for more funding. Some organizations are very effective by working at a small, personal scale. These can be valuable, but they are often saturated with funding and cannot grow.

I have observed that people often burn out working on big issues because they don’t see the impact. They end up working in a soup kitchen or planting trees because they can see the fruits of their labor and get immediate rewards and thanks.

In the 1980s the U.S. was laying waste to Central America by funding terrorist organizations and governments. Millions of Americans donated to organizations to stop the injustice and bloodshed. But it was hard to see the results. Some organizations found a middle path: Do direct aid in a way that raises awareness of the larger problems. After all, how will you feel if you help build a school or hospital in Nicaragua and Reagan’s contra terrorists burn it down? You start to see the bigger picture very quickly.

Likewise, helping Amnesty International rescue individual prisoners of conscience inevitably leads to wider awareness of justice.

Something similar holds with the Climate Crisis. Individual actions like riding the bus or biking instead of driving can help, but they are not enough. But, if people start doing these things, it is the start of buying into bigger changes. People come to realize that better public transit and bike routes are needed.

And people start to see less obvious solutions: Educating girls leads to fewer unwanted babies, which is a huge benefit to the Climate Crisis.

How to know how effective an organization is? There are “charity evaluators.” A famous one is Charity Navigator, which shows how efficient an organization is at funding actual projects rather than overhead or advertising. But they are not good at evaluating the effectiveness of the actual projects.

“Giving What We Can” recommends the evaluator “Giving Well.” But this focuses mostly on global health and development. Search online “Giving What We Can” “best charities” to see a list of their funds on a wider range of issues.

In my ideal world there would be no such thing as “charities.” There would be economic, environmental, and social justice. I will write more on this another time.

The economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run we are all dead.” It is a mistake endlessly to take short-term measures to save lives while ignoring the long-term root issues. But, real people don’t live in the long run. They need to eat today. It is essential to do both.

My dear late friend Ralph Fertig devoted his life to bicycle transportation activism. That is where he put all of his time, effort, and money. He explained this: He could spread his effort around. But, by focusing clearly and intelligently on one issue, he was being most effective.

We each must find what feels right for us. Ideally, through effective organizations. And, if we and these organizations do our job well, we will put such organizations out of business!  


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