In my last three posts, I argued that you probably have the means to do good, that we are all morally obliged to do good, and that a lot of people around the world do just that. The question is, how to actually do good?
The traditional approach to individual philanthropy could be described as “I feel, therefore I give”. Many people donate to causes they are familiar with; for example, religious organisations, by far the biggest recipient of charitable giving in the US, received $125 billion in contributions in 2018. Others support efforts that are dear to them. Only last month, JK Rowling donated £15.3 million to the University of Edinburgh to advance our understanding of multiple sclerosis, a condition the author’s mother died from at the age of 45. And then there is the pain that we see and empathise with: the hunger of a child in Niger, the loneliness of an elderly neighbour, or the suffering of a neglected dog.
In other words, we are moved, and so we give.
Giving from the bottom of one’s heart is a beautiful act. But how can you know that your donation will truly make a difference? Is the act of giving itself good, or should it be about improving the lives of others? Effective altruism argues for the latter. It’s a belief that we should do not what feels right, but what we know is right based on robust evidence. Furthermore, we should evaluate all options available to us, and choose the one that leads to the most good.
Here’s one of my favourite examples of effective altruism applied to global health (based on a highly-readable essay by Toby Ord):
Say you have $40,000 you can spend to fight blindness. You could use the money to provide one guide dog to a visually impaired person in the US. Alternatively, you could pay for surgeries that reverse the effects of trachoma in Africa; curing one patient costs less than $20. Would you choose to help one person overcome the everyday challenges of blindness, or cure 2,000 people completely?
The choice seems obvious, as the cost-effectiveness of curing trachoma surgically is significantly higher than providing guide dogs to the visually impaired. However, it turns out that we could do several orders of magnitude more good if we instead spent the $40,000 on malaria prevention.
One of the guiding principles of effective altruism is thus to always start with the goal (“do the most good I can”) rather than the solution (“donate to Guide Dogs of America” or even “help the visually impaired”)¹.
But how can you compare the various approaches to doing good?
So far we have only looked at an example where choosing between several causes was trivial. After all, we can probably all agree that saving a life is better than improving a life, and that saving more lives is better than saving fewer lives. In practice, however, comparing good outcomes is very hard. How do we value human vs. animal lives? What about currently living humans vs. humans of the future? Are the lives of younger people inherently more valuable than the lives of older people? What is the trade-off between life, health, and happiness?
Even if we manage to answer all these questions, we might find the implications of our answers dissatisfying. For instance, a radical approach to effective altruism would prevent one from ever donating to a local homeless shelter, a food bank, or one’s own university. Indeed, if you wanted to follow the principle of doing the most good to the letter, all your donations should probably be directed towards alleviating extreme poverty and improving global health in developing countries.
However, even that is not easy to achieve. Very few charities rigorously evaluate their own efforts, and still fewer make such findings public. If you have money, but no time to spare, your best bet is GiveWell. GiveWell focuses on scientific evaluations of a small number of charities. The recommended organisations (currently only eight) have undergone budget reviews, site visits, and independent audits of their effectiveness claims. Donating to one of these charities will ensure that your money will be used efficiently and have significant positive impact on the lives of others.
If you want a wider choice of options, however, you will have to do the legwork yourself. If you are happy with less robust evidence, you might be inspired by the Open Philanthropy Project. The organisation is exploring important, yet difficult-to-evaluate areas, such global catastrophic risks. You could also follow the lead of large, respectable foundations. For instance, my favourite, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, provides a comprehensive overview of the causes they are involved in.
And, of course, you can always perform cause and charity evaluations yourself. This could be a viable approach if you have significant background in the relevant area, but doing it right might be anywhere from hard (most charities don’t publish any information about their effectiveness) to impossible (certain causes cannot be evaluated qualitatively). If you nevertheless choose to go that route, start with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Co-founded by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, this year’s Nobel Prize winners in Economics, J-PAL currently provides access to 980 randomised evaluations of interventions in such varied areas as agriculture, energy, and health.
And if you still don’t know what to do, give money to poor people.
GiveDirectly is an organisation that supports those in extreme poverty by means of unconditional cash transfers. Elie Hassenfeld, the co-founder of GiveWell, sees GiveDirectly as a baseline against which all other charities should be judged. In his view, a charity can only be more cost-effective than GiveDirectly if it can provide goods and services that people cannot obtain themselves. And before you say it out loud, no, poor people are not poor because of their bad decision-making. While poverty is stressful and distracting, those with lower disposable incomes in certain cases make more rational decisions than the wealthy.
Peter Singer, a philosopher and a professor of bioethics, has said that effective altruism is “both a philosophical outlook on life and an emerging movement”. However, while the outlook is well-defined and understood, the movement is yet to gain a widespread following. The idea that charitable donation decisions should be metrics-driven seems to primarily appeal to the Silicon Valley-types: rich, white, and male.
Vox noted that such lack of diversity was clearly steering the movement towards “ideas and data that reflect the class position and interests of the movement’s members rather than a desire to help actual people”. In other words, the conversation that started with fighting global poverty has since shifted towards preventing an artificial intelligence-induced global apocalypse.
The approach has also been called “moralistic”, “cold”, and “hyper-rationalistic” (for example, in this passionate but misguided essay by the CEO of Charity Navigator). Indeed, while the desire to do good is commendable, Ari Kagan from the Centre for Advanced Hindsight points out that “many people find the idea of applying quantitative reasoning to altruism repugnant — like charging family members for a meal”.
Truth to be told, choosing one cause over another can sometimes be extremely hard. Consider the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organisation that grants wishes to children with life-threatening diseases. You might remember the heart-warming story of Miles, then five years old, who dreamed of becoming Batkid for a day. While the cost of that wish was not disclosed, an average Make-A-Wish dream takes around $10,000 to fulfil. According to GiveWell, it costs the Against Malaria Foundation $4,388 to save a child’s life. Now what would you choose?
I shared the story of Batkid to illustrate that we are always making trade-offs. Some people might be offended by my even posing the question. And yet all those who donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation also chose not to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation. I know it’s hard to ask questions that could be seen as cold and even cruel. It’s even harder to look at Miles’s happy face and say that I would have chosen to fight malaria instead. However, by not asking whether my donation will result in the most good, I would be robbing all those who deserve my help of the chance they are morally entitled to: the chance to live. And that, to me, is more heart-breaking than having to say no to Miles.
So here’s what I’m saying: do good. Do good not because you want to feel good, but because you want to make somebody’s life better. Your empathy is what makes you human, but instead of donating to a charity because their ad made you cry, take a breath, evaluate your options, and choose the most impactful cause. Because whether you are thinking about this or not, you are always making choices. So why not to make sure these choices are the best ones you can make.
¹ William MacAskill, a philosopher at Oxford and one of the founders of the effective altruism movement, has much more to say on goals and solutions in his introduction to the topic.