Effective Altruism

Effective altruism is an area of practical moral philosophy that extends the ideas of altruism, i.e. selflessly doing good things for other people, to determine, through evidence and reason, the most good you can do for other people. It combines both philosophy and the scientific method to determine the most effective way for an individual to improve the world and gives compelling reasoning to incorporate this into their lifestyle.

Charity ain’t giving people what you wants to give, It’s giving people what they need to get.

Terry Pratchett, Hogfather.

You are wealthier than you think

As of 2016, there are 767 million people living less than US$1.90 (in purchasing power) per day.[1] That is, one in nine people on Earth do not have enough money to satisfy their or their family's hunger. Furthermore, the wealthiest 8 people now have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion.[2] The vast majority of the suffering endured by the very poorest in the world is due to starvation and illnesses for which there exists a cheap fast cure or prevention.

Clearly the wealthiest people in the world could donate a large proportion of their wealth without impacting their lifestyle significantly. Given this context, how much do you think the wealthiest 1% should donate, as a percentage of their annual earnings, to help curb the suffering of the poorest people in the world?


1%?


5%?


10%?


How wealthy are you? The chances are that since you are wealthy enough to afford the means to be reading this right now, then you are one of the 5% wealthiest people on the planet, and probably much higher than that. If you would like to calculate more accurately the percentile that your earnings lie given the purchasing power in your country, you can use the online calculator here. At the time of writing, I am in the top 3.7% wealthiest people on Earth. Clearly, I, and most likely you, could live comfortably on significantly less money than we earn.

YOU have the power to significantly reduce the suffering of many human beings (and non-human animals) who endure every day with a suffering you have likely never encountered. But do you have the moral responsibility to act on this?

How can I be morally responsible for the reduction of suffering in people I have never met?

If we can prevent something bad, without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.

Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.
Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1

You are walking along the bank of a waist-deep lake and you are the only person for several miles. In the lake you see a young orphaned* child, who is drowning. Clearly it is very easy to wade into the water to attempt to save the life of the child. By most people's standards, to continue walking past without attampting to save the child's life would be morally reprehensible.

Scenario 2

Next, consider the same scenario, but this time in your pocket you have your smart-phone. If you were to wade in to save the child's life it would be at the cost of your mobile phone, which could be several hundred pounds depending on which model you own. Again, by most people's standards, to continue walking past without attampting to save the child's life, i.e. putting such a low price on a child's life, would be morally reprehensible.

Scenario 3

Now consider a similar scenario where the child is drowning, and you can save the child's life, at the expense of a new mobile phone, but you wouldnt be doing this directly. In other words, you can save a child's life indirectly, e.g. they are in a different country. Of course, whether the child is drowning in front of you or in a different location has no moral significance. If a child's life can be saved at the price of a new phone, regardless of where that child lives, or whether you can directly or indirectly save their life, it would be morally reprehensible not to do it.

This is the position we find ourselves in every single day. Every day about 17,000 children die from avoidable poverty related causes.[3] On top of this, many millions more experience a huge amount of daily suffering through hunger or curable illness. Surely there is no morally significant difference between scenario 3 and the position we are in as extremely affluent people today. The implication of this is that if we are morally responsible to act to save the life of the child in scenarios 1, 2, and 3, then we are morally responsible to act to save the lives (or reduce the suffering) of the children, and adults, dying from preventable causes today.

Aren't I already a good enough person?

what I would like is to change the culture of giving, so that it becomes unacceptable to be comfortably off and do nothing for the world's poor.

Peter Singer.

Perhaps you are someone who doesn't steal things, doesn't hurt people, doesn't get angry when people make mistakes, and certainly doesn't judge people by the colour of their skin or their sexuality. These are certainly all necessary characteristics that a 'good person' should have; but are they sufficient? Is it sufficient just to not do wrong things?

Consider the world 100 years ago, before the telephone, the television, the internet: a world vastly different from ours. What did it mean to be a 'good person' in 1917? It probably meant you were loving to your family and friends and you weren't unpleasant to anyone, stranger or not. These characteristics sound remarkably similar to the characteristics of a good person today. How can it be that almost all areas of life have progressed in the last 100 years, yet the characteristics that make someone a good person have remained broadly the same, i.e. don't do wrong things and you are a good person? I agree with the proposal that the characteristics of a 'good person' today require significant refinement.

Donation of one's time, money, or energy to those less fortunate than oneself is generally considered as a deed that is good to do but not morally wrong not to do. A deed of this type is known as a supererogatory act.[4] Examples of supererogatory acts include, for example, blood donation or a soldier jumping on an enemy grenade. A shift from supererogation to obligation of acts of charity would bring our characterisation of a good person up to the modern age. My view on this issue can be summed up nicely by the following quote:

... our standards of distributive justice are far too minimalist and ... much of what is considered supererogatory in the transference of wealth from the rich to the poor should really be considered obligatory.

In particular, donating one's time or money to those in more need than themselves is perhaps the most strikingly archaic supererogation**. That is, perhaps it is no longer sufficient to not do wrong things***, the donation of what we have surplus to our requirements should, to a degree, be part of what makes a person good.

How can I do the most good?

To give away money is an easy matter and in any man's power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man's power nor an easy matter.

Aristotle, Ethics (360BC).

We have briefly covered an argument for one to practice altruism in their life. Where does effective altruism go from here? Altruism becomes effective altruism when we use evidence and reason to determine the most altruistic thing to do in a given situation.

Firstly, the use of the superlative "most" is not strictly appropriate here. Whilst effective altruism is a philosophy that aims to make the most altruistic decisions in life, it is practicably impossible to determine the most effective charity or the most altruistic career path to take. However, we can often improve the impact of our altruism, often by several orders of magnitude, by stepping back and making a better choice with the help of evidence and reason.

Often we give (if we give at all) to causes based on emotion or relation to someone effected by a certain ailment. Either we know someone who has been effected by an affliction or we feel emotionally drawn to a particular cause due to empathy with an afflicted group. While giving money to charity for these reasons will usually be a good thing for the world, can we do better? Effective altruism says that we should put the impact of a donation to a particular cause before relation or emotion. To understand the reasons behind doing this, let's consider the spread of possible causes one could donate to and the impact this donation would have.

We might be inclined to think that the the majority of causes have high impact. For a given sum of donated money, we might expect that the distribution of impact it has across a range of problems to which it might be given, to look something like this:

Expected impact spread
Credit: 80,000 hours.
Here, most problems have tangible impact. There are many organisations (such as GiveWell, Giving What We Can, 80,000 hours, and Centre for Effective Altruism) that use scientific procedures to determine the impact of many charitable causes. These organisations find that the spread of impacts is actually more like this:
Actual impact spread
Credit: 80,000 hours.
Donations to the majority of causes have negligible impact compared to a few high-impact causes. The high-impact causes tend to be the treatment or prevention of easily curable diseases that cause a large amount of suffering to a large number of humans in third world countries. For these causes, a small amount of money donated goes a very long way. For example, one of GiveWell's top charities is the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) that distributes long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito nets to people in developing countries. It is estimated that a life is saved by this charity for every US$500-7000 donated, as well as the huge amount of suffering reduced in those who would have otherwise caught malaria but not died.[5] Comparing this to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to pay a person in a first world country to go through cancer treatment to extend their life by a few months. Whilst it is undoubtably a good thing to give to the second cause, there is no reason that the life and suffering of a first-world human has any more importance than that of a third-world human. Therefore, it is several orders of magnitude more impactful to give to AMF****.

The most impactful cause is also an individual choice. It is impossible to fully detatch ourselves from the emotional reasons to support a cause. Different people think that different causes are most pressing; for example, one might argue that overpopulation is the most pressing global issue so our donations are better spent on education and distributing contraception rather than trying to save as many lives as possible. Alternatively, one might feel that activism to encourage others to eat plant-based foods rather than contributing to the slaughter of the 70 billion land animals that are killed for food each year is the most effective way to reduce suffering in the world.[6] The key point is that you must donate with your head as well as your heart.

Where can I learn more...

About effective altruism philosophy?

Firstly, I would suggest either listening to this if you like podcasts or this if you prefer videos. The podcast is an episode from the series Philosophize This which I would also recommend as a good starting point to learn about other areas of philosophy. These resources provide good short introductions to effective altruism and how to start thinking about leading a life that is in line with this philosophy. Further to this, I would recommend signing up to the Centre for Effective Altruism's newsletter here, they send out some very interesting resources.

About effective charities?

If you would like to learn more about which charities are the most effective, i.e. which charities give you the most bang for your buck, or if you are interested in learning about how we can use a scientific approach to quantify the impact a charity has and how it is much more than just a percentage of overhead costs then GiveWell is a good place to start. Also, there is a flowchart available here that gives a good step-by-step walkthrough to help determine your individual leanings to decide which effective causes are the most deserving of your donation.

About my journey with effective altruism?

If you would like to know more about how effective altruism has affected my life and how I try to align my decisions with this philosophy then sit and wait patiently for a future blog post that I plan to write about just this. Alternatively, you can contact me here.

Footnotes

* To remove the complication of arguments based on the premise that one might be more inclined to save the child if they had a family who would suffer greatly at their loss.

** While very interesting, a discussion about the utilitarian consequences of this statement (i.e. am I still obligated to donate if I am only marginally more fortunate than the people I would be giving to?) is largely irrelevant here because if you are in a position where you have the means to read this blog, you can likely give a large proportion of your income without it affecting your lifestyle significantly. A discussion about utilitarianism and effective altruism can be found by Singer, 1972.[7]

*** That being said, we are far from an age where people don't do wrong things. Even in developed countries, we still have a significant number of murders, rapes, and other acts that cause immense suffering to other humans. Also, the vast majority of people still contribute to the slaughter of the 1 million land animals for meat, dairy, and egg consuption and the 20 million fish for food and fish oil products every ten minutes which must cause an indescribable amount of suffering.[6][8]

**** One could argue further that a donation to an organisation trying to make more people donate large sums to effective charities would be even more effective because it has the broad effect of multiplying any donation by the number of people that donation influences to donate to effective charities. This is, however, very difficult to quantify.

Bibliography

  1. WORLD BANK GROUP, 2016: Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality, World Bank Publications, p.184.
  2. Hardoon, D., 2017: An Economy for the 99%: It’s time to build a human economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few. Oxfam Briefing Papers.
  3. WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION, 2011: Child mortality: Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 4. Viewed 19th Feb 2017.
  4. Heyd, D., 2016: Supererogation, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  5. GIVEWELL, 2016: Against Malaria Foundation: Cost per life saved.
  6. COMPASSION IN WORLD FARMING, 2017: Strategic Plan 2013-2017: For Kinder, Fairer Farming Worldwide.
  7. Singer, P., 1972: Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (3):229-243. Online here
  8. FISH COUNT, 2014: Fish Count Estimates. Viewed 11th Feb 2017.

Comments

Comments powered by Disqus