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27 June 2015

Effective Altruism

Tag(s): People, Sustainability, Philanthropy
Peter Singer is considered the most prominent ethicist of our time. An Australian, he is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University, and Laureate Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne. He is the author of more than twenty books including Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, and The Life You Can Save.   I met him recently at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce where I am a Life Fellow. He gave a talk entitled “Can Altruism Be More Effective?” in which he set out his thoughts on the relatively new movement of Effective Altruism in which his own ideas have played a crucial role.

Effective altruism is built upon the idea that living a fully ethical life involves doing the “most good that you can do.” Such a life requires a new and unsentimental view of charitable giving: to be a worthy recipient of our support, an organisation must be able to demonstrate that it will do more good with our money or our time than all the other options open to us. Singer controversially challenges those who donate to the arts, and to charities focused on helping our fellow citizens, rather than those for whom we can do the most good.

He offers a philosophy, an approach to life. In order to decide how to do the most good that we can do we will need evidence. In the growing movement of Effective Altruism some, he observes, are millennials while others have pursued conventional careers but now want to reconnect to their values.  Effective altruists try to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that produces the most positive result. This is not confined to the non-profit sector but can apply more broadly, for example to prioritising scientific research leading to saving and improving lives.

Effective giving is an important feature of effective altruism because some charities are far more effective than others. The effective altruist charity evaluator GiveWell[i] was set up in 2007 to identify the most promising charities and causes to donate to. It has concentrated mostly on health care and poverty alleviation in the third world. Its number one charity is Against Malaria Foundation[ii] which provides funding for insecticide-treated bed nets for protection against malaria in developing countries for just $5 - $7.50 a bed.

Giving What We Can[iii] is a community of people interested in maximising the good they can do through donations. Founded in 2009 by Oxford University ethicist Toby Ord, it encourages people to pledge ten per cent of their income to charity. Ord learned as a graduate student that he could live comfortably on £18,000 per year. He therefore decided he would give the rest of his income to charity. As he climbed the academic ladder this surplus would grow so he looked for a cause where his giving could make the most marginal difference. He settled on the relief of cataracts in poor countries with inadequate resources. Such an operation would be freely available in rich countries but in Africa costs about £50 a time, way beyond the resources of most people who would therefore lose their sight prematurely. Ord calculated that in his lifetime he could save the vision of 80,000 people.

Other effective altruists take a different view. They set out to maximise their earnings in the early part of their life and then concentrate on doing the most good with the wealth they have created. An extreme example of this is Bill Gates who having become one of the richest men in the world has set up with his wife the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation[iv]to deal with global problems ignored by governments such as seeking to eliminate malaria. This philosophy is very much inspired by the work of earlier philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers.

Another perhaps even more extreme example is Zell Kravinsky who gave almost his entire $45-million real estate fortune to charity. He did put some money into trust funds for his wife and children, but the children were attending state schools, and he and his family were living on about $60,000 a year. This was not enough for Zell who heard of many inner-city people who were waiting for kidney donations. He studied the probability of early death from having just one kidney and found that it was 1 in 4,000 so as he had lived his life by making accurate numerical calculations he decided to donate a kidney to a stranger. The hospital firstly refused this as they normally only accepted kidney donations from relatives but after psychological assessment of Zell they relented. This had the effect of freeing up other donors in the queue as a series of matches could be made. Singer is not arguing that we should all give away a kidney to regard ourselves as altruistic, just using the example to show how far some feel they should go.

Singer acknowledges that comparisons between different causes can be very difficult but thinks that evidence is important and so are some clear moral assertions. He rejects the view that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others and so a person in a developing country has equal value to a person in one’s own community. It follows that since one’s pounds or dollars will go much further in alleviating poverty in a developing country than in one’s own then one’s giving should be focused on such causes. This gives lie to the proverb “Charity begins at home.”

Some effective altruists go further and think that future generations have equal moral value to currently existing people, so they focus on reducing existential risks to humanity. Others believe that the interests of non-human animals should be accorded the same moral weight as similar interests of humans and work to prevent the suffering of animals such as those raised on factory farms.  Singer points out those most so-called animal charities are concerned about the suffering of a few favoured species like pet dogs and cats rather than the billions of chickens, pigs and cows that are imprisoned for their short meagre livres.

Singer also cautions against assessing a charity’s effectiveness by looking at the proportion of its funding that is spent on administration. It is quite common that potential donors do that but without the evidence their judgement may be unsound. Charity A may spend just 20% of its income on administration and fund raising and 80% on delivering its cause while Charity B’s proportions might be 40% on administration and 60% on delivery. But Charity A may spend very little on administration in the field checking that’s money is well spent and so much of the 80% is wasted while Charity B spends enough on this aspect to ensure that its money is well spent. In such a scenario Charity B may be far more effective.

Peter Singer has laid out the philosophy of Effective Altruism in his recently published book The Most Good You Can Do.[v] He asks some very fundamental questions about what each of us can do – realistically, practically today to make the world a better place. And while the headlines are always full of horrible stories that are the consequences of actions that are at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from effective altruism, whether it be Syria or Iraq or Ukraine or Yemen or Libya etc, UNICEF reports that the number of children dying from avoidable, poverty related causes has dropped from 10 million in 2009 to 6.3 million just five years later, a 37% drop.

I commend Professor Singer’s book to you. But be careful. It may change your life.

[v] The Most Good You Can Do: How effective altruism is changing ideas about living ethically Peter Singer Yale University Press New Have and London 2015.

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