The effective altruism movement aims both to increase the pool of philanthropic resources flowing from rich to poor and to improve the quality of individual donating decisions. Thanks to Peter Singer and organizations inspired by his work, prospective donors today are in a much better position to evaluate the options open to them and to judge the extent to which different organizations will use donations to achieve welfare objectives. In that sense, effective altruism can be credited with making both ethical and empirical progress. To prove politically progressive, it must avoid the familiar philanthropic problem of giving donors too much power over beneficiaries.

Singer stresses effective altruism’s contrast with emotive giving, but the idea that philanthropy should aim unsentimentally at maximum positive impact is not new. The claim that philanthropy ought more effectively to benefit the poor defined the movement for “scientific philanthropy” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his 1889 “Gospel of Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie observed, “Of every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that $950 is unwisely spent.” (He also criticized “a well-known writer of philosophic books” whose almsgiving “only gratified his own feelings.”) For the Charity Organization Societies in Britain and the United States, improving the welfare of the poor required supervisory approaches to poverty: “friendly visitors” to poor households monitored the choices of aid recipients and attempted to improve them.

Imposing conditions on gifts to poor people can be undemocratic.

It would be a distortion to interpret these as examples of effective altruism avant la lettre. The early scientific philanthropists tended to interpret poverty as a sign of moral defect: it was the expectation that the poor would waste, misspend, or become dependent on assistance that made the careful design and monitoring of philanthropic projects so important. Effective altruists reject moralistic criticisms of the poor, and they aim more narrowly at improving the well-being (rather than the character) of their beneficiaries. But scientific philanthropy nevertheless offers a warning to effective altruism: even a narrow focus on welfare can lead to programs that are objectionably paternalizing if donors and volunteers view themselves as entitled to make decisions on behalf of the poor.

Debates within the effective altruism movement reflect disagreement about how much control to delegate to the poor. For example, one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities, GiveDirectly, makes unconditional cash transfers via cell phone to extremely poor households in developing countries. “This approach faces an unusually low burden of proof,” according to GiveWell. But Giving What We Can does not recommend donating to GiveDirectly, on the grounds that there are more cost-effective options than giving directly to the poor. This is partly a technical dispute about which interventions will most efficiently promote welfare. But it can also be interpreted as a nascent political dispute: Should donors leave downstream decisions about how to improve welfare up to the poor themselves? Or should donors structure poor people’s choices in a more thoroughgoing way, if that will allow donors to extract maximum welfare returns on charitable dollars?

The charities most supported by effective altruists target low-hanging fruit in global health. Rather than cash, these organizations offer goods such as insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria and treatments for neglected tropical diseases. They do not pose significant tradeoffs between welfare promotion and respect for beneficiary choice. However, this does not eliminate the possibility of such tradeoffs. When the few top-rated health charities reach funding capacity, where do we turn? Direct giving or more mediated approaches? Articulating moral constraints on the exercise of donor power will become more important as the effective altruism movement grows, especially if its adherents occupy high-paying jobs that at once permit increased philanthropic impact and greater influence over recipients and policymakers. As effective altruists begin to target policy change as a way of doing good, and if they begin more often to impose conditions on their gifts as a strategy for promoting welfare, they likely will face more objections about interventions that look undemocratic, manipulative, or paternalizing.

Welfarist frameworks can anticipate concerns about donor overreach, and Singer partly anticipates political objections when he disavows the large-scale tyrannical utopias of the twentieth century. But what effective altruism most needs to reckon with are not Lenin and Pol Pot, but rather the more ordinary ways that philanthropists have conventionally felt entitled to exercise power over those they benefit.