Vast sums of philanthropic donations have no discernible social value. The past decade has seen two significant efforts to respond to this sad state of affairs. The first focuses on the proper objects of philanthropy; its proponents argue that charitable giving should be dedicated solely to improving the lives of the world’s poorest people. The second aims to ensure that philanthropic funds are effectively deployed to achieve their intended outcomes—through well-managed organizations whose strategies are based on sound empirical evidence. These two efforts come together in the effective altruism movement.
The contemporary movement’s origins can be traced to Peter Singer’s 1999 New York Times Magazine essay, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty.” Its first strain is rooted in an uncompromising utilitarian theory that calls for relentless redistribution until the value of the “life you can save” is less than the personal sacrifice entailed in saving that life. For example, Singer asks, “Does promoting the arts count as improving the world?” and responds that it might in a world that has overcome extreme poverty, but not in ours: where there are lives to be saved, other goods are not worth pursuing. Thus Singer disparages David Geffen’s $100 million gift to renovate the Lincoln Center concert hall and name it after himself. This is an outsize example, but the underlying logic applies as well to an anonymous $100 gift to buy a violin for a needy music student.
If we're not up to doing the most we can, we can still do more.
This may be the proper outcome from a utilitarian point of view. But I wonder whether effective altruists aren’t free-riding on other altruists in order to live in a world in which they can enjoy the arts, literature, and other cultural and leisure pursuits—an inversion of the (albeit non-utilitarian) categorical imperative. In any event, one might worry that if people regard effective altruism’s demands as excessive, it may provide an excuse for doing even less. Larissa MacFarquhar’s poignant account of a young couple who live in total self-denial according to Singer’s mandate may be inspiring to some but alienating for many others, who take offense at what they regard as effective altruism’s sanctimonious attitude. (As much as we venerate ancient saints, we tend to resent contemporary aspirants.)
The idea behind the second strain of effective altruism—that philanthropists should try to be effective in achieving whatever social goals they pursue—seems pretty obvious. Yet most efforts to promote effectiveness have been strikingly ineffective. Indeed, they have been met with skepticism about whether the philanthropic impulse can or should be cabined by rationality.
Nonetheless, effective altruism is gaining adherents. Its two strains come together in the membership organizations The Life You Can Save and Giving What We Can, the charity rating service GiveWell, the private foundation Good Ventures, and William MacAskill’s excellent new book Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference. Through a mixture of persuasion, guidance, example, and solidarity, these have the potential to move philanthropy in the direction Singer advocates.
My hope is that effective altruism becomes a sustainable movement and that it induces the 99 percent of us not up to doing the most we can to at least do considerably more to address global poverty in lieu of other causes. MacFarquhar’s couple surely does not provide a sustainable model. And I am skeptical about the sustainability of effective altruists becoming hedge-fund millionaires who will then devote their earnings to philanthropy. But a new social movement requires a lot of experimentation, and the world surely will be a better place if effective altruism gains traction.