We live in a world where the concept of charity is popular and encouraged, yet frequently abused, under-prioritised and often just doesn’t make any permanent difference.
That’s why the concept of effective altruism is rapidly growing more popular. It’s the next step in a middle-class person’s endeavours to be virtuous and giving, albeit for various reasons. Whether it is self-gratification you seek, or you simply want to appear philanthropic to the ladies, it’s a good thing to do.
In a nutshell, instead of handing money out with the noble yet often deluded notion that your money will somehow reach those in need, hand your money to a group which you know will make better, more effective use of it.
‘Charity’ is a very broad term. In modern society, there are fully legitimate and well-known charities which only end up devoting a tiny portion of their funds to actually helping others, or in some other cases, they are simply straight up fraudulent organisations which have no intention of using your donation for good.
This is relatively easy to solve. It’s a problem that’s been noted for a long time. There are dozens of organisations devoted to checking and rating charities and the quality of their delivery of services. If a charity only ends up delivering 10% of its funds to the needy, you can know about it with very little effort. The same goes for those groups that deliver almost everything they receive to whoever it is they are meant to support.
That’s all fine. It’s common practice to check the inside deal on a group to whom you are about to donate money. But that’s not effective altruism.
The inherent problem with effective altruism arrives here, when deciding which cause you want to support. Do you go for breast cancer research? Polio inoculations in third world countries? Food for the homeless? The SPCA? Environmental conservation groups? The options are quite limitless, just like humanity’s problems. Typically, people like to support initiatives against a disease or problem that they have experienced or observed in life. A guy who makes it out of the slums and becomes a wealthy philanthropist would likely be more inclined to address issues of poverty and education, rather than the environment. Similarly, someone with a family member who was diagnosed with cancer will probably want to donate to that cause, rather than to curing malaria in Central Africa. Unfortunately, it is usually the problems we do not witness that are the most deadly.
As a South African, I feel obliged to do something about HIV and AIDS. It’s a terrible problem, yet I am academically aware that malaria does far more damage, albeit further up north, in countries I have never visited. Sometimes, the emotional obligations we have while donating to charity seem to outweigh the intellectual. What if a relative dies of an obscenely rare and non-contagious disease? Do you support research for this disease which may kill a dozen people a year around the world, or do you support something which has a greater impact? There is no truly correct answer here, but effective altruism takes the side of the most pressing. It tells you to give where your money will save or enhance the most lives in the most beneficial way possible.
Peter Singer discusses the issues of effective altruism quite well (I’ll link the video). He outlines a perfect situation in which effective altruism can make your donations literally dozens of times more effective.
It costs $40 000 to train a guide dog and its blind future owner to use it. It also costs between $20 and $50 to cure the blindness caused by a disease that is prevalent in parts of Africa. With the exact same money, you could provide an aid to a single blind person, or totally cure 800 people or more. That’s something worth thinking about. He goes on to show us a picture of a man who anonymously donated a kidney to anyone who was in need of it. Apparently the man was slightly bummed when he calculated that he could have made the same impact by donating $5000 to the Against Malaria Fund.
It’s about finding the balance between out emotional response to situations which require our help, and our logical response. If we all suddenly invested effort and money in charities which had the highest effectiveness, we would essentially leave everybody else out. So where do we begin to implement such an objective, somewhat ‘soulless’ form of generosity?
Here’s his video:
- Effective altruism: Peter Singer at TED2013 (ted.com)
- Which stage of effectiveness matters most? (meteuphoric.wordpress.com)
- The why and how of effective altruism: Peter Singer’s talk visualized (donorworx.wordpress.com)