What’s not to like about Effective Altruism?

To borrow an overused word from Silicon Valley, Effective Altruism threatens to disrupt conventional philanthropy. Effective altruists, who aim to do the most good they can with their time and money, rely on reason and evidence to decide where to donate. If enough people join their movement–and yes, it is a movement–more charity dollars will flow to nonprofits that demonstrably do the most good. Many big, well-known and worthwhile nonprofits–museums and symphonies, well-endowed universities, humanitarian groups that appeal to the heart– will suffer.

Consider the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The foundation raised just under $300 million in FY2014, from individuals and corporations, including Disney, Macy’s, Subaru, Maggiano’s and major airlines, each of whom who gave at least $1 million. Donors tell heartwarming stories like this one about Olivia, a 14-year-old-girl with a brain tumor who wished to be a pop star and, thanks to Macy’s, enjoyed a VIP limousine ride, a makeover, a photo shoot, and a session in a recording studio.

This kind of thing doesn’t come cheap. Here’s what Peter Singer, the intellectual father of Effective Altruism, had to say about Make-A-Wish in a Boston Review forum on the logic of effective altruism:

In 2013, as the Christmas giving season approached, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco to watch a five-year-old boy dressed as “Batkid” ride around the city in a Batmobile with an actor dressed as Batman by his side. The pair rescued a damsel in distress and captured the Riddler, for which they received the key of “Gotham City” from the mayor — not an actor, he really was the mayor of San Francisco. The boy, Miles Scott, had been through three years of chemotherapy for leukemia, and when asked for his greatest wish, he replied, “To be Batkid.” The Make-A-Wish Foundation had made his wish come true.
Does that give you a warm glow? It gives me one, even though I know there is another side to this feel-good story. Make-A-Wish would not say how much it cost to fulfill Scott’s wish, but it did say that the average cost of making a child’s wish come true is $7,500. Effective altruists would, like anyone else, feel emotionally drawn toward making the wishes of sick children come true, but they would also know that $7,500 could, by protecting families from malaria, save the lives of at least three children and maybe many more. Saving a child’s life has to be better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid. If Scott’s parents had been offered that choice — Batkid for a day or a complete cure for their son’s leukemia — they surely would have chosen the cure. When more than one child’s life can be saved, the choice is even clearer. Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish, when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions? The answer lies in part in the emotional pull of knowing that you are helping this child, one whose face you can see on television, rather than the unknown and unknowable children who would have died from malaria if your donation had not provided the nets under which they sleep. It also lies in part in the fact that Make-A-Wish appeals to Americans, and Scott is an American child.
Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do. [emphasis added]

Powerful stuff, no? This is why, since starting Nonprofit Chronicles, I’ve written about groups like GiveWell, GiveDirectly and The Life You Can Save (here, here and here) that are guided by Effective Altruism. The principles of Effective Altruism have shaped much of my writing about foundations and nonprofits.

But the movement has issues. The Boston Review (where Joshua Cohen, my college roommate from long ago, is co-editor) invited critics of Effective Altruism to respond to an introductory essay by Singer. The respondents made some telling points, and I followed up by phone with two of them, Rob Reich and Jennifer Rubenstein.

Reich, a Stanford professor who is on the board of GiveWell, says there’s much to admire about Effective Altruism. Referring to GiveWell, Reich said: “They do the best job of evaluating, in a very rigorous way, the highly effective charities that are aiming to reduce human suffering.” Besides that, Singer and his followers have joined and amplified a much-needed conversation about the effectiveness of foundations and nonprofits. Said Reich: “Philanthropists, especially big philanthropists, don’t get much scrutiny.”

But Reich writes in the Boston Review that that “effective altruists are unabashed technocrats,” and he doesn’t mean that as a compliment:

Would effective altruists attach any independent value to democracy? Given the chance to craft social and political arrangements from scratch, would effective altruists select democratic rather than technocratic rule? I suspect the answer is no.

Extreme poverty isn’t a matter of “random, arbitrary circumstances,” Reich told me. It has political root causes that are mostly ignored, for the moment, by Effective Altruists, who overlook one of the lessons of history, “that humans want to feel agency in organizing their own lives.”

Who started the fire?

Jennifer Rubenstein teaches at the University of Virginia and is the author of Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs. With its reliance upon empirical information, she writes, Effective Altruism is “far superior to charity appeals based on identifiable victims, charismatic megafauna (e.g., polar bears), charismatic mega-stars (e.g. Bono), oversimplified villains (e.g., Joseph Kony), and dramatic images of disaster.”

But, like Reich, Rubenstein worries that Effective Altruism is undemocratic. It is

a social movement focused on alleviating poverty that excludes poor people from its ranks. This movement therefore violates the democratic principle of inclusion, summarized in a slogan used for decades by social movements from Poland to South Africa: “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
…By excluding poor people and encouraging a savior complex and insularity among its members, the effective altruism movement fails to meet normative criteria of democracy and equality.

Singer, she notes, uses the metaphor of a burning building to persuade people that they have a moral obligation to rush in to save those inside. That perpetuates the idea that poor people are passive, awaiting rescue by enlightened westerners, and it ignores the question of who set the building on fire.

There’s much more in the forum. New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar calls Effective Altruism “the drone program of altruism,” for reasons she explains here. Noting that Effective Altruists disdain philanthropists who pour millions into the arts, Paul Brest, the former president of the Hewlett Foundation, wonders “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.”

My takeaway? Effective Altruism delivers a stinging and valuable critique of traditional philanthropy. More people should pay heed to its message. Would I want to live in a world run by Peter Singer and his allies? About that, I’m not so sure.


Originally published at nonprofitchronicles.com on July 11, 2015.