(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

PoliticsApril 8, 2019

In search of a way to do good that amounts to more than feeling good

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A new movement that quantitatively measures charitable causes is sweeping the world of philanthropy. But does Effective Altruism necessarily have better answers to the problems the world is facing? And can it bring people with it? Danyl Mclauchlan writes. 

In June of 2018 I went to a protest outside the US Embassy in Wellington. It was early evening, mid-winter, extremely cold. It was an anti-Trump event. Earlier that week US media reported on his administration’s family separation policy, in which the children of illegal migrants entering the US from Mexico were taken from their parents and placed in custody.

I hate protests and marches – I’m deeply introverted: being around large groups of yelling, chanting people makes me very uncomfortable – but the idea of the US government seizing children, locking them up and then losing them in the vastness of their corrections system was so enraging that when the protest was announced I felt I had to go.

It was a good turnout, but we learned on arrival that the embassy was undergoing massive refurbishment: the buildings were concrete shells floodlit orange by the mounted security lights, adjacent to shadowy mounds of dug up earth. We were protesting a construction site rather than a diplomatic post. But I ran into a friend in the crowd who was a media advisor. “It doesn’t matter if there’s no one in the embassy,” she assured me. “What matters is the symbolism and extent of the media coverage.” We looked around to see where the news crews were setting up, but there weren’t any.

“We don’t trust the mainstream media,” one of the organisers explained. So we all stood in the darkness in front of a hollowed out building, our breath misting, while different intellectuals and activists stood on the wall beside the gates and told us we could defeat Trump by overthrowing capitalism.

Most of the people I was with seemed happy with the event but I left early, feeling frustrated. Walking home it occurred to me that I’d felt this way before, many times over decades lurking on the periphery of protests and progressive political and activist groups. It was never clear to me whether anyone was doing anything useful or just pretending to do stuff to feel better about ourselves. How do you actually make the world a better place?

Back In 1972 the philosopher Peter Singer published an essay called Famine, Affluence and Morality. It made the following argument: you’re walking past a shallow pond while wearing an expensive suit, and you see a child drowning. Do you walk in and rescue the child, even though you’ll ruin your suit? Of course you do! But … do you? Singer argues that the residents of rich countries are faced with this decision every day and fail to act. There are children in the poorest regions in the world dying from lack of low-cost medical care and basic nutrition, and very few of us do anything about it, even though most of us can donate money to charities working in those countries and save many lives at little cost to ourselves. It shouldn’t matter, Singer argued, that the child is half a world away in, say, Bangladesh. The moral obligation is still the same.

Effective Altruism (henceforth EA) is a rapidly growing, sometimes highly controversial global movement that takes the moral logic behind Singer’s argument and interrogates it. Charity in the developing world is a lot more complicated than the pond argument suggests: international food aid can bankrupt local farmers; medicines can be traded for guns; humanitarian interventions in wars can prolong them, killing many more people than they save; the root causes of poverty are often political and most charities are ill-equipped to deal with them. Effective Altruists believe that they can make a difference. A huge difference. It’s just a lot harder than Singer makes it sound. Different strands of the movement reach different conclusions about the best way to live up to his moral logic: some of them are challenging, some profound, some potentially life-changing, some of them not so profound and challenging.

EA is not a charity although charity is a vital part of it; it’s not about global poverty although that is a huge component; Peter Singer is not the head of the movement, although Singer and the now deceased Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit are two of the key intellectual inspirations. Oxford is where it first gained momentum, growing from a debate among academic philosophers to a global phenomenon, hugely influential, often heavily criticised, whose centre of gravity is shifting – somewhat ominously – to the Bay Area in Northern California.

EA does not have a high profile in New Zealand but there are groups in most of our universities. I went along to the VUW launch last month. They debated whether we should consider the suffering of animals as morally equivalent to that of humans, and whether we should give future generations of humans the same moral weight as people currently alive. And there’s an EA New Zealand trust, which just received tax credit eligibility from parliament, so you can now get a rebate if you donate to one of the EA global health and poverty charities.

You probably already give money to a worthy cause or causes, possibly because a charity mugger – probably, let us be frank, a young, attractive and friendly one – cornered you on the street and signed you up to a magazine subscription while convincing you to fill out an automatic payment form. Why should you give money to an EA charity instead of whatever noble-sounding organisation the chugger fast-talked you into?

The Effective Altruists answer this question with a question: would you trust your retirement savings with a company endorsed by a charming stranger who stopped you on the street? Probably not. And yet, charitable work in the developing world is so much more difficult and complicated; so fraught with unforeseen consequences and a long history of deliberate exploitation, accidental blunders and outright fraud. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves: where is our donation really going? What’s it actually doing? Does it help anyone in need or is most of it paying for the charity’s offices, executive salaries, marketing campaigns and commissions? Or is it going to the developing world but actually making things there worse?

To illustrate this point the philosopher William MacKaskill – whose book Doing Good Better is a key text for the EA movement – tells the story of the Roundabout PlayPump. This was invented by a South African engineer who noticed that that women in poor rural villages across Africa spent a lot of time pumping water while kids in wealthier suburbs spent a lot of time playing on roundabouts. What if you combined the two? Kids in poor villages would have something to play on and women wouldn’t have to pump water all day. And you could sell advertising on the PlayPumps and this would provide a revenue stream for maintaining them. Everyone wins! The PlayPump became a cause celebre in the aid and development community, endorsed by Laura Bush, Bill Clinton, Jay-Z; they attracted millions in funding; thousands of them were installed across the poorest, most impoverished regions of Mozambique.

Which is a shame because the PlayPump turned out to be a truly terrible idea. Children play on roundabouts because they’re easy to spin: the PlayPump is very, very hard to spin because it’s, y’know, a water pump. Nobody played on them so the women in the villages still had to pump water themselves, but doing so using the PlayPump turned out to be much harder work than a regular pump, and it was also a basically humiliating device for grown-ups to use. They’re expensive. They break down all the time, and because they were deployed to some of the poorest people in the world no one wanted to purchase advertising space on them so there was no money for maintenance.

MacKaskill argues that the PlayPump is an unusually egregious example of a widespread, very widely observed phenomenon in aid and development, in which the emphasis is placed on validating the enthusiasms and emotional needs of wealthy, mostly white donors rather than the non-wealthy, non-white, inevitably powerless recipients. It’s about pretending to help rather than actually helping.

The reality of the Roundabout play pump didn’t remotely match the marketing images (Getty Images)

And there’s another problem: many people who become involved in development and other charitable work succumb to self-licensing. You already know what this is: self-licensing is when you tell yourself you’ll go for a run in the weekend so you deserve a chocolate bar at lunchtime. It’s a universal form of human behaviour (deliberately manipulated by marketing companies: the fast food industry, in particular, loves to sell us diet drinks so we can self-license and consume more high calorie fatty foods).

And it is so ubiquitous in charity, aid, NGOs, political organisations and other altruistic institutions that it has its own separate term: ‘the moral credential effect’: people with a track record of altruistic or charitable work grant themselves subconscious permission to act in deeply amoral, anti-social ways that undermine the very goals they’re ostensibly dedicated to. Whenever I describe moral credentialism to people involved in progressive causes or aid organisations they nod their heads vigorously: everyone knows someone sanctimonious yet deeply malevolent; just last month an independent investigation into two staff suicides at Amnesty International reported a deeply toxic culture of bullying, harassment, sexism and racism with a senior leadership team described as “out-of-touch, incompetent and callous”.

So when you set out to make the world a better place, the combination of unintended consequences and self-licensing opens up a scenario in which you make things worse for the people you’re trying to help while simultaneously becoming a worse person yourself. But, MacAskill hurries to point out, there is also a best-case scenario. Because people living in developed countries are so absurdly rich compared to the poorest people in the world (if you earn more than about NZ $45,000 a year you’re a member of the richest 1% in global terms: congratulations!) your charitable donations can have an enormous impact, directly saving many lives – if they’re targeted effectively.

How do you target your donation effectively? Research and empirical evidence, ideally from randomised controlled trials. On a practical level this means you give your money to an EA charity assessor to disperse on your behalf, or you donate to one of their designated charities. These are organisations you probably haven’t heard of: Against Malaria supplies insecticidal bed-nets to populations at high risk of malaria; Give Directly makes unconditional cash transfers to people living in extreme poverty in East Africa; the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative treats the parasitic worm infections which are endemic among the poorest one billion people in the world.

They don’t have the marketing campaigns, catchy gimmicks, celebrity endorsements or charity muggers of brand name charities, but they do satisfy the core criteria of Effective Altruism: they are large scale problems affecting the most vulnerable; they are solvable: the interventions are cheap and highly effective, with measurable metrics of success; and they are neglected: if they weren’t performing this work it probably wouldn’t be done by some other charity, nation-state or NGO. The largest EA charity assessor is GiveWell. They audit and monitor every charity they endorse, scrutinising their reports and the academic literature regarding the efficacy of their interventions; reallocating funds as new data comes in. In 2017 they allocated US $117 million.

How much should you give? That’s a very active topic of discussion: Singer argues that we have a moral obligation to give us much as we can because children are drowning in shallow pools, metaphorically, but also literally dying. Various EA organisations have tested the efficacy of Singer’s argument – because of course they have – and found it mostly makes people feel guilty and depressed rather than calling them to action, so the contemporary message is a lot more positive. Some EAs claim you should aim for 10% of your income, a number deliberately chosen because it resonates with religious norms around tithing, but anything is better than nothing. Try to give a little more every year.

Catherine Low is the spokesperson for Effective Altruism New Zealand (Youtube)

Catherine Low is the spokesperson for Effective Altruism New Zealand. She is in her late 30s, cheerful and clever and friendly and – how does one put this diplomatically – very nerdy. She worked as a particle physicist then a science teacher, which is a fairly typical EA background. Computer scientists, mathematicians and economists are common. Low attributes this to a founders effect: the people who started EA come from science and analytic philosophy backgrounds, so it attracts people who understand the power of quantification, the problems of uncertainty; cost-benefit analysis; systemic thinking. At the VUW launch evening people talked about Bayesian priors and Parfit’s Mere Addition paradox the way most New Zealanders talk about sports and house prices.

Low spent the last few months in the UK working for Effective Altruist organisations and spoke wistfully about the dynamism of the movement in London. “Every night you can go to a talk about a different cause area. Global poverty. Animal welfare. X-risk.”

Cause areas are the forms of altruism the members of the movement self-organise into, depending on what they think is important. Global poverty and health are the primary focus, but animal welfare is another huge area of interest. (Another founder effect: Singer, in 1975 published Animal Liberation, which is a foundational text for the modern animal rights movement.) Their logic is: ‘Why privilege human suffering over other forms of suffering?’ About 60 billion animals are killed every year by the food industry and most of them lead short lives of excruciating suffering. Maybe the best way to make the world a better place is to improve the conditions in factory farms, or try to get rid of them all together? Convincing people to become vegan seems to have near-zero efficacy, so much of the work in this space focuses on improving regulation and conditions of farmed animals and developing palatable plant-based meat alternatives.

The third main cause area is existential risk, or x-risk. Why privilege the lives of people – or animals – who are living today? Shouldn’t we be doing more for future generations who have no agency because they haven’t been born yet, but who will live with the consequences of our decisions? Climate change is an obvious area of concern here and there are EA climate charities which figure out the maximally optimal way to offset your carbon emissions. Others focus on AI risk; nuclear weapons; avoiding pandemics. (All of these subjects are great ways to terrify yourself by diving deep into the EA literature: the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence is the most popular doomsday text on the looming threat of Artificial Intelligence.)

The focus on the future probably reflects EAs status as a very young organisation. A 2018 global survey of the organisation found that the median age was 28. Many of the members I met were undergraduates. One of Macaskill’s foundations, 80,000 Hours (we all spend an average of 80,000 hours working during our lifetimes) is designed to help them figure out what to do with their careers in order to maximise the amount of good they achieve. ‘Earning to give’ is one approach: maybe you should become a software developer or lawyer and donate everything you earn over some minimal amount to GiveWell?

This results in some surprisingly counter-intuitive conclusions. You’d think a doctor doing aid work in the developing world would accomplish an awful lot of good, but 80,000 Hours argues a doctor is far more effective earning a high salary in the developed world and donating most of it. Somewhat controversially, 80,000 Hours often advises young EAs to go into policy work and the public service. Which makes sense: governments have big budgets: if you can reallocate even a tiny proportion of it effectively you’ll have a huge impact, but given the movement’s disproportionate presence at elite universities, this approach has a distinct ‘long march through the institutions’ vibe to it. Although it is heartwarming to see so many young people stepping up to fix the world the millennials have ruined.

Effective Altruism has many critics. The EAs are a little bewildered by the vehemence behind some them. They’re just trying to help factory chickens and fund UBIs in sub-Saharan Africa. Why is everyone hating on them?

Partly it’s the philosophy that underpins the movement. Utilitarianism can sound convincing, but if you think through the arguments you quickly end up with a morality which seems very weird and inhuman. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah goes back to Singer’s child-drowning-in-a-pond scenario: shouldn’t a real Effective Altruist just leave the child to drown, sell their un-muddied suit and then donate the money to an EA charity that saves a greater number of children? Well? The literature of 20th century moral philosophy is rich with thought experiments revealing flaws and loopholes in utilitarianism: utility monsters; repugnant conclusions, trolley problems; and unfortunately it’s not also rich with alternate systems that solve any of those problems.

Another popular critique: does it all have to be so … bloodless? Is the best way to do good in the world really to set up an automatic payment for a charity assessor? Isn’t there more to altruism than cost benefit analysis and statistical modelling? Shouldn’t it all feel a lot more meaningful? It’s a question that comes up in New Yorker journalist Larissa MacFarquhar’s book Strangers Drowning, another canonical EA text (and my favourite of all the books cited in this piece). The utilitarian answer is that if an organisation is simultaneously helping those in need and validating the emotional needs of the donors, it’s probably only doing one of those things well, and it’s probably the second. If you want to help, make sure your help is effective. If you want to feel good about yourself clean up a beach, or give blood (some EAs prefer to donate kidneys to strangers).

Politically most EAers self-identify as ‘left’ or ‘centre-left’, but the movement is unpopular with the radical left because it isn’t working towards systemic change – ie overthrowing capitalism. “Shouldn’t we ask why children are drowning in ponds and do something about that?” When I asked Catherine Low why EA didn’t believe in systemic change she sighed in exasperation and said the animal welfare people want to transform the entire global food industry.

This is part of a broader category of criticisms which all argue that the movement should be something different to what it is: it should get involved in the electoral politics of developed nations or be more active in certain areas. I wanted to know why they weren’t doing more about climate change. The EA response to these critiques is to ask if these areas are neglected and/or tractable. Is there a demonstrably effective yet widely neglected solution to the problems of capitalism or carbon emissions or electoral politics? If so, let’s hear it. If not, about half a million people died of malaria last year, and bed nets work and are really cheap.

The final critique – the one that worries me the most: EA is very, very popular in Silicon Valley. GiveWell and 80,000 Hours have relocated there, and the 2017 global EA conference was held at the Googleplex. I’m sure that all makes sense in the immediate term: there’s a lot of money and smart people in Palo Alto. But – and I don’t want to editorialise here and compromise my objectivity – some people say that the culture and values of Silicon Valley increasingly seem to revolve around doing evil, both advertently and inadvertently, and this seems incompatible with the goals of a social movement dedicated to maximising good.

The New Zealand organisation is a very long way from all of this though. It is new and small. Their website is here. You can donate to a GiveWell endorsed charity and receive a tax deduction (although maybe you shouldn’t, since tax is also a form of altruism). They’ll send you a copy of MacKaskill’s book, subject to availability. And if you want to go along to one of their meetups and debate whether we need to solve the hard problem of consciousness before having a meaningful debate about animal welfare you can do that, but you don’t have to: they’re happy if you just donate money. It’s more effective.

Keep going!