Effective altruism reading material for busy people is a useful link-list for people who’d like a quick guide to the Effective Altruism (also called EA) movement.
Here’s a quote from an EA primer by Scott Siskind, which is included in the link-list:
But they are decidedly not natural when facing a decision about charitable giving. Most donors say they want to “help people”. If that’s true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don’t. In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of ÂŁ550,000 to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that ÂŁ550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity..
Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people’s lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.
If you are to “love your neighbor as yourself”, then you should be as careful in maximizing the benefit to others when donating to charity as you would be in maximizing the benefit to yourself when choosing purchases for a polar trek.
This is the sort of thing I find tremendously alienating, because it sets up supporting the arts, or supporting historic artifacts, as a bad thing. This is pretty common among EA rhetoric, I suspect because many EA people genuinely don’t care about art – especially “high” art – and think that people who do care are just preening for attention.
It’s true, of course, that money is fungible and therefore ten bucks donated to preserve a painting could instead have been used to protect three to six people from malaria for six years. But the same could also be said about the money spent on a video game, or on internet access, or on taking a trip, or eating out with friends, or on going to a movie, or anything else that EA folks might like doing. There isn’t an either-or choice between giving to help the needy and supporting the arts, any more than there’s an either-or choice between giving to help the needy and occasionally going out to a movie. Most people in a position to give to charity, can do both.
Unless the expectation is that 100% of every person’s money beyond the bare minimum needed for survival must be spent on saving lives, it seems weird that EA people often pick on the arts in particular. To be honest, this is the sort of thing that made me go “fuck EA!” when I first heard about it.
Nonetheless, I do like giving money to help people in need. And, given that this is one of my goals, I definitely want to give that money in a way that will be the most helpful possible. I think EA’s evidence-based approach is great, and I’m glad sites like The Life You Can Save and Givewell exist and can help me make decisions.
I don’t think I’d like it if EA guided everyone’s donations to charity. I don’t feel certain that the metrics they use are necessarily correct. Evidence-based is good, but sometimes evidence-based thinking is vulnerable to the streetlight effect. A scattershot approach, in which people use a zillion different approaches to deciding what charities to give to, is less vulnerable to the streetlight effect than a focused approach.
But in the real world, not everyone uses EA’s approach, and it’s not realistic to worry that everyone will. And so I find EA a useful and positive movement. And I do think that it’s a good idea for a large number of people (but short of everyone) to give to charity based on where their money can do the most good for the greatest number of people.
Anyway, as it happens, I’ve been put in charge of giving away $5000 to the charities of my choice. I was thinking of using The Life You Can Save’s Best Charities to Donate to page as a guide, probably giving the largest amounts to Against Malaria and to The Fistula Foundation, and smaller amounts to some other charities there. But I’d be interested in anyone’s else’s thoughts or suggestions.