Can Effective Altruism Truly Work?

If I told you about a $60 million project aimed at providing water pumps for villages in Africa to 10 million people backed by the US government and various celebrities, you would probably think it’s a sound idea. The way the project actually works, is that the pump is connected to a merry-go-round and as children play on the apparatus, the energy is used to power the pump. It sounds like a great idea, which is why in 2006 this very project was put into place. However, it turned out to be a complete disaster. After some number crunching, it was calculated that children would have to be playing on the roundabout non-stop for 27 hours each day to reach the water production targets set by the initiative. Moreover, simply investing the money into regular water pumps would have been far less expensive and more efficient. As a different water NGO put it; “their marketing is perfect, but the final idea does not work.”

The takeaway here is not about water pumps, or even water aid in general. This is but one of hundreds of examples of heart over head charity. In a world which is inundated with people who need help, it is becoming increasingly hard to know how and where we should give our time and money. Indeed, I would argue that we all experience “charity fatigue”; with so many causes available, it becomes increasingly difficult for an individual charity to stand out. Consequently, charities turn to shock advertising to draw our attention – think of heart-breaking pictures of starving children. By using this visceral imagery, the charities are appealing directly to your heart, to your emotions. They are not asking you to think about the cause, but to believe in it; two very different propositions.

Ultimately, giving any sort of charity is better than giving none at all. However, for those looking for a more critical and rational approach to charity, I would highly suggest examining effective altruism. Simply put, effective altruism is a quasi-utilitarian form of charity. It aims to do the most good possible with the resources available. As Peter Singer, one of the gurus of the theory, puts it;

“It’s important because it combines both the heart and the head. The heart, of course, you feel… But it’s really important to use the head as well to make sure that what you do is effective and well-directed.”

Here is an example that Singer gives, that I think concisely explains how one would practically apply the theory. In this instance, he talks about service dogs for blind people, a cause which most definitely fits the criteria of ‘pulling at the heartstrings.’ It costs about $40,000 in the US to train a guide dog and to train the recipient so that the guide dog can be of effective help to the blind person. It costs somewhere between $20 and $50 to cure a blind person in a developing country, if they have trachoma. After doing the maths, it works out that you could provide one guide dog for one blind American, or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness. He finishes by stating that he thinks it’s perfectly clear what the better thing to do is.

I find his argument truly compelling, and in recent years it has become increasingly relevant in my own personal life. After completing various volunteer roles, I became fully aware of the importance and necessity of critically examining and evaluating our altruistic efforts. Indeed, volunteering serves as a very good example of ineffective altruism. International volunteers are usually low-skilled, studying or recently graduated young people from affluent countries. Often, they come for short periods of time, do not speak the local language, and do not have expertise in the field of work that they are helping in. A particular issue in South America and other developing parts of the world, these volunteers are frequently assumed to have more knowledge and relevant skills, purely because they come from more developed countries. Add into the mix the issues of voluntourism, and what you are left with is a situation where volunteers do not benefit, or even harm the local community. We all love the idea of helping other people, but unfortunately it is not so simple.

The economics of volunteering are unconvincing at best, and I am going to use myself as an example to demonstrate it. A bit of background first; I spent five months volunteering in an NGO in a very small town near Cusco, Peru. The NGO works with disabled and disadvantaged children, and my work specifically consisted of helping out at a school for disabled children and also a care home for children who cannot live with their parents. I speak Spanish and have relevant work experience with children, so I, at least, was able to offset some of the issues that I mentioned earlier. However, a deeper look at the money is where problems start to arise.

The cost of return flights = £600

Accommodation costs for 5 months= £1,600

Living costs = £40/week x 20 = £800

Total = £3000

Now, even without taking into account my various trips to other South American countries whilst I was there, and any other additional costs, we are looking at a value of at least £3,000. When people ask me about the experience, I always say that it is one of the best things I have done in my life, and I felt that I made a real positive impact on the people I worked with. But asking about my experience is not the question that should be asked. As an effective altruist, the real question is, was the help I gave worth what a £3,000 investment could have done in my local area? In my mind, the answer is clearly no.

Herein lies one of the main problems with effective altruism. Altruism is, inevitably, emotional and personal. It is very hard to simply give without caring at all. A consequence of this is that we, the giver, also gain something through the act of giving. I would argue, therefore, that it is impossible to be altruistic in a purely selfless way. Whether personal gain is your primary aim or not, some part of giving away your time or your money positively benefits yourself. And here it gets complicated. How can we possibly be effective altruists, if we are at the same time, emotional altruists? How is it possible to analyse and calculate the best possible use of your money, without letting your subconscious emotions affect this decision? Peter Singer does come up with an answer for this:

“Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. Effective altruists directly benefit others, but indirectly they often benefit themselves. If doing the most you can for others means that you are also flourishing, then that is the best possible outcome for everyone.”

I do not disagree with him, but like most things, this is far simpler in theory than in practice. It is near-impossible to act without any self-interest, and the line between benefiting ourselves and benefiting other people is very thin. Once the giver starts to achieve their own goals through giving to charity, then it is hard for the process to not become emotional rather than rational. Moreover, it is human nature to generally favour ourselves and people similar to us, instead of others who may need and deserve the help more. It is easier to relate to somebody with whom we share common traits or experiences; another potential pitfall of where our emotions interfere with the aim of being rational and critical.

The theory also suffers from the same critiques that utilitarianism faces. Strictly adhering to benefitting the greatest number of people, instead of individual cases, can lead to some particularly troubling moral decisions. A good example of this was given in the Guardian; “would you really save a large bag of cash from a burning building rather than your neighbour’s terrified child, even if you could donate that cash and save the lives of a thousand strangers?” It’s good food for thought.

Even with these two valid criticisms, I am still a firm believer in effective altruism. Perhaps its applications are limited in practice, and not everyone has the luxury of being able to take the time or have the money, to give to charity in such a specific way. Yet, I believe that many people would greatly benefit by at least being aware of the theory and taking inspiration from it. The more rational and critical we can be, the better equipped we are to make informed, successful and effective altruistic decisions.

An image that helps visualise the theory of effective altruism -> https://blog.ted.com/why-how-effective-altruism-peter-singer-visualized/ (Blog)


Daniel Harris

A rationalist and existentialist Spanish and Portuguese student at the University of Bristol. Film, music and travel are my main areas of interest.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.