Choosing charities.

Another day, another opportunity for the core message of the Effective Altruism movement to seep through from the philosophical community to the public, this time in the shape of a Peter Singer column in the NYT:

“Effective altruism,” as this evidence-based approach to charity is known, is an emerging international movement. Not content with merely making the world a better place, its adherents want to use their talents and resources to make the biggest possible positive difference to the world. Thinking about which fields offer the most positive impact for your time and money is still in its infancy, but with more effective altruists researching the issues, we are starting to see real progress.

In the article, Singer makes the case for why charitable donations which go towards curing blindness are better than those funding art museums in the affluent West. It may seem to some, including myself, like there’s barely a case that needs to be made here. Any moral theory which prioritises creating further higher pleasures for those with already worthwhile lives at the cost of not relieving real, unfathomable pain for others is not going to be worth our time. And yet, the Rockefeller Philanthrophy Advisors service which Singer flags is a good reflection of how sadly alien this logic is outside of academic circles. Here’s Singer again:

Its Web site offers a downloadable pamphlet with a chart showing areas to which a philanthropist might give: health and safety; education; arts, culture and heritage; human and civil rights; economic security; and environment. The Web site then asks, “What is the most urgent issue?” and answers by saying, “There’s obviously no objective answer to that question.”

There is, of course, a general sense of social awkwardness created when a family member asks you to sponsor them, if they’re raising money for a charity you have no way of discerning the efficacy of, and when you know it’s highly likely the money can be better spent elsewhere. But why would a professional philanthropic advice service bow to these pressures and pretend we can’t categorically value, say, deworming children to protect their intestines from parasites over paying to preserve a Cezanne painting for public viewing? It’s simply beyond me. Trying to create the greatest benefits possible through one’s donations shouldn’t be a controversial matter. The extreme suffering of millions must come first.

The letters that the NYT published today, however, are a further reminder of why the Effective Altruism movement still has much persuading to do. The first seems likely to be an especially common reaction:

Peter Singer writes that when it comes to charity and philanthropy, a dollar spent on preventing blindness in developing countries is “a better value” than a dollar spent on a new wing at a local art museum. His reasoning is that not going blind is far more important to us than having a better art museum.

The logical implication is that we are ethically obligated to spend whatever we have to give on charities that produce the greatest world benefit per dollar, a formula where “arts, culture and heritage” will almost always lose out to “health and security.”

This is not a plausible contention. Are we ethically prohibited from enhancing our communities by giving to the cultural, educational, spiritual or recreational institutions that mean the most to us so long as more urgent problems exist anywhere in the world? To state the proposition is to refute it.

For that matter, are we ethically prohibited from spending money for the benefit of ourselves and our families beyond bare necessities so long as those same problems persist? Of course not. A spirit of empathy and charity is ethically required. Perfect altruism — where every act and omission is calculated to produce the greatest good for the greatest number — is not.

Unless Mr. Singer lives in a shack, subsisting on gruel, water, a typewriter and one kidney, I’m sure he agrees. Meanwhile, if Mr. Singer wishes to impress upon the fortunate a duty to train their philanthropic eye on world poverty and disease, I don’t think his worthy cause is well served by suggesting that local cultural giving is a relative waste.

I’m mainly inclined to take this as a sign of how belittling the privileged can be of the severity of world poverty. If we were forced to visually face the extent to which the rest of the world suffers on a daily basis – perhaps we drove by and witnessed their plight on the way to work every morning – perhaps then we would all acknowledge that there is something sickening and guilt-worthy about the way we indulge ourselves daily with superfluous goods. The writer takes the logical implications he outlines to be absurd, but they seem to me roughly right. We should do all we can to solve the world’s most pressing moral problems. We will inevitably fall short and fail as individuals, but this is no argument against the imperative existing. Again, how in the name of morality can you justify anything less?

One alleged implication that we know by now is clearly wrong, though, is the claim that to be consistent Singer must live in a shack. It’s obvious that he can do far more to alleviate global poverty by using his celebrity and earning well, rather than becoming an impoverished monk.


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