Effective Altruism...or wishful thinking?

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife last week penned an open letter to their newborn daughter in which they pledged to donate 99% of their Facebook shares to charity throughout their lifetime.  That amounts to (as of now) a staggering commitment of $45 billion.

As discussed in the New York Times, Some are hailing this donation as signature example of what is known as “effective altruism.”  Advocates of this approach to giving, including economist Peter Singer from Princeton University and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, contend that if we simply set aside our emotions and thought more scientifically, that we change the way we give. Logically, it appears to make no sense to give to the Make-a-Wish Foundation or volunteer for a small local food pantry when those same resources could help countless more people in underdeveloped regions of the world.

Some even contend that rather than working for non-profits, intelligent people with big hearts should instead secure lucrative jobs that will enable them to give more money to impactful causes.

Although it is a valid philosophical argument, and one rooted in good intentions, it also is one that is riddled with fallacies:

  • Effective altruism rests on an assumption that the primary goal of givers is to change the world for as many people as possible.  This is a dubious assumption.  I suspect a lot of people give as a way of saying thank you to an organization that has done meaningful work or as a way to honor a close friend or relative.  Think of the parent of a child with cancer who donates to Make-a-Wish or the adult child who donates to the American Heart Association in memory of a parent who died of heart disease.
  • Many (if not most) charitable organizations, especially at a local level, rely on volunteer time and money for their existence.  Let’s say all of that time and money completely dried up.  And let’s say, as a result, that 50% of all charitable organizations closed their doors, which seems like a conservative estimate. What would be the unintended consequences for society?
  •  How far do you take this theory? One way that we give, if we want to interpret that term broadly, is by giving birthday gifts to our children.  Instead of buying those gifts (which benefit only one person) would the supporters of effective altruism argue that we should instead spend that money more “logically” so that it can impact more people? 
  • As pointed out in the NY Times article, people tend to give repeatedly when they see the impact of their donations.  By giving more “logically” do you surrender the chance to see that impact and reduce your likelihood of donating in the future?
  • It is sort of an ancillary point, but in the Zuckerbergs’ letter, they use words like “hope,” “moral responsibility,” and “suffering” and conclude with their desire to make the world a better place for their daughter so that she can live “a life filled with the same love, hope and joy that you have given us.”  Do these sound like people who have set their emotions aside?

A feather and bowling ball fall at the same rate when dropped inside a vacuum. Effective altruism is the feather in the vacuum.  It is a thought-provoking idea, but it also is divorced from the real world, where our minds are inevitably buffeted by multiple forces, and where our emotions and our decisions are always closely linked. What nature has joined together no economist can put asunder. 

Although there is surely room for forms of effective altruism in charitable giving, it doesn’t render all other forms of giving inefficient or senseless. The world where Spockish automatons make decisions in logical vacuums is not the world in which we reside, nor one in which we ever can reside.