My Concerns about Effective Altruism

How a focus on easily measured success may miss the point

In 2015 I co-founded a nonprofit to combat food insecurity. Since then we’ve grown into a full 501c 3, we’ve fed a lot of food insecure people within our community, and we’ve figured out ways to sustainably build food pharmacies and food cooperatives. We have supported the health of thousands of members and we’ve saved them thousands of dollars.

Yet…one article by the effective altruism organization givewell has made me not only reconsider the entire mission of organization, but also whether we have really accomplished anything.

For those unfamiliar with effective altruism, it is a philosophical approach to philanthropy that emphasizes the critical examination of the impacts of charities. Effective altruism based organizations have created a full-on attack on many of our assumptions about doing good. They’ve shown us that many of our charities are ineffective, and they’ve pushed many people to redirect their giving towards the most effective NGOs in the developed world.

The basic idea of effective altruism is very easy. If you wanted to do the most good with $1,000,000 what would you do and how would you determine how good your donations were? Their methodology is conceptually straightforward, you should look to support charities that save the greatest number of lives for the money you’ve donated.

It’d be difficult to argue that donating $1,000,000 to save one life is better than donating $1,000,000 to save a thousand lives. But in many cases that is exactly the type of choice we are given when deciding how to both spend money on charity and spend our time on the charities we build and advocate for.

In almost every circumstance in the United States, your money can arguably be better spent to save many more lives in developing countries rather than supporting charities within your own community. They don’t make that argument to trivialize the suffering of the impoverished within the United States, they make that argument because by almost every metric the most impoverished people in the US are still considerably better off than billions of the most impoverished people in the developing world.

For the most part, I’m convinced. If massive amounts of people seriously took the advice of effective altruism, I have absolutely no doubt that the world would be a better place. But, on the margins, I have some concerns.

Bias to the measurable

By focusing so much on easily measurable markers of success, it seems reasonable that the effective altruism movement can be biased in their evaluation of nonprofits that have easily measurable markers of effectiveness. I’m sure many people may think that this is not an issue. It may actually just be a strength of the approach.

I’m on the line about this. On one hand, I think it’s very important to push nonprofits to be able to justify their existence, but it also seems like there could be many nonprofits that do a lot of good which would be neglected if they didn’t have easily measurable outcomes.

I think this is perhaps most clear with education projects. Our current standard for success in education is the test score, but as every former student knows test scores can often be very detached from what is really important about education. Education seems to be partly about building community and teaching social skills which are both extremely difficult to measure.

To the effective altruist, many important charities without easy markers of success aren’t accomplishing anything.

Confusion about the purpose of nonprofits

As frustrating as this question may seem to some people, it’s worth thinking hard about what a non-profit is actually supposed to do. What is a good non-profit?

A sort of naive interpretation of effective altruism would make us think that nonprofits are just about doing the most measurable good in the world. Feeding the most people, saving the most lives, meeting needs not met by governments.

It’s a big difficult question, I won’t pretend to be entirely rigorous in how I make sense of this. But I think that we can justify charitable work by seeing nonprofits as a big and necessary part of living within a community.

An example would be Putnam’s description of charitable clubs in Bowling Alone. In an older America, people involved themselves in much more charitable work in their community. Men’s groups like The Moose Club many different ethnic groups were extremely popular in early 20th century America. Church attendance was also very high and created a massive source of charitable support.

These groups were important to their communities because they helped make up for what wasn’t being met by local governments. But maybe even more importantly, they served as essential social institutions that gave people a sense of place. They provided immense social support that built a backbone for the prosperity of these communities.

The trouble is that these nonprofit groups had outcomes that are hard to measure. On top of that the justification for the existence of these groups was based not only on the direct consequences of their action, but also on the fact that they were essential social institutions within their respective towns.

A lot of Charity within the US still looks this way. We have so many different examples of small local charities that operate partly as social clubs within US communities. They aren’t the most effective charities in the sense that EA cares about, but they are important to the structure of their community. Supporting these philanthropies isn’t about necessary doing the most good, it’s about investing in your community.

Effective Altruism’s consequentialist philosophical roots sometimes have a difficult time making sense of this type of issue: is it morally permissible to prefer those close to us — our families, our friends, our direct community — over those in more need who are far away from us. I won’t pretend to have an answer to that, but at least intuitively I think that effective altruism may be too hard on us for wanting to support what is close to home.

Math Teacher writing on Philosophy and Policy and Science and Education and Other Things.

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