Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

How Much is Enough?

This article appeared in the Harvard Political Review on April 8, 2015.

This version includes footnotes and further links; for more commentary and quotes that didn't make it into the piece, see my post.

Suppose you want to do a little good in your local community, so you pay a few hundred dollars to order sharp new uniforms for the local Little League team. New uniforms, you figure, will boost their self-esteem, and lead others to think better of them, too!

A week later, you get a call from the coach. The team really appreciates your donation, she explains, and the uniforms were really great, but they had just received a donation of new jerseys the year before; what they really needed were new bats and balls to practice with—which they could have bought with a few hundred dollars. And as you hang up the phone, you ask yourself: "Have I done something wrong here?"

The team is not worse off than if you had made no donation at all, but they certainly could have been better off if you had taken the time to figure out what they needed most. Or maybe if you had done your research, you'd have realized that the team across town doesn't have any uniforms—or bats or balls—at all.

But: Have you done anything wrong?

"Effective altruism" is a social movement grounded in the idea that, when we aim to do good, we should consider who needs our help most—and what sort of help they need. Most recently, Eric Posner of Slate has opined against this idea on the grounds that children living in other countries are almost always more needy than First-World Little-Leaguers, and "[d]onating to Little League [should] not make you a moral monster." And while I agree with his quip, I think he's fundamentally misunderstood effective altruism, at least as it's practiced by the people I know.

Posner's critique comes in two parts. First, he's pessimistic that any altruism can be effective, concluding "The most good you can do may turn out to be—not much." He cites several studies critical of aid, and references a recent New York Times story about insecticide-treated bednets (intended to be hung over beds to deter malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and often touted as one of the most cost-effective public-health interventions) being misused as fishing nets, poisoning lakes and rivers.

But these failures of aid highlight the importance of institutions like GiveWell, whose rigorous research avoids Posner's pitfalls. Long before the Times broke their story about bednet misuse, GiveWell researchers investigated whether bednets were actually hung up properly 6, 15, and 24 months after distribution; in fact, one of the reasons GiveWell recommended the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) over other net distributors is that AMF relies on in-person, unannounced checks, instead of self-reported surveys to gauge net use.[1] (AMF, through malaria-education programs and these unannounced checks, achieves proper-usage rates of 80 to 90 percent, with misuse rates half those of other net distributors.)

Posner makes further arguments about the efficacy of aid that certainly merit empirical discussion, but in many ways, the more interesting critique in his piece is the moral one. To quote:

Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives[2] in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball?

This, of course, was the point of the story I began with, in which a person chooses to remove garbage from the pond rather than save the child. If we think that person is a monster, then we should regard nearly everyone as monsters. All of us who donate money to Little League baseball, environmental causes, schools, universities, and art museums are moral monsters because we don't use that money to provide live-saving health care to the poorest people in the world.

Posner disagrees, and is convinced that this tendency toward scrupulosity is enough of an issue that we should abandon the concept of effectiveness in altruism entirely. His critique, though, is not a new one—several effective altruists are also concerned about scrupulosity, and many of them have shared stories from their own lives about balancing giving effectively against more personal cares. For me, these stories are important because they demonstrate that caring about effective opportunities to do good is not mutually exclusive with making the world better in other ways you choose.

First, Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of GiveWell, writes:

[S]uch people fundamentally misunderstand effective altruism... [T]hey imagine that we have passions for particular causes, and are trying to submerge our passions in the service of rationality. That isn't the case. Rather, effective altruism is what we are passionate about. We're excited by the idea of making the most of our resources and helping others as much as possible...

[T]his doesn't mean I'm willing to give up everything else I value and enjoy for effective altruism—I'm not. But when I'm engaged in altruism-oriented activities, I want to be fully engaged.

"There's absolutely nothing unusual," he writes in the same essay, "about caring a great deal about such an interest; giving up some tangible things... and using intellectual reasoning in pursuing [it]."

Kaj Sotala, writing on the Effective Altruism Forum, a community blog, also sees the central message of effective altruism as one of opportunity, not of obligation:

Growing up... the message I got from society was: one person just can't do much. The problems in the world are huge and structural, and naive reformers will eventually just become disillusioned and burn out. We can try to make small efforts in our personal lives, but they're tiny and won't scale.

Effective altruism says that this doesn't need to be true! Yes, some of the problems are huge and structural, but that doesn't mean that individuals can't have a big impact. The average person working in an ordinary job can potentially save several lives a year, just by donating a measly 10% of her income! That would already be amazing by itself.

A year ago, I volunteered to co-coach an afterschool robotics club in an inner-city Boston middle school. It was an enormously rewarding experience—but at times, I did find myself asking whether I was really going to have any lasting impact on those eight students' lives. By contrast, when I decided to donate ten percent of my summer internship's salary to GiveWell's top recommended charities, I felt less of a warm glow, but was much more sure my choice had actually changed the lives of the people it touched.[3] And that, it seemed, was closer to the real point of altruism—after all, was I in this to help other people, or to make myself feel good?

Is there something wrong with donating uniforms instead of balls to the Little League, since you're more likely to feel a swell of pride when you see them take the field wearing the gift you gave them?

But, assuming you do have passions and connections in your local community, does effective altruism leave a way to balance the personal with the effective? Is there any time to, say, bake cookies for a friend, if that time could instead be spent in the office, earning money to donate to those in need? Are you morally monstrous for not abandoning your friends entirely for the more needy?

Leah Libresco, an effective altruist, blogger, and news writer for FiveThirtyEight, asks this very question, and explains where she finds her balance:

I also care about offering an icon of the world I want to build. On the day that malaria joins smallpox and rinderpest in the graveyard of eradicated diseases, I'll be happy, but not satisfied. I want people to have freedom from disease and crippling poverty so they have more freedom to live with and for others. I want to put some, but not all of my resources to building up the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy, but I want to reserve something to build up and live the kind of life I want people to have.

Elsewhere, Libresco says of her decision to donate to a friend's medical fundraiser:

I gave to their fundraiser and then matched the donation with one to Against Malaria—GiveWell's top ranked charity—so that the need of people I already know and care for can be a spur to give to people I don’t (and won't) know personally.

And most effective altruists, whom Posner would stereotype as sacrificing everything in life to blindly maximize their ability to donate, turn the same philosophy of balance to life's largest decisions as well. Julia Wise, an effective altruist blogger and social worker, describes her choice with her husband to have a child, even knowing that the expense would leave them less able to donate to the causes they support:

Immediately after we gave ourselves permission to be parents, I was excited about the future again... And I suspect that feeling of satisfaction with my own life lets me be more help to the world than I would have as a broken-down altruist.

So test your boundaries, and see what changes you can make that will help others without costing you too dearly. But when you find something is making you bitter, stop. Effective altruism is not about driving yourself to a breakdown. We don't need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can[, as in the traditional Quaker saying,] "walk cheerfully over the world", or at least do their damnedest.

Elsewhere, Wise explains how motherhood has given her new ways to think about caring for those whom she can help, and strengthened her commitment to effective altruism.

Effective altruism, for Karnofsky, Solata, Libresco, Wise, and for me, is an opportunity and a question (I can help! How and where am I needed?), not an obligation and an ideology (You're a monster unless you help this way!), and certainly does not demand that you sacrifice your own happiness to utilitarian ends. It doesn't ask anyone to 'give until it hurts'; an important piece of living to help others is setting aside enough money to live comfortably (and happily) first, and not feeling bad about living on that. Obviously, if you're aspiring to do good, you shouldn't throw your money away thoughtlessly (since $10 saved can buy bednets to protect a family of four), but every effective altruist I know does set aside some piece of their personal budget for no other purpose than keeping themselves—and those around them—happy. And since giving money away is one of the best ways to buy happiness, then yes—that includes donating to the Little League!

More on effective altruism:

Harvard Effective Altruism (HEA) is hosting Effective Altruism Week April 12-17, with speakers including Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder of GiveWell, and Peter Singer, as well as career advising events, and many more things yet to be announced.

For a more rigorous introduction to effective altruism, Ben Kuhn, former co-president of HEA, has compiled a list of "effective altruism reading for busy people". His 2013 editorial in the Harvard Crimson is also well worth a read.

Giving What We Can is "a global community of people committed to giving part of our income in the most effective way possible." Its members have pledged to give away ten percent of their life's earnings to effective charities.

GiveWell evaluates charities on a wide variety of quantitative and investigative metrics, and publishes a list of its top recommended charities. (Currently: the Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and Deworm the World.)

Peter Singer's newest book, The Most Good You Can Do further examines the idea of intentionally planning a life of effective altruism, and how ordinary people living ordinary lives can change the world.

For students without a lot of extra money at this point in their lives, Julia Wise has excellent advice about donating as a student on her blog.

  1. Independent studies have found that as many as one in six net recipients will lie on self-reported surveys about whether they're actually using nets as intended, making in-person checks an important tool in gauging actual net use rates. ↩︎

  2. Posner, here, is referencing outdated claims that $1,000 worth of distributed bednets (at $5/net) will, on average, save one life from malaria. GiveWell has since revised its estimates to $3,340 (as of 2015), though its researchers, and other effective altruists, tend to be wary of such reductive analysis. ↩︎

  3. As I've calculated elsewhere, the $350 of my donation that went to fighting schistosomiasis meant that approximately ten children who would have been infected and forced to drop out of school, instead were protected and attended for an extra four years each. Treating schistosomiasis, studies have shown, can give fifty students an extra year of school for the cost of providing a scholarship for just one. ↩︎