Winning at Charity

This is the first of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.


Effective altruism is a new idea that’s bringing about a revolution in charitable giving. This post is about why that’s a good idea—starting from the beginning.

The practice of charity is older than dirt; humans are social animals, and there have always been times when individual humans acted for the benefit of others. This behavior might have evolved so that we’d help our biological relatives, or so that those who might someday be able to help us in turn—but the human tendency towards altruism has long been broader than that. Even ancient religions codified the practice of alms-giving, showing that they valued helping the less fortunate for the sake of doing so.

This is how charity began—within the community. But over time, the world has become more interconnected. For an early human, the entire world was only about 150 people, but those hunter-gatherer bands gave way to larger villages, which gave way to cities. The spread of commerce brought distant corners of a civilization closer together. The printing press enabled the widespread dissemination of information, and the carrack opened the Age of Sail and closed the distance between the continents. Today’s transportation and communications technology has brought your community of 150 people up to seven billion and counting.

Seven billion—and all with their own needs and desires, coming from all different cultures and economic situations, and frustrated by myriad individual and social ills. In response to their needs, a dizzying array of charitable causes has arisen: from the classic assistance to the local poor, to aiding victims of war and famine and pestilence, to scientific research and the arts, and countless others besides.

That basic social instinct is still there; most of us want to do our part to help. But you can’t help them all. Your resources, your time and money, are limited. How do you choose where best to direct them?

The traditional answer was to help those in your community—because traditionally, that was all there was. In a more interconnected world like ours, you wouldn’t necessarily choose a cause that was geographically close to you (though you might well do that), but you’d likely choose one that you were somehow connected to. After all, what else would you do?

Perhaps, at some point in past centuries, as the world was growing more interconnected, some bright forward-looking soul might have wondered if this was the best we could do. Might it be possible to go beyond simply giving time or money to some cause or another? Might it be possible to sift through all the causes and charities, compare them, and find the ones which offer us the opportunity to do the most good with our limited resources? Might it be possible, in short, to start playing to win in the game of charity?

After all, surely some charitable opportunities are better than others. And some philosophers, such as the founders of utilitarianism, had started to think thoughts in this direction—that one should aim to do the greatest good for the greatest number, as that philosophy is commonly summarized. But for most of human history, the answer to these questions was no.

Because good intentions aren’t good enough, if you want to be truly effective, and not just able to say that you did your part. You need an understanding of those individual and social ills that prevent human flourishing, an understanding that can only come from science—both natural science, and social sciences like economic and political theory (to account for the roles of markets and governments in people’s lives). You need sophisticated statistical methods, in order to measure and quantify the impact that charities have, and compare them side by side. And you need that transportation and communications technology, to actually reach the people you’re trying to help, and to coordinate enough people from all over the world to start making a difference.

For most of human history, we didn’t have that stuff. But now isn’t most of human history.

In the early 21st century, some bright forward-looking souls—a mixture of financiers, philosophers, technologists, and social theorists—asked themselves if it might be possible to start playing to win in the game of charity. And they realized that in this century, the answer might be yes.

So they rolled up their sleeves and started doing research. And they got results. And they realized that these results would only be useful if others knew about them and could follow them, so they started a movement.

That’s effective altruism—the idea that we should, with the power of science and global coordination, find the areas where we can have the greatest positive impact, and then direct our limited resources towards those areas. The opportunity to save lives, or to prevent suffering, or to contribute meaningfully to a bright and secure future for humanity—once reserved for the likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller—is now accessible to ordinary people like you and me.

Let’s start playing to win.


Further information:

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