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Current Thoughts on Effective Altruism and My Personal Giving


For the second time since deciding to properly commit to the Effective Altruism (EA) cause I donated roughly 10% of my annual income, the bulk of that 10% donated just an hour before End-of-Financial-Year for 2018-2019. Logging onto the computer in preparation of sending away thousands of dollars in hard earned income unsurprisingly still provokes uneasiness. This post is a quick dump of what churned through my mind in the hour I dilly-dallied before hitting ‘send’, seeking arguments to both dissuade and encourage me.

Baseline: effectively altruistic donation is the best use of my money

I have for years now been thoroughly convinced of the arguments made by Peter Singer, Derek Parfit, and William MacAskill, who together generally forward the idea that rich people have a strong obligation to give away money to help those in need. The moral principle is captured nicely as:

We ought to help others when we can do so without sacrificing anything nearly as important

What I am sacrificing here is money that would otherwise sit in my savings account or be invested in securities. It is plain-as-day obvious to me now that this money is better spent preventing young children from suffering and dying of preventable disease and starvation. Once this is accepted, all that’s left to do is overcome akrasia and take action.

If this was all I was thinking before my donation I wouldn’t have faffed around so much, but some things were complicating my will…

But The Future: Reserving for risk avoidance and future purchases is the best use of my money

It is undoubtedly intelligent behaviour to save money for use in the future. As I get older I will very likely want to buy things that are (more and more every year) becoming incredibly expensive, like housing, education for any future children, and healthcare. The latter is of particular concern to me, as I am the owner of a pretty dodgy right leg and can be relatively confident I will have higher medical costs than the average person. I also wish to have enough money aside to aid my mother in retiring if she needs it. Maybe I will also start a business, or go back to school; those things require a chunk of savings.

These are all apparently important concerns but with sober consideration of them against the plight of the destitute they become I think offensively minor problems. Is my life really so much more important than others such that I would neglect their basic needs in order to shore up the chances that my life go absolutely as well as possible? No, I really think it isn’t.

But Socialism: Forwarding Socialist and Democratic causes is the best of my money

Since learning more about politics and history I have become much more confident in the merits of Democratic Socialism (DemSoc) and quite skeptical of the legitimacy of Capitalism. I became interested in how Socialists would critique the EA movement and found this great piece in Jacobin by Mathew Snow, Against Charity. I won’t waste words doing a worse job of making his arguments, but will put here what I found clearly marks out the contradiction between Socialism and EA.

The irony of Effective Altruism is that it implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place.

he continues…

If we look at the institutions that make and allocate the resources others so desperately need, we must ask whether it is wrong to withhold those resources from others for the sake of payment and profit. Doing so not only seems morally reprehensible, it is morally reprehensible for precisely the same reason Effective Altruists argue it is wrong not to donate money to charities: it’s immoral to value some small sum of money (or what it might buy) over a human life or minimum standard of living.

I agree with this. I currently think that EA’s methods are not unfairly described as generally treating the symptoms of problems created by certain unjust but pervasive political and economic systems. I think that if I want to do a better job of challenging those systems that are causing so much harm, then I’d want to be doing something else, either with my money or beyond simple donating. But I don’t know exactly what that would be, and so don’t find these reservations should stop me from donating, an act which I can be relatively confident is making some positive impact.

So for now I will keep donating, but certainly won’t stop being nagged by the relevance of politics to the goal of doing the most good you can do. Indeed, the same moral thinking underpins DemSoc and EA. We have obligations to care for each other, to safeguard health and to educate so that all can relate together as equals. To get there, today’s least fortunate will need their mosquito nets and their own workers unions.

Wish I could send them both, but Capitalism isn’t stupid; collective workplace organisation remains a good without a market.