Effective altruism

Bradley Ford

Effective altruismThe overwhelming majority of us have donated money to charity at some point in our lives. A considerable number of us give regularly to charitable causes – or at least we intend to once we have left university and ensconced ourselves in a steady job with, we hope, a reasonable income. Indeed, over half of the population of the UK already donate to charitable causes at least once a month.

Yet for all this charitable giving, there is a remarkable shortage of any genuinely productive discussion concerning what I believe to be a far more important question: that is where we should donate. It is a difficult question for a variety of reasons. The most obvious of these is simply that we have an enormous amount of choice; the Charity Commission’s 2011 report states that there are over 180,000 registered charities in the UK alone.

The sheer range of causes is daunting and understandably so. The decision gets tougher still when we consider that the bulk of these charities are genuinely worthwhile initiatives. Objectively speaking, a non-profit organisation is a good cause, provided that it works in earnest to improve the wellbeing of others – be they humans or animals – and is not so misguided in its efforts that it actually inflicts more harm than it relieves. It is clear we should only give to those charitable organisations which reduce suffering – but this criterion is so broad that, on its own, it hardly narrows our options down.

Is this one vague distinction, between good and bad causes, as much narrowing down as it is possible to do before we are left to work out for ourselves which specific issues are most important to us? Prevailing wisdom about giving would incline us to think so. I believe, however, that there is another step we can take – one which provides further objective grounds for prioritising certain initiatives over others.

This crucial next step is to examine the cost-effectiveness of different charitable causes. The amount of good achieved by giving a fixed sum of money to charity is not constant. Rather, it varies significantly depending on what issue we choose to address, where in the world we choose to address it, and how each charity goes about achieving its ultimate goal of reducing suffering.

There is a small, but growing, collection of individuals and organisations which understand this vital point. The movement they represent is called ‘Effective Altruism’. Put simply, Effective Altruism is an evidence-based approach to charitable giving. It endeavours to find, through research and quantitative analysis, the most cost-effective initiatives, and subsequently to donate to those initiatives, whilst encouraging others to do the same.

This kind of results-oriented approach to charity is still very much in its infancy. Serious efforts to quantify the impact of particular non-profit organisations began only six years ago with the 2007 inception of charity evaluator GiveWell. Already the findings of this organisation and others like it are stark: some charities have proven to be hundreds, or even thousands, of times more cost-effective than others when it comes to producing good outcomes.

To demonstrate this, consider an issue which affects humans across the world and one which causes considerable distress to those individuals afflicted: the problem of visual impairment. Suppose we were in a position to donate £50,000 to a charity working to reduce the suffering caused by the loss of sight. We do some research and we find out that this amount could cover the costs of training and supporting a guide dog for the entirety of its life, providing a blind person in the UK with around ten years of valuable assistance. Undoubtedly, this would be a good thing to do.

Nonetheless, we decide we must consider the available alternatives. We discover that we could also put the money into fighting trachoma, a bacterial infection responsible for the irreversible blindness of 2 million people in the developing world and for which there are around 22 million people currently in need of treatment. Trachoma is the leading cause of preventable blindness in humans. We find out that a course of antibiotics to treat the disease in its early stages currently costs 50p per person.  A trichiasis operation – which removes the visual impairment caused by the disease in its later, yet still treatable, stages – costs £5 per eye. Given these figures, and accounting for the long-term costs of preventing re-infection, we learn that for an average cost of £100, we could prevent an individual suffering from trachoma.

We are then in a situation where we can, for the same cost, choose either to aid one blind person for ten years, or prevent five hundred people from each experiencing fifteen years of deteriorating vision, followed by fifteen years of blindness. Assuming that all human lives are of equal value, and that it makes no morally important difference where those humans are, then I think we can say, objectively, that it is better to donate the £50,000 to fighting trachoma.

This approach is clearly very useful when comparing such like-for-like causes, which ultimately address the same fundamental issue. Yet I believe that it can also be helpful making comparisons across issues. Suppose we had £5 to give either to a UK-based homeless shelter, or to a charity which provides deworming medicines to be administered to children in schools in sub-Saharan Africa.

If we gave that £5 to the shelter then it could provide three or four homeless people with a hot meal. This would be a good use of the resources. Yet that £5 could also rid ten African children of parasitic worms for a year, and, as the medicine is administered in schools, comes with the added benefit of boosting school attendance by an average of six weeks per child per year of deworming. Surely this would be a better use of the resources.

Ultimately, the whole ethos of Effective Altruism rests on the implicit conviction that the amount and severity of suffering are more morally significant concerns than the particular form in which it manifests. To me, it is self-evident that it is objectively impossible to enjoy suffering of any kind. To enjoy suffering is, quite simply, not to suffer.

It follows from these observations that the more suffering we can remove from the world, the better. Of course, we cannot ever expect to rid the world of hardship entirely. Some forms of it are unavoidable. But that should not stop us doing everything in our power to make its impact as minimal, and hence manageable, as possible. That charity exists as a phenomenon at all is testament to the general human understanding that although the world is never going to be perfect, that is no reason not to try to make it better.

If you are interested in getting involved with Effective Altruism at Glasgow, email Bradley Ford at [email protected]