The Rise of the Rational Do-Gooders

They want to upend the way we think about charity — and their message is winning both converts and critics.
Brian Ottens, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. In 2018, he and his wife gave $49,000 to charities, which was 27 percent of their combined salary. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

Brian Ottens wished he could buy his 8-year-old daughter a better iPad. The first-generation one she’d inherited from her great-grandmother didn’t support the game she wanted to play. But Ottens has different priorities. “We just explain it to her: iPads are expensive, and this several hundreds of dollars could go toward helping a lot of animals,” he says. When her school went online during the covid-19 pandemic, Ottens was forced to give in and buy a low-end Chromebook. Still, he says, “if it never showed up, I think she would have continued feeling the same way. I understand why.”

Every year, Ottens and his wife donate a large amount to charities, mainly ones that advocate for animals. In 2018, they gave $49,000, which was 27 percent of their combined salary. This year they plan to give $60,000. They vary the amount to maximize their tax benefits, so that they can give more in the long run.

Ottens, 43, is an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., working on devices that look for signs of life on places like Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s a stressful job: He needs to keep his team on a strict timetable, and there’s unexpected weekend work. But he seeks out the stress. The more stress he has, the more animals will live. “Once I discovered this access I had for reducing suffering, it motivated me to compete for the highest-stress job I could withstand,” he says, “and it usually came along with higher pay, and that higher pay has meant I could donate a lot more.”

His wife is on board with his giving. The couple don’t own a fancy car or take expensive vacations. When planning their finances for the year, nixing donations is just not on the table.

Ottens’s choices are unimaginable for many, but they’re typical of effective altruism, a movement devoted to improving the world in the most logical, evidence-based way possible. Oxford professor William MacAskill, who helped found the movement, estimates that if you’re a one-person U.S. household earning more than $58,000, you’re in the top 1 percent in the world, even accounting for global cost differences. Since a dollar means far more to the less fortunate than to those living in such comfort, effective altruists donate a large percentage of their income. And to further harness that dollar, they seek out causes that most efficiently save lives. They land on ones that many of us haven’t considered before, especially since those lives tend to be on the other side of the world, or nonhuman — or yet to be lived.

The movement isn’t just about donations. It’s a worldview and a way of life that aims to bring rationality to what people choose to care about and how they spend their time. “It’s clearly an alternative to the consumer lifestyle that says what you do is earn money to buy a nice house and a nice car, and after a few years you renovate the house and turn over the car and go to expensive resorts and so on,” says Peter Singer, the Princeton bioethicist whose ideas helped spark the movement, and who believes that “there are glaring things wrong with the way people are living.”

In many ways, EA matches our natural intuitions about morality. Recognizing your privilege, using it to help the most people: How can you argue with that? Yet it’s not what most Americans do, effective altruists say. Far more of our charity goes to causes closer to home — religious organizations or social services, for instance — than to the charities EA considers more “effective,” which are often aimed overseas, where our dollars go further, or at preventing human extinction. Most people find it hard to focus their concerns on chickens — or even children — in some far-off place or time. In its drive to change that outlook, effective altruism has its work cut out for it, as its tenets require a mettle that not everyone possesses.

It’s no coincidence that the effective altruism movement came about when evidence-based practices — using science and data to make decisions, rather than conventions and intuition — were on the rise in areas such as government and health care, not to mention sports, as chronicled in Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Unlike moneyballing, however, EA hasn’t yet gone mainstream. Like many subcultures, it’s very familiar to a few but unknown to most. In 2011, a group led by MacAskill and others coined the term and founded the Center for Effective Altruism, one of the movement’s many closely aligned organizations.

But its roots reach further back. In an influential 1972 article, Singer posed an argument that is now the movement’s equivalent of a biblical story: Pretend that you’re walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning, with no one else around. Most people would agree that you should save the child, even it if means ruining your clothes. Children, he points out, are “drowning in ponds” all over the world — 5.3 million people younger than 5 died in 2018, most from preventable causes. Imagine saving a child in a pond every year. What a life that would be. Yet instead, we keep buying new clothes. (Singer told this story when he was a professor of mine in college.)

A typical counterargument is: You know that you can save an actual child from an actual pond, but you don’t know precisely where a donation goes. Hence the “effective” — the obsession with converting dollars into saved lives, or even “quality-adjusted life years,” each one equaling one year of living in perfect health. GiveWell, the movement’s main charity evaluator, crunches the numbers and makes a very rough estimate that, for instance, a donation of $2,300 to the Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program — which gives antimalarial drugs to children younger than 5 during peak malaria transmission season in Africa — will save one life.

Peter Singer is a Princeton bioethicist whose ideas helped spark the movement. (Alletta Vaandering)

The movement has more recently spread through Singer’s 2013 Ted Talk and his books “The Life You Can Save” and “The Most Good You Can Do,” which showed up briefly in NBC’s morally minded sitcom “The Good Place.” Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, incorporate its teachings into their foundation, Good Ventures, which is giving away most of their multibillion-dollar fortune. Bill Gates wrote a blurb for one of Singer’s books. Elon Musk spoke at an EA conference. The news site Vox started an EA section. Today, the main EA Facebook group has more than 18,000 members, and there are hundreds of EA chapters in cities worldwide, from Boston to New Delhi.

In early 2019, at the Washington home of Brian Geistwhite, I met about 15 followers — mostly millennial men — who had gathered to chat over vegan chicken fingers, about topics ranging from Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” to the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. Do presidents even matter to EA? Well, yes, someone said, the war in Iraq led to hundreds of thousands of lives lost. The group argued about whether the “E” is harder than the “A.” They ragged on New York Times columnist David Brooks, who in 2013 had written a critique of earning money at a hedge fund in order to donate it to far-away recipients. (“You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around.”) They also acknowledged their privilege. “I consider myself one of the luckiest people who ever lived, because of the country I was born in and the family I was born into,” said Erick Ball, a 33-year-old nuclear engineer.

One attendee was Tyler Gonnsen. He’s now 32, but just a few years ago, he was retired. He had been a software engineer but joined the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) community, which teaches money-saving tricks that allow you to quit paid work while relatively young. Gonnsen wasn’t rich, but he learned to live frugally in a small condo in Madison, Wis. He’d always wanted to help others, so he thought he’d volunteer. Then he came upon effective altruism and realized that his time would be better spent making money and giving it away. He moved to Washington, D.C., and last year, working in software engineering, he was planning to donate $75,000, which, he says, is 45 percent of his adjusted gross income.

“When I discovered effective altruism, I already kind of had the mentality of, I don’t need to spend all this money on myself to make myself happy,” he says. Does he ever worry about emergencies? Why not just wait until the end of your life and donate what you have left? Gonnsen says he’d be concerned about his mind drifting from his core values. “The actions we take really shape how we see ourselves,” he says. “Forty years of inaction goes by and you no longer see yourself as that idealistic version of yourself.”

Some EAs earn money so they can donate; others work directly for effective organizations and may donate in addition. But they all understand the criteria: The causes should address large-scale suffering that’s being neglected and that’s preventable through money and effort — the low-hanging fruit that no one is picking. The movement’s bread and butter is global poverty. GiveWell recommends charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides bed nets to guard against mosquitoes, mostly in African countries, and GiveDirectly, which sends money to poor people, mainly in Africa, to use for anything they want.

Effective altruism isn’t just about donations. It aims to bring rationality to what people choose to care about. “There are glaring things wrong with the way people are living,” says bioethicist Peter Singer.

Many in the movement also consider animals a part of the calculation. Even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian, as many EAs are, consider the scale: In 2018, an estimated 77 billion farmed land animals were slaughtered for meat. Some argue that advocacy charities probably reduce an animal’s suffering for a tiny fraction of the cost of reducing the suffering of one human — so even if you value humans way above animals, it could still be worth giving to help our fellow creatures.

At the very least, effective altruists believe that our existing animal charity is misplaced: The vast majority of it goes to shelters, yet according to the EA organization Animal Charity Evaluators, in 2019, for every one animal euthanized in a shelter in the United States, approximately 6,428 farmed land animals were slaughtered for meat. (Recently, more extreme EAs have ventured into wild animal suffering: If we care about humans hurting chickens, why not care when insects suffer from insecticide, or when a cat kills a bird?)

Another EA theory points out that we don’t have just geographical and biological biases, but chronological ones too: We forget that more humans will live in the future than have ever lived in the past. Which is why we should protect the human race from risks to its very existence — such as a pandemic many times more deadly than covid-19. “For a long time, we have been trying to raise the alarm that not enough resources were being invested into preparing for low-probability, high-cost events such as pandemics,” MacAskill writes via email.

In his new book, “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity,” Toby Ord, a founder of the movement and senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford, estimates that humanity has a 1 in 6 chance of being obliterated in the next 100 years, from a cause such as a nuclear war, a supervolcanic eruption or an engineered pandemic, which he says is a far bigger risk than a natural one. But our most likely executioner is artificial intelligence — if it progresses beyond the capabilities of the human brain, or is wielded in the wrong way. He gives it a 1 in 10 chance, as compared with 1 in 1,000 for climate change.

Other effective altruists think we should help existing humans who we know are suffering before speculating about the future. Singer says the AI talk could turn people off from the movement, and “I’m skeptical we know enough now about what it’s going to be like to do anything very useful.” MacAskill, meanwhile, says it took him time to take the threat of AI seriously. “I don’t want to let marketing get in the way of truth,” he says. “The thinking about AI seems wacky, but I also think there’s an extremely good argument for it.”

In effective altruism, “there is plenty of scope for disagreement — I think that’s good,” says MacAskill, who lives on 27,000 pounds a year (about $36,000), donating more than 50 percent of his income. “The entire point is, we don’t know what the right thing to do is.”

EAs tend to find arguing healthy. Lynette Bye is used to it — she lives in a house of them in Berkeley, Calif. The 27-year-old works as a productivity coach for effective altruists, helping the effective be more effective. Her housemates have included an employee at a clean meat company, one in global health research, a diplomat, a few in artificial intelligence safety and two software engineers earning money so that they can donate it. Instead of seeking out information to confirm their preexisting beliefs, Bye says, EAs are open to new opinions from others. “People are more aware of: Here’s why I’m thinking what I’m thinking, and here’s what would change my mind, and so let’s listen,” she says.

One community where EA has taken off: poker players. Dan Smith, a 31-year-old in Las Vegas, has been one of the world’s best, with tournament winnings of more than $36 million. Still, “it used to weigh on me that I was playing in an inherently zero-sum game, which means for me to win somebody has to lose,” he says. “And while that is fun, it’s not like I’m really contributing to society.” After stints of depression, he vowed to do some good. He started annual drives soliciting donations to effective charities from fans and fellow players. Last year’s raised $1.7 million, which he and others then matched.

He ran his drive through the poker EA organization, REG, an acronym for Raising for Effective Giving but also a play on “reg,” poker slang for someone who plays regularly. Co-founder Liv Boeree, 36, is a YouTuber and former top poker player who lives in Oxford. Around age 10, she recalls, she saw an ad that inspired her to donate to mistreated donkeys in Egypt. Later, she discovered effective altruism and began lobbying poker players to abide by its principles. Like EAs, poker players are quantitative, unconventional thinkers, she says. But it can be hard to win people over. “Their minds shut down when you start getting into the nitty-gritty of it. Some go, ‘Good is good and that’s the end of it.’ That’s where I respectfully disagree,” she says. “If you don’t, lives aren’t getting saved that would have been saved.”

Boeree hasn’t given up her monthly subscription to helping donkeys — even though they aren’t killed in the billions like chickens, who can be helped more cost-effectively. It’s just a few pounds a month, and it’s a reminder of her philanthropic evolution. But she has internalized enough arguments that “I now get the warm, fuzzy feeling giving to synthetic biology risk research,” she says. “My emotions have been updated.”

Garrison Lovely confessed to a woman on their third date: He believes in effective altruism. She told him that a previous boyfriend did too — and she was not on board. “She said life is a series of suboptimal decisions, which is obviously true but, like, that’s just a defeatist argument in favor of nihilism, almost. Obviously you’re not going to be perfect,” says the 26-year-old Lovely, who works at GiveDirectly. He adds, “That was not why we broke up. It was somewhat related. But I think it can be challenging. It’s a big part of your values.”

Effective altruists want the movement to grow, but it’s hard to discuss its concepts with outsiders. The implications are potentially offensive. Think you’re a good person for donating a few thousand dollars to a wealthy university or art museum? Maybe, but that means one life in Africa that won’t be saved. Think someone who donates $40,000 to train a guide dog for a blind person is generous? Sure, but, as Singer has noted, for that amount you could help several hundred blind people in a developing country get trachoma surgery, an inexpensive procedure that allows them to see.

“People obsess too much about little things that are close to them,” says Singer. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, many have found it charitable to order from local restaurants to keep them in business. “Wouldn’t it be better if they took that and donated it to an effective charity?” Singer argues. “Because there are still people dying of malaria. And if you really want to help people in the current pandemic, you can help more people in a country that has no health-care system to speak of, little information, no support.”

To convince others “that someone halfway around the world is just as important as their kid or their grandkid or favorite church buddy, that’s the challenge,” says effective altruist Jason Dykstra.

The Life You Can Save, the organization Singer founded, recommends covid-specific projects that include charities such as Development Media International, which spreads information about hand-washing and other health techniques in Africa over radio, TV and mobile video. “I’m used to causing offense,” says Singer, who donates a third to half of his income annually. “I’ve not hesitated to tell people that if they’re buying factory-farmed animal products, they’re doing something wrong every day.”

Some of the critiques of the movement are critiques of utilitarianism, a philosophical theory that focuses on maximizing good consequences (as opposed to, say, conforming to strict moral rules like “don’t lie”). Critics ask, how do you possibly measure the greatest good? Doesn’t it require valuing strangers as much as one’s family? Doesn’t it treat mankind as one impersonal mass and ignore the individual? (Singer’s utilitarian views have been controversial in other areas: He’s advocated for allowing parents to euthanize severely disabled infants, for instance.)

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, posted a review of MacAskill’s book “Doing Good Better” in which he praises some of the advice but argues that “when you donate locally, you function as a tangible role model to others in your community. You help build networks for action.” Moreover, “the personal connection you feel toward a given cause ... is often what is most likely to escalate your involvement and keep you committed.”

Motivation is, in fact, a hole in effective altruism’s armor. Isn’t it better if an art-loving rich person gives to a local museum rather than buying a yacht? But an EA might argue that society is paying for that contribution, in the form of a tax deduction. And can’t wealthy nonprofits find other means of making up the difference — like a museum selling a lesser-known work that it doesn’t display anyway? The arguments can go on and on.

Jason Dykstra is a radiologist in Holland, Mich. His family of four lives on around $48,000 annually and has given away about 75 percent of their take-home income for the past seven years. (Kyle Monk)

Jason Dykstra, 42, a radiologist in Holland, Mich., tries to sell EA to a population that’s already motivated to give: devout Christians like himself. When he was growing up, his dad taught him generosity, he says, and that “everything I have isn’t mine.” When he came to the movement after medical school, he looked again at the Bible and saw how Jesus cared about marginalized groups like widows and orphans. “It’s painfully obvious that God’s and Jesus’s approach is one that is very similar to some of the priorities that effective altruism has,” he says. He’s disappointed by churches that want to serve only their own community. So he created a project called Worldwide House Church, which helps churches find more-effective charities.

Dykstra often gets pushback from his peers. “To be able to convince them that someone halfway around the world is just as important as their kid or their grandkid or favorite church buddy, that’s the challenge I’ve run into,” he says. He thinks the pandemic could help EA, as it has awakened Americans to the horrors of infectious diseases and economic instability. “It’s helped them to empathize better with problems that the rest of the world faces all the time,” he says.

Dykstra’s family of four lives on around $48,000 annually and has given away about 75 percent of their take-home income for the past seven years. His two children each have three compartments for their allowance: spend, save and someone else. “Instead of spending it on yourself, you spend it to be yourself,” he says. “We get to be ourselves in a way that buying new curtains would never allow us to be.”

Think about the moral issues your friends and family have argued about over the past few years. Donald Trump. Race relations. The 2020 campaign. Immigration. Abortion. Trump. Trump. Trump. Effective altruists might personally care about these things, but they are not the causes the movement tends to focus on. “Anything that involves party politics ... EA tries to stay out of those things because it’s so unlikely that we’d be able to make a difference,” says Julia Wise, 35, community liaison at the Center for Effective Altruism. Issues in the news may be galvanizing. But, Wise says, “we’ve been looking for problems that are boring.”

Some EAs do give or volunteer for not-as-“effective” causes, but they see it more as a “different project,” Wise says. As an example, she cites her decision to rally in support of her town of Somerville, Mass., acting as a “sanctuary city” for immigrants. “I was doing that in my role of ‘I live in this town and I care about this personally,’ rather than ‘This is the most effective way to improve the world,’ ” she says.

In recent years, the movement has increasingly tried to incorporate systemic injustices. “There’s more attention in EA now on things that don’t have a proven track record, things like scientific research or policy change, where they could have a great benefit but we don’t know yet,” Wise says.

Dylan Matthews, a former Washington Post reporter, is the head writer of Future Perfect, a section of Vox that’s funded by private donors and explores how to do the most good. He has noticed an emphasis at recent EA conferences on national security and “great power conflict.” But if the movement includes U.S.-Russia relations, doesn’t it risk becoming about ... anything? “More than diluting the movement, the fear is fracturing it” among global poverty, animals and existential risk, the 30-year-old says. “One question for the movement is: How do you keep those threads together?”

Matthews identifies as an effective altruist himself; he once donated a kidney to a stranger. At Vox, he grapples with how to communicate the movement’s ideas convincingly. One colleague joked that he should write an article saying that instead of sending toothbrushes to children detained at the Mexico border, people should be spending that money on malaria. But he wouldn’t write something like that, he says, because he wouldn’t want to dismiss anyone’s pain. “EA is not an oppression Olympics,” he says, “and if it becomes an oppression Olympics, a lot of good and smart people will be turned off.”

Some EAs are exploring criminal justice reform, even though it’s a hot-button domestic issue. And GiveDirectly has set up a way to donate to those affected by the coronavirus in the United States as well as Africa. Cash is contactless, it reasons, and if people are going to donate locally, they might as well do it efficiently. “It’s important to define the most effective state — but I think it’s a journey to get there,” says GiveDirectly co-founder Michael Faye. “It’s not, ‘You should give in the perfect manner, and if you don’t you shall be shunned.’ I don’t think that’s what the EA movement is at all.”

But as EA has become more flexible, it still faces a daunting force: the human brain. Even for Geistwhite, 33, who hosted the D.C. gathering and works as a statistician for the U.S. Agency for International Development, it’s been a long road to shifting his intuitions. He grew up in the town of Farmington, N.M., in a conservative family, inheriting a “Fox News perspective,” as he puts it over dinner at NuVegan Cafe in Northwest Washington. He would volunteer for the Salvation Army, occasionally on programs that gave gifts to kids. But when they opened their gifts, he recalls, they just seemed confused. He heard about GiveWell while in college at Princeton and eventually started coming around to EA beliefs.

In Geistwhite’s previous job, he joined his company’s donations committee. Members were planning a food drive, something EAs think is very inefficient. So Geistwhite came to a meeting armed with printouts of articles arguing just that. They let him have his say, then continued on, dismissively. “People find you arrogant to say that what they’re doing is misguided,” he says. “It was just very defeating that no one read that and no one was interested.”

He understands: Changing your mind isn’t easy. Even now, though he’s close to vegan, he struggles to feel emotional about animal charities. The arguments are compelling. But after the arguments, your passionate side has to follow. “It can follow, but it’s hard. It takes time,” he says.

Geistwhite once worked for nine months at a health clinic in Sierra Leone and now keeps a photo of his co-workers there at his desk. One had difficulty concentrating in the afternoon because he would pass up the $1.50 daily lunch to save money to support his family. The photo is a reminder of who needs help. “It’s the suffering that’s important,” Geistwhite says. “It’s not how I feel about it.”

Zachary Pincus-Roth is a features editor in The Post’s Style section.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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