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Opinion Effective Altruism

Where should it go? (Wendell Franks/iStock Photo)

Is it wrong to help your neighbor rather than a needier stranger in Bangladesh? Should we value art museums as much as we do homeless shelters? How should you give? How can you do the most good? For those seeking better ways to answer those questions, a new philosophy for giving is gaining traction — especially among younger and more quantitatively-driven potential philanthropists.

Effective altruism, advocated by ethicists like Peter Singer and entrepreneurs like Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, leans on utilitarian principles to say that it is a moral responsibility not only to give to charity but also to optimize your charitable donations to ensure that they are as “high-impact” as possible. To do so, “effective altruists” attempt to use rigorous data around cost-effectiveness and return on investment to guide philanthropy, ideally maximizing every dollar’s ability to alleviate needless suffering for the greatest number of people.

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The movement tends to prioritize causes according to a hierarchy that focuses first on the most basic needs for survival — funding for clean water rather than end-stage cancer research. It also advocates changing consumption patterns — spending less on personal goods in order to give more. Perhaps its most-discussed tenet is “earning-to-give” — the idea that one can and should opt for high-earning careers in order to maximize charitable giving potential.

In 2007, two former hedge fund analysts founded GiveWell, a nonprofit that analyzes charities in order to help people decide where to give based on where donations would make the biggest difference. Their top-rated charities focus on proven high-impact interventions such as distributing free anti-malarial bed nets in the developing world. Earlier this summer, Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton ethicist and a leader of the effective altruist movement, published “The Most Good You Can Do,” a book in which he outlines the tenets of effective altruism and explores what it would mean to live ethically.

Identifying the most efficient charity and saving the most lives possible: If it’s possible, wouldn’t it be ideal? Perhaps, but critiques of effective altruism still abound.

The philosophy in many ways reflects a particular zeitgeist of Silicon Valley empiricism, valuing data and efficiency above all else. If philanthropists focus only on causes with “measurable” impact, how can one be sure whether those measurements are the right ones? If cost-effectiveness is the ultimate goal, where do philanthropic efforts for the arts and humanities fit in? Is there any justification for domestic aid over international assistance? How can one best define “the good?”

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