The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Traditional charity fosters love. Effective altruism doesn’t.

Jeremy Beer is the author of The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity and president of the American Ideas Institute.

Pete is not his real name, but let’s call him that; the homeless, no less than the rest of us, deserve their privacy. He can be found in our neighborhood most every day. Often, he is sweeping the steps or driveways of local businesses. Rarely does he say a word unless you ask him a direct question. He is a veteran of the Iraq war.

A local diner feeds him, and some of the patrons chip in to cover the costs. There is a running “Pete tab” at the register, to which you can add whatever you like. Folks have tried to do more for Pete, including finding his family. But for whatever reason Pete hasn’t wanted their help, and he steers clear of all official social service agencies.

Pete and the informal web of charity in which he lives are of small importance in the grand scheme of things. But they are important, in a way that is difficult to account for on a spreadsheet. No one wants Pete, or anyone else, to be homeless. But because of the compassion and love it has called forth, Pete’s situation has, paradoxically, become a gift to the community. Pete is a gift to the community.

This scenario is helpful in revealing some of the effective altruist movement’s limitations. In EA logic, not only does the charity directed toward Pete fail to solve his problems, but it is also (at least in principle) immorally wasteful. According to effective altruists, Pete’s helpful neighbors are in thrall to emotion where reason ought to be their guide. And reason says that the time and money put toward caring for Pete should be directed to a cause where they can do greater good.

Doing good is what EA-inspired institutions like GiveWell and 80,000 Hours are all about. How can we do more of it? How can we direct our finite resources to achieve the most impact?

There is nothing new about these questions. In essence, they are the same sort of fundamentally technological problems that partisans of “scientific charity” and “strategic philanthropy” have been trying to solve since the mid-nineteenth century. In isolation, they seem quite reasonable.

But if we consider the older, fundamentally theological tradition of charity against which modern philanthropy has always contended, we start to see what is missing. The practices of charity first introduced in the Mediterranean’s ancient Judaic and then early Christian communities were truly revolutionary — to the extent that new words had to be invented to account for the new institutions Jews and Christians created. These communities rejected the widespread and seemingly commonsense notion that caring for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed was wasteful and therefore stupid.

To Jews and Christians, doing good through works of mercy was how one became good, and thus worthy to stand in God’s presence. For those inspired by this theological vision, there was obviously nothing wasteful at all about such works, no matter their impact. The result of this new vision was the utter transformation of ancient society. The formerly marginalized became visible, even uniquely blessed actors in a great spiritual drama.

The erosion of Judaic/Christian belief in the West has brought traditional charity into disrepute, at least in theory. But in practice things are different. As William Schambra has pointed out, despite the best efforts of many in the philanthropic establishment, only 3 percent of donors choose to give based on their knowledge of nonprofits’ impact. And on a less formal, non-institutional level, communities keep unsystematically pooling their time and money to help people like Pete.

This kind of charity may not change the world in the most “logical” way, but it nevertheless has an important effect: It protects, preserves and grows local economies of love. Effective altruism leaves such economies wholly unaccounted for. And when followed to its logical conclusion, it is their enemy.

Read more in this series:

Christine Emba: Effective Altruism: a primer

Catherine Hollander: How do you quantify ‘good’?

Peter Singer: Excellence in opera or saving a life? It’s your choice

Gary P. Steuer: Could effective altruism destroy the arts?

William MacAskill: Working for a hedge fund could be the most charitable thing you do.

William Schambra: Most Americans aren’t efficient philanthropists. That’s a good thing.