But a growing social movement called “effective altruism” challenges the notion that letting your heart direct your charitable giving is the best way to make a difference, or that giving in your own country is as virtuous as helping people abroad.
Enter Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher and Princeton professor, who has for decades advocated that it’s a moral responsibility for the citizens of the developed world to give a significant portion of their income to combating extreme global poverty. He argued in an essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” which is being released Tuesday in book form with a new foreword by Bill and Melinda Gates, that the Western world should prioritize ending human suffering where it can.
So while tithing to the church every week, or donating to a child’s elementary school booster club, or even giving to a larger campaign to pay for someone’s cancer treatment may be admirable, it’s not good enough. It is, in Singer’s view, a moral failing.
“I want them to not go on first emotional impulse, I want them to stop and think is it the most good I can do?” Singer said.
Effective altruism requires stripping away the impulsiveness of giving. Instead, the giver analyzes where a given donation amount can help the greatest number of people. The answer usually can’t be found in America.
In Singer’s view, whether a child is suffering in Ohio or in Sub Saharan Africa, their lives should be viewed equally. But since the African child’s suffering is likely greater – no access to clean water, risk of dying from otherwise curable diseases, no modern medicine – then helping that child is more worthwhile. Also, the amount of money needed to help the African child is in most instances far less than helping an American one, so there’s opportunity to save more people and improve more lives.
In those countries, rehydration treatments can save children from dying of diarrhea. Bednets can protect people from malaria-infested mosquitoes. Simple eye surgery can reverse blindness.
Singer has used the Make a Wish Foundation, which grants a wish to a dying child, as a foil. In his view, saving the lives of many children on the other side of the globe has greater utility than giving one American child his perfect day.
This utilitarian approach to charity – that some giving is better than others – is controversial. It requires a fundamental shift in how people feel compelled to give.
James Doty, a neurosurgeon by trade, and founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, at Stanford University, said he’s not convinced anyone has the moral authority to measure giving. He thinks Singer’s approach to altruism, the requirement to prove absolute utility in giving, is a futile exercise.
If a cable car was careening down a mountain and you could control which direction it crashed and on one side was 100 people and on the other was your wife and children, which group would most people sacrifice, he asked. Or what if one side was that group of anonymous people and on the other was someone who, if saved, would develop a cure for all cancers. Which has more utility?
“Often times it’s an emotional response and we know this,” Doty said. “This is why if you see an advertisement that focuses on one child it emotionally resonates and that will be the stimulant to donate. That’s why most campaigns show you one child, versus saying there’s 100,000 people starving. Because you can’t process those types of numbers. Seeing someone suffering who you can emotionally resonate with drives you to an action. That is how most people operate in their lives.”
Sites like GoFundMe, which has raised more than $1 billion in the last year from 16 million donors for 1.7 million individual campaigns, have captured this fundamental truth of the human spirit.
For example, two years ago a South Carolina father shared the story of his four-year-old daughter’s rare terminal illness on GoFundMe. An emotional video he then posted on YouTube of Eliza, a buoyant, blond-haired little girl, showed her chasing a soccer ball and reading a picture book. It also featured both her parents crying while discussing her condition.
He raised more than $2 million to fund a clinical trial to help find a cure.
There is no guarantee the gene therapy treatment will save her life, so why were so many people – the largest GoFundMe campaign to date – compelled to give?
“I think what’s happening is that this charitable giving is person to person. I think it’s really driven by how the Internet has changed people’s lives. Life hits you in many different ways, there weren’t always ways to ask for help in the traditional world…you have a need, someone shares that (online) and the story is heard by everyone and within the click of a button you can donate,” said Rob Solomon, CEO of GoFundMe.
Psychologists call it “warm glow giving” because the giver, by acting on sympathy or compassion, is driven to action by the positive feelings it creates. Research has also proven there is a significant “identifiable victim effect” as well, wherein people inherently respond to the plight of one person over the needs of an entire population.
Deborah Small, a professor of marketing and psychology at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, has studied the role of sympathy and connectedness in charitable giving.
“Social distance and sympathy often distort charitable giving decisions. Scarce resources are concentrated on close, sympathetic victims and situations,” she wrote in the book, Science of Giving. “Distant abstractions—no matter how serious their plight—do not get the support that they need and deserve.”
But, she warned, attempting to correct this could backfire because when people start overthinking their giving it can suppress their instinctual nature to help. She found that the more information, the more statistics and data, the less likely people were to give.
“It appears that statistics cause people to think more analytically, a mindset that overrides emotionality. Thus, the best pitch may use a single, identifiable victim, to arouse and capture sympathy,” she wrote.
This is, in a nutshell, the chief obstacle for effective altruists who believe giving should be a practical and intellectual process. In 2014, charitable giving increased overall and in every category except international causes, which dropped 3.6 percent, according to the Giving Institute. Individual giving also increased, largely attributed to the changing landscape of how people give online.
The effective altruism movement is trying to tap into that change.
Charlie Bresler, a millionaire, is the executive director of Singer’s organization, the Life You Can Save, which has identified 17 charities it deems most worthy of donations. They all assist the world’s poorest populations. An online Impact Calculator shows how much any monetary amount would buy for any given charity.
“If you’re giving all your money to your child’s band, or your family illness, when you apply a rational filter, there is a better way,” he said.
About 65 percent of people do zero research about where they give, he said. Only 16 percent say the impact of their donation is the most important deciding factor.
Bresler didn’t always live by that standard either. As the president of Men’s Wearhouse, where he’d worked for 15 years, he was the probable next in line to be the two billion-dollar company’s next CEO. He always thought he’d give more to charity down the road after he’d made sure his family had everything it wanted.
But in 2008, just before he turned 60, he handed in his resignation.
Bresler, who had always considered himself a social justice advocate, felt uninspired by the work he was doing. He actually always had. He knew that he wasn’t living up to his own values. But he was singularly focused on providing the best life for his wife and kids.
“It was human, but indefensible from an ethical standpoint,” he said.
After leaving the corporate world, he decided to spend the rest of his life giving back meaningfully.
He downsized his California house, has limited dinners out, and is driving a 13-year-old car. He donated $500,000 to help start the organization, a significant chunk of his net worth, he said.
“None of this is any kind of sacrifice at all,” he said. “I have everything in life that I need and I need to learn to have less materially.”
He does not expect most people will adopt what he called a “philosophically pure” approach to giving, but hopes to convince people this giving season to shift some of their resources to the populations who need it most.
Maybe that means giving less to the breast cancer charity this year, he said, or getting one less Starbucks latte a week.
“We don’t want to hold people accountable to the highest ethical standard, but just to do a little better this year than we did last year,” Bresler said. “If you’re giving all your money to your child’s band, or your family illness, when you apply a rational filter, there is a better way.”
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