Monday, July 6, 2015

Photo: Adam Cohn

I met Matt Wage in 2009 when he took my Practical Ethics class at Princeton University. In the readings relating to global poverty and what we ought to be doing about it, he found an estimate of how much it costs to save the life of one of the millions of children who die each year from diseases that we can prevent or cure. This led him to calculate how many lives he could save, over his lifetime, assuming he earned an average income and donated 10 percent of it to a highly effective organization, such as one providing families with bed nets to prevent malaria, a major killer of children. He discovered that he could, with that level of donation, save about one hundred lives. He thought to himself, “Suppose you see a burning building, and you run through the flames and kick a door open, and let one hundred people out. That would be the greatest moment in your life. And I could do as much good as that!”

Two years later Wage graduated, receiving the Philosophy Department’s prize for the best senior thesis of the year. He was accepted by the University of Oxford for postgraduate study. Many students who major in philosophy dream of an opportunity like that—I know I did—but by then Wage had done a lot of thinking about what career would do the most good. Over many discussions with others, he came to a very different choice: he took a job on Wall Street, working for an arbitrage trading firm. On a higher income, he would be able to give much more, both as a percentage and in dollars, than 10 percent of a professor’s income. One year after graduating, Wage was donating a six-figure sum—roughly half his annual earnings—to highly effective charities. He was on the way to saving a hundred lives, not over his entire career but within the first year or two of his working life and every year thereafter.

A minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of one’s spare resources to make the world a better place.

Wage is part of an exciting new movement: effective altruism. At universities from Oxford to Harvard and the University of Washington, from Bayreuth in Germany to Brisbane in Australia, effective altruism organizations are forming. Effective altruists are engaging in lively discussions on social media and websites, and their ideas are being examined in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Wall Street Journal. Philosophy, and more specifically practical ethics, has played an important role in effective altruism’s development, and effective altruism shows that philosophy is returning to its Socratic role of challenging our ideas about what it is to live an ethical life. In doing so, philosophy has demonstrated its ability to transform, sometimes quite dramatically, the lives of those who study it. Moreover, it is a transformation that, I believe, should be welcomed because it makes the world a better place.

• • •

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.

Most effective altruists are millennials—members of the first generation to have come of age in the new millennium. They are pragmatic realists, not saints, so very few claim to live a fully ethical life. Most of them are somewhere on the continuum between a minimally acceptable ethical life and a fully ethical life. That doesn’t mean they go about feeling guilty because they are not morally perfect. Effective altruists don’t see a lot of point in feeling guilty. They prefer to focus on the good they are doing. Some of them are content to know they are doing something significant to make the world a better place. Many of them like to challenge themselves to do a little better this year than last year.

Effective altruism is notable from several perspectives. First, and most important, it is making a difference to the world. Philanthropy is a very large industry. In the United States alone there are almost one million charities, receiving a total of approximately $200 billion a year, with an additional $100 billion going to religious congregations. A small number of these charities are outright frauds, but a much bigger problem is that very few of them are sufficiently transparent to allow donors to judge whether they are really doing good. Most of that $200 billion is given on the basis of emotional responses to images of the people, animals, or forests that the charity is helping. Effective altruism seeks to change that by providing incentives for charities to demonstrate their effectiveness. Already the movement is directing tens of millions of dollars to charities that are effectively reducing the suffering and death caused by extreme poverty.

Second, effective altruism is a way of giving meaning to our own lives and finding fulfillment in what we do. Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. Effective altruists directly benefit others, but indirectly they often benefit themselves.

Third, effective altruism sheds new light on an old philosophical and psychological question: Are we fundamentally driven by our innate needs and emotional responses, with our rational capacities doing little more than laying a justificatory veneer over actions that were already determined before we even started reasoning about what to do? Or can reason play a crucial role in determining how we live? What is it that drives some of us to look beyond our own interests and the interests of those we love to the interests of strangers, future generations, and animals?

Finally, the emergence of effective altruism and the evident enthusiasm and intelligence with which many millennials at the outset of their careers are embracing it offer grounds for optimism about our future.

Effective altruists do things like the following: living modestly and donating a large part of their income—often much more than the traditional tenth, or tithe—to the most effective charities; researching and discussing with others which charities are the most effective or drawing on research done by other independent evaluators; choosing a career in which they can earn most, not in order to be able to live affluently but so that they can do more good; talking to others, in person or online, about giving, so that the idea of effective altruism will spread; giving part of their body—blood, bone marrow, or even a kidney—to a stranger.

What unites all these acts under the banner of effective altruism? The definition that appears in Wikipedia, which is now becoming standard, is “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world.” That definition says nothing about motives or about any sacrifice or cost to the effective altruist. Given that the movement has altruism as part of its name, these omissions may seem odd. Altruism is contrasted with egoism, which is concern only for oneself. But we should not think of effective altruism as requiring self-sacrifice, in the sense of something necessarily contrary to one’s own interests. If doing the most you can for others means that you are also flourishing, then that is the best possible outcome for everyone. Many effective altruists deny that what they are doing is a sacrifice. Nevertheless they are altruists because their overriding concern is to do the most good they can. The fact that they find fulfillment and personal happiness in doing that does not detract from their altruism.

‘Warm glow givers’ are not so interested in whether what they are doing helps others.

Psychologists who study giving behavior have noticed that some people give substantial amounts to one or two charities, while others give small amounts to many charities. Those who donate to one or two charities seek evidence about what the charity is doing and whether it is really having a positive impact. If the evidence indicates that the charity is really helping others, they make a substantial donation. Those who give small amounts to many charities are not so interested in whether what they are doing helps others—psychologists call them warm glow givers. Knowing that they are giving makes them feel good, regardless of the impact of their donation. In many cases the donation is so small—$10 or less—that if they stopped to think, they would realize that the cost of processing the donation is likely to exceed any benefit it brings to the charity.

In 2013, as the Christmas giving season approached, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco to watch a five-year-old boy dressed as “Batkid” ride around the city in a Batmobile with an actor dressed as Batman by his side. The pair rescued a damsel in distress and captured the Riddler, for which they received the key of “Gotham City” from the mayor—not an actor, he really was the mayor of San Francisco. The boy, Miles Scott, had been through three years of chemotherapy for leukemia, and when asked for his greatest wish, he replied, “To be Batkid.” The Make-A-Wish Foundation had made his wish come true.

Does that give you a warm glow? It gives me one, even though I know there is another side to this feel-good story. Make-A-Wish would not say how much it cost to fulfill Scott’s wish, but it did say that the average cost of making a child’s wish come true is $7,500. Effective altruists would, like anyone else, feel emotionally drawn toward making the wishes of sick children come true, but they would also know that $7,500 could, by protecting families from malaria, save the lives of at least three children and maybe many more. Saving a child’s life has to be better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid. If Scott’s parents had been offered that choice—Batkid for a day or a complete cure for their son’s leukemia—they surely would have chosen the cure. When more than one child’s life can be saved, the choice is even clearer. Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish, when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions? The answer lies in part in the emotional pull of knowing that you are helping this child, one whose face you can see on television, rather than the unknown and unknowable children who would have died from malaria if your donation had not provided the nets under which they sleep. It also lies in part in the fact that Make-A-Wish appeals to Americans, and Scott is an American child.

Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do. They know that saving a life is better than making a wish come true and that saving three lives is better than saving one. So they don’t give to whatever cause tugs strongest at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time, and money they have.

• • •

Doing the most good is a vague idea that raises many questions. Here are a few of the more obvious ones, and some preliminary answers.

What counts as “the most good”?
Effective altruists will not all give the same answer to this question, but they do share some values. They would all agree that a world with less suffering and more happiness in it is, other things being equal, better than one with more suffering and less happiness. Most would say that a world in which people live longer is, other things being equal, better than one in which people have shorter lives. These values explain why helping people in extreme poverty is a popular cause among effective altruists. A given sum of money does much more to reduce suffering and save lives if we use it to assist people living in extreme poverty in developing countries than it would if we gave it to most other charitable causes.

Does everyone’s suffering count equally?
Effective altruists do not discount suffering because it occurs far away or in another country or afflicts people of a different race or religion. They agree that the suffering of animals counts too and generally agree that we should not give less consideration to suffering just because the victim is not a member of our species. They may differ, however, on how to weigh the type of suffering animals can experience against the type of suffering humans can experience.

Does the idea of doing the most good mean that it is wrong to give priority to one’s own children? Surely it can’t be wrong to put the interests of family members and close friends ahead of the interests of strangers?
Effective altruists can accept that one’s own children are a special responsibility, ahead of the children of strangers. There are various possible grounds for this. Most parents love their children, and it would be unrealistic to require parents to be impartial between their own children and other children. Nor would we want to discourage such bias because children thrive in close, loving families, and it is not possible to love people without having greater concern for their well-being than one has for others. In any case, while doing the most good is an important part of the life of every effective altruist, effective altruists are real people, not saints, and they don’t seek to maximize the good in every single thing they do, 24/7. Effective altruists typically leave themselves time and resources to relax and do what they want. For those of us with children, being close to them and other family members or friends is central to how we want to spend our time. Nonetheless, effective altruists recognize that there are limits to how much they should do for their children, given the greater needs of others. Effective altruists do not think their children need all the latest toys or lavish birthday parties, and they reject the widespread assumption that parents should, on their death, leave virtually everything they own to their children rather than give a substantial part of their wealth to those who can benefit much more from it.

What about other values, such as justice, freedom, equality, and knowledge?
Most effective altruists think that these other values are good because they are essential for building communities in which people can live better lives, free of oppression, and have greater self-respect and freedom to do what they want as well as experience less suffering and premature death. No doubt some effective altruists hold that these values are also good for their own sake, independently of these consequences, but others do not.

Does promoting the arts count as improving the world?
In a world that had overcome extreme poverty and other major problems that face us now, promoting the arts would be a worthy goal. In the world in which we live, however, donating to opera houses and museums isn’t likely to be doing the most good you can. When the entertainment mogul David Geffen gave $100 million for the renovation of the Avery Fisher Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center (now to be renamed David Geffen Hall) he could have found better things to do with his money.

Is it really possible for everyone to practice effective altruism?
It is possible for everyone who has some spare time or money to practice effective altruism. Unfortunately, most people who give to charity do not compare the effectiveness of the various charities to which they might donate. Even professional philanthropy advisors are likely to tell their clients to “follow their passion.” In an online leaflet called “Finding your Focus in Philanthropy,” Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors states flatly that there is “obviously” no objective answer to the question of what is the most urgent cause. But we should not embrace relativism about the choice of charity. Even if deciding on the very best cause is extremely difficult, some causes are objectively better than others, and philanthropy advisors ought to be bold enough to say so. Nevertheless, it isn’t likely everyone will become an effective altruist anytime soon. The more interesting question is whether effective altruists can become numerous enough to influence the giving culture of affluent nations. There are some promising signs that this may be starting to happen.

What if one’s act reduces suffering, but in order to act one must lie or harm an innocent person?
In general, effective altruists recognize that breaking moral rules against killing or seriously harming an innocent person will almost always have worse consequences than following these rules. Even thoroughgoing utilitarians, who judge actions to be right or wrong entirely on the basis of their consequences, are wary of speculative reasoning that suggests we should violate basic human rights today for the sake of some distant future good. They know that under Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, a vision of a utopian future society was used to justify unspeakable atrocities, and even today some terrorists justify their crimes by imagining they will bring about a better future. No effective altruist wants to repeat those tragedies.

Suppose I set up a factory in a developing country, paying wages that are better than local workers would otherwise earn and enough to lift them out of extreme poverty. Does that make me an effective altruist, even if I make a profit?
What are you going to do with your profits? If you decided to manufacture in the developing country in order to make it possible for people to escape extreme poverty, you will reinvest a substantial part of your profits in ways that help more people escape extreme poverty. Then you are an effective altruist. If, on the other hand, you use your profits to live as luxuriously as you can, the fact that you have benefited some of the poor is not sufficient to make you an effective altruist. There are all kinds of intermediate positions between these two extremes. Reinvesting a substantial part of your profits to help more people earn a decent income, while retaining enough to live at a much better level than your employees, puts you somewhere on the spectrum of effective altruism—you are living at least a minimally decent ethical life, even if not a perfect one.

What about giving to your college or university? You teach at Princeton University, and your book The Most Good You Can Do (2015) is based on lectures you gave at Yale University, thanks to the generous gift of a Yale alumnus. Do you deny that giving to such institutions counts as effective altruism?
I count myself fortunate to be teaching at one of the finest educational institutions in the world. This gives me the opportunity to teach very bright, hardworking students like Matt Wage, who are likely to have a disproportionately large influence on the world. For the same reason, I was pleased to accept the invitation to give the Castle Lectures at Yale. But Princeton has an endowment, at the time of writing, of $21 billion, and Yale’s is $24 billion. At the moment there are enough alumni donating to these universities to ensure that they will continue to be outstanding educational institutions, and the money you donate to one of them could probably do more good elsewhere. If effective altruism ever becomes so popular that these educational institutions are no longer able to do important research at a high level, it will be time to consider whether donating to them might once again be an effective form of altruism.

How do effective altruists decide where their donations will do the most good?
The quality and availability of research on the effectiveness of individual charities has risen dramatically over the past few years, largely due to the existence of GiveWell, a research organization set up in 2007 precisely to fill the vacuum that existed previously. The outcome of this research is freely available online. Other organizations, such as The Life You Can Save (which I founded after the publication of a book with that title) draw on GiveWell’s research but broaden the criteria for recommending a charity. Choosing between different causes (for example, global poverty, reducing animal suffering, protecting the environment, reducing risks of human extinction) is the subject of vigorous discussion on websites associated with effective altruism.

• • •

There has long been skepticism about whether people can really be motivated by an altruistic concern for others. Some have thought that our moral capacities are limited to helping our kin; those with whom we are, or could be, in mutually beneficial relationships; and members of our own tribal group or small-scale society. Effective altruism provides evidence that this is not the case. It shows that we can expand our moral horizons, reach decisions based on a broad form of altruism, and employ our reason to assess evidence about the likely consequences of our actions. In this way it allows us to hope that we will be able to meet the ethical responsibilities of a new era in which our problems will be global as well as local.

It seems to me as though effective altruism is a very conservative ideology. In any given system, an effective altruist will not try to change the system, because it will always be more effective to help others by 'gaming' the system. Instead of organizing a political movement, for example, it will always be more effective to work at a bank and donate most of ones income. Yet if everyone were to think this way, there would be nowhere to donate to.

This may be an unfair comparison, but -- being German -- I wonder how effective altruists would have acted during Nazi Germany. Surely it wasn't very effective for individuals to go into the resistance movement, and yet we (hopefully) all hope more would have.

Even though it would be far fetched to compare contemporary Europe or America with fascist Germany, effective altruism still plays into the hands of whatever injustices are prevalent at any given moment in time, yet the victims of these more fundamental injustices can't be as neatly counted as the lives saved by donating to effective charities. Even from within the framework of effective altruism, one would at least have to consider if by working on Wall Street I am not indirectly causing many lives to be lost, maybe even far more than I can ever save by donating my income.

" In any given system, an effective altruist will not try to change the system...
...Instead of organizing a political movement, for example, it will always be more effective to work at a bank and donate most of ones income. Yet if everyone were to think this way, there would be nowhere to donate to."

If everyone were to think this way, then it wouldn't be very effective to work in a bank and donate one's income, so effective altruists wouldn't do that. Besides, various effective altruists *are* involved in trying to 'change the system'; animal rights is one example that comes to mind.
But it's also the case that there are already various existing organisations that would be better off with more money. A banker might be pretty bad at organising and motivating social movements, but great at finance. In which case it seems sensible for him to try to earn lots of money and donate it to his favourite social movement or charity, thereby allowing them to employ several more people who are better at running the social movement than he is. Of course, if the existing people aren't very good, then it may be preferable for him to start a social movement or new charity.

one would at least have to consider if by working on Wall Street I am not indirectly causing many lives to be lost, maybe even far more than I can ever save by donating my income.

This claim has been discussed here:

You make two excellent points; first, that alleviating the impacts of misguided policies might prevent things from getting bad enough to inspire systemic change, and second, donating cash generated from misguided money making efforts may not, on balance, be a good thing.  As to the first point, I think you have to do what you can to make the world a better place, while looking at the world from the broadest perspective possible; so while alleviating suffering might weaken the forces working for systemic change, if that's all you can do, it is better than nothing.  On the other hand, if you can work for the systemic change, even if it has fewer short-term benefits, it should still be done.  So while your point is valid, and needs to be considered, I'd argue most people are better off working for some positive change, with the hope that it will help build something bigger, than foregoing the opportunity to be altruistic in order to avoid weakening forces of systemic change.
On your second point, while the ethical decision would again frequently depend on the circumstances (what do you do on Wall St, for example), it is also dependent on one's abilities.  I think if someone can make money in a legal, but ethically not clearly productive line of work (running a casino, e.g.), as long as the altruistic efforts outweight the costs of the employment it can be justified (lives saved vs. lives ruined; in this case, maybe donations to an African anti-malarial organization save thousands of lives, while only a few gamblers lives are financially ruined because of the casino).  Of course, if your employment itself is productive (maybe in sustainable energy production, e.g.), your already ahead of the game.  So while it is certainly easy to imagine lines of work that hurt the world more than donations derived from those lines of work help, I think it is possible for some people to be altruistic by maximizing their income in order to be a more effective donor.  It may be more effective for a high-priced lawyer to donate an hour's worth of pay (say, $500) to a struggling non-profit building houses for the poor, than for that lawyer to spend an hour cleaning up the construction site as a volunteer for the same organization (though the experience might make them more comfortable with the effecitiveness of the organization, so they are comfortable increasing their monetary donations).  There are a lot of gray areas, but if people have the right goals, and keep their eyes open, they can usually get it right (or mostly, anyway).

Not so sure about this. Effective altruism should not only consider short-term (immediate) benefit, but weigh against long-term costs/benefits also.

they arent saying that you should turn a blind eye to atrocities/immoralities/etc in order to amass disposable income in order to donate it.  they are saying that if you are particularly talented at something profitable or have access to daddy's company where you can amass disposable income, then you should choose that,,, even if you have no interest in doing it. that's the SACRIFICE portion of the altruism.  
they arent saying, 'go steal money from rich people so that you can donate it to the poor".  
they are saying, find the career that you can make the most disposable income so that you can donate the most money the most effective way.
and yes, using nazism and hitler is your way of saying something shocking to get people to read your comment.  an effective altruist won't say, "i'll be able to donate 100,000 deutsche marks but by condoning nazism I will contribute to the genocide of millions of jews.  come on man. 

"they arent saying, 'go steal money from rich people so that you can donate it to the poor'"
Peter Unger literally said that.

As I sat under the emerging stars on a perfect fourth of July evening, I thanked the benefactors who make possible world-class concerts for free through the Grant Park Music Festival.  I was able to sit at the foot of a beautiful skyline on the shores of a majestic lake and experience peace and community with my fellow Chicagoans.  This is an experience I could share with my children due to the donors - individuals, corporations, foundations and government - who support amazing musicians and urban community.  These same musicians often play for ticket prices I would find hard to justify given my income and responsiblities - after all, I have chosen a career in nonprofits, rather than Wall Street.  If I had to pay fair market value for access, it would not be a choice we could make often, if at all.  
I note that the argument above relies a great deal on "all else being equal" or "holding steady" - a useful abstraction that often gets blurred in translation to practical application.  While others debate how I ought to act in accordance with their philosophies, I am keenly grateful for the opportunity to experience community with other Chicagoans, regardless of income barriers.  The experience colors my actions, and perhaps those of others, longer than the fleeting sounds, which vanished into the perfect sunset.

Hi Ha,
As a leader in the effective altruist movement I want to definitely say that we are not opposed to working for systematic change.
It may be that changing the political system, the 'rules of the game', or the government is the most valuable thing someone could work to do. Working in finance may be a great way to make money to give away; reforming financial regulation to prevent banking crises is also incredibly valuable, if you have hope of making progress.
Personally I am skeptical that dramatic reform is the best goal in the countries I have lived which have decent govenments (Australia and the UK), but that is simply a practical judgement. Others in the movement disagree, and are entering politics in order to promote policies that are more conducive to the welfare of everyone.
A widely held view is that we should not have violent revolutions becuase historically they have not worked out well. But non-violent systemic change is a very plausible candidate for the most valuable approach to take.
Would effective altruists have opposed the Nazis, or should they? Early on, I think definitely. It was predictable essential to prevent the Nazis from gaining power even at great personal cost. Later on once resistance was very hard, it would have been a judgement of the risk of death, against the likelihood of success. It is worth noting that this Polish resistance fighter is regarded as one of the greatest effective alturists in history (I get goose bumps of admiration just thinking about him):
I think I'll go write a blog post on this topic as it's one of the greatest misunderstandings of our philosophy.
Thanks so much for your comment, and all the best!

As Auden reportedly put it, "We were put here to help others." "What the others were put here for beats me."

That comes pretty close to the empty core of the concept propounded in this article. See further my main comment.

Bingo! Bares the empty core of Singer's argument perfectly, and really that of other-regarding ethics quite generally.

This is only a telling point against the claim that we were *only* put here to help others. Nowhere does effective altruism seem to make such a claim, that our only value or purpose is in helping others. 

You seem to have missed the point of the quote, which says nothing about "only". The quip is originally from the British comedian John Foster Hall ("We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know"). It is all about those "others", the beneficiaries of the benefactors, and the inherent asymmetry of that relationship. See further my main comment.

Auden clearly didn't think it through.
He was certainly helped by others for whom he was an 'other human being' deserving of the help a common humanity demands of each of us.
Our 'purpose' with respect to each other arises out of our common humanity, not our self-centred individualism but the part of our identity that proclaims itself to be human, and idienty that is intrinscically and always other centred, always asking what is 'good' or 'bad' for-us, setting up conflicts of conscience with the biological 'good' or 'bad' for-me.
Our identity as human is very much tied to that interior conflict between our biological and our human identities.

Auden clearly didn't think it through.
He was certainly helped by others for whom he was an 'other human being' deserving of the help a common humanity demands of each of us.
Our 'purpose' with respect to each other arises out of our common humanity, not our self-centred individualism but the part of our identity that proclaims itself to be human, and idienty that is intrinscically and always other centred, always asking what is 'good' or 'bad' for-us, setting up conflicts of conscience with the biological 'good' or 'bad' for-me.
Our identity as human is very much tied to that interior conflict between our biological and our human identities.

Logically, I agree with the premises stated, but affectively something seems to be missing.  I think it is this: in my own thinking, which bears some morphological resemblance to what is being shared here, I differentiate quantitative pain from qualitative pain.
Is it possible that children living in mud huts and defecating in ditches are happier than kids who grow up in suburbs with everything a modern American life can offer? Yes, absolutely.  Because they feel loved, that they belong, that their lives have a context and purpose, and because they have FUN often.  They sing, they dance, they create art.
One of the salient projects of modern philosophy has been demolishing moral ontologies.  This project, here, is neither relativistic, nor so vague as to be useless.  At the same time, I would want some sense of motion in it, some waves, ebbing back and forth.  It feels too much like another attempt to bring the music of the spheres into a perennial philosophy, something that doesn't change, and which can be counted on, like math, not to change.
And I have been thinking a lot about transformation as well.  Living is not like collecting experiences in a sort of bank account.  It is about periodic waves which change who you are.  We cannot say misery must stay misery, or that it lacks a purpose.  Neither should we be hard hearted and fail to help others.  But there must be a flux.
That's my incomplete effort at coherence.  I am tired and going to bed.  This is a better morality than I have seen in a while though.

I see nothing wrong in successful moneymakers deciding to donate their extra cash to the aid of people who need help but as someone not entirely stupid but not with any outstanding capabilities I found, throughout my life, earning enough money to live a very modest life had no easy solutions. I have no possibility to pick up a six figure job in Wall street and no interest in doing that kind of work which means I would never last long there even if the opportunity arose.
In any event the whole concern as to where rich and successful people find the most satisfaction for disposing of their income is not a concern for the average person. If a government is oriented towards seeing to these very necessary concerns and the average citizen has the power to encourage the government to dispose of its funds to that end I can see far greater improvement in the world than the averge person finding ways to impoverish him or her self to contribute a pittance to someone less fortunate than him or her self. A government that ignores its powers to improve the lives of its citizenry in deference to those wealthy enough to contribute meaningfully is basically an incompetent government and that is the fundamental problem with current society.

Why do people write articles every time someone makes a donation? Be altruistic. Stop talking about it.

Because it's not the norm? Generally, people think those who are rich are successful and those who are poor are unsuccessful. Therefore assholes like Donald Trump are successful. This article somehow argues for a remodelling a definition of personal success to be ethical, not just monetarily. 

What strikes me on reading Singer's plea for "effective altruism" is the shallow ethical analysis on display here, from the pen of a Princeton professor teaching ethics no less. We are being served the same stale old utilitarian wine, watered down to outright do-goodery, but poured into new bottles labeled "effective altruism" to make it go down smoother, I suppose.
There are problems with the notion that making this world "a better place" is a sensible goal of ethics. For one thing we cannot know the ultimate consequences of our interventions at the time we decide on them. Therefore the utilitarian calculus can be no more than a calculus of good intentions, and we know - at least proverbially - where those lead...  To illustrate: If one of the 115 third world children saved by an effective altruist grows up to become a mass murdering despot who kills thousands, how effective has that altruism turned out to be? The future is opaque IN PRINCIPLE, which poses a problem for any ethics of good intentions, a problem that cannot be circumvented by any simplistic arithmetic of three lives versus one, as the illustration should make clear.
Distant beneficiaries are hidden behind a wall of anonymity that allows "effective altruists" to picture them as little angels destined to lead exemplary lives, instead of the tangled personages those same benefactors see close up in real life all around them. But the distant lives are no less messy and tangled than the closup ones, and the notion that "good" will result from intervening in the lives of distant strangers, and in particular by bestowing on them unearned gifts, is problematic to say the least.
Moreover, the net effect of saving lives from afar may be that tomorrow there will be MORE lives out there that require saving from afar, because whose who were aided in the first round were spared the trouble of seeing to it that they themselves were in a position to save lives...
For these various reasons real morality plays out only in the near sphere of personal acquaintence and immediate experience. Real morality is personal, playing out in the course of our actual personal encounters, and not by do-gooder remote beneficence bestowed on abstract angelic recipients...
"What is it that drives some of us to look beyond our own interests and the interests of those we love to the interests of strangers, future generations, and animals?"
asks Singer, and my short answer is: a culture infected by the false morality of other-regarding ethics, originally implanted in our culture by Christianity, with its secular other-regarding heir being utilitarian do-goodery...
The problematic nature of other-regarding ethics was nicely brought out by the British comedian John Foster Hall when he quipped that

"We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know" (later quoted or paraphrased by W. H. Auden).
There would be lots more to say about all this, but this must suffice to register my disappointment with Singer's plea.

What happens when different people have different ideas of what "a better world" is? For example, deeply religious people. Or, for that matter, nationalists. If someone believes America is the greatest democracy in the world and a serious force for global good, then effective altruism could mean going into government service or joining the army.
Also - someone intelligent and capable enough to make it on Wall Street could, by devoting themselves full-time to some altruistic cause (Doctors Without Borders, whatever), could possibly make a greater quantitative difference than donating X% of their salary. One's time is one's most valuable resource, they always say.
Why isn't the donation of one's time and energy, getting your hands dirty, discussed? Walking the walk....

Good points, indeed, which bring home the lack of cohenerence in the idea of "effective altruism". There are, after all, those who are sincerely convinced that a "better world" is one without Jews, for example. Or one without capitalists, or one in which they themselves rule the world, and so on, and so on...
Perhaps, in actual fact, as will be ascertainable say some 50 or 100 years into the future, the best thing that could be done right now to make this a "better world" even on Singer's definition of what that means (minimize aggregate suffering, etc.), is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Who knows? It is of course in principle UNKNOWABLE! That measure might just as well be the WORST thing to do right now, assuming that those nuclear weapon - for all we know - might some day be used to keep an even worse despotism than the Iranian theocracy in check and subdued.
The whole notion is absurd, and given its multiple weaknesses, one has to entertain the possibility that what drives the "effective altruism" movement is ultimately its participants feeling good about themselves.

You make an important point about people who sincerely think that the best thing to do is something evil like genocide. In this case, the problem is not the philosopher of doing the most good, but the lack of virtues and wisdom in these people. That's why meditation and spiritual knowledge is so important -- if someone has a bad heart or there mind is corrupted, their values will be compromised and may think that bad things are good and vise versa. Also, being educated about the world is important. My Pakistani friend tells me that the reason it's so easy to make extremists in his country is because most people don't have electricity and they have little knowledge about the world beyond their village, so it's easy to convince them of something crazy.
Regarding it being uncertain what the best actions to take are, I think that is an argument for effective altruism not against it, because EA is big on evaluating causes and interventions. In other words, the more uncertain it appears which course to take, the more research should be done to choose the right one! Should a government never pass regulation because they don't have a crystal ball to predict the future or should they try as hard as they can to get it right?

Like Ha above, I am skeptical. A single Wall Street investment banker may be responsible for billions of dollars of financial fraud a year, and more generally for propping up a corrupt economic and political system that undermines democracy, destroys the environment, and steals from the poor for the benefit of a small, wealthy elite. Even if every Goldman Sachs trader and analyst gave $100+ grand a year to charities, this would fall far short of undoing the social harms caused by the bank's activities. If Mr. Wage and his fellow "effective alrtuists" really think they're making a net positive difference in the world by working for the industry that brought the global economy to its knees in 2008 with its greed and recklessness -- and that had its gambling debts paid off by ordinary taxpayers -- it is the result of self-serving delusion, not logic.

Do the most good that you can?  Give generously to effective charities?  Hmmm, sounds a lot like what Jesus Christ taught and Christians who really get it have been living for centuries now.  Cool if you want to call it some new-age feely good movement but, really, God is good and gives us opportunities to serve others.  You don't have to be a Christian to act like one either.  But, there's no real reward after this life if you go that route.

How radical and rational should one go in understanding the evil that bedevils the world?
Clearly one should go all the way.
But then we discover that there is no solution whatseover and all our altruism is merely an expression of self righteousness, thus is itself a symptom of the evil
The philosophy expounded here is naive. Do philosophers ever look at the real world?

It seems like effective altruism faces some fairly substantial (if not downright fatal) problems regarding collective action. I haven't read Singer's book, but I take it to be a fairly safe assumption that effective altruism has act-consequentialist underpinnings. Act-consequentialism is, as the name implies, focused on the moral outcomes of particular actions. It makes sense within the confines of an act-consequentialist framework to say that a specific individual like Matt Wage should donate a large portion of his/her income. But this is because the specifics of Wage's life form a large part of the set of facts that ground this obligation. In contrast, Singer appears to be advocating a more general universal and abstract claim that "Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place." The obvious problem with this is that Wage's job itself only exists within the broader context of an economy wherein people spend money on luxuries. If everyone with a middle-class job with a disposable income decided to send 20% of their income overseas instead of putting it back into the economy then the economy would be devastated and there would cease to be jobs with disposable incomes. So the very idea of an effective altruist "movement" is paradoxical: if we could convince enough people to be effective altruists then charity-based effective altruism would become self-defeating. To reinforce the points of several contributors: if you are going to push for collective action at all then you should be pushing for political reform and other forms of progress that are only achievable through organized collective action.
One of the biggest problems with charity is that many problems can only have long term solutions with the sort of substantial investment that goes beyond what charities are capable of providing. This is especially true for the paradigm health-oriented charities that Singer pushes. If you don't continually innoculate/vaccinate enough people the diseases inevitably come back (as the anti-vaccine lunacy in America has amply demonstrated). So while it is most likely true that you can achieve the greatest temporary good by supplying undeveloped countries with vaccinations, this is ultimately little more than a stop-gap measure and is no replacement for economic development. This is one structural problem with charity regarding specific sorts of issues. But even for goals that are best handled by direct redistribution of wealth/goods rather than investment in infrastructure, there is still the problem of coordination. Individual charity is often inferior to government programs simply because it is inherently difficult for individuals to coordinate their contributions in an effective manner. Even when you have ways of measuring the effectiveness of individual charities, and even when there is a general agreement about some goals being objectively better than others, it is still generally unclear which of the best options one should support. And it is by no means clear that diffuse support of many apparently-equally-deserving charities will have the same positive impact as collectively focusing resources on one goal at a time. So even when you have a bunch of people with the very best of intentions who have the necessary resources, it still does not guarantee the best result. This is really the same sort of general phenomenon underlying the prisoner dilemma and the tragedy of the commons: the best collective action does easily arise out of the most rational individual intentions. Individual choice is paramount in a capitalist/consumerist system because each individual is responsible for using her money to advance her own interests and is usually in a decent position to know what those interests are and how best to serve them. But there is no reason to think that this sort of individualististic approach will work when the goal is broad social change. Indeed, this is why we have a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy. The individual citizen is not a sociologist, epidemiologist, or economist, and so she is simply not in the epistemic position to make decent policy decisions. This is why the citizenry elects representatives to confer with experts when deciding national policies. (Ideally speaking, that is. The actuality of American politics leaves much to be desired in this regard.)
It may be that effective altruism makes sense as an account of what individuals like Singer and Wage in specific non-ideal circumstances should do given that they cannot individually effect political change. But it makes little sense to have an effective altruist movement. Rather, we should be encouraging people to invest in a political process or enforcible social contract that will ensure the best outcome rather than leaving it to individual decisions. Singer would be better off focusing on the most good we can do.

I completely empathize with the importantce of effective altruism as a driving ideology, especillay in the present state of the world, however, I think decision making under that ideology isn't as simple as you made it seem. I am always cautious about what sort of emergent trends could have incredibly strong, one-off effects that change a lot of things for the better. However, it may be that a lot of wasteful spending, and work goes into multiple efforts before that happens. I'm referring partially of course to the case of Make-A-Wish, it's easy to say tyhat that was probably a bad idea, or that Make-A-Wish is a bad idea in general but because of all the factors that tie in with that - in other words, how many non-effective altruists are reached by the media attention, and hopefully convinced to help our leukemia research through donations, or possibly an even longer term goal, such as how some child somewhere was incredibly excited by this happening, looked into leukemia work and does research on it that turns out to be pathbreaking, these things are outliers but they are outliers that can cause a complete paradigm shift. I struggle a little with effective altruism from that front, that there are always outliers that could occur, and it's worth realising how ambiguous effective altruism can be in light of that. 

Maybe the author can provide a ranked list of altruistic actions?  The top of the list should be the most effective altruistic actions, and so on.  Clearly he thinks Malaria nets are superior to art museums, but what about youth computer education?  What about soccer camps?  What about organ donations? Cancer research?  Education scholarships?   Seems this author just wants the world to donate to the causes that he and the Princeton elite have dubbed the "most effective".  The world is home to over 7 billion people, there will never be a consensus on the "most effective altruism" (and thats a good thing!).  To suggest that a minority of people (you and the Princeton elite) should determine what is the "most effective altruism" seems a recipe for disastrous philanthopic outcomes.  

Ought implies can.
Can we really predict that giving away most of our wealth will be a net good? 
Are we really so omniscient about social processes that we know that poverty will be decreased when all costs and benefits, over various time and spatial scales, have been assessed?
Do we really even know the full scope of those costs and benefits?
No. To think otherwise is hubris.
Effective altruism puts the moral cart before the epistemological horse.

As a leader of the EA movement I felt duty-bound to correct the criticism that we are not enthusiastic about 'systemic change'. See this post which I hope comprehensively rebuts this misunderstanding of our actual view, which is actually very favourable to systemic change:
Effective altruists love systemic change

<p>Singer&#39;s vision of altruism is nothing but the parasitic capitalist elites using a fraction of the labor they have expropriated from workers to subordinate, infantilize and control those selfsame workers and those marginalized outside the workforce. That is precisely what Singer&#39;s paradigmatic Matt Wage has done: become a financial parasite, contributing nothing to society, living on more than 30 times the global median per capita annual income ($2,920 in 2012, according to Gallup), and &quot;generously&quot; giving the rest to the workers he has stolen it from... so long, of course, as those workers do not attack the foundations of Wage&#39;s own privilege, and so long as they osculate his posterior with sufficient vigor and sham gratitude.</p>
<p>Justice is more important than Singer&#39;s sham altruism. Justice is about the alleviation of suffering, but it is about doing so mutually, reciprocally. For altruism to exist with justice, it must exist between equals. An altruism of the powerful to the powerless is nothing more than the perpetuation of unjust subordination; less bad, perhaps, than maintaining subordination with torture and suffering, but being less bad than antebellum black slavery is not a particularly high bar.</p>
<p>More on my blog: &lt;a href=&quot; Singer&#39;s sham altruism&lt;/a&gt;.</p>

I feel like there's very little holistic analysis going here, however. Going corporate and making the big bucks so that you can go donate your money after the fact embodies one of the largest issues with corporations--they only look at the points of the process that directly affect them. You're making bank, but at the expense of who? In the financial industry, it is not as if that money is coming from creating capital, it's coming from reallocating capital, often times from the bottom to the top. In the service industry the money you're making often comes from the unequal value of the work being done by employees and the wages paid to them. In oil, farming, forestry, etc. profit is made by not needing to deal with the aftereffects of harvesting, pollution, and disposal. I needn't go into depth into environmental justice here, you get the point. There is so much that needs to be considered, and that's what this movement is supposed to be about. Yeah, you're giving the money you make to a good cause, but is that money really yours to give? Is it altruistically earned or is it garnered from exploitation? Also, how much more could you do with your time and energy than help fill the coffers of the wealthy? What is the world missing out on by having you locked up in finance or a fortune 500? I have talked with some effective altruists who consider these questions, but this thought-piece seemed to almost entirely overlook them.

Agreed that a holistic, long-term assessment of impacts and net good needs to be seriously undertaken for this type of intent to acheive "greater" good. Working in the financial sector or a sector that directly or indirectly contributes to the damage of the ecosphere (environment is a homocentric term and puts unhealthy focus on the human) to make the most money in the least amount of time is understandable, but saving even 10,000 lives in ten years while contributing to the poisoning of the air, water and soil (our immediate life-generating and life-support systems) is likely to impoverish and potentially end many more lives, human and otherwise, and doesn't amount to net good. Working towards a paradigm shift in understanding of our role within the natural processes at play, and from that understanding, a shift in behavior, is to my mind much more laudable. Or working towards using the remaining non-renewable energy sources to set-up renewable frameworks. That said, if one's heart is in helping people and one would be unmotivated by other work, the choice and effort is still admirable and a welcome change to the selfish, competitive nonsense being spoonfed to billions as "the good life."
Wealth in its uses and implications today is much more a problem than poverty.

Oh, I dunno. I suspect these Wall Street folks would benefit from watching a good production of Major Barbara. 

Let's consider Matt Wage's contributions to Social Security, a program that isn't even social if the only people able to make it a success are allowed to opt out.

"Too big to fail" would inform an idiot of the fact that Wall Streeters can't take care of themselves in the here and now.

The basic problem with E.A is that whereas an agent probably knows what yields utility to himself and, moreover, is likely to devote a lot of cognitive power to improving outcomes for himself, he does not have as good information about others. Moreover there are Preference Revelation and Preference Falsification problems.
At worst, E.A would cause a person to secure a pure economic rent to maximise income and this rent would be associated with a dead-weight loss. He may distribute much of this rent to individuals who are faking or schemes which are incentive incompatible or have a design flaw. For example, a person who can either be a teacher (with little economic rent) may choose to be a monopolist or monopsonist (causing deadweight loss to the economy) and give this money to handicapped children who have actually been maimed by a beggar-king.
Thus, for Hayekian reasons, EA can't be an optimal information aggregation mechanism. However, it may actually yield more happiness to its practioners than mindless consumerism.

Vivek Iyer highlights an important point - the difficulty calculating longterm consequences, that others flagged as well. But the nice thing about altruism is that your competition to do pure good isn't exactly intense, so it isn't THAT hard to find some genuine good to do. (Although I've heard from travellers that free mosquito nets tend to get used as fish nets, and quickly destroyed, I must admit.) The trouble with Hayekian reasoning is that the market, especially in developed nations, is largely devoted to meeting the requirements of human sexual selection (see Veblen.) So that's not a great way even to find personal happiness. Great way to piss away forests, though.

Joe Thorpe raises a very important point re. sexual selection. It could be argued that mimetic consumption of positional goods raises reproductive success which in turn entails the notion that one has a duty to your descendants to evade and avoid taxes. It is a short step to Social Darwinism- red in tooth and claw!
Fortunately, Zahavi's theory re. the handicap principle is actually eusocial across species because it sends a signal which allows 'Aumann correllated equlibria'. Thus when birds engage in flocking behaviour against a predator everybody individual benefits- including the predator which is discouraged from a costly attack.
Both hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies saw the need for egalitarian distribution of surpluses. A cynic might say Charity is good because it means you aim for a surplus so in a bad year it is the 'poor' or marginally connected who starve first. However, aiming for a surplus has positive 'externalities' and Knowledge effects. Furthermore, egalitarian rules for surplus distribution change the fitness landscape for a lot of co-evolved public goods- i.e. you get a better golden path. Interestingly, the Japanese Sage, Ninomiya thought of 'savings' not as a hedge or 'consumption smoothing' or in terms of 'time preference' (which is important because Mathematical General Eqbm theory soon becomes 'anything goes' once hedging or Knightian uncertainty etc are introduced- i.e. the maths doesn't support Ayn Rand type silliness) instead Ninomiya saw savings as a voluntary foregoing of luxuries so as to allow others to eat. However, since all humans must be treated as equal, there is an obligation to 'repay virtue'- i.e. the system still needs to be doing golden path savings and building Capital- though this can be discharged collecttively.
Ken Binmore's evolutionary game theory approach seems to be moving in this direction. If effective altruism makes people happier then we don't need to commit to either consequentialism or worry that the underlying deontics are probably apophatic- i.e. the rule set has no representation.
For the moment the argument from low hanging fruit makes sense. Of course, one has to be sensitive to the dangers posed by what Timur Kuran calls Preference Falsification & Availability Cascades. However that's the sort of thing co-evolved systems- as opposed to some substantivist Super Compurter- are good at doing.

Forgive my narcissim in replying to my own comment! I wanted to draw attention to different ways to ground E.A and, if not make it 'bullet-proof', motivate useful reflection
1) Mike Munger's notion of the 'euvoluntary' and the evolution of eusocial behavior. Here, mimetics- neglected in Anglo-America- with its cheap 'out of control' computational solutions to co-ordination and matching problems gains salience and ground a unification with both Continental theories as well as 'mirror neuron' type research.
2) Baumol 'superfairness' should be re-examined in the light of Binmore's evolutionary approach. Interestingly, this opens 'Western' discourse to 'Eastern' thought. The Bhagvad Gita, a sacred text for Hindus, for example, is part of a bigger text which stresses the need for the 'Just King' or  morally autonomous 'Principal' (as opposed to Agent) to learn Statistical Game Theory to make good decisions.
3) 'Euvoluntary' commitments  need to be universalisable such that Hannan consistency- i.e. regret minimization- obtains in a Muth Rational manner.
All 3 avenues, quoted above, are currently neglected in E.A discourse though they provide better solutions and better ways forward than anything I've come across in salient apologetics.
Moreover, they are eminently unifiable under the rubric of Co-Evolution and generate powerful 'regulative' concepts or paradigmatic metaphors. I'm posting on this topic here- and would welcome criticism!

Could "The Logic..." be beyond reason, a "Metallica," the biperfect lead "singer," backed-up by a rock band wearing rock rings, groupies in high places condemning those who do not play the Review game.

Wall Street/major investment banks' main purpose is capitalist value extraction from all available and discoverable sources in the world not only for the sake of corporate and investor profitability but also for the purposes of the sustainment of the very system that engendered this stage/form of rentier-focused capitalism: the Nixonian 'reprogramming' of the American economic--and hence world--economic system, whereby the U.S. ceased being the world's major creditor nation in order to become a "hyper empire' sustained on an 'ilimitable' appetite and flow of credit from the rest of the combined world. In order for this flow of credit to remain uninterrupted--and uninterrupted it must on pain of having the entire post-Bretton Woods system come crashing down and causing great untold economic and social chaos--economic growth (i.e. constant increase in capitalist value extraction) must be maintained in order to sustain and at the same time service this pyramidal ocean of debt upon which sits an empire that this both powerfully and destructively very real and almost entirely virtual in its base and pillars of financial support. This system (its manner of existing and expanding) is epitomized by such obviously and intractably destructive and indeed exitentially imperiling activities as fracking and war profiteering, etc. It is therefore astoundingly naive for someone as educated as the phiilosophy student of Prof. Singer's account to consider it a substnative, progressive, and enduring achievement to save hundreds of poor lives thanks to the high (i.e. inflated) wages of Wall Street  fortunately available to such an "idealist" as he, when he is simultaneously a cog in an extractive/destructive machine without end that has no equal in the history of humankind and whose over-arching purpose is the perpetuation of American hegemony through its perverse hegemony of insatiable, indeed essential (for the system), debt accumulation at the expense and the extorsion of the entire world.

This is a classic example of the emperor's new clothes. There is nothing new in this at all. It is simply utilitarianism under new guise. This is perhaps best illustrated by the argument that these people earn as much as they can in order to give as much as they can. Notwithstanding the fact that Wesley said this a few hundred years ago, the fundamental problem with it is that the most effective way to earn higher incomes is by entering the global financial trade market - a market which is rigged to disadvantage poorer countries. Hence, although the individual may be earning a large sum and give a large sum, at least part of such earnings will be achieved by effectively defrauding global south countries of the taxes and revenues that they are due. Such failure to anticipate the full consequences of one's actions is the classic weakness of utilitarianism and as such there is nothing new to observe here. The emperor has no clothes on!

I appreciate what you are saying. I come from India. The official 'ideology' of my comprador class was 'Bentham + Caste guilt' and it impoverished the working class in utterly scandalous ways. Only now, more than six decades after 'Independence' do we have a genuinely working class guy sitting in the P.M's office. This has actually boosted the Markets because the Indian economy can only escape the traps bien pensant 'Benthamites' set it if a 'low caste' member of the productive class gets to set the agenda.
Over the last few decades, many of my cousins and kin folk have had the opportunity to earn high salaries and accumulate Capital as 'rocket scientists' employed in (what turned out to be) destructive 'financial engineering'. They have been successful in their personal lives because they were 'Effective Altruists'- giving money to help poor people back home instead of putting their bonus money up their own nose.
Believe me, they have learnt a salutary lesson from the meltdown! So have we all.  That why 'Effective Altruism' is an attractive Credo. You'd rather have an 'E.A' guy managing your portfolio than a coke-head frat-boy.
Capitalism has always had a problem with 'Repugnancy Markets'. Essentially if 'good' people don't move in and clean things up morally, bad people will and clean up financially. That 'dirty money' will destabilize the whole system.
Herbert Hoover may have got macro-econ wrong as President. However, as an 'E.A' type, he greatly benefitted American Industry by getting it to agree to raise wages thus ridding itself of the 'sweated labour' tag. This had a 'reputational effect' such that their share prices went up not down. A virtuous circle was created because higher wages meant bigger demand for their products.
No doubt, E.A is old wine in new bottles and, as Ecclessiastes says, there is nothing new under the Sun. But, precisely for that reason, why dismiss it out of hand?
I agree that Singer, Unger & Amartya Sen are easy to criticize. I've done so myself. But, surely?, they are smart enough to see that there is a trade-off between saying intellectually indefensible things and having a moral impact, more particularly because they are Academics primarily. Oscar Wilde has a Prince who denudes himself to point to the misery of the most vulnerable of his subjects. Perhaps, these Ivy League 'Availability Cascade' Emperors enriched by the tribute of a vast serf class of meretricious Graduate Students know full well that they are naked?

One must have both the heart AND the head in the right place, lest one metamorphose into a global tear duct. Absent from this amiable advisory is any awareness of the difficult and arguable status of actions designed to achieve "the most good". The redoubtable Ben Franklin advised that the greatest gift to the poor was to make poverty unpalatable! There is a now neglected or even condemned thesis that the path to the greatest "good" is the relatively untrammeled life of free and gifted persons pursuing goals set by their muse. Yes, the great surgeon ends up with a house in the Hamptons, but the 650 lives he saved are not complaining. Gee, who knew?

Responding to Angus Deaton:
I spend a lot of time explaining and promoting Rwanda’s record on public health to audiences around the world. Together with our research and funding partners, Rwanda has made unprecedented strides on almost every health measure. We are one of the few developing countries that will meet all MDG targets. All Rwandans have access to health insurance, and maternal mortality has fallen at historically unprecedented rates.

For Angus Deaton, these gains only served to entrench dictatorship and repression in Rwanda. How? By threatening to let our children die unless altruistic and gullible Westerners pay our government to keep them alive.

Deaton believes that we ‘provide health care for Rwandan mothers and children’ in order to ‘insulate ourselves from the needs and wishes of our people’. I can’t tell if he means that Rwandans don’t wish for good health, or that our country would be more democratic if we neglected basic needs.

As a Rwandan, and as a physician, I have heard a lot of outrageous statements in my life. But Professor Deaton has invented an entirely new genre of absurdism.

How does one begin to reply? More facts and figures about Rwanda’s progress would only reinforce Deaton’s grotesque logic. Testimonials from the donors and researchers who know Rwanda best would be dismissed as compromised.

Moreover, Rwanda is not the issue here, and I would feel no satisfaction if Deaton apologized to Rwanda and then went to pick on a different country that better exemplifies his stereotypes.

The issue is moral, and it concerns all of us. Deaton’s theory rests on the assumption that Africans don’t feel love for their children. It follows that President Kagame, being an African, sees children as a commodity, like copper or sweet potatoes, to be sold to people in the West who value their lives more highly. Rwandans have a proverb for such impertinence – Urusha nyina w'umwana imbabazi aba ashaka kumurya: "Whoever shows more compassion for a child than its own mother only wants to exploit it."

Angus Deaton doesn’t know Paul Kagame from Kunta Kinte. The president is just a cartoon character he uses to argue against foreign aid. Deaton isn’t referring to the real Paul Kagame or the real Rwanda, but to a generic ‘other’ whose moral inferiority is so self-evident that it requires no elaboration.

In other words, Deaton knew his readers would share in the contempt. In point of fact, Peter Singer replied complaining about Deaton’s criticisms of his work; but he made no mention of the scandalous libel of President Kagame.

This is neither ignorance or carelessness. It is an ideology of moral superiority, a form of racism that is all the more pernicious because it has no name and leaves no marks on its victims. Eventually the victims internalize it and come to despise themselves.

By dropping the mask a little, perhaps Angus Deaton has done us all a favor. We need to have more honest conversations about the assumptions implicit in the judgments we make about each other.

Rwanda’s story is tragic and hopeful in equal measure. Maybe the first step is for Angus Deaton, Peter Singer, and anyone else who feels concerned by this exchange, to visit Rwanda and see for themselves what kind of people we are, and how we care for our children. They would not be the first visitors to Rwanda who left with a deeper appreciation for our common humanity.

Dr Agnes Binagwaho
Minister of Health, Rwanda

Brilliant reply! Hope the author will publish a longer piece in widely circulated newspapers or periodicals.

Why do not we help ourselves, simply, in whatever way it is possible. without  questions X , Y or Z?

Why do not we help ourselves, simply, in whatever way it is possible. without  so many questions ?

A useful and interesting debate, but I can't help but notice that none of the solicited replies which make up the forum are written by people from the developing world. If we continue to have this discussion amongst ourselves about other people, without including them in the process as active and valued participant who have their own ideas and opinions that they themselves are capable of representing (and not needing or wanting us to do it for them), then we aren't really going to get any closer to finding solutions to the problems we profess to care about. 


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