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The debate sparked by the “effective altruism” movement has the potential to significantly improve donating practices, but only if what results is starkly different from the movement Peter Singer describes.
A central strength of the effective altruism movement is that it urges donors to make empirically informed decisions that focus on effects rather than good intentions, “warm glow” feelings, or the intrinsic value of actions. In this respect, it is far superior to charity appeals based on identifiable victims, charismatic megafauna (e.g., polar bears), charismatic mega-stars (e.g. Bono), oversimplified villains (e.g., Joseph Kony), and dramatic images of disaster.
For Singer and in everyday speech, being altruistic means doing as much good as possible, typically by helping people who aren’t kin or friends. Paradigmatic effective altruists, therefore, are relatively well-off individuals who donate large amounts of money to organizations that aid impoverished strangers. In contrast, a poor person who devotes all her time and resources to effectively alleviating her family’s or community’s poverty is not an altruist and so cannot be a member of the movement.
Effective altruism is a movement that excludes poor people.
Singer is right that rich individuals face epistemic, motivational, and logistical challenges to fighting poverty that poor people do not face. The problem is that he addresses these challenges via a social movement focused on alleviating poverty that excludes poor people from its ranks. This movement therefore violates the democratic principle of inclusion, summarized in a slogan used for decades by social movements from Poland to South Africa: “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
This exclusion is compounded by the effective altruism movement’s primary strategy for attracting new members: showing how easy it is to save lives cheaply. Singer describes his student’s realization that by donating to a cost-effective charity, he can do as much good as a person who runs through flames to kick open the door of a burning building, saving one hundred lives. This analogy may be stirring, but it encourages donors to think of themselves as heroes or saviors. This orientation overlooks poor people’s central role in alleviating their own poverty and rich people’s role in contributing to and benefiting from it.
The effective altruism movement retains members by directing their emotional energies and commitments toward each other, not the people they aim to assist. Singer thus profiles effective altruists for his readers to emulate; he does not depict poor people using assistance to exit poverty. Likewise, organizations such as Giving What We Can encourage their members to make commitments to, and engage in community-building with, each other—not poor people. These strategies rightly avoid using pity as a motivational tool, but they also preclude more promising forms of connection, such as political solidarity.
By excluding poor people and encouraging a savior complex and insularity among its members, the effective altruism movement fails to meet normative criteria of democracy and equality. A supporter of this movement might respond that democracy and equality are less important than improving individual welfare. Yet in the medium-to-long term, the movement will likely fall short in this regard as well. As the low-hanging fruit of basic health programs and cash transfers are exhausted, saving lives and alleviating suffering will require more complicated political action, such as reforming global institutions. Undertaking this action will require outsiders to work with, and follow the lead of, activists in poor countries. Yet the effective altruism movement as Singer describes it does not cultivate the expectations, attitudes, or relationships necessary for this kind of work.
While Singer does not address these difficulties in his book, other adherents of the effective altruism movement are trying to do so. I hope their debates, with each other and external critics, result in a more pluralistic approach that includes poor people as partners or follows their lead, even if this means less certainty about doing the most good. This pluralist approach would have to jettison “social movement of altruists” as an organizing frame, but it would retain the effective altruism movement’s crucial twin insights: some donations do vastly more good than others, and donors should focus on those that do more good.
This pluralist alternative might also inspire new initiatives, such as a database of effective social movements. This database would direct donors’ attention outward, toward existing social movements, especially those based in the global South, that want external support for their efforts to promote individual welfare, inclusion, equality, or rights. Whatever its flaws, such a database could help donors resist the siren song of international aid: the belief that technically savvy, well-meaning outsiders can kick down doors and save the day.
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