Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving



19 November 2015

An interesting article caught my eye this week. It was a piece in the Guardian Comment is Free section by the prominent proponent of Effective Altruism (EA), William MacAskill (author of current EA central text “Doing Good Better”) entitled “The truth about animal charities, cats and dogs”.

“Ah, here we go”, I thought, “this is going to be an excoriating attack by an effective altruist on people giving to animal charities instead of international aid or, accusing them all of being misguided and morally reprehensible.” I’m certainly not an advocate for EA, and have a long-standing series of problems with the idea (NB: if you want a far more erudite and well-considered critique I highly recommend the review of MacAskill’s book in the London Review of Books, which is pleasing titled “Stop the robot apocalypse”). However, I enjoy an opportunity to get worked up into an intellectual froth as much as the next policy wonk, so I made a cup of coffee and settled in for an enjoyable read.

Imagine my surprise, then, when what I actually read was an article which not only failed to deliver the sort of donkey sanctuary-baiting I was expecting, but which actually seemed to undermine the very idea of Effective Altruism.

The first half of the article was largely taken up with a welcome debunking of the myth that people give more to animal charities than the charities which benefit humans. That isn’t true for donations by living people or for charitable bequests, and it is good to see someone reiterating that point (full disclosure: CAF research was referenced pretty heavily in making the argument).

However, about halfway through the article came the point at which I put down my biscuit and said “eh…?” Specifically, it was when I read the following sentence:

Although animal charities receive less money than charities that help humans, animal causes are clearly important to many people. So if you want to help animals, what should you do?

This is a perfectly straightforward, common-sense statement of the sort that you might find in any boilerplate article on philanthropy. But it struck me as extremely odd in the context of an article from the viewpoint of effective altruism. Surely the crux of effective altruism as a philosophical doctrine is to answer the question “what should you give to in order to achieve the greatest good?” And hence, the idea that a choice about where to give might be based on a cause simply being “important” to a particular person should be anathema, shouldn’t it?

EA is supposed to tell us – prior to any emotional decision based on identification with a particular cause – where we should give our money in order to achieve the greatest good. Obviously this entails clarifying what is meant by “the greatest good”, and a large part of the discussion around EA has focussed on precisely this point; with critics questioning whether the narrow utilitarian conception employed by EA advocates fails to capture many of the aspects of social or public good that actually contribute to human happiness and wellbeing, and thereby undervalues many types of philanthropy.

I happen to disagree with the EA conception of how we should quantify good, as it seems to me a sort of unappealing, brute utilitarian arithmetic. However, I find it interesting as a philosophical position; not least because it raises all sorts of interesting challenges that force others (including me) to clarify their own ideas about philanthropy.

In fact, one of the questions it has always raised in my mind is precisely whether giving to animal causes is justified. One might suppose that according to EA the answer is no, on the assumption that if the fundamental measure of good is an increase in human quality of life, then it is never justifiable to give money to help animals when that money could instead be spent on helping people. However, one could also argue the converse, as long as one is willing to accept the proposition that animal lives are on a par with human ones and thus that the calculations of greatest good should take into account animals as well as humans. This might seem like a fairly radical position, but it is a line of thought that has long been pursued by the philosopher Peter Singer, whose work has provided much of the intellectual basis for Effective Altruism, so it would not be that surprising if it was a point of view that coloured the thinking of other EA advocates.

An argument along these lines would actually make sense in the context of this article, as it would allow MacAskill to claim that giving to animal causes should simply be subsumed under the broader umbrella of EA, and subjected to the same criteria, without conceding any ground in terms of EA’s central contention that the purpose of giving is to achieve maximum good.

However, this doesn’t appear to be the point of the article. Rather, it seems to be arguing that it is in fact legitimate for people to choose to give to animal causes on the basis that “they care more about them”; and that their responsibility should simply be to ensure that they give “as effectively as possible”. But to my mind this collapses Effective Altruism from an interesting, if contentious, philosophical theory about the ethics of philanthropy into simply another statement of the received wisdom in philanthropy circles that donors should aim to give “strategically” or “effectively”. Perhaps that is why MacAskill has decided to talk about “effective giving” rather than “effective altruism” in this article?

In some ways this is gratifying, as I think that one of the major failings of Effective Altruism is that in failing to recognise the element of donor choice at the heart of philanthropy it makes itself inapplicable as a practical, mainstream approach to philanthropy. Sure, some donors may choose to employ EA principles in practice, but it would be a choice on a par with, say, my decision to give to habitat preservation rather than medical research, or my decision to take a venture philanthropy approach rather than a more traditional, responsive approach to giving.

However, although I think this is the only realistic way in which EA can actually be applicable in the real world, I still think that it has a lot of merit as a philosophical idea – albeit one that I disagree with. And given that, I really want to see the full fire and brimstone version of Effective Altruism being espoused, so that it truly presents a challenge to any complacency we have in terms of what we think philanthropy is and how it should be practised. A watered-down version of EA which concedes that the decision about what to give to is up to the donor, and merely stipulates effectiveness in giving to one’s own chosen cause, although more practical, is far less interesting.