Let me start by saying that I really like the premise of effective altruism. Namely:
- I believe that logical and evidence-based reasoning is the worst form of thinking, except for all the others (to paraphrase Winston Churchill). So yes, being effective is great.
- And about the altruism part: I think there is just no way to be truly human and to have a fulfilling life without being altruistic.
But as always, the devil is in the detail. And as far as I know, a seizable part of the effective altruism movement is about making donations. So let me talk about that in this blog post.
The movement is insofar critical of charities in that it demands the donations to be as effective as possible. Often, the metric of “number of human lives saved” is mentioned, or the more fuzzy metric of “reducing suffering”. Let me be clear, everything else being equal, I fully support donating to charities. But I cannot help but wonder if it wouldn’t be even more effective to forego donations altogether, and take a more radical approach: changing the system.
Let me pick the example Peter Singer mentioned in his TED talk of a guy called Matt Weiger who’s gone to Wall Street and is now giving a six-figure sum to charities. I think it might be entirely possible that his investments for the bank (or hedge fund or whatever financial institution it is he’s working for) caused considerably more harm to a lot people in Africa than what he’s able to recoup with his ~$0.5M donations. Think about it, how much money did the bank earn through his actions? Maybe $10M? That doesn’t seem too unrealistic if you google “profit per employee”. And how much of that profit was achieved through speculation on food (raising food prices when people are most in need), investments in companies that make a profit by depleting the planet’s natural resources (destroying the livelihood of small farmers and future generations all over the world)? So is Matt “actually trying” or only “pretending to try” to improve the world?
The truth is, we don’t know Matt’s case that well. But my point is that I’m far from convinced that working in the system and then donating some of that money to (effective) charities is the most effective way to be altruistic. I’m not into conspiracy theories and we can debate what exactly “the system” is and how much “the market” or “the state” is to blame for the current state of affairs.
However, I think we can all agree on that the current global capitalist system – which is basically supported by every nation state on earth – favours rising inequalities and is responsible for us being on the best course to wrack the planet. I’m not denying that capitalism has brought major improvements as well. I’m not against modernity or think the industrialisation was a mistake. The western world, however, has been fooling around with its newfound powers for the last two centuries. But now it’s time for humanity to use those powers to create a fair and sustainable world without unnecessary suffering – after all, it’s no longer a primarily a technological problem, but a socio-economical one. It may be the first time in human history we’re technologically capable of doing so – but if we don’t hurry, it might have been the last time.