Photo: Salvation Army USA West / Flickr
Photo: Salvation Army USA West / Flickr

I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that everyone would agree that charity is a good thing. It’s a universally accepted good; if one has the means and opportunity to selflessly help another person, one would do so. We would all like to help, but with thousands of charities existing around the world, all working towards different goals in different realms of life, it is difficult to know who to help. What is the best and most effective way to give?

The answer might lie in effective altruism.

Can effective altruism measure how good a charity is?

According to the Centre for Effective Altruism, effective altruism is a social movement that fosters charities that provide the most good for the most number of people. This effectiveness is ensure through the analysis of evidence and data, determining which organizations can help the most people when compared at the same donation amount.

One of the organizations that instigated societal interest effective altruism is GiveWell, a charity research group (i.e. “charity evaluator”) that analyses charities around the world for the “over quality and cost-effectiveness of the organization’s work” in order to determine which organizations will use their funding in the most effective way.

Using research to establish which charities can do the most good is a defining facet of the effective altruism movement.

Defining Organizations

GiveWell was started in 2007 and since then, there has been more push towards the movement. Besides GiveWell, organizations such as Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours have also been involved, devoted helping people through the most efficient and accessible means.

Giving What We Can was started in 2009 by philosopher Toby Ord as a group for the promotion of cost-effective poverty relief, centered primarily in developing countries. In order to accomplish this, members of the society pledge to donate 10% of their income over the course of their lives to effective charities, determined by evaluators like GiveWell. To date, Giving What We Can has 1175 members.

The vice president of Giving What We Can, William MacAskill, is also the founder of 80,000 Hours, started in 2011 as a research organization focused on determining which career choices will have the greatest positive social impacts. The career coaching provided by the organization resides by the principles of effective altruism due to its data-based system of determining what career paths might do the most good.

Effective altruism as utilitarian

One of the interesting things about 80,000 Hours is that the organization recommends is investment banking as one of the career choices. In itself, this seems like a contradiction; banking is not usually immediately associated with altruism.

However, this suggestion lies in the conviction that an individual who makes a lot of money in their lifetime will have more total money.

This seeming contradiction is one of a few criticism posed against effective altruism. While it is true that that making more may result in giving more, critics say that Wall Street that may not be the best environment to inspire people to donate so much of what they earn. Even if individuals were to make the 10% pledge presented by Giving What We Can, it is complicated to consider banking it the context of it’s social utility.

Critics also question the utilitarian principles. Historically, utilitarianism has been perceived as a cold-hearted view of ethics, but taking an analytical approach to understanding charity work is not as harsh as it seems.

Effective altruism derives its power from focusing on organizations that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It separates the good and the bad apples.

“The greatest good for the greatest number”

Finding ineffective charities is incredibly helpful in understanding what kind of change we can make through a donation. By pinpointing organizations that will not necessarily use their money in the best ways, we have a better understanding of how we can be of the greatest help.

Both analytical and compassionate, effective altruism is certainly an alternative way of thinking about charity and ethics. Whether or not we always consider effectiveness in our giving, it is vital, nonetheless, to think about how our actions determine the rest of the world.