Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"elitist philanthropy" and charitable prioritization

Ken Berger, the CEO of Charity Navigator, has penned an amusing takedown of his competitor and my favorite charity review site, It is amusing for more than just its transparently self-serving nature. For example, Mr Berger has modified the phrase "effective altruism", frequently employed by GiveWell and its fellow travelers, into "defective altruism".

His main complaint is that GiveWell has the gall to compare against each other not only charities operating within a common cause but also the different causes themselves.
By contrast, defective altruism is—by the admission of its proponents—an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.
Italics are his. The idea is that an individual who is really passionate about one area of giving--say, funding and volunteering at animal shelters--shouldn't be deemed an ineffective donor because that won't save as many human lives as mosquito net distributions and deworming campaigns.
In recent articles extolling the virtues of this approach, the GiveWell blog has cited the work of several allies, among them Peter Singer, who spoke about the concept in a recent TED Talk. In an example of the Sophie’s Choice that the movement offers the donor community, Singer posed the following question: Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.” 
Nobody enjoys the prospect of weighing lives in the balance, yet it's something that reality forces upon us. Resources are scarce and tough decisions must be made. The innocent yet profound assumption at the root of "effective altruism" is that each human life is equally precious. When this is fully appreciated and the resulting charity evaluations are presented to donors, it would be surprising if the philanthropic options available weren't harshly clarified.
[In] taking on this cause and using the bully pulpit of its website as its forum, GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.
I doubt that GiveWell is prepared to say that any subject area of charity is truly unworthy. Giving to a well-managed charity in your preferred area is almost certainly better than not giving anything to any charity at all, assuming GiveWell's more humanitarian and cosmopolitan values are not as highly prioritized by the donor.

Mr Berger goes on to ask what would happen if everyone were as ruthlessly and singlemindedly cosmopolitan as GiveWell?
GiveWell has a particular fixation with global health and nutrition charities. It at least implicitly recommends that one should support charities only in those cause areas. It is therefore not surprising that it has recommended only a handful of charities to its users. If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to:
  1. Domestic efforts to serve those in need?
  2. Advanced research funding for many diseases?
  3. Research on and efforts in creative and innovative new approaches to helping others that no one has ever tried before?
  4. More local and smaller charitable endeavors?
  5. Funding for the arts, and important cultural endeavors such as the preservation of historically important structures and archives?
  6. Volunteerism for the general public, since most “worthy” efforts are overseas and require a professional degree to have what Friedman calls “deep expertise in niche areas”?
  7. Careers in the nonprofit sector? Since the spokespeople for this opinion suggest that it might even be ethical to have a “lucrative job in an immoral corporation” so that you can be a so-called “do-bester” and give all the money away, it is unclear who would then run the charities to which defective altruists would give.
One possibility is that the greatest humanitarian problems would be eradicated, one by one, in order of severity. This doesn't seem like an obviously bad approach to me. But more importantly this is a ridiculous rhetorical question to ask. In no world remotely similar to our own will everyone adopt the ethical approach of Peter Singer. GiveWell indeed couples its services with a particular worldview, and perhaps, it markets that worldview as it makes its recommendations. The CEO of Charity Navigator may not think that is appropriate, but it seems to me that the world doesn't exactly suffer from a glut of GiveWell's worldview.

The question that comes to my mind when reading the example above is How many people even know about this possible trade-off? An American donor will see the need for guide dogs and may even know a blind American or two, but is much less likely to see so vividly the needs of poor foreigners. Even when the needs of foreigners are observed, like in those television commercials featuring gaunt African children with flies buzzing around them, they are observed at emotional remove because distant strangers are abstract, and because of a deep, biologically ingrained inability to really feel the plight of those who are not family or who do not belong to our tribes. Even the bleedingest-hearted of cosmopolitans recognize our moral obligations to distant strangers only intellectually. 

This biological deficiency is compounded by cultural biases that favor members of our tribe and steeply discount the moral demands of foreigners. Hence the inane insistence that we should take care of our poor before we fix the problems in other countries, despite the fact that the poorest five percent of Americans lie comfortably within the 60th percentile in the global incomes. And hence the cavalier attitudes toward the massive losses of life attendant to the foreign policy of America and its allies.

These are the hurdles that lie in the way of GiveWell's peculiar worldview achieving dominance and devastating the broader philanthropic sector that provides Mr Berger with his job. The danger is not that GiveWell's philosophy is taking over. Everything GiveWell does to enable people to appreciate the needs of foreigners goes a little way toward correcting an existing imbalance in philanthropy. It does not introduce a new imbalance.

As it happens, I do agree with Mr Berger that GiveWell's top pick charities are not the only charities that deserve support. They deserve more support than they are getting, and greater awareness of this fact is the service to humanity that GiveWell provides. But you can still support the opera if you choose. There's nothing wrong with giving to your alma mater. I, for one, give most of my charitable money to GiveDirectly, one of GiveWell's top picks. But close behind (and on par if I count my volunteer efforts) comes the American Civil Liberties Union, which saves far fewer lives than, say, mosquito net distributions, but which I believe is nevertheless important for making the world's most powerful nation something closer to the beacon of freedom to the world that its citizens like to think it is. I also like to throw some money in the direction of Wikipedia when Jimmy Wales comes around begging. Not too many lives are saved by Wikipedia, but its mission of bringing the world's knowledge to every human being is profoundly beautiful, and it Wikipedia powerfully expands the capabilities of individuals everywhere to pursue their interests and further their own unique ends. And so I close with Mr Wales.

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