Thursday, February 20, 2014

Too narrow?

I'm always interested to see what people criticize about the effective altruism movement. One critique I noticed lately is that we're too narrowly focused on a few interventions and instantly reject anything that doesn't have a GiveWell stamp of approval. There's some truth to that.

A related critique is, “If everyone focused so narrowly, virtually nothing would get done – no art, no civic projects, just mosquito nets all the time."

(The art thing is especially touchy. Every time someone from the effective altruist movement suggests that symphonies and museums might not be the best charitable causes, people freak out about how we hate the arts.  I'd like to invite them to see Robbie's photography, hear Ray's music, go to one of Catriona's Shakespeare productions, or talk architecture with Toby.)

While I'm thrilled to see more people interested in effectiveness, I don't see such a stampede to effective causes that I think we're about to fund all the best giving opportunities.  If that ever happens, I have no doubt that most effective altruist types will move on to whatever cause seems next best.  For example, smallpox was a huge problem well into the 20th century.  But now that vaccination has been so successful, people have moved on to other causes.

Aside from the fact that effective altruists will move on to next-best projects after the best ones are taken care of, I'm not concerned that a narrow focus will mean that all non-optimal causes get neglected. Even those of us who focus on finding effective causes don't spend all our time and money on them.  I spend my days as a mental health clinician for prisoners. I am about to start the (possibly even more emotionally intense) work of parenting.  I don't do those things because I think they're the most effective ways to improve the world – I do them because I want to, because I find them satisfying.  But at the end of the day, I want to give my earnings to the most effective organization I can find. And it annoys me when people categorize me as some kind of heartless utility-bot because of that.

If you're upset that effective altruist types don't seem concerned about some issue in your local community, the problem might not be that we're too narrow-minded.  In fact, one of us may well have a day job in that field, or have a special place in our heart for spending our Saturdays working against water pollution or homelessness or whatever.

But that's not the same as saying, "My pet cause is so important and has so much opportunity for change that everyone should drop what they're doing and work on this."  I have a special place in my heart for refugee services, and I've volunteered in that field for years.  But I don't think it's the best thing everyone should be doing, and I'm not saying it should get top billing as an effective cause.

Meanwhile, I think interventions like deworming, nutritional supplementation, and malaria prevention really do deserve top billing.  Some of my money and time will still go to other areas, but I will prioritize the causes that have been demonstrated most effective.

Sometimes it's good to narrow things down.


  1. The complaint about the arts is particularly baffling. Our society is overflowing with art--much of it paid for in typical commercial transactions. It's hard for me to understand why we need charitable giving for the arts, given that people are happy to pay for it directly. And plenty of people do artistic endeavors just because they want to, without any outside funding at all. Even if all charitable donations going to the arts were redirected elsewhere, we would still have a society filled with art.

  2. Ultimately I think these kinds of criticisms boil down to a fundamental misunderstanding of cause. Most people think of charitable donations from a traditional cause perspective: you give to causes you feel are important or that matter to you personally, and at first glance effective altruism doesn't seem to fit that mold. But it actually does: it's just that the cause that effective altruists support is "doing the most good" with their donations. It can take a while for people to grasp that distinction, since generically "doing the most good" isn't a traditional cause (like curing cancer, supporting the arts, conserving biodiversity, etc.).

    Effective altruists can seem like philanthropic butterflies, flitting from one charity to the next based on the latest changes in GiveWell recommendations, and it's easy to see why many people might find this a cold and impersonal approach. It can be rewarding to donors to develop relationships with the charities they fund, and to get the satisfaction of seeing charities become more effective and successful over time based in part on a donor's steady support. But when you understand that the cause of effective altruists is to generically do the most good, this relentless optimization starts to make sense. The traditional cause of an effective charity doesn't matter to an effective altruist, as long as it has been demonstrated to be the most effective. An anti-malaria charity is as good as a water-security charity or any other charity: the area that the charity works in doesn't matter as long as it's saving or improving the most lives per unit of currency donated.

    I think there will be (and already are) several flavors of effective altruism, such as: 1) hard-core optimizers who fit the strict definition of effective altruists, 2) people who allocate just a portion of their donation portfolio to EA charities, and 3) people who apply EA-style thinking to specific causes that they care about (e.g., finding the most effective charities that work on specific causes that matter to the donor).