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These rules show how we’re approaching charity all wrong

(Today we're sharing a guest post involving the Effective Altruism community — a movement that focuses on helping people make better and more rational decisions when it comes to charitable giving and other forms of philanthropy. Effective Altruism involves many values and ideas that we frequently address here at, and we think you'll learn a lot from this discussion. This post was originally written by Sam Deere and published at


Do you care about making the world a better place? Perhaps you buy ethical products, donate to charity or volunteer your time because you want to help people.

Do you believe that all people are equal? Regardless of where they live, how rich they are, their ethnicity, age, gender, ability, religious views, etc.?

If you do, read on.

For those of us that care about making the world a better place, there are values we likely all agree on. And yet, in spite of this, we may still be getting doing less good that we could be.

This article looks at the values we hold and what we can practically do to live up to them.

Let’s start with three basic, moral principles. Just follow along if you agree.

  1. It's important to help others. When people are in need and we can help them, we think that we should. Sometimes we think it might even be morally required (most people think that millionaires should give something back, for example).

  2. People are equal. Everyone has an equal claim to being happy, healthy, fulfilled and free, whatever their circumstances. All people matter, wherever they live, however rich they are, and whatever their ethnicity, age, gender, ability, religious views, etc. are.

  3. Helping more is better than helping less. All else being equal, we should save more lives, help people live longer, and make more people happier. Imagine twenty sick people lining a hospital ward, who’ll die if you don’t give them medicine. You have enough medicine for everyone, and no reason to hold onto it for later. Would anyone really choose to arbitrarily save only some of the people in this scenario if it was just as easy to save all of them?

This probably all seems fairly rudimentary so far. Fine in principle, but what about in practice?

One of the limitations many of us come up against in trying to do good is limited resources.

Even millionaires have a finite amount of money they can spend. This is also true of our time — there are never enough hours in the day! Choosing to spend money or time on one option is an implicit choice not to spend it on other options (whether we think about these options or not).

These four ideas are all pretty uncontroversial. It seems pretty intuitive that we should help people in need if we can; that we shouldn’t arbitrarily put some groups of people ahead of others; that we would prefer to help more people if given the option; and that we don’t have infinite time and money.

We’d probably feel pretty uncomfortable trying to defend the alternative positions if we were talking to someone, namely:

  1. Helping others in need isn’t morally required, important, or even that good.

  2. It’s OK to value people differently based on arbitrary differences like race, gender, ability etc.

  3. It doesn’t matter if some people die even if it doesn’t really cost us anything extra to save their lives.

  4. We have unlimited resources.

If we agree that these four ideas embody important values, then there are big implications for how we should think about doing good. In fact, it means that the way we typically think about doing good is wrong.

In order to be true to these values, we need to think about how we can help the most people with our limited resources.

This is important, because there are some causes where we can make a big impact for a small amount of money. In fact the best options are much, much better than the average and choosing a more effective charity might mean the difference between helping one person, and helping hundreds of people for exactly the same amount of time or money."

Take the example of helping the blind. For approximately $40,000, you can train a service dog. For around $20 you can pay for surgeries to reverse the effects of trachoma in Africa, curing a patient of blindness. This means if you have $40,000, you can choose to help 2,000 people (with the surgeries) or just 1 (with the dog). If we believe everyone’s lives have equal value but we don’t have enough resources to do everything, surely we should help the larger number?

You can help more people by choosing the most effective charities — charities with great track records, that are working on issues severely affecting large numbers of people.

And this matters, because if we don’t choose well, then we’re either not giving people equal consideration (that is, implicitly discriminating against some groups of people), or we’re not helping as many people as we can (that is, allowing extra people to suffer or die, even though we could potentially help them).

So, at first, every worthy cause — from cancer research, to climate justice, to animal sanctuaries, to preventing easily treatable but unpronounceable diseases in places that we'll probably never visit — should be on the table… except that we also think it's better to help more people, and we understand that we don’t have the resources to help everyone. So we should first focus on the causes where we can help the most people for our limited time and money, not just on those that we happen to have already heard about.

Trying to be cause-neutral can be a really hard thing to do. Most people have first-hand experience of loss. Many of us will have first-hand experience with cancer or heart attacks, for example, and we don’t want other people to experience the same suffering, or for their loved ones to experience the same grief.

But if we care about treating people equally, we should also care about treating their experiences equally. There’s not a really good reason that I should prefer averting the death, disability, and suffering caused by a particular disease (like cancer) any more than I should care about suffering caused by malaria, tuberculosis, traffic accidents, or anything else.

What matters is that lives are cut short, parents are deprived of their children, and people are living in pain. Caring about equality means treating all death and suffering as a tragedy, not just that caused by specific diseases that we — by cruel twists of fate that thrust them into our field of view — happen to notice.

Making these decisions is really, really hard. But there is a set of thinking tools we can use to help us. This way of thinking is called effective altruism. It's basically the same as regular altruism (in that it emphasizes the importance of helping other people) — the word 'effective' just means trying to think clearly about how your actions can help the most people, or do the most good.

I see effective altruism as a way of being able to better live up to values that we already hold.

This way of thinking is applicable to any way that we might want to do good — whether that be agitating for political change, choosing where we donate our money, or learning how to have a big impact with our careers.

In a world where there are so many worthy causes we could work on, it gives us a way out of decision paralysis, by systematically looking for ways to do the most good with our limited time and money.

It asks us to face up to some hard choices. But remember, we’re making these choices anyway, whether we think about them or not. So even though it might be hard to not donate to something that seems really important — whether for personal reasons, or because you’re convinced by a charity’s marketing pitch — remember that you’re always trading off against other worthy causes.

Here’s an example of this in action. The typical person in the UK donates around £6,700 ($9,600USD) over the course of their working lifetimes. For this money we could fund the distribution of around 1,900 mosquito nets, likely preventing around 200 children from becoming really, really sick from malaria, and probably saving at least two or three lives. However, most voluntary donations go to domestic medical charities. The UK’s National Health Service considers it good value to save one year of healthy life for around £25,000. It’s highly unlikely that a domestic charity will beat this figure, so the typical donor’s impact is going to be many, many times less than it could otherwise be.

Remember: just because we don’t think about these choices doesn’t mean that they’re not there.

So please, think carefully about these ideas — the importance of altruism, equality, and doing as much as we can with our scarce resources — and see if they make sense to you.

If they do, then the next time you think about how to make the world a better place, give voice to these values by thinking effectively, as well as altruistically.

And if you want to find out more, coming up there’s a conference on effective altruism taking place from Friday 5 - Sunday 7 August at University of California Berkeley, San Francisco. There are over 1000 people and 50 speakers expected to attend including Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation for the White House OSTP and Rachel Glennerster, Executive Director of J-PAL.

The deadline for applications is this Thursday, July 21. Click here to find out more and apply.


You can also find out more about how to do the most good at some of the following places:

  • This really quick summary of effective altruism.

  • Doing Good Better - a simple introduction to Effective Altruism by Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill.

  • The Effective Altruism Handbook.

  • What is Effective Altruism? — frequently asked questions about Effective Altruism.

And those practical actions you can take that are really effective? Why not:

  • Donate to a charity recommended on the basis of its impact and cost-effectiveness by checking out the charity evaluators GiveWell and Giving What We Can.

  • Pledge to keep donating over the course of your lifetime. More than 1,800 people (and counting) have taken Giving What We Can’s Pledge to donate 10% of their lifetime income to the most effective charities..

  • Choose a career that’s really high-impact by reading career advice from 80,000 Hours.

  • Start a chapter or discussion group in your local area or at your university, and get other people interested in making a bigger difference.

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