Think differently

2019

25 January

Effective altruism – doing good where it’s really needed?

Channeling donations and foundation funding to where the problems are greatest and the resources are most urgently needed – a beguiling thought? Funding and donations are provided on a voluntary basis, and in freedom, not out of duty – also a
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25/01/2019

Effective altruism – doing good where it’s really needed?

Channeling donations and foundation funding to where the problems are greatest and the resources are most urgently needed – a beguiling thought? Funding and donations are provided on a voluntary basis, and in freedom, not out of duty – also a beguiling thought?
In view of the world’s exigent problems, a donor movement has emerged in the shape of effective altruism, which for ten years now, initiated by protagonists like the young Oxford philosophy professor William MacAskill and his book “Doing Good Better”, has been advocating the focusing of your own contributions to the common good on ensuring the greatest possible effect for the major issues and problems confronting humanity. Their aim is to render the donation process more rational, to channel it away from the concerns involving biographical or emotional ties or a direct causational trigger, and towards concerns that promise maximized efficacy. But what is maximized efficacy? Maximized efficacy using what yardsticks? What at first looks like judiciously provident donation management harbors definite potential for conflicts upon closer examination.

While the ability to quantify the social efficacy of contributions to the common good, of social investments, has made great methodological strides in recent years, and is also possible above and beyond crude economic quantification of the social component involved, entirely new questions arise when it comes to comparing and evaluating the results. Are the social benefits of hospice work for terminally ill persons in the final two weeks of their lives less valuable than saving one or perhaps several lives for the same amount? Or could the educational opportunities of several children in a developing country have been auspiciously improved and contributed towards meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals? Once we begin to pose these comparison-driven questions, ethical problems arise.
Effective altruism claims to be able to resolve these comparison-driven issues. However, people evaluate this solution very individually, depending on their value concepts. All benefactors and donors are keen to embrace these value concepts and translate them into efficacious reality as their contribution to the common good. However, these contributions are made voluntarily and entirely freely in terms of the charitable cause selected. In the public debate, they are in any case scrutinized for their legitimacy (at least under preconditions of democratic disclosure) and thus tested for meaningful efficacy. This is legitimate, and in recent years has increasingly shaped the ongoing debates in the charity sector.

Subjecting these contributions, however, to the normative judgment of others and condemning those who in the eyes of effective altruists are seen as less effective, lead to a freedom deficit. This in its turn leads to a moralistic scrutiny of the benefactor or donor concerned, and replaces the freedom of choice with the duty of rationalization. The discourse of democratic disclosure also demands rational justifications for a person’s actions, but it accepts in all pluralism that there can be disparate rationalities of this nature.

The affirmations of effective altruism may entail a risk of one rationality claiming to be superior to others. There is a concomitant risk that this superior rationality is all too readily equated with economic rationality. This entails a danger that considerations of the common good will be evaluated not in freedom and diversity, but against the dictates of a superior rationality. That would be a concept of the common good that would lead to a fissured society. A society chained to the dictates of moral superiority. A society with a freedom deficit.

Dr. Volker Then, Executive Director, CSI, Heidelberg University