For a few years I’ve followed the work of Peter Singer and others who promote Effective Altruism – the idea that we have a moral obligation to give resources to good causes, and that we must do so in the most effective way possible (not just based on organisations with the best marketing or personal resonance). I may have some critiques of it, but overall it’s a concept I strongly agree with. In the past I’ve never been in a position to do much practical about this, but no longer! It’s time for me to put theory into practice.
Starting from April this year (new tax year, plus a few months to work out my finances) I have pledged (via Giving What We Can) to give 5% of my income to organisations I think will do the most good with my donations.
Over the next few months I will be using this blog to track my progress, posting some spotlight pieces on the organisations that I have chosen to support and engaging with the wider world of Effective Altruism as part of the whole “doing more good” thing. For now, I wanted to give three reasons why I’ve decided to make this the focus of my action:
1) It’s the easiest, quickest way for me to start doing more good
There are other things that I may be able to do: campaigning and lobbying, volunteering in local organisations, publicising good causes, changing careers…the list could become pretty big.
But it’s important not to be overwhelmed by the huge task we all face in reducing the injustice, suffering and inequality in the world – doing something simpler now will help build the habits for more in depth change as time goes on.
I currently give 0.5-1% of my income to charities less carefully chosen than they should be, so re-calibrating how much and who I donate money to is the most effective way to kick-start doing more good this year.
2) It’s a way to take control of my impact on the world
In my friendship circles, conversations about doing good have generally descended into quiet despair about the state of things: USA & UK politics, global conflict, climate change, the political assault on international aid – even the most outspoken, active and energetic activists I know seem to be losing some of their momentum. I’ve certainly felt adrift in the last year or so.
Giving money is no substitute for that energy, but for those who are feeling exhausted – or those like me who haven’t done enough and should more actively defend our values – a donation pledge (of money, time or whatever else) can help wrestle back a sense of agency and impact in a political world that has aggressively rejected values of solidarity, compassion and empathy.
It’s also a chance to re-evaluate what we’re doing: are the organisations we support up to the job? Should we try something different?
3) Expanding “effectiveness” – supporting systemic change
Whilst broadly in agreement with the aims and ethos of Effective Altruism, I’ve always had some concerns about how it can incorporate goals of systemic change and less tangible “goods”.
Since my last blog on the subject I’ve come to the conclusion that this may be more about how the concept has been marketed than an inherent philosophical flaw, which I will probably write about at some point soon. However, I do think there’s still a lot more to be done to reconcile some of my previous criticism with Effective Altruism as a movement. By taking the 5% pledge I’m aiming to include campaigning/justice organisations whose impact is much harder to quantify than some of the global development charities supported by GiveWell.
As I work to establish the impact of my donations and justify why they are the most effective use of my resources, I hope to add some insights into how Effective Altruism can engage with the less-measurable, more subjective world of advocacy and campaigning (or at least find out the limits of this approach as applied to them).
So that’s the beginning – in the next series of posts I’ll be writing about some of the charities that I’ll be donating to, and delving further into some of the conceptual stuff around Effective Altruism and changing things for the better.