Empathy and Effective Altruism

While I haven’t kept up donations recently, I used to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation on a monthly basis. I chose to donate to AMF because the charity was identified by GiveWell as one of the most effective charities in terms of lives saved per dollar donated. GiveWell is an engine for Effective Altruism, the movement which believes we should be doing the most good with our financial resources, especially when we are thinking about charitable donations. We could make donations to charities that sound like they are doing really important work and charities which give us a nice warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside, but those charities are not always super effective, and a lot of our money may not be going directly toward the thing the charity is built around. Some charities spend large amounts of the money they receive on executive pay or marketing, meaning that a large percentage of every dollar you donate, possibly a majority, doesn’t go toward the mission of the charity.
And this is where empathy can get in the way of our efforts to do good. A charity I often point at as an ineffective charity is the Make-A-Wish foundation. Many authors have written about great wishes that have been granted that have shut down city streets to enable young children with terminal illnesses to play super-hero for a day. These wishes are expensive, but they make a sick child smile, they show the world something positive, and they make us feel good. Unfortunately, the money spent on a wish for a child in the United States may not be as effective as money spent on something less exciting, like providing bed nets to children in Africa to help prevent malaria. We might not get a warm glow from helping some child thousands of miles away from us, especially not compared to granting a wish which will be filmed and choreographed to music, but the difference we can make in the life of the child thousands of miles away can be a dollar for dollar better investment for the future than the wish.
But my argument, and the argument of effective altruism, is not just an argument of effectiveness and a return on investment for charitable donations. It is also argument for fairness over empathy. We have limited resources. There is only so much charitable donation capacity for all of us. Making donations with an Effective Altruism mindset isn’t just more effective, it can also be more fair. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “empathy can subvert human well-being when it runs afoul of a more fundamental principle, fairness.”
Charities that rely on empathy can do great things for the people who are the recipients of our altruism. But they can also divert resources from those who truly need it, can unfairly jump people ahead of the line for medical care, and can prioritize charity for people who look like us or who look like our preferred recipient of charity. In the long run, this can contribute to inequality as we prioritize charity for certain racial or ethnic groups, certain countries, and certain medical conditions. We make donations to children in the United States to help them be happy for a day, we prioritize treatment of cancer over treatment of tropical diseases, we underfund foreign aid. Pinker continues,
“Not only does this nepotism sap the competence of police, government, and business, but it sets up a zero-sum competition for the necessities of life among clans and ethnic groups, which can quickly turn violent. The institutions of modernity depend on carrying out abstract fiduciary duties that cut across bonds of empathy.”
If we only make donations when our empathy is piqued, then we will constantly short better charitable targets. We will not distribute charitable dollars in an equitable or effective manner. We will be paternalistic in our donations and our outcomes will be biased. What we need are more institutions that make donations in a more effective and more equal manner. We should think more about cash transfers and giving money directly to people without needing to feel a warm glow and without needing our empathy to be piqued. Doing so will have better societal and global outcomes than making donations based on empathy. Pinker concludes, “the ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary. Empathy, like love, is in fact not all you need.”

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