Effective Altruism and Caritas [Radio Readings]

Effective Altruism and Caritas [Radio Readings] February 21, 2015

You can listen to “Fights in Good Faith,” my weekly radio program, streaming today at 5pm ET and tomorrow (Sun) at 1pm.  The audio is now available to stream and download.

This week’s program is about the Effective Altruism movement ways to resolve tensions between its recommendations and the Christian aim of charity.  I gave a talk on this topic earlier this week as a guest of the Yale Effective Altruists.

fights in good faith

Every week, I put up a “Radio Readings” post, so you can track down the books, articles, and, (this week) donation opportunities that I cite on the show. So, without further ado, here’s what I’m talking about this week.


Charity and Distance


  • Effective Altruism is the umbrella term for trying to make sure your charity spending does as much good as possible.  Effective Altruism looks beyond the older metric of overhead (how much of your money does the charity actually spend on the intervention) and checks up on the effectiveness of the intervention (a vaccination program does more good than a puppies-visit-a-village-for-a-day program, even if the latter has very little overhead).
  • GiveWell is the charity recommender that I rely on for my own donations



Letting the Big Eclipse the Small


  • Earning to Give is the practice of choosing your job in order to maximize the amount of money you can commit to charitable causes (often by choosing a well compensated job, like programming or i-banking)
  • Having children can be seen as a controversial choice in some parts of the effective altruism movement
  • Effective Altruism often focuses on outcomes that can be reliably measured like DALYs (Disability Adjusted Life Years) and QALYs (Quality Adjusted Life Years)
  • This leaves some vulnerability to the Streetlight Effect, where you look only where it is easy to look.  It takes its name from this joke:

    A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”



Keeping the Goal of Your Charity in Mind


  • I find it helpful to focus on why DALYs and QALYs are something we value, possibly by thinking about something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and keeping in mind what you want people to do with the freedom afforded by health, and what needs remain to be met.
  • I’ve tried to link responding to the needs of people near me to opportunities to give afar, but my first attempt, tallying all the times I said “No” to people who asked me for ineffective causes, and then donating proportionally to causes I thought were better.  It didn’t work for me
  • But it did work for Aaron Gertler!  (Follow up from him here)
  • I’ve had more success by donating to needs nearby and then matching that donation with a donation to an effective cause.  (cf our donation for vaccinations drive, which raised $615 this year)
  • GiveWell has done a good job of fighting the streetlight effect, by exploring stranger giving opportunities, like political donations and existential risk.
  • I also try to stay interested in plausibly useful things to measure for interventions that might move people up Maslow’s pyramid.  Like tracking changes in Big 5 personality traits (like increasing openness and agreeableness)



What Effective Altruism Can Learn from Christianity




Finally, here’s what I wish I included on the air: Ben Kuhn does interesting Effective Altruism blogging, and I’ve talked about discerning your own attitude toward charity when making gifts


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