I’m discussing Effective Altruism and (possibly!) defusing some concerns about this growing, evidence-based movement in a conversation with Matt Gerken at Philanthropy Daily. I really appreciation Matt raising some common qualms people have about Effective Altruism (What does this mean for local causes? What about goods that are hard to measure) and having me over to his site to engage them.
I’ve posted one of our exchanges below, and you can see the rest at Philanthropy Daily
Matt: I’m also worried about the potential observer effects that come with the metrics-based outlook of EA. It seems like the very expectation of measurement radically alters how charitable acts are perceived, and not necessarily for the better. Let’s say I’m running a group that is trying to help former inmates reintegrate into society, and I find that I can help five guys who did three months for drug possession for the same resources it would take to help one person who did twenty years for murder, and so I feel justified in leaving all of the latter category out on the street. On a philosophical level, this seems like a system that is dehumanizing at its core, but on a more practical level it could lead to a lot of inefficiencies as well, since the measurements no matter how precise can never really provide the whole picture. When, if ever, should we choose to opt out of the measurement game?
Leah: Quantification can tell us about how hard/costly a task is, but not about how important it is to us. It would be possible to think malaria might be the place your money could go furthest with regard to disease, but that you worried less about physical ills than certain relationship/spiritual ones, and wanted to put a lot of your resources into pre/post-marital counseling, for example.
Your example is more about picking and choosing people to help with a specific problem, than choosing the problem, and it’s similar to the dilemmas faced by hospitals choosing who to give organs to. I don’t think there’s an easy answer — you want to do the best you can with the resources you have, but not to treat any category of people as disposable, by excluding them. Quantification can help clarify how much you’re trading off to be inclusive, but it doesn’t tell you when you should triage instead of helping everyone you can till your money/organs run out.