Over at Fare Forward, I’m doing a paired review of Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity and Will MacAskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference and talking about how to balance the spiritual and material goals of charity.
Reading the two books side by side, it’s clear MacAskill wouldn’t dispute some of the charges that Beer lays to his account. Beer endorses local charities, which can best further what he sees as the primary purpose of philanthropy, “to increase opportunities for and strengthen the possibilities of authentic human communion.” In contrast, MacAskill cuts ties with a charity focusing on fistulas even after he’s made a personal visit and been moved by the women’s stories, because he does the math and thinks his money could do more good elsewhere.
Beer sees something beautiful in the arbitrariness of charity when we focus on those around us. When we give to our neighbors, there’s less danger we’ll confuse charity with deserving—there’s no particular merit to crossing our paths. MacAskill fears that arbitrariness winds up structurally excluding some of the needy (those who can’t physically meet us, those whose needs aren’t cute, etc).
The stakes of charity have never been higher. We live in a somewhat unprecedented time, where we have the ability to care for many more people than we can know and love. As an American with a stable income, I can buy way more than Dunbar’s number of malaria nets, and send them off to people I’ll never meet.