Last week I posted a review of Peter Singer’s 2015 book The Most Good You Can Do in which Singer discusses the concept of effective altruism. This article was the catalyst for several conversations including, the following exchange with Christian philosopher Joshua Parikh.
Josh is a student at Oxford who just completed an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and is going onto a Masters in Philosophical Theology next year. He is interested in apologetics, social justice, and Artificial Intelligence. He also appeared last year as a guest on “Unbelievable” with Justin Brierley . In 2015 he won Tyndale Fellowship’s 2015 IVP ‘Young Philosopher of Religion’ Prize for his essay on the problem of evil. Josh also writes for “Christianity Magazine”. Here are links to his recent articles on sex robots and the Christian and Donald Trump.
In this article we explore the concept of effective altruism in light of Christian belief and commitment.
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Randal: Josh, thanks for agreeing to have this dialogue on effective altruism and the Christian. Let’s begin with definitions: how would you define “effective altruism”?
Josh: Thanks Randal for inviting me to do so! In its broadest sense, Effective Altruism is about “the use of high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible”, as defined by the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA). This broad sense of doing the most good you can do, as put by Peter Singer, is then specifically applied to different areas from charitable giving to career choice to issue prioritisation to ensure that we do the maximum amount to make the world a better place.
Randal: Interesting. Singer defends effective altruism within the framework of a utilitarian philosophy. That is, for Singer, effective altruism involves making altruistic choices that produce the most good for the greatest number of sentient beings.
If one has concerns with utilitarianism are there other ways one can seek to do the most good? Or does effective altruism require a commitment to utilitarianism?
Josh: Singer is definitely an influential voice within the Effective Altruism movement, and many utilitarians are sympathetic to Effective Altruism. Nonetheless, the two ideas are independent- Effective Altruism is about doing the most good you can do, and the concept of “good” can be given a thick content, from individual rights to freedom to desert to much more. What Effective Altruists agree about, again from the CEA, is that “helping others is important”- and this commits us to using our time, money and other resources to maximally benefit the world.
We could look at the story of Kitty Genovese, who was brutally murdered in the sight of 37 or 38 witnesses, according to the common story, and yet not one of them rang the police. Whether your preference is for deontological ethics, where this is a horrific infringement of her rights, or for utilitarian ethics focussing on the horrendous suffering she underwent and consequent deprivation of life, we can still all agree that someone should have rung the police.
And yet we have resources and abilities which we could use to benefit others far more than ourselves, and we choose not to- we spend almost all of our money on ourselves instead of donating a proportion of that money to effective charities which lift people out of material poverty or deworm children, for example. This seems morally problematic from a range of ethical perspectives. (I should note that I give far less money than I believe I am morally obliged to, and remain an outstanding hypocrite for the moment.)
Randal: You say you give less than you should. My response is, who doesn’t?
I give a lecture on consumerism in which I describe the numbers of people who die from easily preventable illness like diarrhea. With that in mind, I invite the audience to imagine that they can save one of those lives for a paltry $5. “Now,” I say, “imagine that you win $50,000. Since you don’t have a car, you could choose to buy a new Audi and few people would judge you. But if you make that choice, 10,000 people will die. So you consider buying a new Honda for $25,000 and donating $25,000 to save people. Generous, right? After all, that choice would save 5000 lives … but 5000 will still die. So after some soul searching, you decide to give all your money to the poor — you’re a saint! — and you resign yourself to keep walking to your destinations. But since it is a hot day you keep a measly five bucks from your winnings so that you can buy a frappuccino at Starbucks to refresh yourself on your long walk. Seems fair, right? On the other hand, that coffee means that one person will die.”
From that perspective, how can I possibly justify buying that drink?
Josh: Sounds like a fantastic lecture, I’m sad to miss it! My first response to “who doesn’t” is a resounding AMEN. That’s not an excuse of my own greed, but a recognition that so many of us fail to give generously, and even if generously, without thinking about effectiveness. Paul’s comment that there is “not one good, not even one” becomes pretty understandable when we see how radically flawed we are.
And yet we should also notice that self-love is important intrinsically and instrumentally. The Second Greatest Commandment is to “love your neighbour as yourself”- and that’s a massive ask in terms of loving others, but also preserves an important place for self-love, insofar as we matter intrinsically. Jesus had food, drink, sleep and friendships too!
One important risk is burnout- mental health difficulties are pervasive for servant-hearted people, from clergy to mental health professionals. If we fail to look after ourselves, whether by buying the Starbuck’s Frappucino, or by spending time and resources on close relationships, then we damage our ability to serve others well in the long term and accomplish far less.
Randal: Awesome. The next time someone judges me for owning a motorcycle and a muscle car, I’ll reply, “But Josh said….”
Seriously though, I do sometimes find myself caught between futility and complacency. If I can never climb the mountain of good will, why even start? I’ll just kick my feet up and relax at base camp. What I do appreciate about ethical altruism is that it offers all sorts of practical suggestions for starting the climb even if we recognize we’ll never reach the top.
In my review of Peter Singer’s book The Most Good You Can Do I begin by noting that we often engage in two types of giving: what Singer calls “warm glow” giving and what I call “perfunctory” giving. Perhaps I could get your thoughts on each.
So first off, Singer says we often give because we are emotionally drawn to some cause and we get the warm glow when we give. From the perspective of an ethical altruist, what role, if any, should that warm glow serve in guiding our charitable choices?
Josh: Definitely agree on the practicality of the EA movement- there are genuine things we can accomplish which add value to the world, and that excites me.
I think that warm glows are helpful but need proper context. It’s not the worst thing ever that we sometimes feel happy about giving. The problem is that we leave it there and don’t think about it any more; and for a range of reasons, this is problematic. One problem is that human impulses are easily manipulated- I was at a Christian concert a few years ago, and they gave a heartfelt plea for child sponsorship with a particular charity in the interval. Though I was moved at the time, I found out later that the band was paid £50 by that charity for every child sponsorship they achieved; somewhat cheapening the experience.
The second problem is that we are persistently irrational creatures, prey to what psychologists term “cognitive biases”- consistent bad patterns of thinking. One relevant bias is “scope neglect”- which means we often don’t care about the size of our effect, but just about the purchase of moral satisfaction. For example, in one study, “three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88”- clearly not responsive to the problem’s size. Intellectual humility forces us to recognise our limitations and respond accordingly, acting in ways that have bigger effects and not necessarily the first or most obvious option.
Randal: Well said, Josh. I mentioned above that many people are perfunctory givers: that is, they give out of habit or a general sense of obligation, but without much by way of warm glow or critical reflection. I’m thinking, for example, of the Christian who automatically tithes a portion of their income to their local church.
So let’s put this in concrete terms. Picture a Baptist congregant who faces the choice to donate $1000 to one of GiveWell’s top-rated charities, the Against Malaria Foundation, or to their local church. If they donate to the Against Malaria Foundation, they can have assurance that their donation will buy approximately 200 mosquito nets which will thereby avert untold suffering and save many lives. By contrast, if they donate to their local church, they don’t have any assurance that their funds will be used effectively. And even if the local church’s use is effective, it seems hard to justify subsidizing the cost of plastic communion cups and steam-cleaning the church carpet when you could be averting the spread of malaria.
How would effective altruism guide a person in facing a choice like this?
Josh: So I don’t want to say that people shouldn’t give any money to the local church. I think our duty to the local church can be thought of like friendships or family, as we have a particular obligation to them, looking at the special relationship we have, or a reciprocity-based obligation.
Nevertheless, we can also recognise that the Bible does not merely suggest we should support the local church, but enjoins upon us a range of moral obligations; “remember the poor” (Galatians 2); or to care for the gospel going to the “ends of the earth” as in Acts 1. We may recognise these are done more effectively than others than our local church- and given the contingencies of our locations, and the numerous analogous stories to your hypothetical Baptist congregants, this seems fairly likely. I think we need to give substantially more to more effective charities, and when increasing our giving, we should care about that first and foremost. I would give the vast majority of that money to effective charities in this instance.
Randal: Josh, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’ve definitely given us a lot to think about. As we wrap this up, I’d like to return to the concept of the good. As you said, this concept can be given “thick content”. For Singer, the good involves pursuing actions that seek to minimize suffering and maximize happiness. In addition, Singer eschews any prioritization of the human species in our calculation of the good. How might a Christian give “thick content” to the concept of the good in a way that differs from Singer?
Josh: Let me focus on two relevant aspects, rather than an exhaustive account. Firstly, I think we should have a strong focus on individual virtue and discipleship- we must focus massively on becoming like Christ, or growing in the fruit of the Spirit- kindness, gentleness, self-control, etc. Though valuable instrumentally too, they’re also intrinsically valuable, and, there is therefore extreme value to serving and living in community, and practice of the spiritual disciplines (Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” is magisterial).
Secondly, there’s the good of relationship with God which is extremely valuable- the possibility of relationship with a Supreme Creator who died for us in love is an amazing privilege, and Christians should prioritise finding ways of helping introduce as many as possible to this awesome good. This could take place through individual evangelism, perhaps aided by apologetics, or supporting effective evangelistic ministries.
This is relevant as we might support some different charities to others as Christians sympathetic to Effective Altruism. GiveWell recommend some fantastic charities- the Against Malaria Foundation have been mentioned; I’m a fan of the Schistomiasis Control Initiative. I also highly recommend two other charities, which (loosely) link to the previous thoughts:
- The group Just Love UK exist to inspire and release every Christian student to pursue the Biblical call to social justice. They run student-led groups across a number of universities in the UK, and both have a practical impact, such as through campaigning and fundraising; as well as an exciting long term impact, through developing students and pushing them on trajectories to pursue justice through their careers, whether in business, politics or elsewhere. I think they’re exceptionally effective and truly brilliant, having enjoyed interacting with them myself; and you can see the following video about their impact, from founder Tom Christmas; as well as this video explaining their vision from their incredible staff team.
- 500,000 Churches is a highly effective church planting organisation, which funds church planters in India for a mere £50 per month. I’ve had the privilege of meeting their founder Ed, who’s a truly awesome guy, and hearing his passion for radical giving; and his older brother Alex is mentioned within The Most Good You Can Do, as someone limiting his salary to give, and motivated by his Christian faith. You can find out more about 500,000 Churches here; and read a profile of Alex here.