Effective altruism is a global research, philosophical, and social movement which, “advocates using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” In other words, effective altruists aim “to find the best ways to help others, and put those ways into practice.”
But, there is a fundamental problem with this approach. And, I’m not talking about the recent arrest and upcoming trial of Sam Bankman-Fried on a variety of fraud charges. Although he was an early and vocal supporter of effective altruism and talked regularly about “earning to give,” as a business model, his bankruptcy and legal woes are examples more of basic human failings and not failings of the effective altruism movement.
Instead, the problem with effective altruism is that it’s focused on the wrong problem.
Here’s what I mean: As the figure below shows, the fundamental belief underlying effective altruism is that the purpose of one human giving in support of another is to solve a problem that the second human is experiencing. Maybe it’s hunger. Perhaps, paying for education. Or, receiving the best medical care for a rare disease.
Of course, there can be many approaches – many solutions – to solving the problems we face in our world. Effective altruism says, “through research and practice, let’s find the best ways to solve these problems and pour charitable resources into those solutions!”
Sounds pretty smart. But. . .
What if the problem giving is meant to solve has less to do with the recipient (i.e., Person 2 above) and far more to do with the giver (i.e., Person 1 above)?
What if the real magic of giving is that the giver is transformed in deep and profoundly positive ways?
We know from decades of research now, that when we act on generous impulses – when we give (regardless of amount or outcome), and when we volunteer in any way – we enjoy significant personal benefits. Giving makes the giver more compassionate, physically and emotionally healthier, more positive in their worldview, less stressed, more at peace, and a whole host of other social, mental, and spiritual benefits.
The fundamental virtue of human generosity lies not in its ability to “solve their problems.” The fundamental virtue of human generosity lies in its ability to “solve my problems.”
Effective altruists believe that the biggest problems of our world will be solved when charitable gifts are put to use in the “right” ways. But, I believe our biggest problems are solved the moment we freely give those gifts.
Our world doesn’t need more “effective altruism.”
Our world needs more people acting generously more often. Because that will make everyone better off.