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Most ideas in philanthropy rarely leave conferences or the small press. But effective altruism—the notion that you should make as much money as possible in order to give away as much as possible—seems to be the first idea coming out of the nonprofit world that is circulating in the world of people who are interested in new ideas.

Writing in The Guardian, Larissa MacFarquhar discusses effective altruism through a profile that appears to be an excerpt from a new book, Strangers Drowning. MacFarquhar is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where she writes about ideas. She is a graceful, effective, and fair writer, and I’ve liked her pieces in the New Yorker (and in Lingua Franca before that).

MacFarquhar profiles Julia Wise, who decided when she was a teenager to live her life so that most of the money she makes will go to helping other people. She was a member of a Christian church (we don’t know which denomination) who quit the church at 13 and decided to replace faith in God with faith in charity.

When she was 22 Julia Wise had an emotional crisis. At that time Wise was engaged to Jeff Kaufman, who she subsequently married. Kaufman had gotten a job as a computer programmer, but Wise was unemployed and also broke, because she had donated her entire savings to Oxfam.

They were on a date in an apple orchard, which was selling candy apples. Wise wanted one, and even though Kaufman agreed to pay for everything, Wise was in an emotional crisis. “With her selfish, ridiculous desire for a candy apple, she might have deprived a family of an anti-malarial bed net or deworming medicine that might have saved the life of one of its children.”

Kaufman and Wise eventually decided that when they married, all of Wise’s income and half of Kaufman’s would go to charity. They had to adjust this to pay off student loans and to pay taxes, but eventually as much as two-thirds of their pre-tax income went to charity.

But another crisis came when Julia Wise, at 28, decided she wanted a child. But “children would be the most expensive nonessential thing she could possibly possess, so by having children of her own she would in effect be killing other people’s children.” Eventually she and her husband decided it was ethically permissible to have a child, as long that child donated ten percent of his or her income to charity.

Julia Wise’s daughter, Lily, was born in 2014. Julia Wise went back to work as soon as possible so that she could give away more money.

MacFarquhar calls Julia Wise a “do-gooder,” which she defines as someone whose goal in life is to maximize the contributions they give to others.

“What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence,” she writes. “They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) this joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”

But is maximizing your income to maximize your contributions the right way to live? Three contributors to a surprisingly balanced section of the Washington Post website devoted to ideas disagree.

Gary P. Steuer, president of the Denver-based Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, contends that effective altruism will hypnotize Millennial donors into abandoning arts donations. His concerns are overstated but his fundamental point is sound. Donating to the arts is a reasonable use of philanthropic time and energy.

American Philanthropic’s Jeremy Beer describes how the Old and New Testaments both teach us to support our neighbors who are struggling in life. He sees effective altruism as the latest avatar of the “scientific” view that international giving is more important than neighborhood giving. The enduring lesson taught by ancient Jews and Christians, Beer writes, is that “doing good through works of mercy was how one became good, and thus worthy to stand in God’s presence.” Should we ignore the problems in our communities, Beer asks, just so we can mail out large checks?

Hudson Institute fellow William Schambra notes that the best survey on the subject, conducted by Hope Consulting in 2010, found that only 16 percent of donors surveyed determine what to give based on the impact their donations will make. Most of us give “by seemingly irrational ties to the communities in which they live.” But giving according to local needs or our personal desires, says Schambra, is the right thing to do because supporting local civic associations not only strengthens civil society, but are “the first schools of citizenship, the places where we learn to work out our differences face-to-face and come together in common case. Given the American tendency towards materialism and individualism, we cannot rely on grand causes to summon us to public-mindedness.”

I agree with both Beer and Schambra, but here are two points of my own.

First, nothing I have seen in the effective altruist movement suggests that its members should save for their retirements. I would hope that Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman do not end up living in destitution in their old age because of the checks they wrote in their twenties and thirties that could have been used to build their IRAs.

Second, those who want to become major givers should study the lives of the great philanthropists and realize that great donations come when donors built successful enterprises over decades. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller both decided to devote their lives to giving, but did not become major donors until their enterprises became successes. A generation before them, Lewis Tappan invented credit ratings, starting a company that evolved into Dun and Bradstreet, so that he could retire in his forties and spend the rest of his life fighting slavery.

Here’s an idea for the effective altruists—why isn’t there a philanthropic equivalent of an IRA that donors could use to build up endowments tax-free as long as the money was only used for charity?

Were the effective altruists to call for the creation of such a philanthropic IRA, I would heartily join them.

3 thoughts on “Effective altruism: a summary and critique”

  1. Simmo Simpson says:

    Many – perhaps the majority of – the criticisms of EA in this article are strawmen:

    EA is not just “the notion that you should make as much money as possible”. That is one option, but other options include direct work, research, advocacy work etc where an individual has the potential to have an larger impact than they might for donating (all clearly laid out by EA career guidance organisation ‘80,000 hours’ and by other EA organisations and the main book on the subject ‘Doing Good Better’.

    EAs want to do whatever has the biggest positive impact. This entails having personal financial security in order to continue being able to offer value to the world.

    Rather than what the article says, a fundamental EA calculation IS to see whether it’s better to donate now or instead wait while building career capital and/or finances to leverage at a later time.

  2. Bill C. says:

    Wise and other “effective” altruists sound like Jainists. While that sect had its influences, its growth was limited.

    And how do they know that their donations go to people who are not entirely selfish???

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