The conversations were seeded by a TED talk given by Peter Singer.
In this he made three main points:
- We should give more money away than we do
- We should give it where it has most impact, and that means saving lives in underdeveloped countries
- We should check that our money is spent wisely.
He also cited the Gates Foundation several times for the amount that they had given and the effectiveness of how it was being spent, e.g. in tackling malaria which kills thousands each year (an estimated 438,000 in 2015).
The arguments having been made we split into small groups and started the conversations. As is my rule, what follows is a mix of comments made by various people and edited by me after the event; it is my summary of the topic and not a record of the evening.
While it is easy to say that we should give away all the money that we do not need the problem is we do not know how much money we may need in the future, particularly if we, or somebody else in the immediate family, has a long term illness. Most of us in the room were saving money just in case and would die relatively rich.
I was also concerned about the democratic aspect. Why should the Gateses get to decide where large sum of money should be spent? If we had more taxation and more foreign aid then the process would be both more democratic and more inclusive, i.e. we would catch all the very rich people who are not doing what the Gateses are.
I was interested in the politics behind the initial assumptions. Rather than address altruism I was more interested in addressing the inequality that makes it an issue, i.e. why are we rich while they are poor?
Most, if not all, of the people in the room gave to charities that deal with quality of life issues, e.g. the arts, as well as those that deal with health and well being. While one person said at the end that they might change their mix of giving to spend less on arts most of us felt that quality of life is as important as quantity of life and that we should remain members of the National Trust, Kew Gardens, etc.
In talking about the efficiency of charities Peter Singer wanted as much money as possible to go to the needy but I deliberately give to charities that also do political campaigning, e.g. Shelter, as we need to fix the problems not just help the people caught up in them.
I also felt that charities were under more scrutiny to be efficient than most organisations. I can see waste all around me at work but nobody is monitoring us.
It was an interesting and lively set of conversations but I left with the view that Effective Altruism while much better than no altruism at all fails to address the real point which is the inequality of wealth and health.