23 February 2016

South West London Humanists: Discussion on Effective Altruism

I go to the monthly South West London Humanists monthly meetings for intelligent conversations on topics that interest me and in February that was Effective Altruism.

The conversations were seeded by a TED talk given by Peter Singer.

In this he made three main points:
  1. We should give more money away than we do
  2. We should give it where it has most impact, and that means saving lives in underdeveloped countries
  3. We should check that our money is spent wisely.
In his talk he gave several examples to make his point, such as for the cost of rearing and training one guide dog to help one blind person in the USA we could do 2,000 simple eye operations to restore sight to people in Africa.

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.

I was not convinced by the praise heaped on the Gates. Despite giving a vast fortune away they still had a fortune left. They had only given away money that they could not spend. Jesus got that right with the Widow's Mite.

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.

1 comment:

  1. You might find this Meetup group interesting http://www.meetup.com/Effective-Altruism-London/

    It looks like there were some interesting points raised in the discussion, effective altruism is more of a ground up movement (especially considering there are a lot of skeptics of charity in the various groups) rather than Bill Gates telling people what to do. One of the main things is for people to do their own research and to point out anything that seems odd or could be done better rather than deciding on the best thing to do for everyone.

    I think with taxation and foreign aid, a lot of it is used to further countries own national interests as opposed to helping the poorest(which kind of makes sense from a politicians point of view as they are only accountable to their constituents). There is a slight move towards effectiveness with UK's foreign aid, but seems to be one of the few countries that is thinking about it. Also that is about 50% of overseas giving, the other half is from private donations, so if those donations are more effective, that can be a large help and potentially end absolute poverty faster.

    I think with the inequality aspect it makes sense to look at the history of poverty and how living standards have changed over time, this is a website with loads of interesting data sets visualised well.


    I think inequality has been decreasing globally, but for the last 20/30 years increasing in countries like USA, UK, Australia which has effected media coverage and our own perceptions of it.

    With personal giving, I have two categories, the section that goes towards effective organisations (which could be direct aid, political lobbying, outreach) and then another section for extra charity, for example if someone is doing a fun run or to the local charity I volunteer with. It's more comparable to the budget I set aside for going to the pub or the cinema.

    In terms of people caring more about efficient charities rather than normal work places. I think that's usually because if a work place isn't at least a little bit efficient, other companies will sell their product for a lower price (in theory) whereas beneficiaries of charities don't get the chance to shop around for the best value for money.

    Sorry for the wall of text, if you want to come along to a meetup it'd be good to talk about all these issues in person, and similar issues are often discussed by attendees.


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