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Both/And Philanthropy

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Jeremy Beer, author of The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity and William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make A Difference both feel a deep responsibility for others, but disagree about exactly what it is that they owe.

Will MacAskill, a philosophy professor at Oxford and one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, is focused on getting the most charitable bang for the buck whenever he makes a donation. Jeremy Beer, a founding partner of American Philanthropic and the president of the American Ideas Institute, finds that true charity has been eclipsed by technocratically and globally minded philanthropy, of which MacAskill’s EA is only the latest example.

Reading the two books side by side, it’s clear MacAskill wouldn’t dispute some of the charges that Beer lays to his account. Beer endorses local charities, which can best further what he sees as the primary purpose of philanthropy, “to increase opportunities for and strengthen the possibilities of authentic human communion.” In contrast, MacAskill cuts ties with a charity focusing on fistulas even after he’s made a personal visit and been moved by the women’s stories, because he does the math and thinks his money could do more good elsewhere.

Beer sees something beautiful in the arbitrariness of charity when we focus on those around us. When we give to our neighbors, there’s less danger we’ll confuse charity with deserving—there’s no particular merit to crossing our paths. MacAskill fears that arbitrariness winds up structurally excluding some of the needy (those who can’t physically meet us, those whose needs aren’t cute, etc).

The stakes of charity have never been higher. We live in a somewhat unprecedented time, where we have the ability to care for many more people than we can know and love. As an American with a stable income, I can buy way more than Dunbar’s number of malaria nets, and send them off to people I’ll never meet.

I’ve been given this power as the result of efficiencies in scale of charity operations, but also as the result of tremendous wealth disparities, both globally and within my own country. Bill Gates cannot give away his fortune only to people he knows personally; he simply has too much of it. The people he cares for would run out of needs before he ran out of money. Perhaps for that reason, it’s not surprising that GiveWell was founded by former hedgefunders, who were acutely aware of how much (purchasing) power they had, and wanted to make sure that they wielded it wisely.

Instead of just checking whether a charity mostly spends money on overhead or on its intervention, groups like GiveWell check up on how effective the intervention is (When you cure parasitical worms, how much more time do children spend in school? If you send doctors out to perform a surgery, how many Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) do patients gain? Would a different surgery have a better labor to QALY ratio?)

It’s that kind of statistical triage that tends to leave a sour taste in critics’ mouths. Beer praises nuns who refused to pair their charity with mandatory improvement schemes—they lived to serve the poor, not the so-called “deserving” poor. Rationing aid by QALYs doesn’t carry the same tang of moral judgement, but it does force us to name some people that we won’t help, something that feels like discarding them.

Of course, we choose many people not to help all the time, but seldom so explicitly, and seldom as a named class. Personally, for as long as a charity gap makes rationing aid necessary, I’m tempted to weight the chance of being helped according to the QALYs saved, so that highly effective medical interventions are much more likely to be funded than lower impact ones—but there’s still a small chance that resources would be spent at the bottom end of the scale, instead of setting a cutoff below which someone’s problem just isn’t worth solving.

And when it comes to the fundamental divide between Beer and MacAskill, for my own part, I like to hybridize their global vs local approaches. When I have the opportunity to do something for someone close to me (e.g. defraying a friend-of-a-friend’s medical costs, donating to a cause they favor, or sending flowers to someone I care about) I usually make a matching donation to one of the causes that MacAskill favors.

I don’t focus so much on the good my money can do that I let myself treat what I can do with my time and with my love as a rounding error. Instead, I let my empathy fuel two good deeds—one for the person I love, one for someone I won’t have the opportunity to meet and love.

There are members of the Effective Altruist movement who might look askance at my choice, people who’d agree with St Basil the Great that “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not?” For those EA activists, my choice to give to less effective causes is a theft by omission, just as, at the more extreme edges of the movement, my theater budget is.

However, MacAskill doesn’t ask his readers to endorse this kind of ascetic discipline. He just wants to help them catch his own wonder at the good that their money can do (however much of it they plan to give) and help them make deliberate but joyful choices with their charity budget. They’re free to use the rest of their money to further other goals, whether it’s beginning a family, being a patron of the arts, or committing to localist interventions to share love, along with resources.

MacAskill is focused on high impact healing that is too cost-effective to be carried out at a relational scale. Beer wants to make sure that charity that engages a receiver as a person, not a spreadsheet cell, isn’t neglected. Christians can and should budget money and emotional reserves for both.

Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco works as a news writer at FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012. Arriving at Amen, her first book, will be published in Spring 2015.