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Tis the season for givinga time when charities call for donations and the gulf between the haves and the have nots becomes particularly apparent. But how much good can – or should – you do, by opening your wallet?

Such are the questions posed by effective altruism (EA), a movement thrust into the spotlight by the arrest of its high-profile exponent, billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, after the collapse of his cryptocurrency exchange.

In a famous 1972 article entitled Famine, Affluence and Morality, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer – generally regarded as EA’s philosophical originator – invited readers to imagine discovering a toddler drowning in a pond. Most of us would recognise an ethical obligation to rescue the child, even at the risk of muddying our boots and irrespective of whether other onlookers did nothing. Physical proximity makes no difference: if we could save distant infants in similar predicaments, Singer argues, our responsibility still holds.

In the weeks since the crisis in Bankman-Fried’s business emerged, critiques of EA have proliferated. But Singer’s core insight retains all its force.

“To live an ethical life,” the philosopher says now, “it’s not enough just to not harm others: to not to cheat, lie, steal, people, whatever. Those ‘thou shalt not’ rules are not sufficient. In a world in which there is such great need, I think the typical Guardian reader should feel some responsibility to help people.”

How far does that extend?

“That’s the really big and quite difficult question,’ he replies. “In the article, I suggested that the only real stopping place is the where, if you give more, you would be doing as much harm to yourself as good to the person you’re helping. But that’s a theoretical standard and people are going to reach their own decision based on what they’re comfortable with.”

Peter Singer, on stage
‘Wise, effective altruists and utilitarians know that honesty is the best policy’ says Peter Singer. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

True to his principles, after winning the $1m Berggruen prize in 2021, Singer donated all the money to charity.

Of course, many belief systems (including atheism) encourage altruism. Jews perform good works known as “tzedakah”; “zakat” is a religious obligation for Muslims; the New Testament tells Christians that “God loves a cheerful giver”. But as a consequentialist p
hilosophy (that is, one that judges actions by their outcomes), EA distinguishes itself with guidelines as to which causes do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

“It’s really important to give to the most effective charities,” Singer contends, “because they can be not just 10 times but hundreds of times more impactful in what they do.”

The same utilitarian logic means the EA site 80,000 Hours (of which Singer is not a part) suggests supporters choose a high-paying career so they can donate more during their lifetime (a practice known as “earning to give”).

EA’s extraordinary growth as a movement over recent years owes a great deal to the billionaires attracted to it. Singer’s book The Life You Can Save inspired, for instance, the Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz to establish his Open Philanthropy foundation, which now disperses 100 million dollars to causes each year.

Reckoning up the balance sheet

And that brings us again to Sam Bankman-Fried, a man described by Vox, accurately enough, as “a homegrown EA billionaire”.

A lifelong consequentialist, in his student days, Bankman-Fried planned to devote himself to animal welfare. But in 2013 he met Will MacAskill, the charismatic Oxford philosopher behind EA groups like Giving What We Can and the Centre for Effective Altruism. MacAskill introduced the young man to “earning to give” – and on that basis, Bankman-Fried took up Wall Street quantitative trading.

Bankman-Fried said he planned to eventually give the vast fortune he amassed through FTX to charity; in 2022 alone, he donated approximately $130m to the FTX Future Fund, a charity operated according to EA principles.

Australia weekend

80,000 Hours showcased Bankman-Fried’s success, claiming he’d “fund hundreds or even thousands of people working on the world’s most pressing problems”.

After his arrest, an addendum appeared.

“We feel shaken by recent events,” it reads, “and are not sure exactly what to say or think”.

Singer doesn’t believe that the FTX debacle in any way discredits EA. In a piece for Project Syndicate, he argues that “wise, effective altruists and utilitarians know that honesty is the best policy”, since to behave otherwise risks terrible consequences.

Though he doesn’t expect EA as a whole to suffer from the controversy, Singer anticipates less of an emphasis on earning-to-give in the future, a shift that he says was already under way before Bankman-Fried’s arrest.

“I think in general, a lot more good has been done by earning-to-give than harm, at least up until the collapse of FTX, which has certainly caused a lot more harm than any other [example]” says Singer. “It’s very hard to reckon up the total balance sheet on that.”

The American philosopher Alice Crary, a co-editor of the forthcoming collection The Good It Promises, The Harm It Does: Critical Essays on Effective Altruism, suggests we should resist the idea that “moral assessment comes in a quantitative form, so that yo
u can talk about something like the biggest return on your investment”.

In one podcast, Bankman-Fried explained how his consequentialist ethics mean “in the end, you turn things into numbers, and you decide which number is biggest.” Crary argues that that though EA’s promises of efficiency are presented as emerging from a “god’s eye” level of abstraction, they can align very neatly with a neoliberalism associated with the injustices that EA advocates decry.

When a movement turns into “mega philanthropy … you’ve got real problems,” Crary says. “One is, it’s anti-democratic. You’re usurping a public space to do things that individuals are making decisions about. You’re also drawing on public coffers because charitable donations are tax free – you’re effectively using public money to do your project.

“And then there’s the deeper question: you’re not asking how it happened that some people have money and other people do not.”

In a recent academic piece, she describes EA as a movement that owes its success “primarily not to the – questionable – value of its moral theory, but to its compatibility with political and economic institutions responsible for some of the very harms it addresses”.

Many critics focus, in particular, on the enthusiasm of some EA advocates for “longtermism”: the argument that, because far more people will exist in years to come, maximising good means allocating a greater importance to the future. For instance, many longtermists identify studying artificial intelligence as a priority: a hostile AI might end the species and wipe out generations yet unborn.

Singer himself rejects those versions of effective altruism directed primarily towards the far, far future. He believes that, in the wake of FTX, longtermism may also become less prominent in EA communities.

“I don’t think we know enough about the future,” he says, “and what will be helpful to it, and we should not risk important present and near-future goals for its sake.

“That being said, I do think we should try to reduce extinction risk and I think that we’re not doing enough to prevent new and more serious pandemics emerging in various ways.”

He sees no incompatibility between effective altruism and campaigns for wider social change – so long as the latter can be shown to deliver real outcomes.

“If you say we need social and political and economic change, you need to say how we are we going to achieve it. There’s no point in arguing, yes, that’s what we need – and so you’re not going to give anything to provide bed nets to help kids who would otherwise die from malaria. You need to have some reasonably plausible way in which you can make a difference.”

In a sense, Crary reverses that argument, pointing to Black Lives Matter and other interventions for justice and democracy and suggesting such movements simply aren’t comprehensible in EA’s consequentialist terms. Struggles for liberation emerge from the suffering of the oppressed and can’t be reduced to abstract metrics.

EA, she argues, cannot judge which social virtue might matter at which time: it “doesn’t have the tools to look at complicated social situations and say what’s called for from us at a particular moment”.

‘Sometimes we need to be modest’

Crary agrees with Singer that Guardian readers should be thinking about how they might make a difference. Like him, she assesses her personal finances at the end of the year and gives to the causes she cares about – with a particular focus on the structures that causes clusters of related oppressions.

“Nothing wrong with [charitable donations]. It’s important. But it’s not very deep and it certainly shouldn’t be the basis of a large-scale social movement.”

Tables of “effective charities” might be
useful for some donors. But others will want to embed altruism in other values, from religious identification to secular solidarity.

Rather than just looking to save the world through their wallet, readers might, Crary suggests, look to those engaged in particularly inspiring community organising and find ways to support them.

“Sometimes, what we need is to be modest; sometimes what we need to know is that we’re the benefactors of systems that are really harming other people,” she argues. “Sometimes, what we need to do is show up where we’re needed and just listen.”

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