How do you decide how to give? These Minnesotans practice effective altruism

Imagine walking past a pond and seeing a small child struggling in the water, calling for help. Do you go in and save her? Of course! But wait, if you go in, you’ll ruin your expensive new shoes. Do you save the child anyway? Of course! A child’s life is worth more than a pair of shoes.

Oh yeah? Well, then why did you buy fancy shoes in the first place, instead of contributing the money to help save the lives of children in other parts of the world?

This jarring thought experiment, courtesy of Princeton psychologist Peter Singer, illustrates the steely logic of effective altruism.

Effective Altruism, or EA, is a philosophical concept and a global philanthropic movement that aims to maximize the impact of giving. He encourages a modest lifestyle and considers children in distant parts of the planet just as worth helping as the children in his community, and more profitable.

“Since you want to do good, doesn’t it make sense to try to do as much good as possible with your current time and money?” said Maplewood’s Russel Rogers, summarizing EA’s philosophy.

EA calls for more familiar charities to be ignored in favor of data-driven giving guided by research organizations like GiveWell. A common recommendation is to help buy inexpensive bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria, one of the leading and mostly preventable causes (along with birth complications and trauma, famine, pneumonia and diarrhea) of death of about 5 million young children a year. year.

GiveWell estimates that the cost of saving a child’s life is around $5,000. In keeping with EA’s ideology, you might want to keep that in mind the next time you go car shopping.

Other EA causes include stopping the development of artificial intelligence before it harms humans and ending factory farming, noting that pet shelters get the most attention for animal welfare despite factory farms hurting many more animals.

Because it’s an individual search, estimating EA’s following is difficult, but according to the Center for Effective Altruism, there are more than 200 EA groups in dozens of countries.

In the US, they’re concentrated in places like Silicon Valley, but the Twin Cities area offers an EA Meetup group with around 200 members and an EA Facebook group of around 140.

“I would say we’re a weird, eclectic bunch,” said Mike Hewitt of Minneapolis, who belongs to both local groups. “There are a lot of people who are pretty smart, one standard deviation above the average for intelligence. Everyone is pretty nice.”

the cost of a life

Selfless donation and maximum impact may sound like obvious positives, but EA has its critics.

Last fall, the movement’s reputation took a hit with the downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried, an EA supporter and founder of cryptocurrency company FTX.

Bankman-Fried, once one of the richest people in the world, claimed to be accumulating wealth that he would give away, an EA strategy called “earn to give.” But FTX went bankrupt in November, vaporizing its notional donations along with billions of dollars in client investments. Bankman-Fried was charged with fraud and could face decades in prison.

EA is not directly to blame for Bankman-Fried’s alleged misdeeds, though some argue that it set the stage for mischief. But critics have raised other concerns about the practice: that it implicitly blames donors for donating to nonprofit organizations close to their hearts — local arts organizations, homeless shelters and food shelves, associations fighting the disease who killed a loved one) and steers them away from causes that cannot be easily measured in terms of lives saved, such as literacy or support for racial equity.

EA’s ideology does not prohibit you from buying new shoes. He often suggests donating 10% of profits, the classic church tithe, but allows other options. Still, Singer’s “drowning child” exercise implies that residents of rich countries are immoral for spending money on their own common comforts or minor luxuries rather than helping others.

Rogers faced this last summer, when his family expanded their driveway for $5,000, which again, as Rogers knew all too well, is the estimated cost of saving one life.

“So the expansion of my entrance came at the expense of someone’s life?” he said. “Can I morally save for retirement? Can I do a kitchen remodel without feeling like a monster?”

The philosophy, two critics wrote in 2015, is “infused with logic so cold even Mr. Spock would shudder to hear it.”

the greatest good

By all appearances, EA’s most prominent leaders walk the walk. When Singer won a $1 million prize in philosophy in 2021, he declared that he would donate it all on behalf of people in extreme poverty and animals on factory farms.

But many (or most) of the followers practice what might be called “EA lite,” their charitable giving informed by EA principles but within the framework of a common American way of life.

“These people constantly sacrificing for the greater good, it’s pretty compelling.” said Hewitt, 40. “For me, that would not be sustainable. There are many things I want in life. I like to travel, I like to have nice things.”

He estimates that he donates about 5% of his income to charities recommended by EA-aligned organizations like GiveWell and Giving What We Can. By donating $5,000 a year, Hewitt reasons, over 20 years he will have saved 20 lives.

“So my life was purely positive instead of just, ‘Here, here, here,'” Hewitt said.

Tom Warth, founder of Books for Africa, joined EA just before the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried. The highly rated nonprofit, based in St. Paul, is the largest exporter of donated books to the continent, with more than 58 million delivered to all 55 African countries.

In addition, Warth, 87, has made pledges for the organization by walking some 2,750 miles, including through two African countries.

After selling a book business in 1988 “for more money than I ever imagined,” Warth, a British immigrant, began traveling. On a visit to Jinja, Uganda, he saw a library nearly empty of books and was inspired to start Books for Africa, which he believes follows EA principles by making the most of its investment on behalf of people in another part of the world. . .

Making a donation to someone close to you, someone you could potentially meet, can be more fulfilling than sending money to a remote organization “and all you see is a picture in a catalogue,” Warth acknowledged.

Rogers estimates that he donates 10-15% of his income, about half to EA-approved organizations and the rest to other causes he supports.

“There is value in the arts, value in helping the homeless here,” said Rogers, 58.

He likes to contemplate his charitable giving options, but acknowledged that overanalyzing can lead to bottomless rabbit holes.

“If you take it too far, your head explodes,” he said. “Sometimes I think too much about my decisions. But I’m deliberately thinking about how I use my resources and I want to do well with them.”

You’ve already told your children that they won’t inherit everything you leave behind.

“Helping my stable white kids get richer is not the greatest good,” Rogers said. “Once they’ve reached a certain level of stability, I don’t feel right about enriching their lives. The fringe benefit of an extra $10,000 isn’t worth two people dying.”