Effective Altruism Probably Isn't

Effective Altruism Probably Isn't

Last Sunday's New York Times included a column by economist Tyler Cowen lauding the currently fashionable notion of "effective altruism."  The Nonprofiteer responded to Professor Cowen in an e-mail she reproduces here in full:

Dear Mr. Cowen,

Your August 16 article lauding "effective altruism" failed to note the central weakness of this form of economic analysis: it leads inexorably to a single type of giving, namely, donations to sanitation and health in the developing world.  If the only question to be asked is how many lives are saved by an intervention, this is the only possible answer.

But many important aspects of our society which depend on philanthropic support don't save lives; they simply make life worth living.  This holds true for the arts, environmentalism, advocacy to maintain democratic systems and social services which serve in developed nations to mitigate inequality.  All these are important contributions to the improvement of the human condition, yet none passes the "effective altruism" test as you've articulated it.

I understand the economist's temptation to apply rational choice theory to every aspect of human life, but those of us who work in the charitable/philanthropic/civil society sector understand that the best way to help people give their money is to help them define their own passions and concerns and then help them find agencies which serve to promote those.

To the extent that we can all agree on certain universal essentials, such as good health, adequate housing and effective education, we should all agree to pay for them through our taxes, and not depend on the whims of the wealthy.  Wise use of the public fisc would truly constitute effective altruism.


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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at DuelingCritics.net. Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick & Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at KellyNFP@yahoo.com.

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