Effective Altruism

TED Talks on Mondays are a staple for me. This compelling talk by Peter Singer is wrong. Let me share why.

1. Dr. Singer’s most telling question is founded on the UNICEF statistic that 19,000 children under the age of 5 die from preventable, poverty-rooted causes each day. “Does it really matter that you don’t have to walk around these children as you walk down your street? “I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they’re not right in front of us… none of that seems morally relevant to me.”

I could not disagree more. Proximity matters. Relationship matters. I am not morally responsible to respond to every person in need, and I have a greater responsibility to those who are nearer to me.

Both Dr. Singer and I make our decision based on our faith. My faith is in Jesus Christ, and his is in humanity.  One of my favorite stories comes from Luke chapter 7. Jesus sees a widow draped over the coffin of her only son. His heart breaks, and he takes pity upon her. Now, I have to imagine that there were thousands of widows all over the world at that exact moment who were grieving a horrible loss. But Jesus took action this time. He was moved by what was right in front of him. 

Another example comes from a parable. Jesus tells the story of a man who is robbed and left for dead. Several religious leaders ignored the dying man, but a Samaritan brings the man to an inn and cares for his needs. Jesus did not tell a story to systematically end robbery. He did not propose a global solution to murder. He told the story of the good Samaritan, not the good statistic.

Statistics are helpful, but they are often used to over-simplify complex social problems. The fact that people are in need right in front of us matters.

2. The lion’s share of Dr. Singer’s talk is about what should be done. What success means, what is right, wrong, good, bad, etc. I believe very strongly that why is the most important question. Towards the end of his argument, Dr. Singer shares why he is motivated to help:

“I’ve enjoyed giving… it’s something that is fulfilling to me. Being an effective altruist helps us to solve the Sisyphus problem.”

Sisyphus is the king in Greek mythology who is sentenced by the gods to eternally roll a rock up a hill, and each time he gets to the top, he has to start over again. I can relate to Sisyphus each time I go to the DMV.

Dr. Singer says that our lives as humans are a bit like a “hedonistic treadmill”. We look to make more money to buy more stuff and make ourselves happy. On this point, I share some of Dr. Singer’s passion.

In stepping off the hedonistic treadmill, we must step somewhere else. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s stepping onto another hedonistic treadmill. Hedonism was proposed as an ethical construct by a student of Socrates. He believed that pleasure is the highest good. This is almost identical to the argument that Dr. Singer makes for giving. Effective altruism is motivated, for Dr. Singer, by an increase in self esteem, meaning and fulfillment. In other words, we give because we feel good, and in feeling good, we place our hope in headonism.

Rather than being motivated for effective altruism that makes me feel good, why not search for being a good steward, recognizing that my brief stay here on earth is not a story for my glory? I am motivated to serve my Lord, and live in a way in which he will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”. This motivation means dying to my desire to feel good each time I give.

3. Three people are highlighted as the ultimate examples of giving. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates. Better than Carnegie or Rockefeller. The Gates Foundation is huge, and they’re doing great work. Their story contains no obvious parallel moral truth for my life. The giving of these people may be record-setting, but they do not give in a way that even closely impacts their standard of living. Also, their extreme wealth makes relationships with the poor practically impossible.

The Life You Can Save is a website that Dr. Singer started to help people make informed giving decisions. If you run the income/giving calculator, a person who earns around $500,000/year should be giving almost 10%, and a person who makes $50k/year should be giving around 2%.  These percentages are nearly meaningless and distract us from the real model of generous living.

What I see in scripture is that generous and sacrificial giving is my Lord’s expectation. Every act of generosity in scripture is tied in relationship (people who know or see other people in need). Giving is a partnership, awash in humility, hospitality, caring, reconciliation, compassion and trust. For Dr. Singer, giving is efficiency and (statistical) effectiveness. Where is the biggest bang for the buck… the greatest ROI?

I actually made an appeal to a mentor recently for the charity I lead. After he said yes, I asked him a little about how he makes his charitable decisions. One of the things he told me was, “I try not to over-think it”.

I know he has thought thousands of hours about why he gives, and thousands more building relationships with who he gives. Over-thinking it is what we do when we don’t have a relationship. Over-thinking is the byproduct of believing that we actually own our money. We are more simple than we think. We do our best giving when we see a need and fill it. The poor, widow, orphan or stranger. We take care of those in front of us, and we expect God to do something greater than our calculations.

Proverbs 3:27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.

James 2:15-16 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?



9 thoughts on “Effective Altruism

  1. Just? Or Just Practical?

    Hi Shawn. Thank you for the post.

    While I agree with some of what you have said here, in particular your thoughts regarding the why of giving and the hedonistic treadmill, I disagree with your central statement, “I have a greater responsibility to those who are nearer to me.”

    The thing about the good Samaritan is that he seemed to be less close in terms of religion, race, and origin than the others who passed by. He was only near in physical space for a brief arbitrary moment. What made him the neighbor was the action fact that he accepted responsibility for the injured man and reached out a helping hand.

    I write and talk a lot about global citizenship, and the root of my thinking generally extends back to the creation story and the fact that each one of us equally reflects the image of God – there is none more or less loved by God. So why should we apply a variable to make distinctions of our moral responsibility – especially one as arbitrary as proximity? And why stop at proximity? Couldn’t you say, “Well, I think I should be more responsible for those I am like?” Can we morally justify being differentially responsible according to nationality, religion, political thought, wealth, (dis)ability, gender, race, language, age, sexual orientation, or beauty? Could not proximity become a cloak for convenience or self-interest?

    Some might be tempted to let the proximity argument slide into a nationalistic one. Many feel quite strongly that Americans should primarily take care of other Americans and largely let the rest of the world take care of itself. But, is this how God sees his creation? Does God look down and say, this one is an American so he deserves your care more than that one over there who is a Rwandan. In fact, isn’t this precisely what the Good Samaritan parable speaks against?

    If proximity is a relevant variable, what happens when it runs counter to the magnitude of need? Is it just or just practical to ignore a large and profound injustice that is far from us while responding to a limited and minor injustice that is near?

    Another potential pitfall with the gradation of moral responsibility according to nearness is that it erodes our capacity to see and act for causes that are broad (even global) in reach, such as human trafficking or child labor.

    I understand the importance of relationship in giving, I do. I see giving and receiving as a mutually transformative interaction and we are generally more profoundly impacted by others when we are face to face, whichever side of the giving/receiving equation you’re on. I also understand that it is often the need that is right before our eyes that demands our immediate response. But I also think we need to cast as wide a net as possible to the cares that God may grant us. We should not allow our empathy to people – created equally in God’s image – to diminish according to arbitrary variables like proximity. What is near may be more convenient and more practical, but this is not how Christ instructs our moral character. Christ’s circle of empathy clearly encapsulates the whole of creation; why shouldn’t ours?

  2. Oops, what I meant to add was this – and by the way, I do this in the gentlest sort of way and with humility and full of my own contradictions – how do you reconcile your statement, “I have a greater responsibility to those who are nearer to me” with the work you do with Rooftop 519: “We heal the sickest kids in the world in the name of Christ.” I look forward to your response.

  3. Thanks Aaron. You pose a great question, and I am really grateful for your gentle challenge.

    I have spent a lot of time thinking, praying and reading about this. Of course, I too have my own contradictions, and I realize that I’ll know more tomorrow than I know today (God willing!). I also believe that you and I agree more than my words might lead you to believe.

    That said, I believe proximity matters on a number of levels. My responsibility to my family is first (1 Timothy 5:8). My responsibility to others is based heavily on their need and their proximity, not on their deservedness. For instance, the Old Testament commands to care for poor, widows, orphans & strangers was regularly qualified by terms like, “In your land”.

    There’s so much to say here – I can’t afford the time now. But I will point out that the most oft-quoted scripture for benevolence, James 1:27, is an admonishment to be WITH widows and orphans. Presence and proximity are both healthy ingredients in providing service. Would you agree?

    Proximity could absolutely become the crutch you caution against. My experience with people who build strong, caring and compassionate relationships with people in close proximity leads me to believe that these people are (or become) the most globally considerate people I’ve ever encountered. As their love increases, their proximity boundaries increase. I am less concerned with proximity becoming a cloak for convenience than I am with the very real problem of scale being an opiate for apathy.

    Imagine with me. I live in a very affluent area with a lot of golf resorts with little ponds and water hazards. I picture myself walking a course, alone, enjoying a quiet sunrise. A six year-old child falls into a pond, and is breathing in more water than air. I don’t think about what I have on my calendar, what I’m wearing, or maybe even what is in my pocket. The most important thing is rescuing that child.

    Imagine another scenario, where I am with my family at a busy Southern California beach, on a hot summer day. A crowd starts to gather, and we see people pointing to a swimmer off shore who is struggling. My response, and that of many around me, is the question: “Where is the lifeguard?”

    If someone tells me that the rate of drowning in Bolivia is twice the drowning rate in the U.S., it is unlikely to get me to action. Even a compassionate person, who might help because of guilt or some other poor motivation, won’t likely be engaged in relationships for meaningful partnership and purpose. We’re not wired that way.

    I love that you asked me about Rooftop 519 because most people assume we’re just another aid organization, helping sick and injured children. That’s our mission. The motive behind it is much deeper, and it really helps us to connect communities here in the U.S. with communities in other countries. The purpose is for the healing of a child, but the transformation through relationship is why we do what we do (I actually have a series of blog posts I’ll be writing later this year that will describe this. I’d be happy to share our Guiding Principles if you’re interested).

    There’s one other key differentiator for us: our ultimate aim is not to get people to be brand evangelists. Our goal is to help people to be where Jesus wants them to be. That includes increasing their proximity to people in need. A very natural stepping stone for helpful global citizenship is having someone from another country live with you. Sometimes, people who work in our receiving communities (faith-families who host and host families), will become missionaries. Sometimes they will adopt. Sometimes they will fund unique and amazing solutions to “drowning rates” in other countries. Those aren’t our mission, but they’re not our accidental byproduct either.

    I think I just wrote more than my average blog post. I really respect your work, and your opinion, I hope we can continue this conversation in person sometime. Maybe in Columbia.

  4. Hello again. So, yeah, I think you’re right that we probably agree more than it might seem. I think some of this has to do with the tension that we probably both hold between the universality of the creation and the specificity of the incarnation. Both have to be taken seriously. Christ came to save the whole world, and he did this primarily by being in deep relationship with a dozen guys for three years. I think it was Eugene Peterson who said something like “the only place you get to be human is where you are right now.” Which I agree with – because of the specificity of the incarnation. And yet, because of the universality of the creation and the equality of humankind, it is right for us to extend our prayers and concern to all. I think the tension holds challenges for all of us as we work out how to respond to God’s call and equipping to express generosity, loving-kindness, peace, etc. in the world. For some, it is an intensely local matter, for others, it may be global.

    I suppose our disagreement really is a matter of degrees of bias along the same line, but it is the same line of tension nonetheless, and this puts us fundamentally in greater agreement than not.

    I appreciate your thoughts and thoughtfulness. God bless.

    (btw, we are now living in Seattle, WA – I need to update my blog bio)

  5. This is a great topic, my bro.

    First of all – “I can relate to Sisyphus each time I go to the DMV.” YES!

    2nd 3rd and 4th of all – I feel a fire in my insides when I think about our responsibility to those closest to me. On a subsurface, instinctive level, I so agree. And to whom is our responsibility? To the people? Not really. I think it’s to God. And if we trust that God’s placed us in a specific place, then it stands to reason that He has placed us there to connect with and love those around that place.
    God and I are wrestling with this lately. I want for Him to place me in the open pastures of New Zealand. I even priced a ticket recently. Then He reminded me that my passport’s expired. So I’m back to touching the odds and ends I run across here in java land.
    Great post, buddy.

    • Thanks Luke. I still owe you a phone call. Maybe the trip to NZ is just a reprieve to recharge you to serve the people God puts in front of you. He does that, you know. Sabbaticals for his kids. They’re awesome (or so I hear).

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