Charity Without a Home

Mrs. Jellyby, a character in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, is a truly modern philanthropist. In giving, she thinks not of poor persons but the poor as a class. She thinks not locally but globally, focusing on the poor in faraway places. And she thinks not small but big, aiming to aid not a few but thousands. She is totally committed to her project of resettling her impoverished English countrymen in Africa, where, along with the natives, they are to become self-sufficient through coffee growing. She regards hers as the worthiest of all philanthropic endeavors, capable of solving intractable poverty on two continents at a single stroke.

The problem with Mrs. Jellyby, of course, is that, while devoting all her mental energy to her scheme in faraway Africa, she completely neglects her own home and family. She bankrupts her husband, who is driven to despair, and her children are dirty, poorly fed, and largely uneducated, running around her mad house without a hint of order or discipline. She is so preoccupied with her tele-philanthropy that she cannot help her daughter’s wedding plans or even hear what others are saying. Her gaze is ever directed “a long way off, as if she could see nothing nearer than Africa.”

Mrs. Jellyby serves as a useful metaphor for a recent entrant into the market for global philanthropy, Effective Altruism. It counts among its most prominent proponents erstwhile Oxford graduate students William MacAskill and Toby Ord, who pledged to donate their future earnings above approximately $28,000 to charity. Having so resolved, they faced the challenge of making the most of the money they had available to donate, by figuring out how to maximize philanthropic impact. They set up new ventures such as Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, the latter referring to the amount of time people work on average over a lifetime.

In his 2015 book, Doing Good Better, MacAskill argues that philanthropic efficacy should be grounded in empirical research, and that the best metric for determining the utility of various philanthropic alternatives is quality-adjusted life years (QALYs). QALYs have been used in medicine and healthcare since around 1970. A QALY is a year of life lived in perfect health. Blindness, cancer, and depression are examples of conditions that would reduce the value of a year of life, as would dying somewhere in the middle of such a year due to a car accident. On this account, and granting some assumptions, the relative value of medical interventions such as cataract surgery, cancer chemotherapy, and trauma medicine can be quantified.

What would such a utilitarian calculus amount to when applied to philanthropy? Its implications are far-reaching. If followed, Effective Altruism would radically change the causes that receive philanthropic dollars. Most charitable giving in the United States goes to religious and educational institutions, and of these two, religion receives almost twice as much as education. But neither would receive funding from an effective altruist.

According to GiveWell, an organization that evaluates the effectiveness of charities as part of the Effective Altruism movement, instead of churches and universities, Americans should give their money to its most “high-impact, cost-effective charities,” such as Against Malaria, which distributes nets that protect children in sub-Saharan Africa from malaria-carrying mosquitoes, or the Helen Keller International Vitamin A Supplementation Program, which saves children’s lives by providing vitamin A supplements to children under 5 years old. When it comes QALYs, a gift to a church or university simply cannot compete with a contribution to one of these organizations.

Effective Altruism wants to guide not only the choice of which individual or organization to make a check out to, but also decisions about what career path to follow. For example, many would assume that becoming a physician offers an abundance of philanthropic potential. Effective Altruists concede that practicing medicine can boost QALYs. But that is not the end of the analysis. An aspiring doctor must also consider the marginal benefits of a practice in different locations. When this factor is considered, physicians would make much less of a difference (measured in QALYs) practicing in a rich nation than in a poor nation, where doctors are scarcer and standards of care lower.

Yet when deciding on a career, it is not enough to consider the marginal value of a choice. An effective altruist must also consider entirely different alternatives. Nobel peace laureate Albert Schweitzer gave up career paths as a world-class concert pianist and theologian to study medicine and then set up a hospital on the west coast of Africa. He was no doubt responsible for adding many QALYs through this change in career. But he might have done more.

Effective altruists might well argue that someone as talented as Schweitzer could have added many more QALYs by pursuing another career, such as investment banking, where he could have pulled down millions or more per year and donated nearly all of his earnings to highly effective organizations like Against Malaria or the Vitamin A Supplementation Program. For the gifted, peak philanthropic efficacy is achieved not through professional service but through enhancing earning capacity.

Effective Altruism is not just the pipe dream of Oxford philosophers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged and given to organizations associated with the movement, and it seems likely that billions more will follow. Its appeal is not difficult to understand. Writes MacAskill,

One additional unit of income can do a hundred times as much to the benefit the extreme poor as it can to benefit you or me. It’s not often you have two options, one of which is a hundred times better than the other. Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for $5 or buy someone else a beer for 5¢. If that were the case, we’d probably be pretty generous—next round’s on me! But that’s effectively the situation we’re in all the time. It’s like a 99% off sale, or buy one, get ninety-nine free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.

In an age infatuated with metrics and rankings, Effective Altruism purports to quantitatively assess and compare the amount of good we can do by choosing between philanthropic alternatives. It feeds our appetite for keeping score by counting dollars, and it effectively encourages wage earners to make as much money as they can, with no self-recrimination for chasing after the big bucks. And it appeals to one of the greatest of all consumerist virtues—finding a bargain, or what amounts to the same thing, maximizing value. A truly effective altruist can do as much good with just a penny as the unenlightened manage with a whole dollar.

With its insistence on measurable results, its focus on what appear to be highly tractable, “easy” solutions, and its preference for large, “scalable” projects, Effective Altruism is well suited to the demands of modern philanthropy. Yet all but the most fanatical of Benthamites cannot help but feel that something is amiss in this movement, even if we are hard-pressed to say exactly what.

With its insistence on measurable results, its focus on what appear to be highly tractable, “easy” solutions and its preference for large, “scalable” projects, Effective Altruism is well suited to the demands of modern philanthropy.

No doubt some of our misgivings derive from the problems of utilitarianism, in which Effective Altruism is rooted. Consistent with these roots, the movement assumes that the costs and benefits of one form of philanthropy can be reduced to quantifiable units, such as dollars and QALYs, that can then be compared to the costs and benefits of other forms of philanthropy. According to this way of thinking, the benefits and costs of taking food to a friend who is mourning the death of her child can be quantified and compared to devoting a similar amount of time to working and then donating earnings to one of GiveWell’s highly effective charities.

To most, this seems absurd. Taking food to our friend costs us a great deal, but not in a way that could be measured in dollars. Personal acts of this kind require us to bear the burden of caring, to open ourselves to feeling the pain and sorrow of our friend, and to confront, if only unconsciously, the reality that our friend’s misfortune may be ours someday. Likewise, to measure the benefit of our visit in QALYs misses the point. We don’t believe the baked ziti will lengthen our friend’s life or improve her health in any measurable way. That’s not the purpose of our visit. Our visit is an expression of our friendship and the belief that, according to the odd calculus of emotions, sharing suffering lessens the pain; it does not multiply it.

This example exposes another reason to distrust the Effective Altruism movement: its inhumanity. When Montaigne pressed himself to explain why he loved his friend, Etienne De La Boetie, he said, “I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.” The experience of the two of them together was irreducible to any distinguishable aspect of either Montaigne or La Boetie. To say anything more would diminish them and their friendship.

Effective Altruism ignores this irreducibility. We take food to our friends in times of need because they are our friends, because of who we are and who they are, each of us in all our particularity. To imagine that the gift could be given or received by anyone else would strip both the giver and the beneficiary of their humanity. Most would regard this as the very antithesis of generosity.

Indeed, Effective Altruism bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction. No faithful follower of the movement would give to a local church, art museum, or school. Presumably, even the resources used to raise children and maintain a household must be questioned. According to Effective Altruism’s utilitarian calculus, the resources would probably do far more good if given to one of GiveWell’s highly effective charities. But it is churches, art museums, and schools that nourish the compassion and love that lead us to give in the first place.

No one is certain of the origin of the urge to “do good,” to help others, or to make the world a better place. The most reductive might attribute it to a chemical reaction in the brain or the romanticization of an evolutionary instinct, in which case, the moral force of the longing is undercut.

For those who really believe that it is good and right to give to others— a group that presumably includes the altruists—the desire to give is much more fragile. It requires for its sustenance such things as the love fostered within a family; the experience of beauty afforded by an art museum; the generosity and spiritual longings nurtured in a church, synagogue, or mosque; and the role of education in helping us to imagine and make life better. In other words, Effective Altruism depends for its existence on exactly those institutions that it could never justify supporting.

Through his portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby, Dickens sought not very subtly to suggest the validity of the proverb that charity begins at home. This is certainly not the last word on philanthropy, and few would argue that it should end there. But it is at home, in our families and friendships and the institutions of our local communities that the flame of generosity is sparked, kindled, and radiates the most warmth and light. Dickens offers an essential insight that the followers of Effective Altruism would do well to heed.