16 March 2020


Who gives?

Jenny Kleeman meets the man who wants us to stop giving with our hearts and start using our heads

We give when we are moved – by the impact of personal loss, like the death of a loved one to cancer, or by catastrophic events, like the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand or the earthquake in Haiti.

But what if we set compassion aside and gave with our heads? What if we had a moral duty to be sceptical and an obligation to give in ways that do the most good for the most people? Welcome to effective altruism – can measurable results and a demand for a return on investment be the future of giving? David Taylor, editor


 Please give ungenerously 

Will MacAskill is used to things happening fast. At 28, he became the world’s youngest associate professor of philosophy. Now 32, he’s leading a successful life – and an uncompromising one. When he married, both he and his wife took on a new surname in an ethical rejection of sexism (her maternal grandmother was a MacAskill). He’s considered whether to have children and concluded his life and work will be more impactful if he does not. And he gives away 55 per cent of his income – everything he earns over £27,000.

“There are caveats,” he told me, in his thick Scottish accent. “If I have some terrible health condition and it means I’m going to die and therefore not do any good in the future unless I use this money, it would just be ridiculous not to.”

We met in his Oxford office, in front of two enormous and dazzling ‘daylight therapy’ lamps. His desk was littered with open envelopes, used mugs and half empty glasses of water. On a low table to his left was a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of the Northern Lights, half completed. He looked like a postgrad student, in a baggy green jumper and jeans, with scruffy auburn hair and stubble.

“Normally you have to wait centuries before seeing the impact of philosophical ideas,” he continued, his blue eyes sparkling with confidence behind tortoiseshell glasses. “This is unusual for the much shorter turnaround from the development of the ideas to the impact of them.”

Professor Will MacAskill

MacAskill’s big idea is effective altruism, the hyper-rational approach to philanthropy that is an “ethical revolution”, in his words. Effective altruism takes emotion out of the knotty question of how best to do good, replacing it with cold, hard logic and empirical data. MacAskill argues that humans have a moral obligation to ensure we are spending our charitable time and money as productively as possible. It is our duty not just to give as much as we can, but also to give well. Instead of relying on our feelings, lived experiences and personal connections to decide which causes to support, we should use cost-benefit analysis to determine how much bang we might get for our charitable buck, in terms of lives saved or demonstrably improved.

All lives are viewed as equally worth saving, across space, time and species. Strangers overseas matter as much as our neighbours, future generations are just as important as people already alive today, and the lives of animals are valued as much as humans. Don’t be led astray by marketing images of crying babies, effective altruists say, don’t be tempted to support a cancer charity just because the disease may have killed your grandmother. We must give to maximise the good we can do, for the greatest possible number of individuals.

The effective altruist approach leads to surprising and sometimes counterintuitive decisions. It prioritises deworming tablets over life-saving disaster relief because many more lives can be saved, and at low cost (around 1.5 billion people are infected by conditions cause by parasitic worms). The welfare of caged poultry is valued over abused pets because the numbers that can be helped are so huge and the suffering intense. And mosquito nets for African children are valued over meals for starving kids at your local food bank because there are 200 million new malaria cases per year. Effective altruism demands that you are prepared to ask questions like, “When is the worst age for a child to die?” and “How much does it cost to save a life?”

North Shoa, Ethiopia. Distribution of Long Lasting Insecticide Nets (LLIN) to prevent malaria, the country's biggest killer disease.

The triumph of head over heart was, perhaps, best captured in a public debate in 2015. Giles Fraser, Rector of St Mary’s, Newington, put a thought experiment to MacAskill: if he was in front of a burning building with a Picasso in one room and a child in another, wouldn’t his principles demand that he saved the Picasso instead of the child because the proceeds of selling it could save the lives of thousands of children? MacAskill was unapologetic: he would save the Picasso.

MacAskill’s thinking is not simply academic. It has spread around the world, gaining traction wherever people who are interested in philosophy, maths and computers gather, as both a set of ideas and a new social movement, and powered by the rocket fuel of billions of dollars. Since 2009, 4,571 people have donated $126m (and promise a further $1.5bn over their lifetimes) through Giving What We Can, an organisation set up by MacAskill and the philosopher Toby Ord, whose members pledge to donate 10 per cent of their income to effective charities. Some of the wealthiest people on their planet have are now throwing their billions behind effective altruism.

When I asked MacAskill how it felt to have so much money put behind his work, he said it was “weird”.

“Number one would be – awkward. I’m only one person of very many who have contributed [to the ideas]. But I think it’s a good sign for the world, I feel excited.” He leaned back in his swivel chair. “You would think that the way to reason is, ‘Wow, I’ve done so much good, now I can just chill out a little bit.’ But actually, things get even higher stakes.”

Mega-philanthropists, including those who have enthusiastically embraced the effective altruist approach over the past five years, have the power to shape the world with their donations. But when billionaires give, do we all get as much from it as they do? Philanthropy on a grand scale is seen by some critics as part indulgence, part reputation-laundering. And instead of saying a grateful thank you, we should all be asking the benefactors to pay more taxes.


 The department of global catastrophic risks 

In a glistening high rise building in the financial district of San Francisco, Open Phil has been making grants totalling around $150-200 million every year, primarily to fund health and development in sub-Saharan Africa, farm animal welfare, criminal justice reform in the US, and efforts to mitigate risks from global pandemics and advanced artificial intelligence. The notorious San Francisco tent cities I passed on the way to their office don’t get a look in.

The main boardroom has three posters in white frames, each containing a single definition:

“Skepticism. The method of practicing doubt when regarding what is held as knowledge.”

 “Altruism. The practice and principle of using actions to the benefit of others, expecting nothing in return.”

 “Utilitarianism. The school of ethics that strives towards the maximization of welfare for the maximum number of people.”

The Open Philanthropy Project is effective altruism in action. It was set up in 2014 by Dustin Moskovitz  and his wife, former Wall Street Journal reporter Cari Tuna. In 2004, Moskovitz helped his roommate Mark Zuckerberg launch Facebook from their Harvard dorm. Now 35, Moskovitz is giving more than $11bn dollars away according to the principles of effective altruism.

Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Open Phil

Moskovitz rarely gives interviews. He did give an insight into his philanthropic thinking when he took part in a Quora chat in 2013. “Cari and I are stewards of this capital,” he wrote. “It’s pooled up around us right now, but it belongs to the world. We intend not to have much left when we die.”

Are billionaire philanthropists bad for democracy?

The idea of effective altruism has coincided with a gathering argument about the charitable deeds of the mega-rich. Does their brand of giving work? And, if so, for whom?

Some argue that giving on a grand scale really works best for the givers. It’s wealth-washing. Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All – the elite charade of changing the world argues that the whole business of philanthropy – and it is a business – offers a veneer of respectability to a free market system that is grossly unfair, that grotesquely enriches a few, that rewards self-dealing. At the very apex of giving are what he calls the ski-town conference set, travelling from Aspen to Davos ready to do good whilst maintaining their elite status. He makes the case for higher taxation and more government spending. Why should these winners who help create inequality set the terms? They think they are firefighters, but really they are arsonists, he writes. His book begins with a quote from Tolstoy:

“I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible…except by getting off his back.”

Open Phil chooses which causes to support by ranking them according to ‘importance’, ‘neglectedness’ and ‘tractability’. “Considering those three factors will help us make better bets, that are investments, as far as the expected value of different causes where additional marginal dollars might help improve the world,” Evaluation Officer Morgan Davis told me, matter-of-factly.

The Farm Animal Welfare team focuses on poultry and fish rather than cows, because of the quantitative focus of effective altruism (a single cow can produce enough meat for 1,500 quarter pounders, whereas twelve sardines have to die to fill a can).

“For the most part we are working on vertebrate animals because we feel most confident in their ability to think and suffer,” programme officer Lewis Bollard explained. “We have focused more on chicken and fish welfare than other funders, and that is heavily driven by the numbers. We’re seeking to maximise the number of individuals we impact.”

Researcher Persis Eskander said they focus on farm animals because it is neglected yet “the scale and intensity of the suffering is enormous”. They have spent $110m on causes working against cruel factory farming conditions – including $12.4m on grants relating to chicken welfare and $10.4m on fish welfare – although apparently nothing targeted specifically at sardines.

Thousands of chickens are seen in a chicken coop, in Kondrajec Panski, Poland

Open Phil gives grants to foundations that promote alternatives to meat, including cultivated meat – real animal flesh grown in a lab for human consumption. Their corporate cage-free egg programme, which sought to persuade companies like Walmart and McDonalds to switch to eggs from free roaming hens, has been a particular success. “It’s actually super cost effective,” Eskander said. “There are such easy ways to help animals for very little money spent.”

The biggest grants from Open Phil are given by the ‘Global Catastrophic Risks’ department, which funds research that might save us from being wiped out by viral pandemics or unintended consequences of advanced artificial intelligence. In January 2019, Open Phil made a single grant of $55m to Georgetown University to fund artificial intelligence research.

Senior Research Analyst Ajeya Cotra explained that the justification for these sums is that trillions of lives are likely to exist in the future, so even if there is a remote risk of a global catastrophe it’s worth spending significant money trying to reduce it. “An important principle of effective altruism to me is to not shy away from something just because it might seem weird or fanciful at first glance,” she said. “We take it seriously, if there is a five per cent or 10 per cent chance that they might go very wrong.”

Electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles infecting a cell

“We are trying to do public reason,” Open Phil’s Managing Director, Alexander Berger, told me. He’s in his thirties; his brown hoodie and youthful face gave him the demeanour of an excited child rather than an MD, but he spoke like a philosophy professor. “A lot of what we are trying to do is to help shift the focus from the donor’s personal and idiosyncratic preferences towards an ethos that’s truly serving people as much as possible. You need to be able to take the abstract or intellectual leap from the particular needs to the more general human needs.”

There’s a whiff of superiority in this sentiment: that effective altruists are more sophisticated and enlightened than people who donate money just because they have been moved by charity appeals featuring shivering orphans or abandoned dogs. But I wondered if this kind of giving was sustainable. Surely it’s the emotional reward that keeps people giving? “That’s an empirical question,” Berger replied when I put this to him. “I think it’s an interesting one, and I don’t think we know the answer yet.”

Reputation laundering

It’s an argument that goes back a century in the US when the oil baron John D Rockefeller was setting up the first philanthropic foundation. Critics called it repugnant to the idea of democracy and a menace to the welfare of society. As President Teddy Roosevelt said: “No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” And it’s an argument over reputation laundering that is current today – take the example of the Sackler family’s fortune aided by the sale of opioids and recycled into the arts.

In his book, Just Giving: why philanthropy is failing democracy, Professor Rob Reich of Stanford University says big philanthropists are often revered today, but US foundations allow the rich to pursue their own social policy agendas, gain social status and justify capitalism – all in one go.

Reich writes:

“In the United States and elsewhere big philanthropy is often an unaccountable, non-transparent, donor-directed and perpetual exercise of power.”

As he notes, there is something especially unsettling about foundations or trusts that live on after the billionaire’s death. He argues foundations should only be protected for a limited time. He cites 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill who said that societies evolve and no founder can ever infallibly predict the future. Allowing foundations to exist in perpetuity amounts to “making the dead the judges of…[the needs] of the living.”

Across the Bay, the charity evaluator GiveWell is an important part of the effective altruism ecosystem. Open Phil’s Global Heath and Development budget goes to GiveWell’s top charities, but thousands of other bodies and individuals who call themselves effective altruists decide where to donate according to GiveWell recommendations.

Set up in 2007 by two young New York hedgefunders, GiveWell focuses exclusively in health and development in sub-Saharan Africa.

GiveWell founders Holden Karnofsky, left, and Elie Hassenfeld, right, with board member Cari Tuna

“We search for the charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar,” their homepage says. Of their seven current top recommended charities, two focus on malaria prevention and three on deworming programmes, because they have reasoned that these provide the most effective bang for your philanthropic buck.

The hard logic that GiveWell relies on can sometimes take your breath away. How much does it cost to save a life? $2-3,000, co-founder and CEO Elie Hassenfeld told me. “We look at all that academic evidence about the size of the effect, the organisation’s costs, context and monitoring and then where they’ll spend the next set of money they receive,” he explained. “We use that as the basis for that $2-3,000 per life saved.”

GiveWell has also attempted to calculate the optimum age to save a person’s life. Is it worse when a newborn dies, or a ten year old, or a grown adult supporting a family? In 2018, GiveWell researcher James Snowden explained the maths. “You take the number of expected years of life left, and you multiply it by this pretty subjective factor which accounts for: Does this person have cognitive function? Can they make plans like a functioning agent in the world? You multiply those things together, you end up with a roughly log normal distribution over age,” he said. “I think my peak value is the death of an eight year old.”

Hassenfeld is a father. I wondered how comfortable he felt making calculations like this. “We do try to talk through this question, because it’s highly relevant,” he said. “We try to create an environment where people feel comfortable having awkward conversations.”

Pay more taxes

Surely charitable giving is always good? What if it not only entrenches an elite, but it also takes away spending power from elected governments?

We might not all agree with our governments, but they are at least elected. David Callahan, who edits the Inside Philanthropy website, in his book The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, wrote:

“We face a future in which private donors – who are accountable to no one – may often wield more influence than elected public officials, who (in theory, anyway) are accountable to all of us.” 

Instead of letting billionaires decide how they can solve the world’s problems, they and their foundations could be taxed and scrutinised more diligently. There are now nearly 100,000 private foundations in the US, controlling $800bn and enjoying beneficial tax arrangements.

In the United States, the problem is not limited to really big dollar donors and their foundations.

If a top rate taxpayer makes a donation of $100, they will get $39 taken off their tax bill. It encourages giving, but it takes money out of public coffers and reduces the power of government to tackle pressing problems. Subsidies for charitable giving cost US citizens at least $50bn in federal tax revenue in 2016.

And as Reich discovers in his book, the money given to charity does not automatically find its way to the most needy: 60% of donations from living donors went to religious groups; and only 4% of giving from millionaires went to the poor. Perhaps the people elected to govern should work out where the money is spent.

Callahan finds some character traits amongst wealthy donors. Tech billionaires are all about risk-taking and disruption and tackling problems no one else is addressing. Wall Street donors are often drawn to the “stewardship model of philanthropy” and prefer to support well established institutions – universities, hospitals, land conservation trusts and so on. “Titans of the old economy” tend to be less creative and more political in their donations.


 ‘The problem is the real world’ 

The people who are currently drawn to effective altruism are attracted by the sometimes remorseless logic that underpins it. When I asked MacAskill to describe them, he ticked off the typical attributes on his fingers. “It would be well-educated, philosophy, STEM, science background. Kind of nerdy people, I guess, is the most common typical collectivisation. And we are young. Most of the people who would describe themselves as effective altruists are between the ages of 20 and 35.”

The Centre For Effective Altruism, co-founded by MacAskill and funded with significant donations from Moskovitz and his wife, is the premiere resource for the ‘EA’ community, hosting an online forum, and annual conferences in San Francisco and London. “If you’re aiming to do good, you’re doing something that’s quite weird, socially speaking. It can be very helpful therefore to have a community of people who are supporting you and reward that, rather than thinking that you’re some weird alien person, or that you’re judging them all the time.” He estimates the EA global community is at least 10,000 people strong.

A lot of the people in this 20-35 age bracket are deciding what to do with their lives. MacAskill argues that, to really help the world, you shouldn’t necessarily go and work for a non-profit dedicated to improving any given cause. Instead, you should ‘earn to give’.

In 2011, he founded 80,000 Hours, a website, a podcast and a careers advice service named after the amount of time a person will spend at work over their lifetime. ‘Earning to give’ is the principle that, if you have an appropriate skill-set, you will do more good if you take a career in finance rather than the charity sector, because an investment banker who gives 50 per cent of his or her salary away can cover the cost of several charity workers. MacAskill told me “dozens” of people have been inspired by his advice to do exactly this.

Health workers give deworming tablets to school children in Agartala, Tripura state, India

“MacAskill has been heavily influenced by the work of utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that failing to give away money to help save the lives of children in the developing world is the same as failing to jump in and save a drowning child for fear of ruining the expensive clothes you are wearing. I asked MacAskill whether, using Singer’s analogy, throwing away a leaflet from an effective charity was the same as walking past a drowning child. “Morally, yes, it is the same,” he replied. But surely this is to do with the difference between the theoretical world and the real world: in the real world you are psychologically bound up in the experience of being in the presence of a dying person. “I think the problem is the real world,” he shot back. “We live in a morally very unintuitive world. We have evolved a set of moral intuitions where it was not possible to have action to do something that could be as significant as saving someone’s life thousands of miles away.”

The true power of effective altruism will arise when all other philanthropic choices are considered absurd, MacAskill said. “Ultimately I’m looking for the change in social norms. Imagine the social norm was that when you give to charity you try and do as much good as possible. And then you say, ‘No, I’m going to give because I just really like cats, so I’m going to give to the cat shelter.’ I think people would follow along with the social norm. I think that would be the more powerful force.”

The rich should give more – and be more humble:

There have always been eccentric bequests: remember Ruth Lilly, amateur writer of poetry and heiress to the Eli Lilly fortune, who in 2002 gave more than $100m to Poetry Magazine, a Chicago publication with a monthly circulation at the time of 12,000. But there is the persistent suspicion that big money philanthropy is an act of narcissism: why do the rich give to buildings with their names on, rather than funding day-to-day costs of charities, why is it easier to raise money for capital projects than ongoing services? Small charities serving local communities struggle even to get a look-in with the big donors.

The criticism cuts both way. Alongside those who don’t like the way in which the world venerates philanthropists, there are those who think there are just too few and that most rich people simply don’t give enough. It’s a version of the old joke:

“The food is awful and the portions are too small.”

This year, 2020, marks a decade since Warren Buffett and Bill Gates launched the giving pledge – a moral commitment to give, either during their lifetimes or on their death, the majority of their wealth to good causes. Today, 207 people have made the pledge, not all of them billionaires. Over the course of the decade, the number of billionaires, according to Forbes, has risen to 2,153 from 1,011 in 2010.


 Where is the love? 

Is MacAskill right? Should the head always rule the heart and demand a return on investment when we try to do good? The frequent criticism of effective altruism is that it is guilty of “mathiness” – giving a false sense of precision.

Leslie Lenkowsky, Professor Emeritus in Public Affairs and Philanthropy at the University of Indiana, argues that the obsession with metrics can obscure the pursuit of noble causes. “How do we measure the value of a smile? Not everything worth measuring can be measured.”

A homeless man asking for donations in San Francisco

What about less obviously noble causes, like the arts? As MacAskill has written, “The choice to donate to one cause rather than another (or not to donate at all) is the decision to let tens or hundreds of people die, in exchange for, say, one additional opera performance.” Arts funding could only ever be justified when all threats to existence have been removed.

Five years on from his debate with MacAskill, Giles Fraser thinks there is a place for effective altruism. “People who give away a lot of their money – hooray! And there’s nothing wrong with trying to work out if you should give your money to one charity or another based on their performance.”

But Fraser fears that effective altruism’s number-driven ethos misses something crucial. “The idea that giving a pound to a cause close to my heart might be morally questionable because I could have given it to produce x number of mosquito nets and saved y number of lives denies something core to our humanity – love. Love is partial.”

Effective altruism is thriving on the campuses of Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and Oxford. As Jon Behar, who served on the board of GiveWell, told Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2018, “The effective altruism community and its leadership disproportionately represent populations who systematically lack humility (‘the best and brightest’), experience (the young), and access to alternative perspectives (women, people of colour, people who remember the ’70s, etc.). That’s a lot of red flags.” Can such a monoculture ever make truly viewpoint-neutral judgement calls?

It’s unlikely that even the most serious effective altruist is giving for entirely neutral reasons. After all, this is an approach that allows you to ‘measure’ the good you are doing, so that ones own altruism itself can be ranked and compared. It gamifies philanthropy.

Effective altruism may deny certain facts about altruism: we help others not just to save brute numbers of lives, but to create the world we want to live in. Experience and emotion always come into play. If this is an insufficiently evolved viewpoint, then there’s a danger that this approach makes altruism sound like hard work, and elitist: only done properly at the hands of the very clever.

A woman pumps water from a well at Malkohi refugee camp in Jimeta, Adamawa State, Nigeria

Who solves coronavirus?

The coronavirus – Covid-19 – highlights our increasing reliance on big money philanthropists.

And with it comes the issue of accountability. The huge generosity of people like Bill and Melinda Gates (who have so far spent $45 billion through their foundation and other family foundations) or Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan (who have pledged $3 billion in an attempt to end, cure or manage all disease by the year 2100) raises the question of who decides which illnesses are treated and which are not, who gets the research funding and who doesn’t? If it’s plutocrats rather than the people, then is philanthropy itself an expression of the power gap?

Cash-strapped governments are more and more reliant on the super-philanthropists to deliver the Covid-19 vaccines of the future.

The World Health Organisation announced last week a Covid-19 solidarity fund aimed at tracking the spread of the virus and ensuring patients get the care they need. It explicitly asked for the help of foundations as well as companies and individuals.

In the short-term, the coronavirus lockdown means that charities are going to raise less from good souls running marathons and, as governments have less to spare, wealthy individuals and family foundations are in greater demand than ever. But are they reliable? As Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank wrote in the New York Times:

“Like the dieter who would rather do anything to lose weight than actually eat less, this business elite would save the world through social impact investing, entrepreneurship, sustainable capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, artificial intelligence, market-driven solutions. They would fund a million of these buzzwordy programs rather than fundamentally question the rules of the game – or even alter their own behaviour to reduce the harm of the existing distorted, inefficient and unfair rules. Doing the right thing – and moving away from their win-win mentality – would involve real sacrifice; instead, it’s easier to focus on their pet projects and initiatives.”

Before I left MacAskill, I asked him whether effective altruism was running counter to the spirit of the times. Aren’t we supposed to have had enough of experts?

 “I think it’s going to grow and be an ethical revolution,” he replied immediately. “If you look at the scientific method, that was just the domain of a bunch of crackpots who sometimes got burned at the stake for several centuries, and then that caught on pretty well. I think the same can happen with taking the scientific mindset and applying it to doing good.” He smiled. “Most moral progress has gone via ideas that at one time would get you laughed out of the room.”

Photographs Noah Berger, Getty Images, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Additional reporting and graphics: Ella Hollowood, Jack Kessler, Chris Newell


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Further reading

– The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer, 2009 – the book that inspired many in the effective altruist movement. You can download it for free here

– Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference by Will MacAskill, 2015

– Will MacAskill’s TED Talk on how he is starting an ethical revolution

– Vox has an interesting insight into the early days of Open Phil, including an interview with Cari Tuna

The 80,000 Hours podcast – a treasure trove of interviews with key players from the movement

– For an insight into billionaire philanthropists, start with David Callahan’s book The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.

– Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All – the elite charade of changing the world is just as scathing, and richer on the detail of the Aspen/Davos world

– Rob Reich makes the academic case for fundamental tax reform and fresh legislation to rein in charitable foundations in Just Giving: why philanthropy is failing democracy