I love ineffective altruists.

There’s a weird tendency in effective altruism to hate on ineffective altruism. For instance, Singer points out that “you can pay to provide and train a guard dog for a blind American, which costs about $40,000. But with that money you could cure 400 to 2,000 people in developing countries of blindness from glaucoma, which costs about $20 per person”. Therefore, he argues, we should direct our charity dollars away from guide dogs for blind Americans and towards curing glaucoma.

However, I have some concerns. My first concern is that there are two responses people can have to Singer’s illustration:

  • “Wow! Donating to training guide dogs is really ineffective! I should stop donating to training guide dogs and start donating to curing glaucoma.”
  • “Wow! Donating to training guide dogs is really ineffective! I should stop donating to training guide dogs and buy a new TV.”

Let’s be real here: donating to pretty much any charity creates more utility than spending the money on yourself. (That’s not strictly true. Autism Speaks is worse. Don’t donate to Autism Speaks.) As expensive as blind dogs are, they are still a better use of your money, from a utilitarian perspective, than Starbucks coffee. It is important that our message be “charity can do better,” not “charity is doing badly.”

I think that some people believe that the amount of money donated to charity is a fixed amount and the only issue is allocation. That is not true. Humans are lazy fuckers. Bashing ineffective altruism will leave some people with the thought “it is bad to donate money to charities that are less good.” And since not donating money to ineffective causes is easy, and donating money to effective causes is hard and involves giving things up, some people will do the former and then bask in the glow of their success.

Anecdotally, I am aware of several effective altruists who realized that, say, being vegetarian is ineffective altruism compared to donating extra money, stopped being vegetarian, and didn’t donate any extra money. As much as I feel like a buzzkill pointing this out, that logic doesn’t work unless you actually donate more money to charity. Just noticing that something is ineffective and not doing it doesn’t help.

This is an ordinary case of moral licensing and ultimately harmful to our cause.

There is a second reason that we should embrace ineffective altruism which is this: even ineffective altruism can be more effective.

People are always going to want to donate to warm fuzzies charities. Some people want to donate to rape relief because they were raped and they don’t want to donate to anything else. Some people feel really sad when they see sick American kids and want to donate to sick American kids. Some people are just incapable of connecting to schistosomiasis because it is totally fucking unpronounceable. But those people can still direct their money in the most effective way possible?

I mean. Is there perhaps some reason why quantification isn’t helpful if you’re limiting your quantification to “number of sick American children helped”? Does money stop going farther in the developing world if it only goes to rape survivors rather than some more effective charity? Do randomized controlled trials stop working when we apply them to food banks instead?

Think of it as harm reduction. Or perhaps the opposite: happiness enlargement.

This is why I adore Animal Charity Evaluators. I am skeptical of the argument that the Humane League is the best place to donate your money. However, some people want to help cute fuzzy animals. If they are going to help cute fuzzy animals, they should probably help the most cute fuzzy animals possible. Animal Charity Evaluators is here for this goal.

We should totally expand this into alternate areas. I want Effective Social Justice. Effective Cancer Research. Effective Arts Funding, for fuck’s sake. If people care about something, even if it’s something they maybe shouldn’t care about, I want them to care about it well.