Washington Post

Most Americans aren’t "Efficient" Philanthropists. That’s a Good Thing.

Senior Fellow Emeritus
(Tomoji Hirakata/Getty Images)
(Tomoji Hirakata/Getty Images)

Effective altruists seem to believe that the sole purpose of charity is to eliminate human suffering, as efficiently as is possible. But in fact, charity is far more than that: it is the heart and soul of human community, the way that people gather and minister to the emotional, spiritual, and material needs of their neighbors. By ignoring this role, the effective altruist movement threatens the very foundation of compassionate generosity.

According to the tenets of effective altruism, charitable donations should mainly–or only– go to charities that rank highly according to carefully calibrated measures of effectiveness. That means money would go almost exclusively overseas, to regions of the world where the poorest of the poor can be fed, clothed, and housed for mere dollars. Although this “bargain” appeals to some, most Americans find it less than compelling.

A 2010 survey by Hope Consulting found that only 16% of American donors give according to calculations of impact. For most, giving is guided by seemingly irrational ties to the communities in which they live. They give to organizations that are recommended by friends; that reflect their religious beliefs; that have had an impact on them or their loved ones; or that provide visible evidence of change within their local community. Yet according to the effective altruist philosophy, these reasons for giving are intellectually lazy and morally deficient, hopelessly constricted by a parochial viewpoint.

In fact, these motivations are vital to America’s spirit of community, proven by our history of local religious, fraternal and voluntary associations. As the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted, Americans form such groups to meet mutual needs, to provide stable moral frameworks, and to give tangible expression to deep social and cultural convictions.Local civic associations are the first schools of citizenship, the places where we learn to work out our differences face-to-face and come together in common cause. Given the American tendency towards materialism and individualism, we cannot rely on grand causes to summon us to public-mindedness. Rather, it comes only when it is shown that public involvement is closely linked to our personal interests.

Consequently, most significant political movements throughout American history, whether for abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, or Tea Party government minimalism, originated within and were sustained by local associations with immediate and practical objectives, even if in the service of larger goals. As Hope Consulting’s survey suggests, and as Tocqueville would have appreciated, Americans are still prompted by and seek to sustain our small, “human scale” associations, which gently draw our hearts and minds out of self-absorption and into the larger channels of public life.

Perhaps humanity has evolved to such an extent that we no longer require small, humble schools of neighborliness and citizenship, and can now answer the call of transcendent moral visions like the alleviation of global suffering. Yet it would be sadly ironic if effective altruism’s effort to cultivate a demanding sense of moral obligation ended up eroding the very institutions that have modestly, steadily, reliably nurtured an immensely generous American charitable spirit throughout our history.