Should Christians be Effective Altruists?
(Note: This post is sort of a converse to an interesting article I read on whether Effective Altruism should welcome religious people, which is a much better read than this and has a particularly interesting comments section. I don't think anybody wants to read my thoughts on e.g. how Muslims should interpret the Qur'an, so I'm limiting my point of view to Christianity. This post is nowhere close to comprehensive, and in particular has an intro-level view of EA as "give donations to better charities", since I think that's an easier step to make than "be up-to-date on all the current EA arguments.")
The Effective Altruism movement is devoted to using scientific and evidence-based tools to donate money in ways that help the most people -- or, as one book put it, doing good better. When giving a dollar, this means, one should examine (or rely on research by other people to examine) what the effect that dollar would have on human lives, and pick the option that maximizes it's impact.
It's currently a primarily secular movement. (As you can tell by the fact that a blog post exists about whether we should let religious people into the EA movement.) This introduces a bit of added difficulty (the usual stuff about flying spaghetti monsters and "stone age mythology"), but nothing big enough to equal the moral issues we're all fighting against (e.g. people dying of preventable diseases.) So the question becomes whether Christians should seek to be more involved in EA.
I think what distinguishes the EA movement from just general "people who like charity" is EA's commitment to the value of evidence far beyond other values one might use to donate. An effective altruist would not say "my grandmother had cancer, so I've decided to donate to cancer charities", because cancer charities are not typically the most efficient way to spend money. If the best charities help hundreds or thousands of times more than the next best charities, EA advocates would view it as morally indefensible to donate to anything but the best. (A not-very-nice but not-necessarily-wrong way of presenting this argument is to say that e.g. the Make A Wish Foundation sacrificed a hundred thousand malaria victims' lives in 2016 to make 15,000 American kids a bit happier.) Peter Singer (usually regarded as one of EA's founders) points out:
Take, for example, providing a guide dog for a blind person. That's a good thing to do, right? Well, right, it is a good thing to do, but you have to think what else you could do with the resources. It costs about 40,000 dollars to train a guide dog and train the recipient so that the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person. It costs somewhere between 20 and 50 dollars to cure a blind person in a developing country if they have trachoma. So you do the sums, and you get something like that. You could provide one guide dog for one blind American, or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness. I think it's clear what's the better thing to do.
The question I've been thinking recently about is to what extent Christians should participate in the Effective Altruist movement. At least at the moment, I think the answer is "wholeheartedly", although with a few caveats. (I realize that's not what "wholeheartedly" means.)
I've already written at length about the bible's teachings on money, and in particular its radical denunciations of hoarding wealth and intimate concern for economic justice. That God supports (requires!) giving money to the less fortunate is undeniable. I'm going to take it as a given that God asks us to make sacrifices to help those who aren't as well-off as us. (If you disagree, read the gospel of Luke or any of the prophets and you'll see what I mean.)
There are presumably differences between Christian reasons for donation and secular ones, but we end up more or less in the same place so far (along with basically every other pro-charity movement that's ever existed.) The question, then, is where to donate.
I think the most relevant Christian argument for effective altruism is that God does not show favoritism, which is one of the main themes of the New Testament:
It's a direct quote from Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, AND Galatians 2:6
It's arguably the main force behind Paul's "works of the law" discussions.
It's the theme of a number of Jesus' parables and teachings, including The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The central argument of the book of James, Jesus' brother is that we similarly are not to show favoritism.
It's a value that implies that if X dollars can save 5 Americans with diseases that are personally important to us or 5000 people overseas, we should clearly help the people overseas.
This is not a value we currently hold.
We pretend to, but if we did I'm not sure any domestic charities could continue to exist - why would we pay thousands of times more to help Americans than to have equivalent impacts overseas? (This isn't an exaggeration.)
Why would we care so much more about American deaths in 9/11 than the many-more innocent deaths caused by the war that followed?
How could we let people live on the streets when there was extra room in our houses?
How could we eat fancy dinners while people are starving?
How could we fund theaters or art museums or libraries when people are still dying of treatable diseases?
The obvious answer is that we think we and people close to us are more important than other people. And that things we care about should get more preference than things God cares about.
I think it's ok to admit this.
We don't need to pretend we're perfect people. We're not.
Christians already believe we're all fundamentally flawed. Maybe we're a little worse than we thought It would be better for us to become better But at least we should admit that we're not.
We should admit that we don't always do the best thing.
We should admit that being well-meaning isn't enough.
And if we're faced with the fact that certain charities are many thousands of times more effective than the ones we're donating to, we should admit that this is horrifying.
But like with all sins, we should start by looking at small steps we can do to change. I think one small step is a sort of political activism where we work to ensure that people everywhere are seen as people, no matter what.
But as far as money goes, one of the easiest small steps is Effective Altruism. It reminds me of the actions of the early Christian church in chapter 6 of Acts:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread.
There's a lot to uncover in this section about what Christian racial activism and identity look like, but for our purposes we only need the vaguest outline:
The church leaders realized that their charitable intentions were unfairly preferential.
The church leaders choose qualified people to work out how to fix this.
For us, the solution is even easier. Effective Altruism advocates have already identified the problem that charity work plays favorites - donating money to a charity that spends more money to achieve less impact amounts to valuing the recipients of that charity much more highly than anyone else. We don't even need to choose qualified people to find better ways to donate - sites like GiveWell already do! Those of us with experience in judging evidence and evaluating data should certainly contribute to these discussions and do what we can to find even better giving opportunities, but even those of us without can help by giving what we can to the places that have the most impact.
I mentioned that there were some caveats to my "absolutely" answer. I think that Christianity's moral system isn't quite compatible with utilitarianism (which most EA's tend to subscribe to), and as a result there are some lingering grey areas. I want to sketch out both where I think these incompatibilities lies and what I personally think we should do with them.
Jesus famously said that the two most important commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor, in that order. Effective Altruism is focused, at most, on the second of these. Therefore a complete devotion to EA beliefs can (and in my case, sometimes does) lead us to identify with Judas Iscariot, who is not a person Christians aspire to be:
While [Jesus] was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you,and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
The message, of course, is that money needed to serve or worship God is as important as, or more important than, our charitable efforts. This doesn't mean we shouldn't give to the poor (Jesus would be horrified) or that every religious use of money is good, but it does introduce a more complicated value system than "spend a minimum on yourself and donate the rest to EA charities".
I don't expect the EA community at large to accept, or even understand, this position, but I think it's pretty easy for Christian EA members to deal with - spend some money that you're not spending on yourself on church, on a bible, on worship CDs, and so on, and the rest on effective charities. I expect that most secular effective altruists can live with this, since regardless of religious convictions "Christians giving some money to effective charities" is preferable to "Christians giving no money to effective charities."
The more difficult question is what it means to love your neighbor. Utilitarianism rests on the idea that it's possible to somehow quantify some version of happiness or satisfaction or "utility" a person is receiving, which I think is only true in a secular sense.
Christianity introduces the much higher stakes of an afterlife where people can end up in heaven or hell, which is at least partly based on how we live this life and in particular whether a person is committed to Jesus. (Yes, there's a lot about this that's unclear and the exact workings of salvation are very much debated, but at least the basics are there.)
In particular, this introduces the possibility of infinite values showing up - it seems reasonable to assume the utility of going to heaven is +infinity and hell is -infinity.
The problem is that infinities break utilitarianism. This is precisely what happens with Pascal's Wager - unless you assume some probability is infinitely small, it vastly overshadows any other choice you can make. So the "with heaven or hell" version of effective altruism starts to look like "pick one of your friends and constantly badger them about Jesus until they convert and donate nothing to charity", since this has (in theory) infinite expected utility.
(One weird thing about this is that you don't have to pick a friend particularly likely to convert, or use a method particularly likely to work - all the probabilities get kind of smoothed out by the infinity you're multiplying by, so they all end up looking the same.)
In practice this sounds pretty terrible, and also doesn't at all resemble what God commands us to do and so is presumably wrong.
I think the right way to deal with this is to recognize that utilitarianism is a tool, not a fundamental source of moral values (for Christians!) Christian morality is complex and doesn't simplify nicely into a secular philosophical system (which is why we have rules like "don't have sex outside of marriage" that don't make any sense to secular utilitarians), and I don't think we can make statements of the form "_____ is the one, true proper Christian way to make decisions."
What we can do, however, is try to recognize that both are biblical imperatives. Evangelism is important. Care for the less fortunate is important. Christ doesn't command us to figure out which is more important - he commands us to do both of them. (The exact division of labor probably depends on what we're individually skilled at.)
Moneywise, I think this means giving some money to explicitly Christian missionary-type organizations (finding good, culturally sensitive ones, preferably led by people from the countries they're working in), and some money to EA causes. (I like a 1:2 split, although that's pretty arbitrary.) Timewise, that means devoting some time to effective altruism "activism" (I don't think that's the right word), and some time to evangelism-type "activism" (still not the right word) and some to other kinds of "activism" (maybe the right word here.)
I don't think there's really a comfortable answer here. It's weird to say you're sacrificing some donations to poverty to preach to people, and it's weird to say you're willing to risk people going to hell so that people can eat. The world is complicated, and at times dark, and morality is complex and at times grey. We can't answer every question. Sometimes we just have to live with weird tensions.
Again, this isn't something I expect a typical secular effective altruist to agree with as a good idea, but in the context of a partnership I think it works fine: if I were talking to someone of a different religion, I'd much prefer they donate 2/3 of their donations to charities I agreed were effective than to donate none.
I'm not sure that EA-type charity is perfect. I think there's value to investing some (but not all) of your donation money in charity you get to see the results of, if only to build your own character so you end up helping more people in the long run. But I think it's a very good thing, and something Christians should strongly consider getting involved with. If you're not convinced, (even if you're not Christian), please consider starting an open-minded conversation with me about it! This is something that's really important to me, and a relatively low-effort way to help way more people than we would otherwise.
So what can we do?
Most moral questions are hard.
Usually it's tough to figure out how to put what you believe into practice.
This is not one of those cases.
The obvious thing to do is take money you're already donating and shift it to more effective causes.
If you're not comfortable shifting all of it, shift some of it.
You can find a good list here.
The second thing to do is to find more money to give.
It doesn't have to be a lot.
Every five dollars you donate to the Against Malaria Foundation buys about a month of life for somebody.
Go without something you were going to buy.
Buy something slightly cheaper.
Work an extra shift.
It's fun to think about how best to help people.
It's hard to comprehend the numbers of people these sicknesses affect.
It's sad to think about all the injustices in the world.
The people dying of malaria don't care how we feel.
They just don't want to die.
(If you do donate some money, please let me know how much! I promise I will be proud of you no matter what amount. I'm only asking as part of my attempt to be a better effective altruist, in which I'm trying to understand how effective various actions are, and "various actions" includes writing blog posts and hoping they'll lead someone to donate money.)