What is Effective Altruism?

This blog post is written by Dr. Eddy Hogg, Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent

Discussions of effective altruism have been around for some time, but they have gained momentum in recent times with the publication of William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better – Effective Altruism And a Radical Way to Make a Difference. MacAskill argues that as donors we should consider how what we give can be most effective. If it costs £1,000 to save a life in the UK but only £1 to do so in Sub-Saharan African, our donation can be 1,000 times more effective in Africa than at home. MacAskill, a philosopher, advances this argument convincingly. But one tweet this weekend left me reflecting on the weaknesses of this way of operating.

I donate monthly to a charity run by a friend of mine, the Free Kicks Foundation. Free Kicks fund and organise days out at football matches, often as mascot or guest of honour, for deserving kids. These may be terminally ill children, young carers or boys and girls suffering many other types of hardship. Free Kicks doesn’t save lives. Nor does it stop hardship occurring. Through the lens of effective altruism, my monthly donation is about as ineffective as it could be.

On Saturday my team and the team of Free Kicks’ founders Peterborough, were playing away at Sheffield United. As usual, Free Kicks had worked with Sheffield United to provide a day out for a local boy, Aiden Dodd, a Sheffield United supporting 6 year old who has leukaemia. As I sat on the train home, delayed just outside Leicester, I saw a tweet from Aiden’s mum which read:

For one day we forgot that Aiden has leukaemia, thank you [to Free Kicks Foundation] for an amazing day.

Free Kicks are superb at looking after their donors. While my monthly donation doesn’t save lives or prevent terrible things happening, it gives children and families in terrible situations some comfort and an unforgettable experience. Is my giving to Free Kicks effective by MacAskill’s definition? No. But what this tweet shows is the impact that something quite mundane, certainly not lifesaving, can have on a family going through something awful.

This perfectly highlights my issues with the effective altruism argument. Of course we as donors want to see our donations used efficiently and wisely. But we want to know that what we are giving makes a difference to something we care about. I saw Aiden lead Sheffield United out onto the field, and in his mum’s tweet saw what this meant to Aiden and his family. To me, that’s effective altruism

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