Imagine walking past a pond and seeing a small child struggling in the water, calling for help. Do you go in and save her? Of course! But wait — if you wade in, you'll ruin your expensive new shoes. Do you save the child anyway? Of course! A child's life is worth more than a pair of shoes.
Oh, yeah? Well, then, why did you buy fancy shoes in the first place, instead of contributing the money to help save the lives of children in other parts of the world?
This jarring thought experiment, courtesy of Princeton psychologist Peter Singer, illustrates the steely logic of Effective Altruism.
Effective Altruism, or EA, is a philosophical concept and global philanthropic movement that aims to maximize the impact of donations. It encourages a modest lifestyle and considers children in distant parts of the planet just as worthy of helping as kids in your community, and more cost-effective.
"Given that you want to do good, doesn't it make sense to try to do the most good possible with your current time and money?" said Russel Rogers of Maplewood, summarizing EA's philosophy.
EA calls for disregarding most familiar charities in favor of data-driven giving guided by research organizations such as GiveWell. One common recommendation is to help purchase inexpensive mosquito bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria, one of the major and mostly preventable causes — along with birth complications and trauma, hunger, pneumonia and diarrhea — for the deaths of about 5 million small children a year.
GiveWell estimates the cost of saving a child's life as somewhere around $5,000. According to EA ideology, you might want to keep that in mind next time you're car shopping.
Other EA causes include reining in artificial intelligence development before it harms humans and ending factory farming, noting that pet shelters get the most animal welfare attention even though factory farms affect far more animals.
Because it's an individual pursuit, estimating the number of EA adherents is difficult, but according to the Centre for Effective Altruism, there are more than 200 EA groups in dozens of countries.
"I would say we're an eclectic and weird bunch," said Mike Hewitt of Minneapolis, who belongs to both local groups. "There are a lot of people who are pretty smart, one standard deviation above the mean in braininess. Everybody's pretty nice."
The cost of a life
Selfless giving and maximum impact might sound like obvious positives, but EA has its critics.
Last fall, the movement's reputation was dealt a blow by the downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried, an EA adherent and founder of cryptocurrency company FTX.
Bankman-Fried, once one of the world's richest people, professed to be amassing wealth that he would donate, an EA strategy called "earning to give." But FTX went bankrupt in November, vaporizing his hypothetical donations along with billions of dollars of clients' investments. Bankman-Fried was charged with fraud and could face decades in prison.
EA isn't directly to blame for Bankman-Fried's alleged misdeeds, although some contend it set the stage for shenanigans. But critics have expressed other concerns about the practice: that it implicitly guilts donors for giving to nonprofits close to their heart — local arts organizations, homeless shelters and food shelves, associations battling the disease that killed a loved one — and steers them from causes that can't easily be measured in terms of lives saved, such as teaching literacy or supporting racial equity.
EA ideology doesn't forbid you to buy new shoes. It often suggests donating 10% of one's earnings, the classic church tithe, but allows for other choices. Still, Singer's "drowning child" exercise implies that residents of wealthy countries are immoral for spending money on their own commonplace comforts or minor luxuries rather than on helping others.
Rogers confronted this last summer, when his family expanded their driveway for $5,000, which again — as Rogers was acutely aware — is the estimated cost of saving a life.
"So did my driveway expansion come at the expense of somebody's life?" he said. "Can I morally save for retirement? Can I do a kitchen remodel without feeling like a monster?
The philosophy, two critics wrote in 2015, is "infused with logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it."
The greatest good
By all appearances, EA's most prominent leaders walk the walk. When Singer won a $1 million prize in philosophy in 2021, he declared that he would donate it all on behalf of people in extreme poverty and animals in factory farms.
But many (or most) followers practice what might be called "EA lite," their charitable giving informed by EA principles but within the framework of an ordinary American lifestyle.
"These people who are sacrificing constantly for the greatest good — it's pretty compelling." said Hewitt, who is 40. "For me, that wouldn't be sustainable. There are a lot of things I want in life. I like to travel, I like to have nice things."
He estimates that he donates about 5% of his income to charities recommended by EA-aligned organizations such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can. By donating $5,000 a year, Hewitt reasons, over 20 years he'll have saved 20 lives.
"So my life was a net positive instead of just, 'Take, take, take,'" Hewitt said.
Tom Warth, founder of Books for Africa, joined EA just before the Sam Bankman-Fried meltdown. The highly rated nonprofit, based in St. Paul, is the largest shipper of donated books to the continent, with more than 58 million delivered to all 55 African countries.
In addition, Warth, 87, has raised pledges for the organization by walking an estimated 2,750 miles, including across two African countries.
After selling a book business in 1988 "for more money than I ever imagined," Warth, a British immigrant, took up travel. On a visit to Jinja, Uganda, he saw a library nearly empty of books and was inspired to start Books for Africa, which he considers to follow EA principles by getting the most bang for its buck on behalf of people in another part of the world.
Donating to someone close by, someone you could potentially meet, may be more satisfying than sending money to a remote organization "and all you see is a photo in a catalog," Warth acknowledged.
Rogers estimates that he gives away 10% to 15% of his income — about half to EA-approved organizations and the rest to other causes he favors.
"There's value in the arts, value in helping the homeless here," said Rogers, 58.
He likes to contemplate his charitable giving choices, but acknowledged that analyzing too much can lead into some fathomless rabbit holes.
"If you carry it too far, it makes your head explode," he said. "I overthink my decisions sometimes. But I am thinking deliberately about how I use my resources and I want to do good with them."
He has already told his children that they won't be inheriting all of whatever he leaves behind.
"Helping my stable white kids to be richer is not the greatest good," Rogers said. "Once they've reached a certain level of stability, I don't feel good about enriching their lives. The marginal benefit of an additional $10,000 is not worth two people dying."