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Bandaging capitalism

A few weeks ago, I saw the application for the Arete Fellowship go live. It involves a series of conversations about effective altruism and how we can implement its philosophy to do the most good in our lives. Because I am DukeStudent™ and don’t make any RashDecisions™ as I am perfectly Logical™, I decided to consult one person who strongly disagrees with effective altruism and one person who enjoyed the Arete Fellowship. This took so much time that I didn’t end up applying, but at least I am now incompletely informed rather than completely uninformed.

I do find it funny, however, that if you asked me before I wiggled my way into this debate if there was any ethical dilemma that kept me up at night, I probably couldn’t say. Now I do! Between 4am and 7am in the wee hours of Saturday morning, my brain ground away at this problem.

To me, perspectives surrounding this issue are all too extreme. On one hand, writing a check for 500k of your 10 million fortune to deworm children in Africa is better than spending it on ten yachts, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re some kind of saint. On the other hand, having the mindset of trying to make a lot of money so you can donate to causes later doesn’t make you some evil, morally-bankrupt monster who creates systemic inequality just because.

A lot of this debate comes down to how you define effective altruism. Those against it generally will group it in with initiatives like impact investing and believe these “socially responsible ventures for rich people” feed our corrupt, capitalist system that is rife with hypocrisy and just all-around yuckiness. Again, I understand and agree with this argument, though I still think it’s a stretch to say that people who are interested in impact investing and go into get-rich-quick industries are all morally bankrupt. After all, nonprofits and service organizations do need money to run.

Those in favor of EA define it more as a tool to figure out which charities to donate to, like a well-researched Handbook to Saving Lives: The Most Bang for Your Buck! It spells out that if you have a lot of money, you should donate a large portion of it. Supporters of EA don’t believe effective altruism and impact investing should be placed into the same category. Wealthy people exist; that is a fact. Given this, it is objectively beneficial that those with wealth donate to places that empirically have made a substantial impact, so that their “moral money” doesn’t end up being wasted. This also makes sense.

Whether effective altruism and impact investing works or not is a different discussion, more about the mechanisms and downsides of utilitarianism and whether that is the right way to think about goodwill. Maybe I’ll save that for another early morning headache.

So I guess the argument comes down to this. Should we be:

1. operating under the presumption that capitalism and inequality exist (and will continue to exist) and improve it by telling the top five percent the most numerically efficient way to pursue impact?

2. rejecting the system completely, thereby rejecting initiatives like EA because while it does not cause capitalism, it does support its existence by teaching that the biggest way to make an impact is to get rich and then donate/invest?

See? Prime material for useless 4-7am musing.

After riffle-raffling over this for the past week, I think I’ve finally figured out my opinion (thank God, because this is an opinion column). While tearing down the system seems like a great plan and #BurnItAllDown is a very Gen-Z concept, we’re reaching the point in our lives where we need to start balancing idealism with practicality. 

Ideally, everyone would be actively involved in causes they care about if they have the means to do so. But this simply isn’t the case. For those that have the means but do not prioritize active involvement, effective altruism helps lower the barriers to entry for philanthropy. By this definition, EA is a separate concept from impact investing, because impact investing provides a financial incentive for goodwill rather than lowering barriers to entry. Both movements are reactions to capitalism, so I do not find the argument that they are bad because they do not address the root of the problem to be relevant—they were created to be bandages, not time machines.

However, it’s important to be aware of hypocrisy. First, let’s address my own. I feel hypocritical criticizing the way in which people choose to make an impact, given that during my lifetime my net positive impact has also been zero, which makes me either worse or no better than your local billionaire (probably ruined a lot of lives through economic inequality and exploitation but also made some people’s lives more convenient and saved a few thousand children from starving positive zero-ish).

And now the kicker—hypocrisy in the thorny corporation-philanthropy relationship. EA is not a saving grace and can very well serve as a moral blanket for some people to justify hurtful or exploitative actions they committed in their climb to the top. It should not be used to excuse bad behavior, and the act of donating itself is not grounds for glorification.

If you care and your goal is to make the most impact possible, you don’t need Peter Singer telling you what to do. The philosophy that being rich will allow you to help the most people absolutely isn’t true, especially if you hurt a lot of people in the process of accumulating that wealth. Work with organizations you care for. Help one person if you can. 

You are not a better philanthropist just because you send cash to a malaria aid organization instead of helping to build a better wheelchair for someone who can’t walk. However, if you’re not sure where to donate and want to help, do look into effective altruism and utilize the aspects that you believe in. Our generation is beginning to loosen our grip on long-held edicts, from religion to politics to ethics. Absorb what you value, and carry them forward.

Michelle Si is a Trinitiy first-year. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.


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