www.goodventures.org (screen shot)

Altruism can be all too effective

Policy-oriented philanthropy puts social problems at the mercy of narrow individual interests

January 23, 2015 2:00AM ET

The “true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth, the reconciliation of the rich and the poor,” Andrew Carnegie famously announced in 1910, lay in the wealthy using the very wisdom and skills that made them so to “improve the general condition of the people.” He was thinking not of eliminating the income gap between rich and poor but of making the civilizing fruits of capitalism — fine arts, education, libraries — more accessible to the nonwealthy.

His aspiration that the wealthy would acknowledge an obligation to do good in their lifetimes is alive and well a century later in the Giving Pledge, launched in 2010 by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The most recent iteration of this desire to do good responsibly is a project called Good Ventures, through which Cari Tuna and her husband, Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, plan to give away $5 billion.

But what looks like a straightforward and morally attractive agenda can be quite difficult to put into practice and even raises the thorny ethical question, Should the intervention of private actors be welcomed in work that is arguably the responsibility of the government?

Practical challenges

Carnegie foresaw the functional complications of doing good. That is why, in advocating broad-scale, sustainable philanthropic projects over piecemeal acts of charity, he emphasized that philanthropy “requires the exercise of not less ability than that which acquired the wealth.” Ironically, philanthropists have rarely monitored how efficiently or effectively their resources were being used. One reason for this is that reliable metrics and accounting procedures are difficult to formulate and implement.

Some metrics are now available. Give Well, a nonprofit that rates charities and whose slogan is “Real change for your dollar,” has developed assessment protocols for strategically identifying philanthropic projects trying to solve specific problems. For instance, take two potential recipients of funding: Project A and Project B. Assuming their target issues are comparably important, Project A will be evaluated more positively than Project B if the problems Project A seeks to solve are more tractable and less invested in than those of Project B. Crucially, another aim of Give Well is to increase the transparency of giving by providing reliable information about what kind of giving works and what doesn’t.

Beyond minimizing waste and the misdirection of funds, this kind of rational, quantitative approach to philanthropy, otherwise known as effective altruism, undermines the myth that the very wealthy have special moral insight into what is best for the rest of us. It should motivate wealthy donors to go beyond supporting their personal passions, which historically have been educational and cultural institutions most familiar to their own tribe.

While the practical challenges of directing large sums of money to particular causes are surmountable, some ethical questions are worth attention.

Taking over for government

The question that Good Ventures seeks to answer — How can I do as much good as possible with the resources at my disposal? — echoes Carnegie’s claim that the wealthy are duty-bound to act as agents and trustees of their surplus wealth in the service of their poorer fellow citizens. However, what justifies such an obligation? While we admire generosity and while giving can make us feel good about ourselves and help provide meaning to our lives, it not at all obvious that the wealthy — or the rest of us — have any obligation to do good for others. 

Citizens must keep a critical eye on private actors who move in to assist the state in solving social problems to ensure those solutions do not come at the price of reduced democracy.

There is significant disagreement among moral philosophers about what morality in general requires of us. Some believe that our primary obligation is to avoid doing harm or violating the rights of others, others believe that we are bound by duties that derived from our nature as rational animals, and still others — utilitarians — argue that we should practice a more proactive morality, according to which each of us is obligated to maximize the good. Effective altruists such as Tuna and Moskovitz are committed to some version of the utilitarian view, characterizing the good to be maximized in terms of human lives saved and improved. Tuna was reportedly influenced by the work of the contemporary utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.

That view by itself would not entail any moral criticism of Good Ventures. Assuming that Tuna and Moskovitz’s wealth has been acquired justly, they surely have a great deal of moral discretion to dispose of that wealth as they see fit. 

But perhaps not total discretion. And here emerges a troubling factor about effective altruism fueled by extraordinarily wealthy private individuals. For among the issues Good Ventures has identified as a likely target of its philanthropy is criminal justice reform in the United States. Give Well is also explicitly committed to what it calls “policy-oriented philanthropy,” unapologetically aimed at significantly affecting public policy.

Should private actors intervene in work that is arguably the responsibility of the government? To be sure, some of the ways in which private organizations differ from the state suggest that such enterprises can be far more effective than government in solving a range of social problems. For example, private enterprises are not as vulnerable to election cycles, their degree of public accountability is very low, and they can be more agile and strategic actors. But those very advantages can just as easily be deployed in anti-democratic ways, leading to the concern that market-based approaches, which inevitably reflect narrow individual interests, are less than appropriate for social problems concerning the common good.

Regardless of whether Tuna and Moskovitz have a moral obligation to give away most of their wealth, they have an obligation to weigh the risks involved in usurping the moral duties of our elected officials. In turn, the public ought not fall sway to the romanticism of large-scale philanthropy. There is a space between the state and the market where a great deal of good work can be done. But the parameters of that space must be clear and carefully monitored, for example, through the establishment of offices of strategic partnerships that can help identify appropriate roles and expectations across sectors. In addition, donors must support infrastructure and institutions (PDF) — such as volunteer opportunities and organs of civic education — that can empower citizens to be more engaged in understanding and articulating the social problems that confront them collectively. Most important, citizens across the socioeconomic spectrum must keep a critical eye on private actors who move in to assist the state in solving those problems so that those solutions do not come at the price of reduced democracy. 

Susan Dwyer is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland. She specializes in areas at the intersection of moral philosophy, constitutional law, feminist theory and moral psychology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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