What Effective Altruism misses

Last week Medium launched a new publication called The Development Set. I spend a lot of time reading about development, and so this excites me. The publication aims to “ask, without ego or presupposition, what it actually means to make a difference in the world.” I think that is a great question, and I’m excited to see the stories and photos that they use to achieve this goal.

But for me, the tagline is disappointing.

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How do we do the most good?

This idea of “the most good” has been around for a while, but tipped in the last year mainly because of a book and  TED talk by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer advocating for “effective altruism” (EA). Like Medium, EA tends to attract tech-savvy millennials to its ranks. The Development Set has joined a billion dollar movement, with dozens of NGOs and hundreds of researchers, writers, and practitioners all focussing on the question of effectiveness.

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I think this is incredibly important. You don’t have to go far into the history of development to find a trail of abandoned theories and failed projects. The shift towards measuring activity and promoting excellence is long overdue.

But while effectiveness is important, it is not all important. Right now, our obsession with effectiveness has come at the exclusion of thinking about altruism. We spend so much on maximizing impact, but we don’t invest ourselves into the question of how we can become truly other-centered.

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So I’m glad that there are people out there thinking about “what philanthropic bets have made the most difference” and “what needs to happen to build a billion toilets this year”. But to make a difference in the world, along with “How can we do the most good?” we have to look inwards, asking “How can we be the most good”, and that forces us to grapple with much harder questions.

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