Imane Bouzit

Philanthropy vs. Time


Effective altruism is the use of evidence and reasoning to maximize the impacts of philanthropy. Leaders of this movement like Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, believe that donating resources is imperative given the high levels of suffering--whether due to illness, oppression, or poverty--worldwide. While this ideal may seem obvious enough, numerous questions come to mind regarding the actual act of philanthropy: How much should be donated? To whom should resources be allocated, and according to what distribution guidelines? And when should donations be made? In this post, I will attempt to elaborate on the last question, although ultimately, this question will continue to inspire debate among effective altruists.

In a 2013 Effective Altruism Forum, writer Julia Wise provides a summary of arguments for either taking time before donating or donating immediately. With regard to waiting before donating, she explains that because effective altruism promotes quantitative analysis of service organizations, it takes time to determine the best intervention strategies. In this case, it makes more sense to give a particular organization time to improve its operations before supporting it financially. Likewise, investing in research might be a good way to expedite understanding of ideal interventions. Another argument Wise introduces is the possibility of investing now--whether in one’s education or career-- to have more wealth to donate later. I find this viewpoint to be attractive to the average effective altruist, as it encourages foresight in one’s career or business. Overall, the considerations of waiting for conclusive research about the best interventions or wealth accumulation are what I would categorize as the position of the first faction of effective altruists-- individuals who view extended time as being conducive to greater effectiveness.

The second main group of effective altruists are individuals who would argue for immediate intervention. Wise mentions that with time, some individuals may lose interest in donating as they age, investments may fail, and global problems which may have been mitigated sooner cause extended suffering. I naturally gravitate toward this second class of effective altruists because of the urgency of some causes-- the ongoing famine in Yemen or oppression of Uyghur Muslims being just two of numerous examples. Though I am a student with little to donate, I am willing to provide support. However, I am in favor of conducting research to find the most effective organizations for a certain cause as well as which organization would provide the most support per donation amount. Thus, although the debate of when to give may seem polarized to either immediate or culminating intervention, I posit that there is a third class of effective altruists: individuals who give within their capabilities while waiting for more effective intervention guidelines. While this approach has its flaws, it certainly addresses the need for urgency that underlies many global issues.