Activism, Philosophy, Top Stories

Effective vs. Pathological Altruism

The effective altruism movement grew out of an understanding that sometimes charitable giving doesn’t achieve its desired effects. Even when aid works, effective altruists argue that aid can be given more efficiently through the application of cost-benefit analysis.

Effective altruism enjoys widespread support, including among Quillette readers ranging from Sam Harris to Geoffrey Miller. In fact, it’s hard to deny that if we’re inclined to act charitably, we should follow our head as much as our heart. We should subject charity to scrutiny.

When Helping Hurts

The problem comes when the view we take of what we’re trying to achieve becomes too myopic. For example, we all agree that if we’re going to relieve a famine, we should find the cheapest way to feed the famished. But what if feeding the hungry creates more hungry people to feed? What if it indirectly contributes to more civil conflict, enriches warlords, or interferes with agricultural markets in ways that drive domestic farmers out of business? Recent studies suggest that food aid to African countries has done all of these things.

When foreign aid fails to achieve its goals, we naturally look for more effective delivery mechanisms. For example, in the fight against malaria, some have suggested that we should give away mosquito nets rather than administering pesticides like DDT. Let’s assume they’re right. Might it still be possible that an efficient patchwork of policies can fail to improve the overall welfare of a country, or the world as a whole? Yes, and this is because of the importance of formal political institutions and informal social norms in creating peace and prosperity.

Certain kinds of aid to poor countries can have tangible benefits in the short run, but long run costs, such as an expanding population in poor countries that is more likely to suffer the ravages of famine, pestilence, and war. Unless we take a sufficiently long-run view of the effects of alternative institutions, altruism can become pathological.

Institutions Matter

There doesn’t appear to be a clear consensus about whether foreign aid can create the conditions for countries to escape from the Malthusian trap that engulfed the entire world before England’s Industrial Revolution. The norm throughout history was that temporary spikes in access to resources led to population increases, which led to an uptick in starvation, disease, or war. It is only with economic development and technological progress aided by the right institutions that some countries have been able to escape this fate.

Some economists think certain forms of aid are likely to improve institutions, and thereby increase the long-run welfare of people who live under them. Others, like Gregory Clark, think that, despite what we’d like to believe, “the West has no model of economic development to offer the still-poor countries of the world.  There is no simple economic medicine that will guarantee growth.”

It is hard to know who is right. But we do know that foreign aid over the last few decades has facilitated massive population growth in Africa, even as European and East Asian birth rates have plummeted. Demographers predict that the population of Africa alone will rise from about 200 million in 1950 to a projected four billion by 2100. The problems this will cause in countries without stable political institutions are staggering. And these problems are likely to bleed over into other countries, especially in the form of mass migration.

Although Western countries that welcome millions of low-skilled migrants improve the quality of life for those who arrive, mass migration might threaten the stability and prosperity of these countries by draining them of the social capital on which their institutions depend. For example, if low-skilled migrants exhibit different voting patterns or consume more welfare benefits than the host population, trust can diminish and institutions that promote prosperity can weaken. Moreover, as the economist Garett Jones argues, migrants affect the trajectory of countries to which they migrate for many generations after they arrive.

This is not an argument against foreign aid or migration. Both can be good under the right conditions. For example, if aid is given in conjunction with female empowerment and access to contraception, there is good reason to believe women will invest more resources in fewer children and gain bargaining power in the mating market.

The point is that altruism can be pathological rather than effective unless we keep our eye on entire institutions rather than focusing on specific goals in isolation. Even then, we should be cautious before we jump to the conclusion that institutions that have worked in the West can easily be transferred to other countries. The failure of American military adventures in the Middle East is an obvious case in point. Given the infirmities of human nature, and the poverty of our current knowledge, effective altruism requires that we give cautiously and think about the effects of our charitable aid on entire institutions, and on future people.


Jonathan Anomaly is a faculty fellow at the Institute for Practical Ethics at UCSD, and a founding faculty member of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program at USD.