Some charities are thousands of times better than others

What do The American Cheese Society, Oxfam, and Homeopaths Without Borders have in common? The answer is that they’re all non-profit organisations.


‘Homeopaths Without Borders’ has provided ‘treatment’ and ‘education’ in a number of countries, including Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there. There is little reason to believe this intervention can be beneficial (beyond, perhaps, a placebo effect) and good reason to believe it may deter vulnerable people on the ground from seeking genuine medical attention if they believe homeopathy can somehow cure a range of deadly diseases such as cholera and malaria.


Hopefully most readers of this article are knowledgeable enough not to support such a charity. But some charities provide interventions that, on the face of it, sound like fantastic ideas. It’s only when you look at the details that the flaws emerge.


For example, Playpumps International were a charity that received millions of dollars from the US government, as well as celebrity backing, in order to help developing countries improve their access to clean water. The idea was simple: as children play on a merry-go-round they pump water from an underground water source into a storage tank.


Yet the pumps were criticised by other water charities for being far more expensive and complicated (and therefore harder to repair) than conventional pumps. To pump the amount of water that the charity claimed it could provide, it would require children to be ‘playing’ on them for 27 hours a day. Playpumps may well have diverted funds that could have been used to provide water for many more people.


Most charities probably don’t directly cause harm. But even amongst charities that support worthy causes, there are good reasons to favour certain charities over others. Why?


Firstly, some problems are more serious than others. Cancer is worse than the common cold. Being one of the 19,000 children who die every day from mostly preventable disease is worse than being an artisan American cheese manufacturer in need of promotion.


Secondly, some interventions simply cost more to achieve a similar outcome. This means that £1 given to one charity might do as much good as giving £1000 to another.


Giving What We Can point out that if you want to help blind people, you could spend $40,000 training a guide dog to help one person in the US or UK. Or, using the same money, you could cure more than 2,000 people of blindness by paying for surgeries to reverse the effects of trachoma in developing countries. There are similarly impressive differences in the cost-effectiveness of interventions to prevent the spread of HIV; education works out as much better value than anti-retroviral therapy.


This is the rationale behind the ‘effective altruism’ movement, which includes groups such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can (who have a chapter at the University of York). By researching charities to find those that provide the biggest impact for each donation, by ensuring that the charity’s work is backed up by independent evidence, and by demanding openness and transparency, we can support the interventions that help improve the world the most.


We should not merely seek out and support good charities: we should support the best.


(article originally poster on The Yorker)


We Should Take Speciesism as Seriously as Other Prejudices

Racism, sexism and homophobia are three forms of discrimination that, one hopes, all readers of this blog will strongly oppose. Yet there is another form of discrimination that is increasingly recognised as being just as morally dubious as these three.

Speciesism means treating individuals differently solely on the basis of species membership. Just like skin colour, gender, and sexual orientation are not relevant characteristics when granting rights, neither is species membership.

This does not mean treating all individuals of all species identically.

But then, eliminating racism does not mean treating people identically; some ethnic groups are more likely to suffer from certain genetic diseases than others. Cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease and sickle-cell anaemia are more common in people of Caucasian, Ashkenazi Jew, and Afro-Caribbean ancestry respectively. It is not racist for doctors to take this into account when seeking a diagnosis.

Similarly, eliminating speciesism does not mean granting all animals exactly the same rights as humans. It wouldn’t be appropriate. Chickens aren’t going to get the vote or be able to buy alcohol or drive. What it does mean is that we should be consistent in treating individuals on the basis of morally relevant characteristics.

Clear examples of speciesism come in the form of how we treat pets versus how we treat farm animals. Why are we appalled when we hear of dogs and cats being subject to abuse, yet readily pay others to inflict abuse on animals such as pigs and cows, which have a similar level of intelligence and capacity to suffer? It is this cognitive capacity that surely matters, not whether an individual animal is a pig or a dog.

I can think of no justification for this inconsistency. If, as the evidence suggests, pets and farm animals are cognitively very similar, we must grant them similar rights. If it is wrong to harm a dog, then it is wrong to harm a pig. If you’re not willing to pay someone to breed and kill cats for you to eat, you should not be willing to pay farmers to breed and kill lambs.

Of course, some will eliminate this inconsistency by claiming they will happily abuse and eat cats and dogs. But how far are they willing to go for consistency? New born human babies are probably less cognitively developed than many farm animals. Perhaps they should be served for dinner.

Human babies do generally have greater cognitive potential than non-human animals. But does this matter? We don’t generally grant rights based on potential alone, but rather on potential that has been fulfilled. Children aren’t given the right to vote just because they will potentially be 18. Learner drivers aren’t given full driving licenses just because they may potentially pass the test. Furthermore, not all new born babies even have the potential to develop: they may have a terminal illness.

Is anyone actually willing to kill and inflict suffering on human babies in order to justify eating meat?


(this article was originally posted on The Yorker)