Control or surrender – is there a tension between Effective Altruism and Christianity?

By Dominic Roser

This article is adapted from a part of Dominic Roser’s article Effective Altruism as Egyptian Gold for Christians published in the book Effective Altruism and Religion (readable online at https://www.nomos-elibrary.de/10.5771/9783748925361-47/effective-altruism-as-egyptian-gold-for-christians)

Effective altruism encourages control. It tells us to be deliberate about our altruism, to step outside our ingrained habits and views of serving others and to optimize our altruism. If we don’t take responsibility for every detail of our altruism, nobody will.

In contrast, Christianity encourages surrender. It’s not all about us and our efforts. We are to let go of the hold we seek to have on everything and put things into God’s hands. The mindset is one of surrender to God’s mysterious and powerful presence in this world. Rather than acting like an engineer who fine-tunes every button on a big, complex machine we ought to espouse the mindset of children trusting their parents to lead them well. While EA encourages us to take control of things, Christianity encourages us to let go of control.

Biblical examples include the following:

  • In Judg. 7, God asks Gideon to deliberately go to war with 300 men even though 32,000 would have been available. Gideon is to deliberately refrain from making use of all available resources.
  • In Matt. 6, Jesus encourages us not to worry about tomorrow. The illustrations he gives are birds who do not invest for the future and the completely passive lilies.
  • In Ps. 127, we are encouraged to take a good night’s rest rather than labour late. This encouragement is based on the claim that “unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.”
  • In Ps. 131, the writer approvingly compares himself to a child who says “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” This is similar to the famous line from Isaiah 55: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”
  • Mark 4 provides one of the clearest instances: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.”
  • More generally, there is also the fact that God repeatedly chose unimportant and weak agents for doing his work – and they often achieved his purposes in mysterious, roundabout, and seemingly wasteful ways.

There are a couple of reasons for this emphasis on letting divine providence take its course rather than incessantly planning pro-active interventions.

1. God has epistemic advantages. Humans need to remember their limitations and the benefits of listening to the one who has a much better overview of this complex universe.

2. A lot of these examples can be applied to serve the mental health of overambitious do-gooders. Concern with self-care is in fact a point of overlap with EA. In contrast to other moral views, EA does not place an emphasis on good motivation and high sacrifice. Given that impact rather than effort matters, and given that not overburdening oneself with responsibility can serve impact in the long run, EA agrees with the upshots of a number of these passages.

3. In a lot of these examples the point seems to be about character development, in particular practicing trust and humility. For example, Gideon was to rely on a small number of soldiers so as to avoid the temptation of boasting.

These three considerations are speculative. And even if they provide some rationale for refraining from exercising control where it would be possible to do so, significant mystery remains. There seems to be a less superficial rationale in the Bible for letting some of our human possibility for influence go unused. The Bible reports on the experience of having to die off so as to receive life (for example in John 12:24–25). Surrendering completely in all respects is part and parcel of this overall spiritual practice of losing oneself in order to find God. The paradoxical nature of the Christian stance of surrendering control when action would seem possible and advisable is expressed in such sayings as “Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you” (wrongfully attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola) or Paul’s words “For when I am weak, then I am strong”.

The rationale for foregoing control is not our concern here anyway. The concern is the tension with EA’s underlying mindset of not letting any chance to affect the world for the good go unused. While this tension is real it should not be exaggerated. The Christian faith also clearly affirms initiative, action, planning, and the use of reason to pursue outcomes in a results-oriented way. If there is any tension with EA, this tension – the paradox of surrender – is already present within the Christian faith. The Christian faith’s affirmation of a pro-active attitude towards shaping this world is limited, and it is embedded in an underlying trustful sense of complete dependency on God.

To some extent the tension can be eased by going for the EA mindset in our actions and the Christian mindset in our attitudes. However, this only reduces the tension: if the Christian attitude of falling back on God’s sovereign working in this universe is taken seriously, it must have some implications for our actions.

There is a second reason for drastically limiting the tension. For most people in our fallen world, the alternative to EA – i.e. the alternative to a more controlling and deliberate approach to what one can affect – is typically not trust in God. Realistically, the alternative is typically thoughtlessly doing the first available good deeds and blindly continuing on well-trodden paths in one’s charitable efforts. If EA encourages people to move from thoughtless forms of love to more intentional forms, this is at least a step forward – and this is so even if committing the efforts to God’s wise providence were an even greater step forward. Even if a controlling attitude is spiritually problematic, it is at least an improvement over neither actively taking responsibility nor actively placing this responsibility in God’s hands.

If you’re going to give to Ukraine, where should you donate?

by Vesa Hautala

This is a temporary page about donating to help people who suffer in the ongoing war in Ukraine. Last updated March 14 2022.

Helping in the Ukraine crisis is challenging from an EA perspective. We want to use reason and evidence to find the most impactful ways to do good. The usual way to go about this is conducting careful analysis on charities to find out which ones are the most effective. However, the situation in Ukraine is new and changing fast, so it simply has not been possible to conduct the kind of research people in EA usually expect to inform their giving decisions.

The general EA advice is that crisis situations usually aren’t the most effective causes because they generally receive a lot of attention and funding (see for example https://80000hours.org/2014/01/neglectedness-and-impact/). This is also the case with the Ukraine war. Help is pouring into Ukraine from all over the world. Other pressing problems in the world like children dying of malaria or climate change have sadly not gone away even if they are currently less on everyone’s mind.

For these reasons – lack of high-quality research and evidence, non-neglectedness, and the urgency of ongoing problems – it is very likely that the usual charities recommended by GiveWell and others are still superior in terms of lives saved per dollar.

However, we also recognize that people do have other motivations to give than just an impartial desire to do the most good – and it’s okay to care about multiple things! Many people who are interested in EA or engaged with the movement want to donate to help Ukraine. So how can they do it effectively?

Here are some recommendations we have gathered from within the EA movement. Effective Altruism Poland maintains an updated list of recommended charities. This Effective Altruism Forum thread contains discussion on ways to help. EA-affiliated journalist Kelsey Piper has published some recommendations in a Vox article. The German EA donation site Effektiv Spenden (Donate Effectively) has also published an article about donating to help Ukraine (German original, Google translation to English). Descriptions in quotes below are from the EA Poland page.

The Polish Medical Mission

https://pmm.org.pl/en/ukraine-urgent-medical-aid

(Bank details for donations at the bottom of the linked page)

“Since 1999 the Polish Medical Mission Association has been helping victims of wars, disasters and cataclysms. PMM’s activities are run by volunteers: doctors, paramedics, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, as well as psychologists and medical analysts.

The funds raised will be donated to provide rapid medical support and purchase necessary medical supplies.”

Vostok SOS

https://vostok-sos.org/en/

Bank details for donations (Google translation from Ukrainian language)

“Vostok SOS collects funds to support people living in cities (providing food, medicine, hygiene products, gasoline etc.) and for humanitarian aid to the army, as well as transport. They also fund evacuations paying for and organizing transportation.”

Polish Humanitarian Action

https://www.pah.org.pl/en/donate/?form=ukraine

“This Polish NGO has been operating since 1992 and provides humanitarian aid all over the world. They react in places where humanitarian crises (natural disasters and armed conflicts) occur. Their main priority is immediate humanitarian response, but they think it’s equally important to seek long-term solutions and prevent further catastrophes.

This fundraiser will help provide food and hygien products to the people most threatened by war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

Meduza

https://support.meduza.io/en

Free Russian news media, gives information about the war.

OVD info

https://donate.ovdinfo.org/en

Russian human rights service. Helps especially those persecuted for political reasons, for example protestors arrested in anti-war demonstrations.

Mega-charities (the Red Cross etc.)

So-called mega-charities are not normally recommended as donation targets in EA, because their effectiveness is hard to assess. However, in a crisis situation like this they might be good candidates because they have years of experience in war and crisis zones.

Doctors without borders

https://secure.msf.ie/MultiLanding.aspx?source=6083

Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 4)

by Vesa Hautala


Ethical instruction concerning animals in the Bible

This post is the final part of a series aiming to give Biblical background data to help Christian effective altruists consider whether they should care about animal welfare. This post explores biblical texts that provide ethical instruction about the appropriate treatment of animals. You can read the first, second and third parts of the series here.

Continue reading “Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 4)”

Paying attention to our emotions

by Colin Aitken


Effective altruism is sometimes criticized for being cold and unfeeling, a way of taking the “heart” out of generosity. I think this is generally unfair: I’ve found the effective altruists I’ve met to be more caring and compassionate than the average person, not less. But doing the right thing is hard, and one only needs to scroll through a list of facebook fundraisers to find situations where our hearts and our minds disagree.

Continue reading “Paying attention to our emotions”

Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 3)

by Vesa Hautala


Human utilisation of animals in the Bible

This post is the third part of a series about animals in the Bible from an effective altruist perspective. This part deals with the numerous examples in the Bible of human use of animals either for food or other purposes. The way these are presented by the writers provides evidence about the moral status of animals in the Biblical texts. You can read the first and second parts of the series here.

Continue reading “Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 3)”

Shrewd Samaritan – Book Review

by Jordan Warner


In discussions with other members of the Effective Altruism for Christians Facebook group, the Shrewd Samaritan by Bruce Wydick was recommended to me as a Christian perspective on effective charity. As a Development Economist, Wydick is definitely qualified to write this book, and the Shrewd Samaritan references research to explain how and why some interventions are more effective than others, as well as directly appealing to biblical principles to justify this focus on effectiveness.

Continue reading “Shrewd Samaritan – Book Review”

Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 2)

by Vesa Hautala


Human dominion over animals

This post is the second part of a series about animals in the Bible from an effective altruist perspective. This part deals with texts in the book of Genesis that are about the original relationship between humans and animals. It argues that while the Genesis account of the pre-Fall state presents God as giving humans dominion over animals, this dominion should be understood as originally nonviolent in nature, and humans should use it in a way that reflects God’s rule over the creation. This implies we ought to take animal interests seriously. You can read the first part of the series here.

Continue reading “Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 2)”

Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 1)

Farm-Animals-by-a-Field-Shelter-Eugene-Verboeckhoven-Oil-Painting

by Vesa Hautala


This is the first post in a four-part series about animals and the Bible. The series aims to give Biblical background data to help Christian effective altruists consider whether they should care about animal welfare. The posts review Biblical texts relating to animals and their treatment, focusing on the questions of whether animals have moral value and what moral obligations humans may or may not have towards them. Continue reading “Should Christians be concerned about animal welfare? (Part 1)”

The Parable of the Unjust Steward

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by Vesa Hautala


To many readers, the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1–9 is one of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament. Jesus tells a story about a steward (or manager, depending on the translation) who squanders his master’s possessions and is going to be fired. The steward invites his master’s debtors to alter their bills to make them lower, so that the debtors would receive him into their houses after he loses his job. The steward is then praised for his shrewdness.  This biblical encouragement of shrewdness creates an argument in favour of an optimising approach, which is central to effective altruism, as it encourages us to be as effective as possible when using our resources. Continue reading “The Parable of the Unjust Steward”

Given that some people will only ever give to Christian organisations, what steps could we take?

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by Alex Rattee


In a previous post I defended that Christians should give to organisations on the basis of effectiveness and should not take too much consideration of whether an organisation is Christian or not.

In this post I want to explore what pro-active steps the Christian EA community could take given that some Christians will only ever want to give to specifically Christian organisations and that there may, as outlined in the previous post, be some particular benefits that could be realised by this approach. This post is primarily about documenting some of the most obvious available options and I do not evaluate them here. Continue reading “Given that some people will only ever give to Christian organisations, what steps could we take?”