Christian Effective Altruism: An Initial Case

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by Alex Rattee


In this blog post I want to defend the view that:

(1) If there is an available action that saves one life and another that saves ten lives, then all other considerations being equal, a Christian who can do just one of these actions has reason to take the action that saves ten lives over the action that saves one.

I hope that many Christians will find the above plausible, yet I think few of us realise that the principles that lead us to affirm (1) also mean that we have reason to affirm the following:

(2) If there is an available charity that will alleviate more suffering than another if given extra money, then all other considerations being equal, a Christian has reason to donate their money to the charity that will alleviate more suffering with the extra money over the charity that will alleviate less.

The reasons that Christians should affirm both these principles is because the lives of individuals matter greatly to God, and so we have strong reason, to guarantee the flourishing of as many people as we can. Matthew 10:29-31 speaks vividly of the great value God has for us:

‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’

It seems to follow that if we are placed in a position such as that described in the first statement, then an understanding of the great value that God has for people will lead us to take the action which preserves as many of those valuable lives as possible. It should be noted that one need not make a commitment to any particular ethical theory to affirm this, all that it takes is a commitment of stewardship towards that which God values.

Caring for those who are physically suffering is a prime example of such stewardship, and one for which there is a great deal of biblical warrant. It follows that when considering how to fulfil our obligations to the physically suffering, all else equal, we should act such that we alleviate as much suffering as we can. Empirically it seems that for most of us a powerful way of doing this will be to give to the most effective suffering alleviation charity we can find.

If my argument has been successful, then we have shown that Christians should, all other considerations being equal, give to charities that alleviate the most suffering.

Yet what considerations might mean that all else is not equal when choosing between charities?

  • If we have stronger relational ties to the group one charity serves?
  • If we are geographically closer to the group one charity serves?
  • If a charity serves Christians rather than non-Christians?
  • If we have stronger relational ties to one charity over another?
  • If a charity serves people who are more morally deserving than other charities?
  • If a charity does evangelism alongside its suffering alleviation?
  • If we feel a stronger care for the issue that one charity deals with?
  • If we feel led by God to give to one charity over another?

As we start to consider the relationship between Christianity and Effective Altruism we will do well to examine considerations of this sort to see whether they provide strong reasons to deviate from giving to the charities that are the most effective at alleviating physical suffering.

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8 thoughts on “Christian Effective Altruism: An Initial Case

  1. This is an extremely nice starter for the blog on Christian Faith and Effective Altruism.

    There is an objection to your argument that isn’t really an “all else equal” type objection. Some people might think that there is something wrong with *thinking* about the effectiveness of our charitable actions in the first place. They might think that we shouldn’t even start *counting* how much suffering we alleviate. To them, this kind of approach is cool & calculating. In contrast, our love should flow organically, non-rationally from within. These people might not disagree that ONCE you embarked on this calculating way of choosing charities, THEN you should choose the more effective one. Rather, they might think that this cold & brainy way of doing things is unnatural, destroys the soul, and harms long-term improvement of human flourishing. (Some of this criticism is reflected in David Brooks’ take on Earning to Give: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/04/opinion/brooks-the-way-to-produce-a-person.html)

    By the way, another — related — point one could make is the following: Yes, human lives matter greatly to God. But we can’t directly deduce from this that it is *our responsibility* to care about flourishing as much as possible. There is a division of labour both between God and humans, and also between different humans. The sheer fact that X matters for God does not in itself imply that I ought to do as much as possible to promote X.

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    1. @Dominic. Thanks for these, two interesting points which my post doesn’t deal with.

      1. Some might think it wrong to be calculating in charity at all – I think I would ask my friends who suggested that why thinking carefully about how we do charity can’t be an organic flowing of love? My biblical impression is that God enjoys diligence in our conduct and that action flowing from thoughtful reflection is to be preferred to those done brashly. I guess I’d want to ask them whether they consider it better to do an action that stems from semi-impulsive organic love that in the long run leads to more suffering, or to be motivated by love to think carefully and make sure your action has a positive impact. I think they’d want to say the latter, but it seems that they could only say the latter if it is important to take into account one’s expectation of making a difference and not just motivation.

      2. Some might think that it isn’t our responsibility to try and alleviate it all – It is possible that this is the case, but without strong biblical warrant for only doing a limited amount of suffering alleviation, it seems much safer to try and do as much as we can. Given that the bible gives us a strong mandate to take suffering seriously, and no instruction to limit our work at alleviation, erring on the side of over-preventing seems much safer.

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      1. Thanks so much, Alex, for the good responses (also your responses to Elise’s comments — I find them terrific).

        Very late, some replies:

        On 1: Yes, fully agree. I think one important task for us as Christian EAs is to show how that careful thinking about maximal impact is an *expression* of love. (As a side remark: Maybe we should hold up Derek Parfit as a model. After he died two nights ago, some friends posted an episode from a newspaper interview with him in which he had to start to cry. The journalist didn’t understand why he cried until she asked and she realized it was because they had spoken about suffering. Even though they spoke about suffering in the *abstract*, it fully touched it him. Carefully thinking about suffering can be a channel of our love — and Parfit’s heartfelt reaction to rational argument about suffering might be a model of this.)
        Maybe, it would be more accurate to say, that careful thinking *can* be an expression of love (but *must* not necessarily be so). Some people who are very much into careful thinking, calculating impact, rational attention to evidence, etc. might to do so from wrong motives. For example, they might not truly be interested in human suffering but they might be enchanted with efficiently bringing measurable projects to success (and they don’t care whether this is a project about producing some product in a factory or about alleviating human suffering in a charity organisation). For others, careful thinking might be rooted in a controlling attitude rather than in a trustful attitude towards God’s guidance. Etc. Thus, there *can* be wrong motivational roots for carefully thinking about maximal impact. But there *must* not be. To the contrary, I agree that true love will express itself in careful thinking about maximal impact.

        On 2: It is not all-or-nothing thing whether we should alleviate poverty. While I am not sure about the biblical grounding, I can say that I grew up with a theology that does not directly deduce from the fact that X is important the conclusion that I ought to contribute to X (regardless of whether X is evangelism, poverty alleviation, etc.). Rather, I grew up with a theology that stresses that there are different callings. God kind of puts all the different tasks into different parcels and assigns these parcels of different sizes to different people: one has the calling to look after children in the neighbourhood, another has the calling to do theology, another has the calling to do poverty alleviation in country Y, etc. Thus, I still think that the sheer fact that human lives matter greatly to God isn’t itself enough basis for concluding that *I* ought to save as many of these lives as possible.
        However, I am speaking very generally. We could well say that poverty alleviation is — just like prayer, but unlike, say, children’s work, theological studies, or evangelism — a calling for *everyone*. And even if my point might be correct in the abstract (i.e. even if some of us are assigned a smaller parcel of the overall task than others), we could also say that *all* of us fall short of the parcel of this overall responsibility that is assigned to us individually.

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  2. Thank you for starting this platform.

    I believe that love gives without measure, sacrificially. While giving effectively seems, at least to us in this group, to be the most loving thing to do, here are a few thoughts about why I believe it’s not always the case.

    By giving exclusively to highly effective charities, we fail to support and bless smaller, less effective efforts that are still changing lives. Some lives cost more to improve, some are more difficult to improve, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be improved. Imagine that your church sends off a missionary to a certain area of the world to start a small business, thus creating jobs and allowing for a small community of believers to be birthed. Is your church going to refuse paying for it because it isn’t cost effective? Also, what if the only person impacted by a certain ministry ends up becoming extremely wealthy or influential and can in turn impact many more lives than any highly effective charity that could have been chosen over that small initiative?

    In the same sense, and this is my strongest point, I don’t think that people’s eternal destiny can be given a price tag. Putting it in more direct terms, why would Christians work so hard at outdoing non-Christians’ efforts in improving individuals’ welfare, all this without sharing the gospel with the people charities work among? I believe that it is more crucial for a group of underprivileged individuals to come to Jesus than for them to see an improvement in their health or living conditions, because their coming to Christ ripples into eternity whereas physical wellbeing is only for this life. Of course, we should never be hypocritical and bring only the gospel without any material help (cf. James 2:16) but if we’re not bringing Jesus to people, then we’re not making a real difference and, ultimately, do not genuinely believe that Jesus is the greatest gift and blessing people can ever receive.

    Maybe it is quantitatively more beneficial to donate an x amount of money to a highly effective charity, but what if your small group member or your neighbor has a serious illness that is putting them in a financially unbearable situation? The quantitative argument resonates deeply with me, and yet somehow I cannot picture myself the day I stand before God telling him about the science behind my giving and how it increased a certain number of people’s wellbeing by a certain amount, when the Biblical example found in Matthew 25:31-46 combined with 1 Corinthians 13 seems, to me, to indicate that love should be the primary motivator of my giving, and that my giving should not only be in monetary terms but require me to go out of my way in a holistic sense.

    Finally, God’s ways are higher than ours, and God sometimes leads individuals to do things that do not make much sense in human terms because He has plans in mind that we cannot (yet) perceive. It’s staggering when looking at Biblical examples God didn’t spare the Egyptian army as His people was fleeing; a woman poured expensive perfume at Jesus’ feet with basically no return over investment other than her (free and already granted) salvation; maybe more striking still is the fact that millions have been condemned to eternity away from God since humanity began. If God valued effectiveness the way we are drawn to value it today, He could potentially help/save everyone now all by Himself. I’m guessing that He’s not doing it because it wouldn’t glorify Him as much as the current way things are going is. This argument takes a theological turn, but I believe that talking in those terms is unescapable if we’re going to dig deep into the relationship between Christianity and effective altruism.

    I hope this makes some sense and that it’s not excessively off topic nor offensive. Looking forward to feedback.

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    1. @Elise – Thanks for all this, I’m using numbers to help keep my thoughts coherent, sorry if it seems quite abrupt!

      1. That focusing on the most cost-effective charities means some get neglected – I think that whatever system we use for allocating our help some will get neglected and that this is a travesty, yet with limited resources, it seems to be a sad fact that some will get neglected. No one’s life deserves not to be improved, but by giving effectively we seem to be able to make sure that the smallest number of lives get unfairly neglected?

      2. People who we help via less effective charity might end up being really influential – This could definitely happen, but it seems that it could also happen to those who we can help by doing the most effective charity routes? I think our best method is to use an expected returns calculation, accepting that there is uncertainty but choosing whatever route leads to (on expectation) the biggest impact.

      3. The importance of evangelism – As an evangelical I take this point very seriously. Those who think that Matthew 28 leaves us with a strong imperative to invest our resources in helping others come to Christ will need to work out how to invest in both this and also suffering alleviation, which also has a strong biblical mandate. It is my plan to make sure there is a blog to discuss this more fully. Given that the bible (in my view) makes it clear that both are important, I think Christians should be giving to help both evangelism and suffering alleviation, and I think the latter should definitely be done as effectively as possible (probably also the evangelism – but that is quite controversial!)

      4. Shouldn’t love be our primary motivator? – I think love for others has to be (and must be if we are to stay motivated) at the root of our charity. Yet I’m desperate to feel the same compassion for a human I will never meet as I am for the person suffering in my small group. I don’t want to live in a world where those who are suffering but have rich friends get privileged over those who are suffering but don’t. I need God to help transform my mind in helping me feel this motivating compassion for distant people I will never meet. There is the separate question of whether charity to other Christians should be prioritised that you touch on here in the vein of Gal 6:10, this is a question the Christian EA community needs to think carefully about and hopefully there will be a blog post on this soon!

      5. Does God actually value effectiveness? – You raise a series of important points, there is firstly a question of whether Christians like myself who think that God can personally speak to people today should ignore what they feel like God is saying and just keep on going with EA recommending activities. I want to have plenty of space for updating my plans if God leads me differently, though in practice he doesn’t often speak to me about where my charitable giving should go. There are two ways of thinking about this, one is that God, being a value driven being, is actually the best EA going, he knows how to maximize value and so we would be fools not to follow his lead. A different view is that God acts in ways that aren’t interested in maximizing the things he cares about, but this seems implausible to me. So I think Christians should be willing to update their plans given God’s call yet they need to be careful to make sure they have actually heard God’s voice. We should follow the classic scriptural advice we get in 1 Thess of weighing and testing. In my view, we should be willing to update our plans if we are really sure we have heard God speak, yet in the absence of God’s clear direction, it seems that it’s appropriate to follow the advice of classical EA. I hope that we will get a blog post on this topic too!

      Would be super interested in what you think of my thoughts, thanks again for the stimulating comments.

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  3. This is a great introduction! One criticism of point (1) I have heard (although I do not agree with it) goes along the lines of “he who saves a single life saves the world entire”. There is a strand in some of Christian morality that suggests that as all lives are infinitely valuable to God, saving one is already the pinnacle of moral accomplishment. I don’t think this idea stands up to much rational thought, but has a huge amount of emotional appeal, particularly when we hear the stories of people who need very expensive cancer treatments, for example.

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