Effective Giving, Reparative Giving

Decolonizing Wealth (Villanueva) and “Reparative Justice” (Cordelli)

Book cover

Yet…how often is it called altruism when sacrifices are made by people from whom we assume and expect selflessness? We don’t call it altruism when a mother stays awake all night by her child’s bedside. We don’t even call it altruism when a home care worker stays way beyond overtime, until the hurricane has blown over, to ensure the safety of her elderly charge. We expect certain kinds of people to make sacrifices. Apparently we reserve the term altruism for the privileged, fortunate, entitled people for whom self-sacrifice is a stretch, is unexpected.

Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth (p. 152)

Back in 2017, I started to feel like I needed to give away more of my money–maybe a lot more–to help other people. I talked a bit about this feeling at the end of that year, in my review of Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save. Singer is an important figure in the movement known as effective altruism, and that movement has provided the main framework I’ve used to approach charitable giving for the last few years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the year 2020 led me to reflect on my approach, and to try to further develop my own thinking and practice of charitable giving. In this post, I want to talk about how my thinking is developing, and to discuss a couple of relevant and insightful works I read in late 2020: Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth (2018) and Chiara Cordelli’s chapter “Reparative Justice and the Moral Limits of Discretionary Philanthropy.” In Philanthropy in Democratic Societies: History, Institutions, Values, ed. Rob Reich, Chiara Cordelli, and Lucy Bernholz (2016). I’m able to pull up a PDF of this chapter by searching for it on Google Scholar, but the URL seems to be regenerated each time and isn’t something stable I can link to.

The philosophy of effective altruism (EA) is strongly utilitarian. The basic premise of EA is that when we seek to do good with our money, we have reason to figure out how to do not just some good, but the greatest possible amount of good with it. People take this premise in many different directions, but at least for the strand I identify most closely with, Some other strands of EA have come to focus much more heavily on “existential risks” or even things like insect suffering. I critiqued the x-risk version of EA in my 2018 review of Posner’s book Catastrophe; here is a good critique I read more recently. it yields a few basic principles. First, charitable giving is most effective when directed to help people in developing countries, both because their needs are much greater and because it’s generally much cheaper to help them (so you can help more people with the same amount of money). Second, it’s important to conduct rigorous evaluations of charitable organizations to assess what they’re actually accomplishing with their resources, and what they would likely accomplish with incremental resources. It’s a failure if we give money to an organization that makes a powerful emotional fundraising appeal, but actually doesn’t accomplish that much; it’s also a failure if we give money to an organization that is accomplishing a lot, but is already “fully funded” and wouldn’t be able to use our additional money to do more good than they already are.

This strand of the EA movement is most prominently represented by the organization GiveWell, which evaluates charities along these dimensions of impact and makes recommendations of the most effective charitable organizations. Their top charities are generally devoted to preventing deaths and increasing incomes in sub-Saharan Africa. Their work has been an extremely important influence on my personal giving over the last few years, and it continues to be so. But “the GiveWell view” of charitable giving has some limitations (which, to be fair, I believe GiveWell itself fully acknowledges). One is that its framework is not very adaptable to giving in support of systemic change. It’s possible that supporting organizations doing policy advocacy or direct action to change laws, influence budgets, or democratize governments could achieve quite a lot of good–perhaps much more than is achieved by supporting organizations doing highly repeatable and measurable work like seasonal malaria chemoprevention. But we can’t really “know” this in a rigorous quantitative way, because systemic change is by definition not a repeatable and measurable practice. So if we are committed to having a firm idea of how much good our donations will do, we will necessarily be limited to treating problems within the current system without trying to change the system to stop the problems from occurring in the first place.

I think this is a good critique of the GiveWell approach, but not one that by any means invalidates the general philosophy of EA. “Try to do the most good you can” is still a meaningful guiding star, even if we lack a lot of information. For example, we can have a high degree of certainty that giving money to our alma mater, or to the local symphony or museum, is not going to achieve the objective. (We may still want to do those things too, but we should think of them as more akin to consumption than to true charity.) Perhaps more importantly, the measurable GiveWell-type interventions provide a relatively certain benchmark that we can compare other options to. When we know with relatively high certainty that we could save X number of lives with a given amount, is it still worth using that amount in support of another cause? We may not be able to answer that question in any quantitative way, but it does seem like it could have a relatively clear answer in at least some cases.

I hadn’t given too much thought to this critique in my first few years identifying with EA, in part because I’m more of a satisficer than an optimizer. That is, I can feel satisfied having concluded, “Wow, I can do a lot of good” with a given amount of money, without worrying too much about whether I am doing the absolute maximum possible amount of good–especially when I think that the latter proposition is essentially unknowable.

But living through the year 2020 in America made me reflect a lot more on my duties with regard to charitable giving. The first impetus was the renewed and strengthened Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder. I feel a great deal of support for this movement, and have a strong sense that our government and society in general unjustly devalues the lives of Black people. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine an EA justification for financially supporting BLM–although the movement is in fact trying to save lives (among other things), it’s nowhere near the number of potential lives saved from health interventions in Africa. At the same time, it doesn’t seem right to me to say that supporting BLM would be the moral equivalent of donating to the local symphony.

The second impetus was just the huge amount of human need among Americans that arose from COVID and from our government’s terrible response to it. Thousands of people are suffering from our failure to provide health insurance for everyone. Millions more Americans, including a lot of kids, are going hungry this year. But again, it seems to me that an EA framework can’t countenance charitable giving to help these people, because it’s simply more cost effective to help hungry or sick Africans than it is to help hungry or sick Americans. Can that be right?

It’s definitely possible that it’s right. I’m not a moral realist, so I don’t actually think there is a fact of the matter about whether this is right or wrong. Rather, what I mean is that I think our moral intuitions are fallible, and sometimes, given our values, reason can support a course of action that conflicts with them. As Eliezer Yudkowsky would put it, the right answer could be to “shut up and multiply!”–that is, distrust your moral intuitions and do what you rationally understand to produce the best outcome. But as the end of 2020 and the traditional annual giving season approached, I went looking for some other perspectives that might help guide my thinking. The perspective I found that resonated the most with my own intuitions was the idea of reparative giving. This idea is obviously closely akin to the topic of reparations for slavery, which I wrote about in my review of Darity and Mullen, but is more generalized. I first encountered the more general concept in Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth. Villanueva works in the field of philanthropy, and the overt orientation of the book is about reforming philanthropic institutions, but his message also spoke to me as an individual donor grappling with the kinds of issues I mentioned above.

As the book title indicates, Villanueva diagnoses the problems of modern philanthropic giving in colonialism As a White man, I found Villanueva’s perspective helpful in giving me a personally relevant concept of “decolonization of the mind.” My partner is a person of color, and she often uses this phrase in talking about the ongoing process of throwing off the assumption that White and European things are better than the traditions of her culture of origin. I don’t have a non-White culture of origin that needs to be defended, but I can still practice rejecting the colonial habits of mind that Villanueva describes. –to some degree, the literal history of white people colonizing indigenous lands, but more generally, a colonialist mindset. Villanueva characterizes this as a mantra of “divide, control, and exploit.” In the context of philanthropic giving, this looks like: dividing society up into “us white saviors” and “the needy poor;” ensuring that rich white people continue to control philanthropic resources (with the result that a very low percentage of philanthropic giving is directed to communities of color); furthering the exploitative industries that extracted wealth in the first place and not seeing this as connected to philanthropic activity.

The EA movement doesn’t score very well on Villanueva’s decolonization rubric. Not only philosophically, but also in pure demographic terms: the 2019 EA Survey indicated that the community was 71% male, 87% White. It does deserve credit for orienting donors heavily toward serving the poor. But, in part due to the nature of utilitarianism itself, it encourages adherents to take an illusory “view from nowhere.” The question “How can this money accomplish the most good?” is one that takes as irrelevant the identity of the person asking it, or the provenance of the money to be given. The framework presumes that, given enough information, everyone who wants to give money would more or less converge on the same answer, no matter who they are. And it doesn’t much care how that money was made in the first place, which has given rise to the “earning to give” concept: the weird-to-me idea that in some sense the most moral possible life could be to work at a hedge fund and give millions of dollars to effective charities. The decision of where to give is treated as though it is posed by a disembodied rational intelligence not embedded in any society–the height of colonialist delusion.

One of the remedies that Villanueva counsels for philanthropy’s ills is a reparative mindset. To paraphrase, this means recognizing that the financial bounty from which philanthropic giving springs is derived, to greater or lesser degrees, from unjust systems from which the giver has been the beneficiary. It means that the beneficiary must take some responsibility for repairing the harms of these unjust systems, but also that it’s important for the giver to relinquish control of determining the best way to spend money, giving it over to those who were harmed and who, in a more just system, would have had control of those assets in the first place.

I think this concept gets directly at the heart of the giving conundrums I posed earlier. While Black Americans may not be suffering to the degree that the poor in developing countries do, I think I still have a reparative duty to support the BLM movement, because of my specific identity as a White American person who benefits from the systems of injustice that the movement is protesting. And when people are going hungry or without healthcare in my community, I have a reparative duty to help them because of my specific identity as a wealthy person in that community who benefits from our government’s failure to enact a better social safety net. Even if I voted for politicians who supported those causes (and I did!), it doesn’t change the fact that I continue to benefit from the current system.

The EA view that says I should only direct my giving where it can quantitatively do the most good, in this lens, is to at least some degree a theft or misappropriation of resources. If I benefited from an unjust system that siphoned resources away from certain people in my society, I can’t fairly turn to them and say, “sorry, but these other people could use the money more than you.” A decolonizing mindset would say, I need to return these resources from the people they’ve been taken from, even if I think I have an idea of how they could be used even better.

One strong counterargument I see here is to broaden the definition of the “society” that we’re trying to gauge justice within. It may be true that people in my community are being hurt by my government’s failure to create a strong social safety net, which I in turn benefit from. But is not also true, maybe even more true, that people in developing countries are being hurt by a global history of colonialism and its ongoing legacy, and of mostly unchecked capitalism, that I in turn also benefit from? And doesn’t this just re-establish my duty to focus my charitable giving on the global poor?

In short, I think this is a credible counterargument, but not one that in any way invalidates the original points about decolonizing charitable giving. All it does is to establish that I, as a charitable giver, have multiple obligations to many different people, due to the multiple overlapping systems of injustice that I benefit from. This conclusion seems to comport with my own moral intuitions: it’s morally unhealthy to become obsessed with, say, malaria prevention, to the exclusion of recognizing any other sphere of injustice; it’s similarly unhealthy to focus only on helping people in my own community, to the exclusion of those farther away from me.

Reading more in this area, I found a more academic treatment of a similar idea in Chiara Cordelli’s book chapter, Another great academic article on a similar topic, which I’m not discussing here, is Will Kymlicka’s chapter “Altruism in Philosophical and Ethical Traditions: Two Views”, in Between State and Market, ed. Jim Phillips, Bruce Chapman, and David Stevens (2001). I couldn’t find a free PDF of this chapter, but you can read most of it by searching the book on Google Books. “Reparative Justice and the Moral Limits of Discretionary Philanthropy.” Much of my framing of Villanueva’s argument above is shaped by this chapter. Cordelli emphasizes that the reparative duty to give imposes limitations on the donor’s discretion on where to give. If my giving is a repayment of a moral debt, its disposition shouldn’t be influenced by the fact that I care about the arts, or that I have a relative who died of a certain disease. I should only be guided by an assessment of who has been harmed by those unjust systems that I bear some responsibility for.

Cordelli’s writing is incisive, and indeed, as soon as she establishes this point, she addresses the most challenging issue that it raised in my mind: once we’ve determined some set of reparative obligations, how can we determine how to allocate giving between those causes (or even, how much we’re obligated to give in the first place)? There’s no obvious way to weight one’s reparative obligations without a complete accounting of the injustices one is complicit in and the distribution of goods in an ideally just world. Cordelli basically recognizes that this is a problem, but says it’s no excuse for inaction. “In practice, even if donors cannot know exactly what their due is…they still have a duty to approximate this principle as best as they can in their daily life. Note that the fact that this duty remains necessarily indeterminate doesn’t make it any less a duty of justice…that the duty is indeterminate does not entail that it is not action-guiding” (262).

I took Cordelli’s admonishment to heart in determining my own personal giving for 2020. As a quantitatively minded person, it pains me a great deal to have no methodology for allocating my giving across various reparative causes. But as Cordelli says, this is no excuse for not making the best attempt we can. So, in the interest of sharing and opening up a discussion, here is how I acted concretely on these ideas in 2020.

  • To start with, I wanted to continue donating to GiveWell, because I think I have a large reparative duty to the global poor as well as utilitarian reasons to give to them. I also wanted to challenge myself to continue giving as much to them as I have in past years, and add some other reparative giving on top of that, rather than reallocating the same amount. This is because the total amount I give away is also somewhat arbitrary and I think I could be giving more. I previously established a rule of thumb that I would give away an amount equal to my annual bonus, which is around 20% of my total compensation. This felt like a good focal point to me because I clearly establish throughout the year that I can live without it. So I gave 18% to GiveWell, allocated to their “Maximum Impact Fund,” which they opportunistically grant to their top charities who have the best near-term use for it. I also gave 2% to support GiveWell’s operations, because I think their evaluation work is important in getting money to the most effective places, but I’m unsure whether this should count morally as a charitable donation. I’m counting it here.
  • Next, I tried to enumerate areas beyond global poverty where I feel like I am complicit in unjust systems and therefore have some reparative duties. I came up with the following (non-exhaustive!) list: people in my community going hungry, people in my community going without medical care, residential segregation and concomitant racist lack of access to education and other public services, racist treatment of Black Americans in the criminal justice system and elsewhere, an almost inconceivable debt to Native people for the theft of their land, and my nation’s inaction to combat climate change. Certainly it would be possible to come up with an almost unlimited number of such items–for example, my country’s poor treatment of immigrants and refugees could definitely be added–but the above felt like a solid and reasonable list to me.
  • I identified an organization to give to corresponding to each of these reparative duties. I tried to prioritize organizations that I have reason to believe are effective, that favor direct action, and in cases of duties to people of color, organizations that are led by those people. These were: Connecticut Food Bank (hunger), RIP Medical Debt (healthcare), Desegregate CT (segregation), Movement for Black Lives (Black Americans), Decolonizing Wealth Fund This fund is managed by Edgar Villanueva. (Native Americans), and the Sunrise Movement (climate change).
  • I decided, more or less arbitrarily, on an amount of money to give to each of these. This ended up being about 0.4% of my income to each. Basically this was an amount that felt meaningful and that I could afford on top of the GiveWell donation. Since there are six organizations, this totaled 2.4% of my income.
  • In addition, I gave money throughout the year to political candidates and to grassroots groups doing election organizing. I consider this giving also under the general category of reparative duties, as I think it’s my responsibility to work toward a more just government. I gave money to the Bernie Sanders campaign in the Democratic primary. During the general election, I gave money mainly to candidates for state legislatures based on this analysis. And I also gave money to several grassroots organizations in Georgia in support of organizing for the January 2021 Senate runoffs. These political donations totaled about 1.3% of my income. (The IRS doesn’t consider these to be charitable donations, nor the money I gave to Sunrise, which is a 501c4, but that’s OK–I am using my own moral compass here!)
  • I also gave a little money here and there to other causes that the IRS considers charitable, but these were things I would categorize more as cultural consumption than utilitarian or reparative giving, and I am not counting them here (and they would not amount to much in any case).

So altogether, I donated about 24% of my income. This was allocated about 84% to EA-style giving and 16% to non-EA justice-oriented giving. This allocation was definitely haphazard, in the sense that I had no systematic approach to determining it. Upon reflection, I feel good about the overall amount, though I also think I could do more. It feels right to me that the majority is still going to help the world’s poorest, although it also feels a little too lopsided in that direction. I feel good having established a clear rationale in my mind for giving to multiple causes, and I feel surprisingly OK with the haphazard method of allocation–mostly, I feel good just having made an attempt to do the best I can. And, although I don’t think that the benefits to the giver should be much of a consideration in charitable giving, I think it was good for me to go through the process of thinking through the systems of injustice that I’m complicit in and not merely delegating my donation decisions to GiveWell (or anyone else).

I’ll close by saying that I hope to continue to read and think on these topics in 2021. Some books I’m interested in reading in particular that seem relevant are Mutual Aid by Dean Spade (2020), A Moral Theory of Solidarity by Avery Kolers (2016), and On What Matters by Derek Parfit (2013).