THE BLOG

The Best Charity Uses the Head, But It Can't Happen Without the Heart

03/24/2016 01:17 am ET | Updated Mar 28, 2016

"I'm writing a book on empathy," Yale psychologist Paul Bloom begins in an animated interview with The Atlantic, "and I'm arguing against it."

Empathy blinds us to the long-term consequences of our actions, he argues, therefore charity motivated primarily by empathy has less impact in improving our world than does charity motivated by reason.

As an effective altruist and advocate of the movement for nearly three years, I see the point that Bloom is trying to make: that we must consider the most pressing issues and the most efficient ways to solve them when making charitable decisions. But in the process of trying to discuss this relatively straightforward concept, at least its most basic value proposition, he states a dangerous fallacy: that empathy and reason are mutually exclusive.

This fallacy is one that has unfortunately penetrated (and clearly continues to penetrate) the sphere of effective altruism for some time, especially during its rise in popularity over the last several years. Dichotomies like Bloom's are not new: they've inspired mud-slinging and condemnations of cruel heartlessness by bloggers the world over, including the former CEO of Charity Navigator who took to the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2013 to write an embarrassing treatise about what he insisted on calling "defective altruism."

Critics of effectiveness say that the movement is overly dogmatic and impossible to implement, among other things, inspiring detractors to write patently meaningless articles like "Should Charity Be Logical?" Because as we know, the best social change has come from staunch dedication to illogical efforts.

The enemy of Bloom's ideal, empathy-free donors are what philosopher Peter Singer has called "warm glow givers": those who give to feel good, often in small sums to several charities appealing to their emotions, rather than larger sums to charities with evidence of having saved many lives.

Peter Singer's 2013 TED Talk, "The Why and How of Effective Altruism," is what converted me from warm glow giving to methodological philanthropy. After learning about the movement, I eagerly read Singer's The Life You Can Save, began writing for the eponymous meta-charity inspired by its concepts, and was even quoted in Singer's most recent publication, The Most Good You Can Do. I mention all this both as a disclaimer of my connection to the movement and to say that I can justifiably claim understanding of his philosophy.

The problem with warm glow giving is not an excess of empathy, but a lack of reason, and that is a very important distinction.

My fellow effective altruists and I are proof that empathy and reason can coexist quite amicably - dare I say, effectively? - in a donor. It is true that empathy leads to warm glow giving, but it is also true that criticizing the empathy of an already charitable person will discourage them from giving at all. What is needed to convert warm glow givers to a more effective philanthropy is not a obliteration of their primary impetus to give, but an enhancement in understanding of what their gifts can accomplish when applied thoughtfully.

When Bloom equates the motivations for this brand of charity and those of going to war, it is clear that his argument is not with empathy at all, but selfishness. "Empathic engagement, being caught up in the suffering of victims, is usually the number one reason in a democratic country for going to war," he asserts. Never protecting beneficial economic relationships, for instance, nor White Man's Burden. The selfishness of the warm glow giver is explained right in the name: a person who chases satisfaction over meaningful impact.

As donors, we seek rational justifications for emotional impulses. Without empathy, there is no desire to give at all. Without reason and evidence, gifts do little to improve the lives of others.

Bloom tells us that "effective altruists say, 'What does the world need?'" rather than following the momentary infatuations of the warm glow giver. I find it difficult to believe that any of my fellow altruists, whether proponents of the effectiveness movement or not, could pose that question completely without empathy. I need not tell the psychologist that the "cold-blooded" ideal he espouses is something like sociopathy, and I have heard of very few sociopaths intent on improving the lives of the abject poor.

In the last three years, I have given away nearly $4,000 to effective charities recommended by The Life You Can Save, and I felt a warm glow every time. The warmth came from curing trachoma, providing fistula surgeries, educating rural clinicians, and, to disclose a selfish personal victory, having enough money to confidently give it away.

I am one of thousands of effective altruists around the world, each of whom has their own story about what first moved them to give. Empathy is to be celebrated, not admonished. It is the role of each one of us, perhaps especially Ivy League professors, to reach out to those in need of education and encourage them, not excoriate them for their humanity.

Update March 28, 2016: The aforementioned SSIR article was written by former CEO Ken Berger, not current President and CEO Michael Thatcher. The distinction was pointed out to me by Charity Navigator via Twitter.

CONVERSATIONS