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What’s bad about being good?

Research at St Andrews explores effective altruism, a rapidly growing social movement which encourages us to do the most good we can with the money and time available.

We usually choose which charities to give to on the basis of emotional connections, rather than evidence about which will achieve the most with our limited resources. Effective altruism holds a mirror up to this practise, highlighting how giving without regard to impact can squander real opportunities to do a lot more for people, animals, and the planet.

Until recently, the ethics of charitable giving has largely focused on the question of how much one should donate. By contrast, Dr Theron Pummer, from the Department of Philosophy at St Andrews, focuses on the question of which charities one should donate to, if one donates to charity at all.

What is effective altruism?

Currently more akin to a social movement than an established philosophy, at its core, effective altruism invites people to consider how they can – using reason and evidence – help others as much as possible with their available resources, whether these are money, time, or effort.

Suppose you have $100,000 at your disposal. You want to help others, so you decide to donate it to charity. You are presented with two options: one is a guide dog charity, and the other is a charity which prevents trachoma-induced blindness. If you donate the $100,000 to the first charity, this will likely help two blind people by training their guide dogs. Suppose, however, that if you choose to donate to the second charity, this will likely prevent at least 1,000 people from going blind.

According to effective altruists, more good is achieved by donating to the trachoma charity – after all, you’d be helping 998 more people, and each to at least as great an extent. The difference your money makes depends on how much benefit per dollar the charities you give it to produce. 

Money is not the only resource that can be used to do good, and some argue that time is very often an even more valuable resource than money. Applying effective altruist thinking to time, the question becomes “how can I use my time most effectively to help as much as possible?” Each person has on average 80,000 working hours in their career.

Deciding how best to spend this large amount of time is a significant decision, which has the potential to affect very many lives across the world.

Organisations such as 80,000 Hours offer assistance to those looking to ensure their choice of career helps solve the world’s most pressing problems. 80,000 Hours highlights which jobs are most beneficial, and which are harmful. For example, they argue that founding a tech startup is a high potential career path both in terms of having a large direct social impact as well as “earning to give”, whereas management or innovation work in factory farming is detrimental, as this industry inflicts suffering on billions of animals each year and is a major contributor to climate change.

History of effective altruism

Effective altruism has its roots in 1950s aid from governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In the 1990s more people began applying the scientific method and priority setting to aid, trying to figure out what works, and at what costs. While these were pivotal steps in the direction of effective altruism, individual donors continued to struggle finding reliable information about the impact of their donations.

With well over a million charities to choose from – slightly fewer than 200,000 of them in Scotland, England, and Wales alone – donors wanting to make a positive difference can easily feel very lost.

The early 21st century saw effective altruism truly come alive. One major milestone was the founding of the non-profit GiveWell in 2007. GiveWell is dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities through in-depth analysis. In 2016, donors gave over $110 million via GiveWell to top-recommended charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.

Two years after GiveWell’s founding, Toby Ord, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, founded Giving What We Can. At the core of Giving What We Can is its pledge, which commits participants earning a regular income to give at least 10% of their income, until retirement, to the organisations they believe “can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come.” Giving What We Can now has over 3,000 members, together pledging more than $1.45 billion over the course of their careers. So far, their members have donated around $24 million to cost-effective charities. 

In 2011 the Centre for Effective Altruism was co-founded by another Oxford philosopher, Will MacAskill, as an umbrella organisation for Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. MacAskill’s 2015 book, Doing Good Better, serves as a primer for the effective altruism movement.

Some examples of effective altruists include:

At St Andrews, Lecturer in Philosophy Dr Theron Pummer adds to the effective altruism discourse. He is the Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs (CEPPA), where one of the main projects is on philosophical issues surrounding effective altruism.

Theron's research

Dr Pummer’s research into the ethics of charitable giving focuses on the moral importance of where we give, if we give at all.

While previous philosophical literature has largely been concerned with the wrongness of not giving enough, Pummer’s recent work is concerned with the “wrongness of giving”. Such a phrase sits awkwardly alongside contemporary social etiquette, which tends to hold charity and philanthropy in high regard.

Of course, it’s not that Pummer thinks donating to charity is inherently wrong – the idea is instead that we often do wrong, even when doing some good, through our charitable giving. Pummer implores us to acknowledge the risks of acting wrongly that come with giving, suggesting these risks are widely underappreciated.

He argues that while some charities don’t introduce a ‘significant risk of harm’, many, however well-intentioned, do. Pummer raises difficult questions about how much risk of harm it is morally permissible to introduce when aiming to benefit others.

“But even among those charities that are utterly harmless, there remain serious risks of doing wrong by giving to them. In particular you can do wrong by failing to produce more benefit for others when this would come at no extra cost to yourself.”  

In his 2016 article ‘Whether and Where to Give’, Pummer argues that “in many cases it would be wrong of you to give a sum of money to charities that do less good than others you could have given to instead, even if it would not have been wrong of you not to give the money to any charity at all.”

In the video below, Pummer draws an analogy between charitable giving and a hypothetical scenario involving runaway trains in which you can sacrifice your arm to save one child or three others. Which would you choose? 

Pummer draws attention to the success of philosopher Peter Singer’s research, which has inspired many people to give more. When it comes to his own work, Pummer hopes his arguments “will inspire people to give better”.

The conclusion of ‘Whether and Where to Give’ opposes “a fairly common assumption in the ethics of giving, according to which if it is not wrong of you to keep some sum of money for yourself, then it is likewise not wrong of you to donate it to any particular charity you choose.” Pummer debated these matters with Jeff McMahan, White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, at the student-run St Andrews Philosophy Society last year, with a related discussion taking place more recently on the philosophy blog PEA Soup. In 2017, PEA Soup awarded Pummer's paper 'Whether and Where to Give' a Reader's Choice award

The case against (most) charities

Applying the train analogy to the choice between two charities, it would be morally wrong to donate to the charity which represented one child, because by saving three children (the alternative charity) you would confer substantially more benefit at no extra cost.

If we choose to give to charity, we should therefore bear cost-effectiveness in mind.

The rise in awareness of effective altruism and organisations such as 80,000 Hours and GiveWell marks a milestone in the history of ethical giving, and it is becoming clearer and clearer which charities produce the most benefit per dollar received. Deciding whether a charity is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ one to donate to is no easy task – many contributing factors have to be considered. 

At present, most people are unaware of the differences in cost-effectiveness between different charities, many giving on the basis of gut feelings or operational efficiency (what a charity spends directly on its operations compared with overheads such as administration or fundraising). GiveWell rates charities on evidence of successful programmes, cost-effectiveness, transparency, and what they would do with additional funding. 

By donating to charity, is producing the most benefit possible all that matters? Is it wrong to give partly on the basis of emotional connections? Pummer doesn’t argue that it is wrong to give to the causes closest to your heart over more cost-effective ones that are not. Giving to the latter rather than the former may come at a significant personal cost to you.

“In this case, giving less cost-effectively couldn’t be wrong on the grounds of failing to benefit more at no extra cost.” 

However, if it were down to two charities that equally represented a cause close to your heart – such as fighting cancer – and one produced substantially more benefit than the other, it’d be wrong to give to the less effective of the two.

Effective altruism at St Andrews

The University of St Andrews is home to a community of staff and students who are actively involved in philosophical study. The Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs (CEPPA) maintains a programme of research projects, seminars, conferences, academic visits, and occasionally publishes volumes in moral, social, political, and public philosophy. One of CEPPA’s projects is on effective altruism.

Members of staff aren’t the only ones at the University involved in the effective altruism movement. Charlie Rogers-Smith, president of the student-run 80,000 Hours society, highlights how students can get involved, as the society “aims to promote effective altruism in all its forms”.

This promotion manifests itself in two main ways: “the advocacy and fundraising for the most effective charities (Giving What We Can), and thinking about how we can use our careers to do the most good (80,000 Hours). We run speaker events, career and skills workshops, fundraising campaigns, and socials.” 

“There’s a lot of bright students at University who want to lead happy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives. They want to do good, but don’t necessarily consider how they can do the most good. It’s particularly important to get involved with effective altruism at University, where you’re in the best position to shape your future; both in allocation of future income and career choice.”

“Effective altruists share a common goal: to help others as much as possible. So in helping someone else to have a greater impact you increase your own impact too. This fosters an incredibly supportive community, in which advice and mentoring are prevalent.” 

In addition to the 80,000 Hours society, which was launched in early 2017, autumn 2015 saw the launch of a chapter of Giving What We Can at St Andrews, co-founded and led by Rufaida Al Hashmi (with Dr Pummer as the chapter’s faculty advisor). In the 2016-2017 academic year, the St Andrews Giving What We Can chapter raised over £2,000 for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative with one fundraiser, and successfully campaigned to get the Against Malaria Foundation elected as “hall charity” for both St Salvator’s Hall and Andrew Melville Hall, raising over £4,000 for the charity.

One effective altruism event in St Andrews which has recently united both students and staff was the Ethics of Giving Conference (video recordings of talks are available on the CEPPA website). The conference featured a keynote lecture by Peter Singer, entitled ‘Living Ethically in the 21st Century’.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, moral philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, is one of the main pioneers of the effective altruism movement.

Most contemporary philosophical work on the ethics of charitable giving has its roots in Singer’s famous and very widely taught 1972 article ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’. Since writing this article, Singer has focused more on the effectiveness of donations, publishing The Life You Can Save in 2009 and founding an organisation of the same name, which recommends specific charities and promotes a culture of effective giving.

Singer took a brief break from the Ethics of Giving Conference at St Andrews to be interviewed. In the video below, Singer talks generally about effective altruism, looking at the movement’s place in 2017, and the cultural change that is needed to embrace such a movement in the years to come.

Though Singer had not been to St Andrews prior to his recent visit, this is not the first time he has interacted with St Andrews philosophers. Dr Liz Ashford and Professor Tim Mulgan, also from the Department of Philosophy, have been fellows at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, where Singer is based.

Pummer and Singer have worked together on a number of occasions, and are planning to co-author a piece on how best to incorporate cost-effectiveness clauses into giving pledges taken by high net worth individuals. When they were still in draft form, Pummer provided feedback on Singer’s books The Most Good You Can Do and The Point of View of the Universe. Singer and his co-author Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek cited Pummer’s work multiple times throughout the latter book.

What's bad about being good?

While donating to charity is most often seen as an inherently good thing to do, and choosing where to give on the basis of cost-effectiveness appears logical, effective altruism is not without its share of criticisms.

A common criticism of effective altruism is that it tends to focus on interventions with easily quantifiable effects that, metaphorically speaking, merely put a “band-aid” over the problem. In funding direct health interventions like the distribution of anti-malarial nets rather than supporting efforts to bring about systemic economic, social, or political change, the worry is that effective altruists are failing to address the root causes of global problems.

“Whether or not it’s true that effective altruism neglects systemic change in practice, it is harder to see how effective altruism could neglect systemic change as a matter of principle

Pummer draws attention to the fact that, in practice, effective altruists have devoted considerable energy looking into systemic change interventions, citing a few of the several examples presented in Robert Wiblin’s piece ‘Effective altruists love systemic change’.

According to another criticism, it’s impossible to prioritize between different causes in the ways effective altruists suggest. An extreme version of this criticism claims that it cannot ever be more important to help some individuals over others – implying that preventing a dozen children from dying is of no greater priority than preventing two stubbed toes. A subtler, more plausible version of the criticism claims we cannot always prioritize across different causes, owing to a degree of incommensurability between different sorts of goods. 

For example, how can we compare the good of those who exist in the present with that of potential future people? Pummer believes philosophy can be highly impactful here and more broadly. Such evaluative comparisons are crucial in assessing the cost-effectiveness of interventions aiming to reduce existential risks posed by climate change, nuclear war, and pandemics.

“Progress within ethical theory, especially on population ethics, aggregation, decision making under risk, animal ethics, and the nature of well-being is, I think, likely to prove highly relevant to the effective altruism project.” 

Pummer elaborates on the above criticisms, and provides possible counterpoints to them in the video below. 

Even the organisations and individuals that play significant educational roles in the effective altruism movement are susceptible to pitfalls. For example, GiveWell have a page on their website which monitors all the mistakes they have made, and how they are resolving them.

GiveWell’s level of introspection sets the bar when it comes to recognising and dealing with issues that could impact their users donating money effectively. Such continual self-improvement, alongside a commitment to being as transparent as possible, help make GiveWell a particularly reliable resource for donors.

Criticism of effective altruism indicates an engagement with the movement, and it is likely that further discussion and inspection will, in time, increase appreciation of its central ideals, and lead to a more global altruistic mentality.

The future of effective altruism

Pummer believes that effective altruism will continue to grow, and that effective altruist organisations will “develop systems for coordinating streams of donations (big and small) in effective ways that deal with collective action problems.” 

In addition, he thinks effective altruism will become more widely accepted and respected in academia, developing into a serious interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary field of study. Pummer cites Oxford’s “budding” Institute for Effective Altruism as playing an important role in this, alongside the CEPPA Effective Altruism Project at St Andrews.

Pummer is continuing his research in the ethics of giving and on effective altruism. For example, with Prof Roger Crisp of Oxford University, he’s writing a paper called ‘Effective Justice, which explores the features and prospects of a possible social movement that would be to justice what effective altruism is to good. He is developing another paper, 'Avoid Gratuitous Nonbeneficence', on costless failures to benefit others, which builds on some themes introduced in his ‘Whether and Where to Give’. 

He is also working on two book projects. One is more philosophically technical, but has potential implications for debates about cause prioritisation, particularly when it comes to shaping the far future. The other is an introductory-level book on effective altruism and ethical theory. Part of Pummer’s aim in this second book (under contract at Oxford University Press) is to “demonstrate the humble and uncontroversial philosophical commitments of effective altruist thinking”. Further details of Pummer’s work can be found on his website.

Pummer is collaborating with Jon Behar, COO and Director of Philanthropy Education at The Life You Can Save, on the organisation’s plans to build “a free resource library to empower educators who want to teach effective altruism and students who want to learn about it.” Behar continues: “The ‘Giving Game’ held at CEPPA’s Ethics of Giving Conference is just a small taste of The Life You Can Save’s plans for this model of philanthropy education.” 

Efforts to educate the wider public about the philosophy behind effective altruism, as well as about evidence of effectiveness, are likely to substantially change views and attitudes toward helping others and making the world a better place.

More information

If you’re interested in learning more about effective altruism, there is a myriad of resources available online. One starting point for general information is Effective Altruism, and if your altruistic endeavours are career-based, try 80,000 Hours. For something more in-depth, Peter Singer runs a Coursera course on Effective Altruism.

Students can join local effective altruism chapters such as those of Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, and the Life You Can Save. Charlie Rogers-Smith advises students who are looking to become more involved:

“Donating a substantial amount of money as a student is a big commitment, and for most of us it isn’t feasible. It’s much more important to get familiar with effective altruism ideas such as charity evaluation through organisations like GiveWell, and donate 1% of your earnings to maintain altruistic interest. However, since you spend around 80,000 hours of your life working, arguably the most important thing you can do is choose a career path that best fits your abilities and interests, and allows you to build the most relevant skills. The 80,000 Hours website offers excellent career advice for the most fulfilling and high impact careers.”

If you would like more information, or wish to donate to CEPPA, please contact the CEPPA administrator:

Donate to CEPPA

The amount of time, money, or effort you spend may not on its own make much, if any, difference – it all depends on how these resources are spent. Research from philosophers such as Pummer and Singer helps illuminate the importance of seriously considering exactly where your resources are going, and how much good you are really doing with them.

Wednesday 20 September 2017


Graphics and design by the University of St Andrews digital communications team. Content written by Maria Drummond, digital communications team, with contributions from Dr Theron Pummer. Video and audio by Amir Emami from the student-run Lightbox Creative St Andrews


Dr Theron Pummer for his support, access to research and time on this project.
Amir Emami from Lightbox Creative for the videos.
Peter Singer for his contributions and his time.
Charlie Rodgers-Smith for his contribution.


  1. Pummer, Theron ‘Whether and Where to GivePhilosophy and Public Affairs 1 (2016) Web 13 June 2017. DOI: 10.1111/papa.12065
  2. Singer, Peter ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 3 (1972) Web 13 June 2017.


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