Effective altruism (EA) “is a project that aims to find the best ways to help others and put them into practice.” It’s not really an organization you give money to. It doesn’t have a catchy name like Bread for the World, Habitat for Humanity or Doctors Without Borders.
It’s a concept that tries to identify the world’s most critical problems and how best to rectify the issues, or how to best alleviate the suffering of the most people. It’s similar to the question of how you feed a village. Do you give everyone some fish and repeat this every week? Or do you give each villager a pole so people can fish on their own? Or do you teach them how to fish?
EA recognizes that you can give two organizations $10 million, and one of them will do a far better job of allocating resources in a way that does the most good for the greatest number of people.
EA began as a theoretical approach to global issues in the early 2000s at Oxford University but has since spread around the world. Its tenets are practiced by thousands of people in more than 70 countries. The projects embraced by EA vary radically, from funding the distribution of 200 million malaria nets, to academic research on the future of AI, to campaigning for policies to prevent the next pandemic.
The key difference between most NGOs and what EA is trying to accomplish lies in the fact that EA is not locked into any individual solution to the world’s problems, but by a way of thinking. Effective altruism tries “to find unusually good ways of helping, such that a given amount of effort goes an unusually long way.”
So, what core values guide the work of effective altruists? According to their website, the key convictions are:
- open truth-seeking
- collaboration (maintaining a spirit of collaboration)
Let’s see how these values are embedded in the most famous altruist of the New Testament (after Jesus Christ Himself): the apostle Paul.
Today’s text is a remarkable and very personal look inside the head and heart of a man who has labored already for many years to share the gospel throughout the then-known world.
Prioritization One nonprofit that has sprung up as the child of the EA movement is 80,000 Hours. The London-based organization does research on careers that “have the largest positive social impact and provides career advice based on that research.”
The name comes from the typical amount of time someone spends working over a lifetime, according to the data. From age 20 to age 70, most of us are devoting up to 80,000 hours to work – often working for someone else.
The apostle Paul probably worked more than 80,000 hours in his lifetime, which most scholars agree was about 60 years – give or take. We know that by trade he made tents and that as a highly motivated religious person (he was a Pharisee), he went after followers of the Way with a zeal unmatched among the very early persecutors of the church.
But we also know that this same zeal was transformed into evangelizing energy that resulted in the growth and expansion of the early church, so that without the apostle Paul one can scarcely imagine what the church might have become, or not become.
Paul was a master of prioritization. He always wanted to reach the most people with the gospel in the best possible way. He realized that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
He was willing to suffer “the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish” (3:8). Although he had been born into a life of privilege (see 3:5-6), he wrote that “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (3:7).
As if to punctuate his singlemindedness, he again refers to his tunnel vision, his fixation on being true to his priorities in chapter 3: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own … Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:12-14).
Paul’s gift of prioritization is evident in Chapter 1 of today’s second reading. He admits he is torn between what he’d prefer to do, and what he knows is needful for others: “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (vv. 23-24).
Even at the end of his life, he was thinking altruistically of others, working toward what was best for them and strategizing the best course to advance the gospel.
We probably all want to make a difference. But for Paul, the goal was to find the best ways, the best methods, the best sacrifices to help, rather than just working to make whatever difference was possible.
Paul no doubt worked more than 80,000 hours, but he didn’t just mail it in. He planned, strategized, and prioritized. He didn’t just want to make a difference; he wanted to make the best and most influential difference given his toolbox: his skills, passion, and interests.
And, of course, he succeeded. So much so that at the end of his life, he could look back and say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Impartiality It’s a natural tendency to gravitate toward those who share similar interests and advocate on their behalf. We’re vulnerable to all sorts of biases we didn’t know we had – confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out information that supports something you already believe), cultural bias, self-serving bias and many more.
Why shouldn’t we have a special concern for our own family, tribe, friends, city, or nation?
Here’s why: effective altruism argues that “when trying to do as much good as possible … we should give everyone’s interests equal weight, no matter where or when they live. This means focusing on the groups who are most neglected, which usually means focusing on those who don’t have as much power to protect their own interests.”
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, was great at this. When he experienced a conversion on the Damascus Road (see Acts 9), he underwent a conversion! He was a different man. Once he was tribal; then he was global. Once he was proud and boastful; then he was humble and self-effacing. Once he was parochial and provincial; then he was mission-minded and visionary.
He wasn’t content to preach to his own people. No, he urged the First Council at Jerusalem (see Acts 15) to send him and his colleague Barnabas to Asia Minor.
Once in Asia Minor preaching to the Gentiles, he decided – after a very vivid dream of a man in Macedonia – t0 leave Asia and head for Europe. And so he did, traveling all the way to Rome.
This very letter to the church at Philippi is evidence of Paul’s impartiality – his willingness to minister to those beyond his own culture, those who were different. And now we read in our text, “Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again” (vv. 25-26).
Open Truth-Seeking Many people give to a few charities, including the church. But perhaps it has been a long time since our altruistic efforts have been revisited or evaluated. We’re committed to certain causes, and that’s it.
Open truth-seeking is an ongoing conversation that considers many ways to help and seeks to discover the best ones. “This means putting serious time into deliberation and reflection on one’s beliefs, being constantly open and curious for new evidence and arguments and being ready to change one’s views quite radically” (effectivealtruism.org).
At the heart of this decision-making is cause neutrality, the idea that resources should be distributed “to causes based on what will do the most good, irrespective of the identity of the beneficiary and the way in which they are helped.”
Self-assessment was important to the apostle. He engaged in it himself and urged believers to do the same: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit” (v. 28).
Perhaps it has been years since we’ve had a conversation with ourselves about how effective we are in sharing not only the gospel, but the resources of our time and talents.
Are we doing what we can in the best possible way?
In your view, what local agencies are doing the best work to meet local needs? How might we better assist them in their work?
How long has it been since I reevaluated my level of giving?
Giving What We Can (GWWC) is a philanthropic offshoot of the effective altruism movement. Its members all take the GWWC Pledge that affirms their intention to give at least 10% of their income to effective charities. More than 9,000 members of “Giving What We Can” have made public pledges to donate meaningful portions of their incomes. The PLEDGE TO GIVE reads: “I recognize that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from now until the day I retire, I shall give 10 percent of what I earn to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly and sincerely.”
Another subset of the EA movement is the “Earning to Give” approach to tackling global problems in the most effective manner possible.
Young people inspired by this movement deliberately choose careers with high income potential so they will have more financial resources at their disposal to make a difference. According to sources, some donate more than 50% of their income, much more than the 10% required for the basic “Giving What We Can” pledge. These people attempt to live simply and frugally to donate more money. They seek careers in finance, the technology sector and business to enable them to pursue their “earning to give” philosophy.
The apostle Paul was a tent maker. Clearly, he didn’t choose this profession because of its lucrative potential, and I know that many here have been blessed to earn in the high five figures. But Paul gave his life for the benefit of others in the service of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He frequently described himself as a “servant” of Jesus Christ.
As we approach our annual time of stewardship emphasis, this text from Philippians challenges us to reconsider how we might best serve the interests of the kingdom of God. Paul said, “For to me, living is Christ, and dying is gain” (v. 21). Paul did not give the 10% tithe of the Torah; he gave the 100% commitment of Jesus Christ, who said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
Collaboration Finally, one of the core values of EA is collaboration. We can achieve more when we work together. Effective altruism is most powerful when it involves people united “in being good citizens and working toward a better world.” Paul notes of his Philippian children in the faith: “You are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. … And this is God’s doing” (vv. 27-28, emphasis added).
As someone has said: “No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.”
Paul himself demonstrated the value of collaboration. He partnered first with Barnabas, and the two of them traveled throughout Asia Minor preaching the gospel (see Acts 13-14).
Then, he teamed up with Silas and went to Europe. In his subsequent missionary life, he collaborated with such folks as Priscilla and Aquia, Timothy, Apollos, Titus, Luke and a host of others.
One of the marvels of being an active worshiper in a church is that we have a readymade source of collaborators with whom we can team up in the service we render to the Lord. With the help of our fellow servants of Jesus Christ, we can help to make a difference in the best possible way for the good of the most people.
This is effective altruism.
This is what God has called us to do.