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HomeLaw & LibertyEfficiency or Compassion? – Michael D. Thomas & Anthony Gill

Efficiency or Compassion? – Michael D. Thomas & Anthony Gill

To whom do we owe our compassion and charity?

All charitable people, from the secular humanist to the orthodox religious adherent, would answer this question quickly: We owe our compassion and charity to all who need it. The next task is implementation. Alas, the economist reminds us the world is filled with scarcity. Hence, trade-offs force us to prioritize some needs over others. To devote all of our physical, financial, and emotional resources to everyone in need is a fool’s errand. In a more practical sense, we must meet our own needs first in order to complete the often-mundane tasks of generating wealth that can be shared with others. Accordingly, the question of implementation is directly tied to the question of who receives our assistance.

But if we cannot help everyone, to what measure do we owe different folks?

Economists often chime in on this question as well. Maximize efficiency! And to that end, a growing number of scholars and philanthropists have gravitated towards a “new” movement known as “effective altruism” (EA). The idea behind EA is logically appealing and ostensibly simple. Devote your limited resources to the people and issues where those resources will objectively do the greatest good. Cost-benefit calculation to the rescue! And in a world with increasingly lower transaction costs, we can find those most in need anywhere in the world and send our resources there post haste.

But is effective altruism all that effective, compassionate, and charitable? Must our charity be sent to far-flung villages if that is what efficiency determines? Or does EA ignore critical lessons from our wise predecessors, such as Adam Smith, Charles Dickens, and even the authors of the New Testament? We are taught to love our neighbors as ourselves, and our increasingly globalized world has made that neighborhood much smaller, perhaps necessitating a more “economic” approach to moving large amounts of resources across vast territories in order to do the most good. But there might just be something ethically and economically advantageous in the old adage that “charity begins at home.” Turning to the pages of Smith, Dickens, and the Bible may give us some answers.

Smith’s Little Finger and a Temblor in China

Who is my neighbor to whom do I owe my greatest compassion? The answer to this question can range from the pragmatic to the philosophically stoic.

Adam Smith’s approach makes sense when you unpack it. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith gives the anecdote of an individual who hears of a cataclysmic earthquake halfway around the globe in China. Millions die, which is a certain tragedy that prompts sorrow. If the same individual were to injure his finger, however, it would evoke a stronger reaction. Smith then raises a simple thought experiment: “To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune [the injured finger] to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren [earthquake victims], provided he had never seen them?” The principled (perhaps stoic) answer is, of course, to accept the smaller sacrifice for the greater good. Effective altruists would agree. But alas, our own self-interest in the proximate harm motivates our action. We often choose not to make the sacrifice that yields the greater good in order to satisfy our more mundane needs.

Smith rightly asserts that earthquake victims half-way around the world have equal status and dignity as our own self or the person immediately next to us; progress in moral sentiments helps us appreciate this. All humans deserve our proper sympathy in times of grief. Smith doesn’t fully embrace this stoicism, however, since he still understands that individuals are rooted where they are. Ultimately, Smith does not expect this rootedness to be inverted, only that our extreme selfishness should be reduced. Our compassion and altruism are limited resources and choices must be made. We frequently defer to what is in our immediate reach. The EA movement, by contrast, is designed to not only temper this immediacy but to replace it with a sterile vision of efficient (or greater) good on a global scale. Is this truly beneficial, though?

Enter Bleak House

Interestingly enough, Charles Dickens helps us answer this question nearly a century after Smith pondered the moral sentiments. In Bleak House, one of the minor characters (Mrs. Jellyby) finds herself consumed by a desire to help those less fortunate in a far-off land. Jellyby, the wife of a wealthy British businessman, becomes intensely engrossed with a philanthropic mission to assist impoverished African villagers. Her obsession to do good for those less fortunate leads her to deplete the family’s savings and ignore the raising of her own children. The Africans she aimed to help were, by all measures, worse off than her immediate family and would pass the EA cost-benefit calculation. However, by inverting Smith’s rootedness narrative, giving a greater weight to the anonymous stranger than to those that are her proximate neighbors, Dickens gives his readers a powerful reason to suspect such philanthropists.

Mrs. Jellyby’s charity is of the same extreme variety as is common today. EA seeks to find those most in need wherever they may lie and direct attention there. From the point of view of EA, those deemed most knowledgeable will bring to your attention the needs of those far and wide and given the relative wealth of your neighbors compared with the global poor. But Dickens’ cautionary tale demands consideration here. Mrs. Jellyby could not be forgiven for neglecting her proximate neighbors just because something loomed larger in her interest past the literal horizon of her neighborhood. The problem with charity beyond the scope of our experience is that it becomes self-serving entirely. The act of charity becomes maudlin, that is, we get drunk on self-praise for doing what we think is the greater (or perhaps greatest) good. This drunkenness leaves a difficult awakening when we neglect the needs of those immediately surrounding us. And when we calculatingly embrace the needs of those far beyond our experience, no matter how relatively distressed they may be, we are diverted from the call of those in need within closer reach. Concern for the welfare of others far from us can be justified, as Smith notes, but what is missing in the Bleak House example is the fulfillment of an aspect of charity that distinguishes it from pity alone.

Effective altruism begins at home with those we encounter in our daily routines. And to the extent that we can meet the needs of those locally, we can effectively extend our charity to a wider neighborhood.

Mrs. Jellyby could continue to practice her involvement in the African mission, but her participation would be improved if she exercised the art of charity in her own neighborhood. Applying the lessons learned in the thick context of the local area informs our understanding of charity more broadly. Charity requires some knowledge that is gained first hand before it is scaled up. Adam Smith’s stoicism requires a reduction of our own parochial interest in favor of cosmopolitanism. Starting at cosmopolitanism and trying to bring that down to the parochial seems to open up all sorts of errors, many of which can be harmful to our personal relationships.

The Good Samaritan Reveals the Path

Both Smith and Dickens show why local rootedness is an important input into thinking about to whom we owe our active compassion in a world of competing claims. There is much suffering around the world, but we must also be cognizant of the world immediately surrounding us. Such wisdom is actually quite ancient.

Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament (Luke 10: 25-37). Here, Jesus informs an expert in religious law that in order to receive eternal life, one must love their neighbors as themselves. The expert asks how one determines who is one’s neighbor, a question addressed by Smith and Dickens in their own way. Jesus responds to this query by telling the tale of a man who was robbed, beaten, and abandoned along a roadside. The distressed victim was passed by a priest and Levite who failed to provide assistance. To be efficient, they suppress their charity in the here and now. Being more charitable to unseen others while suppressing charity to those immediately in front of us is a tough conflict to resolve well. When a traveling Samaritan came along, he immediately administered aid to the man and took him to the nearest town where he could recuperate. The Samaritan even volunteered payment to the innkeeper who housed the distressed man.

Although pithy, this parable speaks volumes to the question of how we should allocate our active compassion towards others and provides yet another cautionary caveat to those championing effective altruism. It is important to understand that Jesus was conversing with an expert in Judaic Law. That expert was searching for a clear-cut answer to the questions of “Who is my neighbor? Who should I love?” In other words, the expert wanted an algorithm that would easily create a hierarchy of need and response. If this sounds like EA, it is! The only difference might be that EA now has “big data” and supercomputing capabilities with robustness checks. Moreover, the priest and Levite who passed by the injured soul were likely acting in accordance with “the Law,” a rigorous set of rules that prescribes and proscribes behavior. And while clear rules are valuable in reducing uncertainty and guiding action, too rigorous of an adherence to them diminishes what might be judiciously prudent at any given time.

In essence, EA seeks to mimic “law” by calculating who is our best neighbor to help. Rules dominate the humane practice of compassion; the nature of EA is its artificial replacement of humanity with a set of rules. This would be puzzling to both Jesus and the Good Samaritan. When asked to determine which neighbor to love, the parable’s answer is clear, “look around, right here.” Our neighbors in need are where we find them on a daily basis. The benefit of such a response is that it puts the moral choice back in the conscience of the individual. Restoring the choice to charity, the individual draws on experience to learn responsibility, sacrifice, and compassion central to the act in the first place. Practicing compassion in the here and now (including care for one’s self so as not to burden others), is how we learn to become more charitable, not just be charitable. This, in turn, allows us to scale up our altruism as our resources become more plentiful. Altruism is a transformative path that we travel on, not a destination that can be calculated.

Lesson Learned

And so, to what can we counsel those who practice effective altruism? Smith would remind them that we do owe compassion and charity to all those around the globe, but we are uniquely rooted in our local space. That is not a bad thing as it is where we can develop our moral sentiments through daily experience. Dickens, in turn, cautions us that moving too far abroad, no matter how effectively generous it may seem, can harm our own sense of compassion for those immediately around us by dulling our attention to feedback. And Jesus, through the Good Samaritan, recommends that we see a neighbor in need wherever we look.  Do unto others as we would have them do unto us takes more context, compassion, and charity than an online credit card form can offer. The golden rule is a simple rule, yet one that requires context to be truly effective.

Effective altruism begins at home with those we encounter in our daily routines. And to the extent that we can meet the needs of those locally, we can effectively extend our charity to a wider neighborhood. When the small charities of everyday life are given to those who we know well and they become natural through practice, we become more adept at offering charity to strangers who through getting our hands dirty become our neighbors. If we never understood the person immediately next to us as a neighbor, how difficult would it be to see strangers as true neighbors?



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