Should charity prioritise the worst off?

Hot off the press on the Giving What We Can blog:

Giving What We Can focuses on finding the charities which result in the most benefit to the greatest number of individuals. This means that we aggregate the benefits to different people additively rather than giving extra weight to worse off individuals. While our top charities tend to help some of the worst off people in the world, we do not explicitly factor considerations of fairness and equity into our cost-effectiveness calculations. There are good reasons for this:


  1. It’s simpler. It can be very complex to add together different benefits and also weight them differently for different people. This is why academic literature on cost-effectiveness tends to aggregate benefits additively.

  2. It’s less controversial. Aggregating these benefits additively relies on the ethical intuitions everyone actually has. While egalitarians care about the distribution of benefits, they also care about total benefits. Different people may have very different ideas about how much weight to place on considerations of equity. It is easier to add your own weighting than to adjust ones that we have assumed.

  3. It usually comes to the same answer. Those who are worst off are usually the easiest to help as there is more “low hanging fruit”.

We are certainly not suggesting that utilitarianism is the only plausible ethical theory (as has sometimes been suggested). But we do think that aggregating benefits additively provides a good starting point, which can then be supplemented by considerations of equity and fairness if required. We are aware that many of our members (and staff) think that prioritising helping the worst off may be of intrinsic importance, for either prioritarian or egalitarian reasons (for the purposes of this post we will refer to both as egalitarian). Recently, we’ve been thinking more about how our recommended charities fare on these ethical dimensions.


In this post, I will argue that:

  1. Additive benefits are the most important consideration when choosing an effective charity. However, when the cost-effectiveness of charities is sufficiently close, it may be reasonable to factor in considerations of fairness and equity.

  2. All our top charities fare well on considerations of fairness and equity. This is unsurprising given that they are all charities which help children with preventable diseases in poorer countries.

  3. Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) fares particularly well on fairness and equity grounds as it prevents a disease with a high individual disease burden which affects the economically disadvantaged.

  4. It is possible that there are other comparably cost-effective charities which do better than some of our charities on fairness and equity. However, AMF sets a high bar, as it is estimated to save a life for about $3,000, and children who die under the age of 5 are certainly among the very worst off globally.


Comments (4)

Comment author: weeatquince  (EA Profile) 06 June 2016 04:45:36PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks you for writing this. I think it is really good that GWWC is looking to do more to engage people with justice / equality based ethical views with effective giving.

However I do think that this article needs more work in order to successfully do that. Essentially this article feels like it is written by a utilitarian thinker trying to shoehorn GWWC recommended charities into an ethical/justice based framework. Not to say that that shoe-hornung cannot be done but the article does not engage with any of my intuitions about how ethical or justice based morality works, and as a result feels extremely unconvincing. To be constructive I would recommend talking to a whole bunch of people with this kind of equality mind-set and seeing how those conversations go and then redrafting.

Of course this is just my intuitive reading of it. And well done on an interesting piece of work.

PS. I have assumed the aim of this article is to engage people with justice / equality based ethical views with effective giving. Please say if this is wrong.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 03 June 2016 03:59:41PM 0 points [-]

Surely layer hens are much worse off than the worst-off humans? If we want to help the worst off then we should help factory farmed animals, especially layer hens and veal calves.

Certainly there are plausible arguments for supporting global poverty rather than animal advocacy, but we have to remember that chickens matter too, and it's just not true that the global poor are the worst-off individuals. Maybe this seems like a minor point, but factory farming is the greatest atrocity in the world and I don't think you can fairly claim to be helping the worst off individuals if you're ignoring everyone who's not a human.

Comment author: DavidMoss 04 June 2016 10:41:04AM 1 point [-]

That makes perfect sense if you're a welfarist of some kind- then you'll be interested in the "worst off" simply defined in terms of which individuals have the lowest welfare.

If you're interested in "fairness and equity" (which perhaps you shouldn't be), then considering the "worst off" will likely pull you in different directions. For example, the worst off within a (political) community being worse off than others, may be a great inequity, but people being worse off outside the community may not be an inequity or unfair, merely a moral tragedy. For example, some aliens I've never encountered being very badly off is not unfair or unjust, on most views, and helping them is a matter of benevolence, not justice. This is part of why some political animal rights theorists try to establish that animals are in (relations to) our communities. But of course, that line of argument rules in factory farmed animals, but rules out most wild animals- plausibly a much greater atrocity.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 04 June 2016 03:53:15PM 0 points [-]

Worth noting that I agree wild animal suffering exceeds suffering on factory farms, but I wouldn't call it an atrocity because it's not humans' fault. Although I just looked up the definition of atrocity and apparently it just means a bad thing, not a bad act. So apparently wild animal suffering is a greater atrocity.