Bioethics Blogs

Is Effective Altruism Killing the Love?

In July 1990, the Australian state of Victoria put a law requiring cyclists to wear helmets into effect (1). More than two decades later, it is unclear whether or not the introduction of the law had a net societal health benefit (2). This might be puzzling when considering that cycling with a helmet on is safer than cycling without it. It prevents head traumas, especially those resulting from accidents at lower speeds. In London, the police started last year to stop cyclists without helmets and to educate them about the benefits of wearing a helmet (3). However, one of the arguments against laws requiring the wearing of bike helmets is that it significantly reduces the number of people that cycle. Hence, there is a good chance that the health costs – increased morbidity due to lack of exercise outweigh the health benefits – less head traumas (2). In the words of Milton: “Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.” Might effective altruism have similar unintended consequences?

Effective giving tries to maximize the impact of donations on social good. The opposite of effective giving can, for instance, be described in terms of the identified victim effect. Baby Jessica is the poster child (or poster baby) for this effect. At the age of 18 months, Jessica fell into a well; people donated more than $700,000 for her rescue (she is alive and well). The staggering amount of donations in cases like these appears to be motivated by the strong compassion people feel for an identified victim.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.