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December 07, 2015

Opinion: 'Effective Altruism' Ignores Power of Empathy in Giving

Proponents of "effective altruism" who say philanthropy should be directed by purely rational considerations fail to account for psychological evidence that emotions, particularly empathy, provide a "powerful, positive spark" to giving, a social scientist at Stanford University argues in a New York Times column.

The argument that optimal giving requires eschewing sentiment for individual sufferers in favor of using resources to do the widest possible good is "admirable but unnatural," writes Jamil Zakl, an assistant professor of psychology and head of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory.

Mr. Zakl cites studies indicating that "the emotional punch of personally meaningful giving" can turn people into habitual donors and broaden their empathy for the plight of "distant others." "Effective altruists are right to make us think harder about how our charitable giving can actually reduce the sum of suffering in the world," he writes. "But when it comes to helping, emotion and efficiency are perfectly compatible."

Read a Chronicle of Philanthropy article on the effective-altruism movement.