On February 16th, YEA had the privilege of hosting Leah Libresco, a Patheos blogger who writes on Catholicism, rationality, and effective altruism. She gave a really neat speech about combining warm love and cold logic, so we decided to post some notes!

(You can see Leah’s own write-up of the visit here.)

The wise, warm, and wonderful Leah Libresco speaks in the Jonathan Edwards dining annex.

Why Effective Altruism?

Though effective altruism (EA) is often linked to the secular/rationalist community, Leah sees it as a matter of simple common sense, equally accessible to anyone, no matter their beliefs.

In Leah’s (paraphrased) words: One illusion people often have about charities is that you just need to know how much they spend on overhead to learn how good they are. But other information is helpful, too. If a charity called “Puppy Village Visits” takes puppies to visit villages in the developing world, it may not do much good even if 95% of its funding goes directly to putting puppies on planes.

Comparatively, a charity that distributes malaria nets but spends only 85% of its funding on direct services will do much more to help the developing world than the puppies. Leah may not be a utilitarian, but she still feels that it’s best to give people what they need rather than what you want them to have — so she’d choose the mosquito nets over the puppies.


What are some issues with EA?

While Leah donates regularly to Givewell, she cites four features of EA that sometimes make her feel uncomfortable:

  1. Giving to effective charities, without ever meeting the people she helps, sometimes “feels like doing taxes”.  If you don’t put thought into giving, it becomes a chore.
  2. Certain decisions that many EAs might not take (like having children) are very important to Leah’s faith and personal goals.
  3. Some possible EA paths — for example, working as an investment banker to raise money and save lives — interfere with Leah’s ethical system. She’s wary that people might do things to help others that harm themselves in some fundamental way, without considering better alternatives. (She doesn’t hate banking as a concept, but she doesn’t think it’s a good career for people who don’t actively like the work.)
  4. Most EAs, economists, and global health experts measure the benefits of an action in terms of the DALYs it saves (disability-adjusted life years, a measure of how much longer and better a person’s life will be if they receive some form of help). But Leah thinks that we don’t pay enough attention to optimizing other aspects of a person’s life — not just their health and safety, but also the amount of happiness, love, and self-expression in their lives.

The last point is especially tricky, since it’s difficult to measure self-actualization. Still, Leah thinks we ought to at least try, and that we’ll need to test flawed measurements before we find something that works.

Leah’s talk brought both religious and secular students to the table.


How does Leah practice altruism?

Leah’s donations are, for the most part, independent of the rest of her life — she gives to charities she selects, rather than charities that ask for money. But she doesn’t want her giving to be entirely divorced from the desires of the people around her.

For a while, whenever someone asked her for money on the street, Leah would say “no”, add their request to a checklist she kept, and then give to Givewell whenever she’d said “no” to five requests. But this belated philanthropy felt unsatisfying; she was getting a lot of practice in refusing to help people, which wasn’t the sort of thing she wanted to practice!

Now, rather than building a “no” reflex, Leah tries to go with the flow. She’ll gladly give to a friend’s favorite charity as a gift, even if it’s not one she’d give to on her own — and she matches every gift to the Puppy Village Visits of the world with an equal donation to Givewell.

She also gives to her church (“largely because I go there myself and want it to do well; it’s almost like a theater subscription”) and runs occasional public campaigns as a way to connect with readers of her blog, like the time she promised to donate one vaccine to the developing world for every reader who got a flu shot. More than just about anything, Leah recommends finding ways to make your giving a social activity.


How could EA change for the better?

Leah thinks that EA could learn two important lessons from religion. (In her case, she’s drawing on her experience with Catholicism, but other religions have similar solutions to these age-old problems.)

The lesson of “good enough”: Some EAs (and plenty of ordinary people) worry that, whatever good they do, it somehow isn’t “enough”. This is a challenge that many religious people face — no human is a perfect altruist, or a perfect Catholic. Leah’s not sure how to deal with the “scrupulosity” issue, but suggests that many Catholic priests have decades of experience counseling people who fear falling short. One mantra she likes: “We love you not because you’re perfect, but because you’re trying.”

The lesson of the monks: When EAs take up earning-to-give, they’re choosing to give up many material possessions for the sake of a greater good. Monks and nuns have been doing this for thousands of years. Leah notes that monasteries and convents work by bringing many self-sacrificing people into the same physical location, where they can give each other emotional support. Similarly, EAs — who often sacrifice in solitude — ought to live in the same areas, and perhaps even work for the same companies, if they want to build stable, altruistic communities. Two altruists in Goldman Sachs will hold more tightly to their convictions as friends than one altruist could alone.

(Speaking of community — if you’d like to be part of a group of students with altruistic aims, let us know!)

* * * * *

On a cold winter night, Leah’s warm caritas was a lovely contrast. To sum up her views: Altruism is a fantastic pursuit, but for maximum benefit, we’ll need to mix in love — for others, and for ourselves.


Leah Libresco: Faith, Giving, and Caritas
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