Philanthrolocalism vs. Effective Altruism


William Schambra has a piece at Philanthropy Daily that describes the coming showdown between two competing conceptions of philanthropic giving. Here’s a taste:

Community-embeddedness versus detached godliness: not a bad summary of the coming conflict between philanthrolocalism and effective altruism. Given philanthrolocalism’s view of human nature, moral sentiments can only be cultivated within the small, immediate communities that surround us and that press neighborly obligations upon us. Local communities are built upon and cultivate a mutual dependence among and compassionate attentiveness to those in our midst.


Democratic self-governance as well as moral development depends on localism: The gritty, unpleasant, contentious world of local politics and civic association is a magnificent school of citizenship. It teaches us that others have views very different from ours, with seemingly obscure and illogical origins, perhaps expressed and pursued clumsily, and even obnoxiously. But we must learn to accommodate those views, not as an abstract humanitarian exercise, but rather as the only way to pave a road, secure a variance, or lay some drainage tiles. Tocqueville points out that what originates in this limited calculus of self-interest becomes over time a solid, reflexive civic habit. But the cultivation of this humble democratic virtue demands immediate involvement in local community.

Clearly, the global aspirations of effective altruism are unlikely to be satisfied by localism’s petty disputes and small satisfications. Localism is messy, complex, fragmented, parochial, and sustained by the concrete, unremarked fulfillment of the small daily obligations that bespeak neighborliness. Down this path there are no million-view TED talks, no seats on a glittering panel at Davos alongside Bill Gates and Bono.

The detached god of effective altruism is so much more appealing. Freed from entanglement in the messy reality of any particular community (where one’s manifest benevolence is so frequently misconstrued as self-righteous meddling), the effective altruist can scan the globe for the best lives-saved-per-dollar bargain. This is almost by definition not in our own backyard…

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