Cicero’s Effective Altruism
Effective altruism has been getting a lot of attention lately. You probably already know all about this influential and terribly trendy philosophical/philanthropic movement, so I won’t go into detail about it here. (If you’re not familiar with it, check out the flagship website at effectivealtruism.org.)
And you’re probably also aware that one of its leading lights, crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, was recently brought low by a financial scandal that exposed his shady business practices and lost a lot of money for a lot of people. Many cultural commentators are wondering loudly whether this is a disaster for the effective altruism espoused by Bankman-Fried, or whether the movement can effectively distance itself from him.
Well, I doubt effective altruism is any true existential danger, but I would like to offer the safe harbor of Stoicism to any effective altruists who have jumped ship and are looking for a new philosophy of giving. I’ll present a different perspective on altruism, from a perhaps surprising and very non-trendy quarter: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero’s short treatise On Duties (Latin: De officiis, sometimes translated as On Obligations) is a gem of deep thinking on what we owe to other people. As such, it can help us think through the best ways to give to others, even amidst the very different social and philanthropic scene of the 21st century.
Cicero wrote On Duties to his son who was away studying philosophy in Athens (the ancient equivalent of going to university). Although Cicero considered himself a Skeptic, he greatly admired Stoicism and drew heavily on Stoic sources in this work. He even structures the treatise around a work by the Stoic scholarch Panaetius, and he claims to closely follow the themes introduced by Panaetius. (Many other Stoics, going all the way back to Zeno, also wrote treatises called On Duties or similar.) So, while Cicero clearly has his own take on certain matters, the entire work has a very Stoic flavor and is an important source for anyone interested in Stoicism.
Following Panaetius, Cicero’s aim is to examine the source and nature of our obligations to other people, especially in the case of competing claims on our resources. While his discussion is wide-ranging and focused on our social roles in general, the particular question we will be looking at today, in the context of effective altruism, is how and what we give to others. Cicero, being a Roman patrician, emphasizes duty toward country, family, and clients (political, social, or financial dependents). In some ways our world is quite obviously different from his, and so our relationships, responsibilities, and obligations are also different.
But in some ways life is very much the same, and the basic principles Cicero draws from are still valid and helpful. Altogether, I would say On Duties provides one of the earliest manuals on effective giving. Even though Cicero was not himself a Stoic, and he departs in some ways from orthodox Stoic thought, his ideas are still valuable. So let’s look at some of the ways Cicero suggests we can decide to give our time and money to others, or adjudicate between competing demands on our time and money.
General Tips on Giving
First, Do No Harm
“People who bestow favors which harm the individuals whom they are apparently eager to help are to be assessed as ruinous flatterers rather than men of kindness and generosity.” (1.42)
It may sound strange to start with the Hippocratic Oath—traditionally the province of medical practitioners—but the rationale is very much the same. We don’t want to inadvertently harm the people we’re trying to help. How might this happen? Well, you could perhaps “support” someone in such a way that they never learn to support themselves, as when parents spoil or coddle their children. (Helicopter parents come to mind.) Reducing someone’s personal agency or ability to take care of themselves is obviously not a good outcome.
Alternatively, Cicero points out that some people rob Peter to pay Paul—taking away resources from a disfavored individual or group to give more to a favored individual or group. One imagines this was a frequent occurrence in ancient Rome, but it still happens today whenever an authority figure shows favoritism. Later in the treatise, Cicero also says we should “mount no obstacle in the way of fairness” and “promote no injustice.” If we are in positions of responsibility it can be very difficult to be fair-minded in all our decisions, but it’s what we should aim for. We need to guard very carefully against abuses of power in our society or even in ourselves.
Don’t Be Rash
“Many people bestow any number of favors in a random and ill-considered way, prompted either by affection for the world or by the gust of sudden impulse. Such kindnesses are not to be esteemed as highly as those which have been bestowed with judgment and prolonged thought.” (1.49)
It’s strange, isn’t it, that most people tend to think sudden impulses of generosity are somehow better or more revealing of a person’s true character than well-thought-out and sustained generosity. Cicero disagrees. Well-planned and intentional giving is to be valued more than anything that results from an emotional tug at the heartstrings. Not only is this a very Stoic perspective, it also puts him right in line with today’s effective altruism movement. Emotional-empathetic giving is probably less efficient than planned giving, and it is idiosyncratic, based on whose sad story you happen to come into contact with. When we take the time to carefully reflect on who we give to and how, we’re more likely to make good decisions that truly help others.
Generosity is Not All About Money
“The kindnesses bestowed by personal effort rather than by conferment of money are a boon both to the state at large and to individual citizens.” (1.65)
We shouldn’t forget that altruism includes not just financial giving, but also giving of time, energy, and expertise. Cicero describes lawyers doing pro bono work for Roman citizens, and of course this is a major area of giving still today. Even if we don’t have a professional skill to share with others, we can donate our time and goodwill through volunteer work. In a society awash with money, donating time may be even more important than donating cash. Someone has to do the actual work of interacting with people who need help, from homeless veterans to children who need literacy support. Especially if we aren’t in a position to give financially, we can always do good by donating what we have: a little bit of ourselves.
Who to Help?
Now let’s sink our teeth into the meat of the altruism question: who should we help? Cicero starts this discussion (1.50-51) by looking at human fellowship in general, and then he narrows the scope progressively to our compatriots, fellow community members, friends, and family. (This is the opposite direction from the usual discussion of oikeiosis, as represented by the concentric circles of Hierocles, which starts with the individual and grows outward.)
It's quite significant that Cicero begins with the “fundamentals of community and human fellowship ordained by nature.” This, of course, is the bedrock of Stoic cosmopolitanism, which holds that every rational being is worthy of respect and care simply because they are rational. Rather than only caring about our family or fellow citizens, we should care about everyone in the world. This was quite a radical position in the ancient world—shared only by the Cynics—and it is quite similar to the attitude of today’s effective altruists.
However, in Cicero’s view cosmopolitanism does not mean favoring someone on the other side of the world with your resources rather than your own family and community. Instead, proximity and the nature of our relationship will influence how much we give to people, as well as circumstances and the beneficiary’s character. Let’s look at a few of the factors he urges us to consider when deciding what and how to give to others.
Help Those in Greatest Need
"In both granting a kindness and returning a favor, our greatest obligation, all else being equal, is to lend help above all to the person in greatest need." (1.49)
"We must look to the particular needs of each individual, and note what each of them can or cannot achieve without our help." (1.59)
This principle sounds reasonable, and again it aligns very well with the 21st century version of effective altruism. Today’s effective altruists would say that if you’re choosing between saving one person’s life (say, donating a mosquito net in a malaria-infested area) or giving another person a meal (donating to the local soup kitchen), you should choose to save someone’s life. Or if you’re choosing between a donation to someone in a developed democracy (with material abundance and political freedom) versus a donation to someone in an impoverished nation (with few opportunities for betterment), you should help the person who can’t help themselves. To quote from EffectiveAltruism.org:
It’s common to say that charity begins at home, but in effective altruism, charity begins where we can help the most. And this often means focusing on the people who are most neglected by the current system – which is often those who are more distant from us.
I’m quite sympathetic to these claims, but there are competing ethical claims that we must also consider, and to which Cicero gives special weight: our relationship and obligations to the beneficiaries. We will look in detail below at these competing claims and how to make sense of them.
Help Those Closest to You
"The interests of the community and its coherence will be best served if our bounty is bestowed most of all on those most closely connected with us." (1.50)
"When persons show us goodwill, our main obligation is to be generous most of all to the one who feels greatest affection for us. Such goodwill, however, we must measure not as teenagers do by intensity of feeling, but rather by its steady and enduring nature." (1.47)
This advice is directly at odds with the favored policy of effective altruists to give to poorer countries rather than richer ones. It’s also potentially at odds with the guideline above to help those in greatest need. Of course, in Cicero’s time few people thought about giving to people in foreign countries—in fact, quite the reverse. Pillage and plunder of “barbarian” societies was expected. Roman patriotism was so strong, and Roman imperialism so ascendant, that they had very different notions of what is owed to other people outside one’s own ethnic group or country. We will certainly approach international altruism differently than Cicero did.
But I think we would be wrong to immediately dismiss Cicero’s idea that we can give more effectively closer to home. For one thing, with local donations we can be much more certain about who is receiving our gift and what they are doing with it. If you think about it, it takes an enormous amount of institutional trust to send your hard-earned cash thousands of miles away, assuming that it will be used for the charitable purpose you intended it for. In ancient times, it would have been impossible to ensure that funds were used appropriately once they passed out of your personal network. In Cicero’s time it was only logical to keep your beneficiaries close by to make sure they were doing good things with your donation.
Today, we are in a somewhat different situation with safeguards like Charity Watch and Charity Navigator, organizations that surveille charities and hold them accountable for honest and efficient use of our donations. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to actually know whether our efforts are doing much good.
I’ll just provide one example of an organization I donated to for years, Save the Children. This is a huge, highly reputable international charity with a mission I’m passionate about: providing a better life for children in impoverished countries. Save the Children receives a grade of A- from Charity Watch and a comparable rating of 93% (four stars) from Charity Navigator. Based on that information, I could be pretty confident that my money is not being wasted.
Or could I? What are those ratings actually based on? They are primarily based on what the nonprofit can show on paper, such as financial and tax statements, minutes of board meetings, and fundraising expenses. There is no one on the ground checking on how that money is actually being used in Nepal or Guatemala. So I can’t learn whether my donation is actually going where I want it to, or if it’s helping any children at all. But I can learn that I’m supporting the president/CEO of Save the Children on a comfortable salary of over $500,000 a year, the senior VP on $470,000 a year, and many other wealthy executives (who are have a lot more money than I do and who probably aren’t donating much of their salary to impoverished children).
Or, let’s take the fight against malaria, which seems to be a favorite of effective altruists. Many anti-malaria nonprofits are not rated on Charity Navigator at all, but the rating that do exist are based on paperwork. Even GiveWell, an organization that exists to identify the most effective charities dealing with public health—and which effective altruists heavily rely on—bases its ratings primarily on paperwork and research that each charity conducts on itself. (This in itself is a very biased evaluation, since only charities that are large enough and savvy enough to pay for research and tick the right boxes on a grant application can even apply for consideration.) As far as I can tell, there aren’t any watchdogs on the ground making sure the money goes where it is supposed to.
My conclusion is that there is no credible way of really knowing what global aid charities are doing with my donation, or if they are actually as effective on the ground as they claim to be.
From this perspective, it makes sense to keep your money where you can see it. If I support a charity in my local community, I can actually stop by and see how they are spending my donation. Of course, every charity has expenses to cover, including administrative salaries for larger charities. (Some smaller charities, like my nonprofit Stoicare, are run by unpaid volunteers.) But I can see whether the CEO of my local charity is driving a Porsche or a Kia, and how effective the charity is at helping people in my community.
You could certainly argue that even if you’re not 100% sure your money is being used responsibly, it may still be worth donating if you can be 95% or even 80% sure it’s doing some good. How comfortable are you with those odds? If you think your money has a 80% chance of healing a very sick child, do you make a different calculation than if you estimate an 20% probability of your money reaching the child? It’s a difficult call, and it’s up to each of us to do our research and make that decision.
However, the argument for local altruism isn’t only based on logistics. There’s another reason it makes sense to give locally: gratitude and giving back. If we always give philanthropic preference to people far away from us—even if those people are in great need—are we guilty of injustice toward our family, local community, and country? Are we, so to speak, turning our backs on the people who have taken care of us and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and service? Is it an error of omission to overlook people in our own community in favor of those far away?
It’s not very fashionable today to be grateful to the place we’re from, but we shouldn’t forget the benefits and advantages we have received from our country and community. Given all these, we would be extremely ungrateful (spiteful, even) not to give back to it. There is an exact analogy—which Cicero makes explicit—between patrimony and parentage. Just as we would be ungrateful not to give back to our parents, who raised and nurtured us for many years, we would be wrong not to give back to the community and country that has “raised” us.
Bear in mind that, unlike the Romans, we don’t have to be chauvinistic in our appreciation of the place we’re from. We can deeply love our family members without thinking our family is better than other families; we simply recognize our special affection for and obligations toward them. Likewise, we can appreciate and respect our country without thinking it’s better than other countries, or that we deserve more than others. (We can also recognize that people and places are not perfect, and there are some things we want to change—but we love them anyway.)
What was very apparent in Cicero’s time—and is less apparent to us today—is how embedded our lives are in a web of relationships, some close and some distant. Today we seem to have divested ourselves of many of the sorts of social obligations that pretty much all traditional societies relied on: not just extended kinship, but the sense of community that comes from living with your neighbors for a long time. Today we interact online, we move house frequently, we often live in huge cities, and we feel disconnected and anonymous. We have thin relationships and obligations, many based merely on affinity groups that we can choose to leave at any time.
In such a setting, it may seem that even our closest associates do not have much claim on our time and resources, and that we’re free to ignore those around us in favor of those in more urgent need far away. There may be times when this is true, but we need to examine this assumption very carefully. Is it true, as twenty-first century ethical altruists argue, that greatest need (farther away) always trumps greatest obligation (closer to us)?
When Cicero says we should give to the person in greatest need, he interjects the caveat "all else being equal." Under this category of “all else” we would need to consider all the many factors we’ve just been discussing: your degree of responsibility for the potential beneficiary, your relationship with them, their character, their circumstances in life, what they will do with the money, and so on. There are no one-size-fits-all answers. That’s why we’re still asking the same questions today, and still writing books and essays about our moral obligations to other people. It’s much more complex than simple slogans or supposedly “universal” maxims would allow. That’s why a virtue ethics like Stoicism allows us much more flexibility than a utilitarian philosophy like effective altruism. Different ways of giving are appropriate under different circumstances for different people. And that’s why, even though some of EA’s basic claims are quite compelling, I think we should prefer Cicero’s Stoic-inspired guidance based on humanitarian cosmopolitanism but also contextualized wisdom.
I’ll conclude by telling you how I deal with this question in my own life, which may or may not be helpful for you. My personal choice is not to put all my altruistic eggs in one basket. I try to help various people and organizations so that even if my money and time is not effective in one area, I have a greater chance of being effective somewhere else. For example, I volunteer with a local organization in my community and I also provide financial support to the international organization Kiva.org (for more info on Kiva, see the note below.)
I would love to hear from readers how you manage your giving and how you balance your various social responsibilities. Please tell me in the comments if you agree with Cicero's style of effective altruism and if you have any recommendations for modern-day Stoic altruism.
More About Kiva
If you're looking for a good way to give internationally, I highly recommend Kiva. Their business model allows them to be more accountable than most other international agencies. For one thing, Kiva provides loans (rather than outright donations) to people running small businesses or farms in impoverished areas around the world. These loans help the recipient buy inventory or supplies, and the recipient pays them back when they can afford it. Thus we are helping set people up for long-term success with a successful business. (The old proverb about teaching a person to fish rather than giving them a fish applies well here.)
Another great thing about Kiva is that when the beneficiary repays your loan, you can use the money for another loan. You can keep funding people all over the world in a virtuous cycle.
I also like that Kiva partners with local financial institutions who interact directly with the loan recipients. This helps strengthen the local economy. Plus, the local partner wants to be paid back, so they make loans to people they think are responsible and loanworthy. We can also have more confidence that both the recipient and the local organization will do what they are supposed to with the money I send them. It’s still not 100% guaranteed, but it’s the best I’ve found for international giving.