Imagine that you discover a burning building, with no one else around. Through the windows you see that, in one of the bedrooms, a family of five is trapped. Next door, a small garage that belongs to an art museum is also ablaze. The garage has recently been cleared out, but you can see that one painting worth $20,000 still remains. You know that you have time to save either the family or the painting, but it’s unlikely that you can save both. What do you do?

Suppose that you save the painting, letting the family die, justifying your decision with the claim, “I’m just really passionate about the arts.” Your action would clearly be worthy of moral criticism. It’s uncontroversial to think that someone who chooses a painting over the lives of five human beings has made a mistake in their assessment of what’s really of value.

But if that’s correct, what is the morally relevant difference between this case and someone who chooses to donate $20,000 to an art gallery rather than to a charity that would save several strangers’ lives with the same money? This is exactly the situation that philanthropists face. The burning building example is more vivid than the choice between charities, of course. But surely mere psychological salience doesn’t make a moral difference. And if there is no moral difference between these two cases, then isn’t it important for people to highlight just how much good the very best charities can do and encourage people to donate to those charities that do the most good?

The idea of honestly and impartially attempting to work out which charities do the most good, whatever that consists in, has become a core idea of a movement called effective altruism. This movement is embodied through organizations such as GiveWell, which provides charity recommendations; Giving What We Can, which encourages individuals to give 10 percent of their income to the most cost-effective organizations; and 80,000 Hours, which advises people on how to choose a career to maximize their social impact. In general, effective altruism is about dedicating a significant portion of your time or money to helping others, and trying to use that time or money in whatever way makes the most difference.

A recent op-ed by Charity Navigator CEO Ken Berger and a consultant to Charity Navigator, Robert M. Penna, attacks this idea. The authors claim that, while comparing the effectiveness of charities within a cause is a noble pursuit, the attempt to compare the effectiveness of charities across causes is “moralistic” and “elitist.”

I e-mailed to ask for clarification, and they said that the following essentially interpreted their position correctly:

It’s impossible to weigh one person’s interests against another; there are therefore no true statements of the form: “It’s more important to help person X rather than person Y.”

This is a remarkably strong claim. If this is their belief, then they have to reject the idea that the family of five’s interest in continuing to live is weightier and more morally important than the museumgoers’ interest in viewing an additional painting. They would have to reject the claim that saving the family of five, rather than the painting, is the right thing to do. That is a conclusion I cannot condone.

Moreover, if they do claim that one person’s interests cannot be weighed against another’s, then the authors should not take issue merely with effective altruism. Policymakers, healthcare providers, and distributors of foreign aid—all these bodies regularly decide what to do by weighing the interests of different parties against each other. In the emergency room, nurses in triage assess incoming patients: They treat those with life-threatening conditions immediately, make those with moderate conditions wait, and send those with minor ailments home. The reason they do this is so that doctors don’t use up valuable time treating coughs and colds when they could be treating heart attacks. Is this idea really an example of “logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it”? Should we really label the concern to help people by a greater amount rather than a smaller amount “hyper-rationalistic” and “defective”?

Effective altruists typically believe that all parties’ interests should be given equal weight. That means that if, with the same resources, you can help one person by more than you can help another, then you should help the person with the greater need. If a given amount of money can cure either Person A’s pneumonia or Person B’s mild headache, but not both, then you should cure the pneumonia. And if, all else being equal, you can help more people rather than fewer people with a given amount of resources—curing blindness ten times, rather than only once—then you should help the many, rather than the few. Is this really a view held only by “zealots”?

The authors could weaken their claim, and sometimes they do so. Perhaps, even though there are some facts about what outcomes are better than other outcomes, it’s just no-one’s business to go around saying so. This idea is presented most clearly by Robert M. Penna in the comments:

The notion of freedom of conscience is deeply embedded in the American value system. That freedom extends to the right to make choices about what causes or charities to support. … Our essential position is that such a decision is for no one other than the individual to make. Moreover, we do not believe that it is the role of anyone to say to another that his or her cause is not “worthy.”

I agree with the authors that there are certainly cases of individual behavior, such as sexual preference, that are simply up to the individual and that it is moralistic to criticize. But these are cases where others’ interests aren’t at stake. Two people choosing to sleep with each other does not affect anyone else, so others do not have a right to criticize them for doing so. The same is not true of donations. Over a lifetime of giving, the choice to donate to one cause rather than another (or not to donate at all) is the decision to let tens or hundreds of people die, in exchange for, say, one additional opera performance or saving several stray dogs. That’s not to say that saving stray dogs or putting on operas isn’t a good or “worthy” use of money. It’s merely to say that, given the very many problems in the world, there are even better ways that donors can spend money.

Moreover, to attempt to compare charities across causes is not to say that we can always do so. Sometimes, things are just too hard. If the choice was between saving one’s spouse and one’s child from a burning building, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to throw up one’s hands and say that there’s just no correct answer. But the fact that comparing charities across causes is very difficult and sometimes impossible doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try at all. There are easier cases and there are harder cases, and making progress even on the easy cases means doing a tremendous amount of good that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

Effective altruism simply takes ideas that are absolutely common sense within the world of economics and public policy, and applies them to the world of individual altruism. And the results of doing this are remarkable. By giving wisely, you can save the lives of dozens of people over your lifetime, improving the education of hundreds more, and giving some of the poorest people on earth a dramatically better quality of life. Far from being “defective” as a pursuit, we think that’s pretty cool.