I think the effective altruism movement provides us with useful and much needed tools to asses the value of actions, strategies and organisations in the animal rights or any other movement. I like the idea of estimating what the impact of a certain organisation or campaign is. I like the focus on measurable goals, and of comparing input (time, money and other resources) with output (impact) in order to get an idea of the ROI (return on investment). In a way, we owe it to the beings we want to help to look for the best ways to spend our resources.
Today I visited a sanctuary for wolves, somewhere in New Mexico. While there, I suddenly felt sad, somehow, and I didn’t really understand why until the next morning (we camped at the sanctuary), when it hit me: considerations of effectiveness forbade me to give a donation to this sanctuary. It’s not that it looked inefficiently run or that the people working and volunteering there didn’t seem motivated – on the contrary. But it was the idea that supporting an operation that tried to give a new life to a couple of dozen abused or abandonned wolves was just not the best use of the limited money I have to donate. Moreover, the wolves are predators, living on many pounds of fresh meat every day.
That’s what I had been thinking in the back of my head, and that’s what had made me sad. Because while I realized all of this was rationally true for me, it also felt like some kind of betrayal to these animals, who were so real, lying before me and having kept me up during the night with their awe-inspiring howling. I felt my rational reasoning was somehow callous, and I found the thought that i would somehow ignore these wolves unbearably sad.
In the end, we left a donation – on top of the money we paid for meeting a wolf face to face. I am still convinced it wasn’t the most effective use of our money, that it wasn’t the most rational thing to do. We may have done it to make ourselves feel better. But then again, we were there. The sanctuary was on our path. The wolves were looking at us. And the wonderful people working there looked like they could use anything they could get. And also, in spite of the lack of rationality, I think it is a strength and a good thing that one can be touched by the eyes of the beings you’re looking into. Part of me thinks the world would be a more dangerous and less caring place without that. Maybe without this direct empathy, there would be nothing in us that would want to measure anything at all.