Can “effective altruism” maximise the bang for each charitable buck?

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DONORS to charities rarely make the sort of cost-benefit calculations investors, for example, would think obligatory. So charities attract donations with pictures of smiling gap-toothed children, rather than spreadsheets showing how they actually spend their money. Tugging at the heartstrings, however, does little to allay the doubts of economists sceptical about the efficacy of charity. Who is to say whether donating to a homeless shelter is a better use of money than donating to a school?

Yet advances in social science, particularly in development economics, mean donors can now have a reasonably good idea of how far each dollar will go. Empirically minded do-gooders, members of the nascent “effective altruism” movement, argue that it is at last possible to put into practice a “fundamental axiom” of utilitarianism, first invoked in 1776 by Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

The vast…

The Economist: International