4 Things That Are Right With Effective Altruism

by Matteo Tiratelli

29 July 2016

This is a response to an earlier article, 5 Problems with Effective Altruism.

I want to start with a disclaimer: I’m not an ‘effective altruist’. I’m not even a utilitarian. I don’t believe that ‘happiness’ is a measurable quantity we should try to maximise, or that quality-adjusted life years (affectionately known as QALYs) are the ultimate aim of human endeavour.

I agree with Connor White that effective altruism (EA) deals with symptoms rather than structural causes, and with Amia Srinivasan’s eloquent demand that philosophy offer a transformative vision, not just a theory of ‘autonomous man’ set against an unchangeable status quo. They’re right that EA is not a critical philosophy. It doesn’t diagnose structural injustices or offer a vision of better world. Its focus is on quick fixes and short-term solutions.

There are those who opposes all such short-term solutions as simply papering over the cracks of a broken system, as a distraction from radical political activity. This is the same argument which opposes the welfare state as being a crutch for capitalism. But I’m willing to make a stand here and say that we face some problems which demand short term solutions. We definitely need to campaign to reverse the situation in which pharmaceutical companies invest more in researching baldness than malaria, but in the meantime people need mosquito nets. And if the left accepts the need for short-term solutions as a part of a broader social and political campaign, then EA has much to offer us.

1. EA encourages us to do more and to give more.

This might seem like a banal point, but the root of all utilitarian philosophies (including EA) is an almost unreasonable pressure to do more good. The demand to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people (wherever and whoever those people are) is an insatiable one: there is always more you could be doing. Every minute wasted or effort misdirected has an ethical significance.

Philosophically, this leads to an absurdly demanding ethical system. One which, if actually followed by large numbers of people, might well lead to a suboptimal outcome. Indeed, John Stuart Mill, one of the original utilitarians, was a true 19th century elitist about this: utilitarianism should not be applied to everyday problems by everyday people. But modern EA is a proselytising creed. One which sets out to convert people and bring them into the movement in larger and larger numbers. And getting more people to do more and to give more is no bad thing.

But slipping from the greatest good to doing more has produced something of a divide within EA itself. The godfather of the movement, Peter Singer, certainly believes that we should all do ‘the most good we can’, a genuinely radical proposal which leaves little undisturbed. But for the movement’s chosen son, William MacAskill, so long as you are doing a lot of good, enjoying a ‘cushy lifestyle’ isn’t too bad a thing. At first glance this seems like watered down, mass-market utilitarianism. But I think there’s actually something else going on here. Once you begin to think in utilitarian terms even occasionally, it becomes very hard to stop. So you pledge to donate 10% of your earnings every month. Why stop there? Then you learn that another leading figure in EA, Toby Ord, donates everything he earns over £18k (a figure far below the UK median of £27k for full time workers). Again you wonder how you can justify your own luxuries? MacAskill is tempting us to dabble in utilitarian thinking, leading us down the slippery slope one small step at a time.

There are certainly many problems with the modern globalised charity industry and many issues which it can not address. But as the late great Marxist, Gerry Cohen, was fond of saying ‘if the personal is political, then politics is also personal’. We need to find ways of bringing our political ideals into our everyday lives. And if humanism (not humanitarianism) is one of those ideals, then we must be prepared to embrace short term solutions to the pain caused by capitalism.

2. It forces us to think more carefully about what we do and where we give.

Having dealt with the ‘altruism’ in EA, then next step is the ‘effective’ part of the slogan. For many people this is the most alien idea in the movement. Ranking charities, quantifying outputs and measuring QALYs are all reminiscent of the worst neoliberal, ‘public choice’ thinking. And some EA recommendations (like taking up high paying jobs in the finance industry in order to be philanthropic) have been rightly ridiculed.

But, as all good positivists should, they have generally been willing to rework their models in the light of new information. They no longer advise ‘earning to give’ in the financial sector and are now encouraging more people to do direct work (i.e. actually choosing a job which directly contributes to the social good). And, although I still find it difficult to accept wholeheartedly, their quantitative approach does provide a useful framework for thinking about how we should act. The basic questions EA asks about any cause are: How important is it? How neglected is it? What can I offer as tractable solutions?

This is cold and business-like but it does raise some really important issues. What unique skills can I offer as a volunteer in my local area? If Western charities go to the Global South how can they be genuinely useful, not just a soothing balm for Western guilt? These issues are not new and, in fact, many more radical critiques of charities and philanthropy often assume a similar consequentialist outlook. EA pushes further than most in this direction, sometimes too far, but it remains a useful tool for thinking about how we can help to further ethical and political ideals in our everyday lives.

3. A solidaristic EA?

A common criticism of EA is that it is based in a paternalistic framework of ‘aid’ and ‘altruism’ which precludes systematic change. It certainly feels like a big step to mass collective action from the barren individualism of the 80,000 Hours Project (which offers career advice to charitably-minded graduates). But as MacAskill is at pains to point out, there’s nothing in EA that denies the power of collective action or the necessity of systematic change. No matter how small the chances of victory, if the prize is worth fighting for, then it’s worth trying. And although EA is still intimately connected with the charity sector, one of the virtues of its narrow-minded pursuit of the greatest good is that it firmly rejects the paternalism of traditional philanthropy. I’m not sure why it would be a stronger gesture of solidarity to donate money to Rojava through a radical reading group, than to donate to GiveDirectly (a top rated ‘effective’ charity which distributes cash to very poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda in the belief that those people know what is best for themselves and which is committed to creating a Basic Income for people in those communities).

4. Emboldening us to act.

The real value of EA is that it makes unapologetic ethical demands on all of us. Of course we need to struggle for long-term, structural changes, but we should also try to limit the suffering around us now. This is something that the left has a proud tradition of: from the Black Panthers’ free breakfasts to the establishment of the welfare state. EA is not going to change the world and there is much to criticise within the movement. But the radical humanism of the utilitarian tradition deserves a place in the left. And when we hear EA claiming to be the ‘last social movement we ever need’, we should take it with a pinch of salt. Do they really believe it? Or are they just being good utilitarians and doing what they can to grab a platform and make themselves heard?

Photo: James Millar/TEDxExeter/Flickr

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