qualms about Effective Altruism

Effective Altruism is a growing movement that will surely make some valuable contributions. But I have my doubts about its main direction.

This is a prominent summary from the Effective Altruism website:

If you are reading this, you are in an extraordinary position. 

It has never been more possible for you to have a meaningful, positive impact on a massive scale. With the rise of evidence-driven interventions, we each have an unprecedented opportunity to save lives and prevent unnecessary suffering.

Effective Altruism is a growing social movement that combines both the heart and the head: compassion guided by data and reason. It’s about dedicating a significant part of one’s life to improving the world and rigorously asking the question, “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?”

Here is one interpretation of the movement: It is about guiding the allocation of discretionary assets (mainly, charitable contributions) to improve other people’s welfare, which is measured in utilitarian terms. Utilitarians disagree about the appropriate proxy measure of welfare (subjective happiness, preference-satisfaction, purchasing-power, Disability-Adjusted Life-Years, etc.), but Effective Altruists can sidestep that debate by focusing–appropriately–on the world’s poorest people, who score low on all those measures.

My objections to this version of Effective Altruism:

  1. Discretionary philanthropic decisions aren’t very consequential. Americans give about 2% of disposable income to charity. Our choices as voters, political activists, investors, and consumers are hugely more important than our decisions about where to give money.
  2. Effective Altruism seems to be about a donor affecting other people. (“How can I make the greatest difference [to them]?”) But in making unilateral decisions, even with the best intentions, I am exercising power over fellow human beings. I am deciding what counts as a good end for them and good means to that end. I am also influencing their longer-term capacity to make decisions themselves. I could help them with that–for instance, by subsidizing the education of young girls in poor countries, I might boost their voice and political agency. But I could also undermine their capacity for self-government while assisting them in an immediate, material way. For instance, I could build dependence and reduce autonomy. In Self Reliance, Emerson says about his own charity, “Though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.” Emerson took the argument far further than I would, but there was truth in it.
  3. The definition of altruism seems to be that person A will try to improve the situation of persons B, C, and D without regard to A’s interests. But social improvement typically comes from people acting in their own interest, albeit effectively and wisely–with an eye to the longer term and a broad definition of interests. I am highly skeptical of any large-scale social strategy that relies upon altruism, especially since the only people in a position to be effectively altruistic at large scales are the ones with a lot of resources. At best, I doubt they have enough leverage. At worst, I don’t trust them to work in other people’s interests. Witness the arguments by some Effective Altruists that we ought to protect humanity against asteroid strikes. That sounds like a fun way for a tech. billionaire to allocate tax-deductible charitable contributions, but not exactly what the world’s poorest people would ask for.

An Effective Altruist can acknowledge all those criticisms and respond that the movement is not just about the allocation of discretionary philanthropic resources. If, for instance, the best way to improve lives is to enhance the political agency of poor girls in developing countries, that’s what the Effective Altruist should invest in. If a US citizen can do more good by supporting a given political campaign than by giving money overseas, then the former is the right choice. And if a donation would create a relation of dependency, the Effective Altruist can refrain from spending money that way.

In short, I have accused Effective Altruists of ignoring politics and power, but they can reply that their analysis should (or does) include just these issues.

My objections to that broader version of Effective Altruism:

  1. It doesn’t seem original in the way implied by its slogans: e.g., “It has never been more possible for you to have a meaningful, positive impact on a massive scale.” If questions of governance, politics, power, agency, and culture are also relevant, then we have been debating how to have a “positive impact” at large scales for two millennia. I believe that we know less about 21st century political-economic systems and how to change them than we knew about the issues that faced industrialized nation-states in 1950. For instance, there may be no more important question today than how to reduce endemic corruption without resorting to authoritarianism. I don’t believe there are any “evidence-driven interventions” for that problem.
  2. If power and agency matter, then decisions ought to be made by groups that include the poor as well as the rich, and that requires a different set of ideas and skills than the ones that Effective Altruism offers. I say that the right question is not “How can I make the greatest difference?” but “What should we do?” An Effective Altruist could reply that what I should do is always fundamental, because I have to decide what groups to join and how to interact within them. For instance, in a deliberation, what arguments should I personally offer–and to whom–and what responses should I find persuasive? I agree, to a point, that my choices are a primary concern for me. Yet Effective Altruism puts the focus on the wrong intellectual skills. It is all about means/ends rationality to guide individual choice: what are the consequences of my actions? If instead we ask, “What should we do?” then we need skills of listening, interpretation, diplomacy, responsible persuasion, and inspirational leadership.
  3. This version of Effective Altruism still seems vulnerable to the critique J.S. Mill leveled against the early British Utilitarians: it overlooks the cultivation of the inner life. The classical utilitarians had defined the goal of life as happiness and had argued that a society could maximize the happiness of its members by getting its laws right. Mill grew up in that milieu, as the son of a great classical utilitarian. As a young man, he became deeply depressed. He asked himself:

“Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

I elaborate Mill’s point as follows: it seems to be necessary for human beings to be involved in making themselves happy or satisfied; no one can simply do that for us. Some people who know no physical pain and have plenty of money are nevertheless miserable to the point of suicide. Poor villagers who live under a repressive government can be happier than wealthy suburbanites who are well treated by the state. Even if the goal were to maximize everyone’s happiness, that couldn’t be accomplished by a world of individuals who were concerned only with others. They would also have to be responsible for themselves. Pure altruism or other-regardingness is not the ideal, because there would then be no one in a position to make each individual happier.

Mill’s ultimate response was to reemphasize the inner life. “The important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances.”

I suppose an Effective Altruist could deflect Mill’s critique by saying: “We don’t attach exclusive importance to outward circumstances; we just try to make other-regarding efforts more effective. As long as Americans give just 2% of disposable income to charity, they are hardly at risk of neglecting themselves. They can cultivate their internal cultures all they want. We just help them to spend that 2% better.” And I think that’s fine–as far as it goes. I am just not sure it offers any hope of addressing the problems that keep me up at night, such as:

  • Corruption (writ large), meaning the capture of public goods for private profit.
  • Massive collective-action problems, especially global warming.
  • Hatreds of various kinds: religious, racial, national.
  • Discouragement about democracy and the potential to improve the world from the bottom-up.
  • The global shift to oligarchy.
  • Authoritarianism, especially of the macho, xenophobic, militaristic variety that unites Putin and Trump as well as many others.

See also: qualms about Behavioral Economics; qualms about a bond market for philanthropy; and why is oligarchy everywhere?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.