Social Justice, Academic Philosophy

Effective Altruism

Critics of effective altruism tend to focus their critiques against the seemingly utilitarian foundations of the movement. They ask, what about special obligations? Demandingness? Is this overly cosmopolitan? What about institutional/collective change? For example, Judith Lichtenberg recently published a critical discussion of effective altruism. She argues that effective altruism distorts human psychology, and is elitist, and that it undermines support for institutional change and helping people in developed countries.

Richard Yetter Chappell has a great response to the article that addresses these arguments. He replies that it is not objectionable to think that people’s attitudes should change in light of moral reasons. Also, effective altruism does recognize the contributions of ordinary people. Finally, the institutional change vs. direct aid concern probably poses a false dichotomy but even if direct aid would divert resources from institutional and social change in developed countries, giving priority to the global poor is justified. On this point Richard writes,

Does anyone honestly think that the problem with western society today is that we attend too much to the global poor and not enough to our fellow countrymen?  Really?

I agree with Richard’s response here. But I also can see why critics of effective altruism may mistakenly press some of these critiques. Many effective altruists support a broadly utilitarian approach. If you are sympathetic to utilitarianism, their message sounds pretty persuasive. If you are not sympathetic to utilitarianism though, you may reject the message because it sounds like the reasons for effective altruism rely on an ethical theory that you reject.

But the reasons in favor of effective altruism do not rely on utilitarianism. I am not a utilitarian. Though I think there are strong moral reasons to give to charities, I do not think that morality requires extreme altruism. But I’m still an effective altruist because I think it’s a morally good thing to give a significant amount of your income to effective aid organizations.

For critiques of effective altruism to succeed, they should show where that claim goes wrong.

Imagine you see an ad for a new job in your field. The job requires all the same tasks that your current job requires. Your commute is the same. Same coworkers. If you had this new job, your day-to-day life would change very little. But this job is different from your current position in two ways. First, the new job would pay 10% less than you currently make. Second, by taking this job you would significantly improve the lives of dozens of people who are currently living in extreme poverty over the course of your career.

Should you apply for the new job? For most people, yes. But the same reasons to apply for the new job are reasons to become an effective altruist. You can keep your current job, but donate 10% to causes that will improve the lives of people in need.

Today, many people do make career choices that cause them to earn 10% less than they would otherwise make, often because they want their career to do more good. People go into nonprofit work. Or scientists choose academic research over the private sector because they want to do good. Private school teachers take more than a 10% pay cut relative to a public school teachers, but many teachers make this choice because private schools can offer them a greater sense of meaning or effectiveness.

In these cases, few people are critical of those who advocate for careers that offer a 10% less money in exchange for a greater sense of meaning in one’s work. But effective altruism is like this too. Are there arguments against effective altruism that aren’t also arguments against choosing a more helpful career that pays less?

Say you have a student who is deciding between one job and another job that will pay 10% less but will do more good for the world and give her a greater sense of meaning from her work. If she asks for your advice, which job would you encourage in light of moral considerations and also your concern for her? If you would support the second career path, why wouldn’t you also support effective altruism?

  • martinbrock

    If the student’s greater sense of meaning is more valuable to her than the additional 10% in income, then she arguably isn’t being altruistic by choosing latter. I would only encourage her to weigh her options carefully and to avoid sentimentality when weighing nominally “charitable” work against what you’ve labeled “private”. My daughter is making this decision now, so my interest is not merely academic.

    NGOs are in the private sector distinguished from the public or state sector, and a scientist may certainly choose work in the private sector, for profit or otherwise, over academic research because he wants to do more good. Anyone who believes an academic career selfless hasn’t visited an academy in a while. Many academics are self-obsessed rent seekers.

    • Lacunaria

      I agree with your advice, but your first sentence essentially redefines altruism to be impossible. i.e. if you value doing good, then it cannot be selfless.

      • martinbrock

        The usual definition could be vacuous, but my point is that money is not the only measure of value, and it has little relationship to what I call “altruism”. If you shorten your life or endure pain to benefit others, I’d call that altruistic. If you live a longer, happier life but die with a smaller bank account, I wouldn’t.

        • Lacunaria

          I don’t think the people who use the term intend it to be vacuous, so it seems reasonable to assume a definition that is not vacuous.

          I also suspect that they do not intend altruism to be defined by feelings — where if we are miserable giving then it is altruism and if we are happy giving then it is not. As if they are arguing for misery.

          After all, if we properly train our emotions to align with morality, we should feel good when we do good and feel bad when we do bad. This intentional confluence of morality and pleasure should not be confused with a less morally aligned hedonism, for example.

          I agree with William Kiely below that helping others seems to be the essential aspect intended by “altruism”. Perhaps they should call it “effective charity”?

          • martinbrock

            Seems reasonable to assume a definition that does not assign a dollar greater value than anything else people value.

            Again, helping others is necessary for altruism but not sufficient. A mutually beneficial exchange helps both of us but is not ordinarily called “altruistic”. If we don’t weigh life or pain against the benefit to others in the utilitarian calculation, then we must weight something else. A 10% rise in salary doesn’t seem to weigh more than a longer, happier life, but if it does somehow, then I concede the point.

          • Lacunaria

            I basically agree with you. I think “altruism” is complex because our view of morality is fuzzy and the long view of self-interest can coincide with short term, intended and apparent selflessness. In fact, utilitarian-wise, that is probably a good definition of altruism.

            A longer, happier life may help others more than gifting a 10% raise. Mutually beneficial exchanges such as microloans may produce better effects than outright gifting. If so, then I think their “effective altruism” would entail those options. Apparent self-sacrifice is not always a moral good.

            It’s also interesting that even if altruism hints at sacrifice, they explicitly exclude it in their core hypothetical — namely, giving “without sacrificing anything morally significant”.

    • Ultimately whether one calls donating to help others “altruistic / selfless” or “selfish” doesn’t really matter.

      It seems to me that Jessica’s point that one can make a tremendous positive impact on the lives of others by donating a mere 10% of one’s income to effective charities still stands regardless of whether you would call the decision to donate in this manner as an “effective ‘altruist'” selfless or selfish.

  • Theresa Klein

    Say you have a student who is deciding between one job and another job that will pay 10% less but will do more good for the world and give her a greater sense of meaning from her work. If she asks for your advice, which job would you encourage in light of moral considerations and also your concern for her?

    I’m a little confused. What if you could show that the additional 10% of her income donated to charity would do more good for the world than her working in the lower paying job. Wouldn’t effective altruism dictate that she take the higher paying job and donate the proceeds to charity?

  • Christopher Ritchie

    By Effective Altruism here I assume we are not just talking about attempting to ensure the allocation of your charity dollars go to the most ‘effective’ charity. That seems an entirely reasonably proposition(if my goal is to make sure children in Africa don’t go hungry and it can be reasonably shown that Charity A eliminates 1 hungry child per 5$ while Charity B does that same for 2$ logically I should give to Charity B).

    I’m presuming here the issue is the more broadly considered issue of ‘global poverty’ and the idea we should be functionally tithing 10% of our income to this effort above and beyond any other charitable giving. Along with other considerations. I found Lichtenberg’s piece alot more compelling in this regard than Chappell’s reply.

    The moral calculus at play seems to be something like “By donating money to global poverty you could do more than anything else you could possibly do, so your highest moral prioity is to maximize your income to thus maximize your donations”. There seems plenty wrong with that calculus, not the least that it’s initial assumption is put forward without evidence. It also strikes me as a classic example of ignoring externalities. What some-one does in the Western world to make money isn’t some-how divorced from Global poverty. I would suggest it’s often directly connected, a cause and effect matrix that would undermine the initial proposition. The Money some-one makes as an investment banker is made within the confines of a system, for example, that directly exploits violence and conflict in a variety of places occupied by the ‘global poor’.

    An over-emphasis on ‘efficiency’ ignores how to achieve that focus one must devalue or eliminate things that are not easily quantified down into simple measures. If you can’t apply math to it, you can’t tell how efficient it is or not.

    Of course, being tied up with Ethics(and the OP sort of addresses this) if you don’t’ hold to certain systems of ethics the entire proposition can seem odd. Both Virtue and Role ethics would view the idea that, for example, you should ignore a local vagrant you could help because your time is better spent ‘over-all in regards all humanity’ working to give money to charity organizations working out of sight as intrinsically an unethical position. Not merely lacking in ethics, but actively unethical, since it would display a lack of compassion.

    • Andrew Sepielli

      Is the idea that I display a lack of compassion if I ever forgo helping someone right in front of me so that I can do something more beneficial instead? Do I also display a lack of courage if I ever forgo an opportunity to save a kitten from a fire — e.g. if I press a button that will save all of Japan from a tsunami instead? I thought the whole “unity of the virtues” idea was supposed to help us avoid silly results like this.

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