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?