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Effective altruism is a topic I’ve never directly addressed in a Philanthropy Daily post. I’ve written about Peter Singer, whose ideas drive Effective Altruism, several times, most recently here. But my colleagues Scott Walter and William Schambra have written about the Effective Altruists on various occasions. Here’s a post Scott Walter wrote about the effective altruists and here is one by William Schambra.

As I understand Effective Altruism, whose creator is Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, you have 80,000 hours in your working life, and your goal is to make as much money as you can so you can give away as much as you can.

So it’s a good idea to become a management consultant or a lawyer, and sock away tons of money to spend it on causes effective altruists like, such as fighting malaria in Africa.

Scott Walter notes that there’s apparently a raging debate in the Effective Altruist movement about whether or not it is morally acceptable to have children, since babies take time, money, and attention that could be spent on philanthropy. William Schambra compares Effective Altruism against “philanthrolocalism” and argues that Effective Altruism is the top of a slippery slope that leads to eugenics.

Finally, Effective Altruists are leftists, but never talk about politics because, well, that wouldn’t be scientific, would it?

I’ll offer my thoughts at the end, but what prompts me to write about Effective Altruism is this post by Dr. Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist, whose blog, Slate Star Codex, is very popular. In it, Dr. Alexander writes about the Effective Altruism convention, which he attended and wrote about this summer.

The most interesting news from the conference is that some animal rights activists have finally realized that screaming “Meat is murder!” as loudly as they can does not persuade anyone to become a vegetarian. Given that animal rights activists have always been the loudest and nastiest virtue signalers, this is a pleasant development.

They had a presentation by Bruce Friedrich, director of the Good Food Institute which is trying to develop fake meat that is as tasty as a good burger. The institute has gotten money and an endorsement by Bill Gates, although it seems that here Gates is an investor rather than a donor.

I looked at the Good Food Institute website and don’t have any problem with most of what they do. As someone who has eaten canned vegetarian hot dogs and regretted it, I know there’s a lot of room for development in this field. Maybe they’ll actually come up with products people buy because they like them. Let the market decide.

Also present was the Qualia Research Institute whose theory, as I understand it, is that there are times in our lives when we’re really happy—after doing exercise, or being given a present you didn’t expect but that you thoroughly enjoyed. Would it be possible to engineer your brain so that endorphins and other happiness drugs naturally generated by the brain could be increased? That’s what the institute is trying to do.

I’ll skip over the other non-philanthropic activities of this conference. But I’d like to spend a little space discussing the Open Philanthropy Project. This group is an LLC headed by Cari Tuna, but it makes grants through a donor-advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which means that, if I was so inclined, I could call it “dark money” because, as everyone knows, when liberals use donor-advised funds, they do so for selfless heroic reasons while conservatives only have malign intent for keeping their donations anonymous.

The Open Philanthropy Project specializes in animal rights grants and criminal justice reform, including two grants of $200,000 and $220,000 to the American Conservative Union Foundation to support the efforts of Pat Nolan in criminal-justice reform (which I wrote about here).

The difference is that they publish all the internal memos about grants other foundations keep secret. This means you can find out which grantee they believe will produce conferences that “incentivize high epistemic quality,” and if you know what that means, you must have a degree in nonprofit management.

I’d say Effective Altruism does do some positive things.

The charities vetted by GiveWell are probably good ones, and 80,000 Hours does seem to give good career advice. I also bet that attendees at the Effective Altruism conference have more fun than those attending the Council on Foundations annual meeting.

But my problem with Effective Altruism is that it’s very limiting. Consider these grants and whether they’re a good idea:

  1. Giving money to a nonprofit that recruits volunteers in your city to help inner-city children read.
  2. Giving money to a nonprofit that helps talented young people complete their first novel, painting, or film.
  3. Giving money to organizations interested in space exploration.
  4. Giving money to the Against Malaria Foundation to buy nets to protect people in Africa against mosquitoes.

From what I read about GiveWell  they only find alternative #4 acceptable. That’s because they think they have discovered the one best way to give and consider all other forms of aid suspect.

But the problem is that there is no one best way to give and giving is an art, not a science that can be defined by firm and inflexible rules and derived from axioms everyone accepts.

Pretending giving is a science does not make it a science.

I also question the calculus that the only way to give is to give the greatest good to the greatest number. Effective Altruism seems to me to be a cold and joyless way to give. It denies the giver the personal joy that comes when they help another person that they know.

If people want to give to the charities vetted by GiveWell, well, good for them. But Effective Altruists confine themselves to a small corner of a wide world.

9 thoughts on “My problem with Effective Altruism”

  1. Howard says:

    Jeremy Bentham also invented the Panopticon prison, one of the harshest prisons ever devised.

  2. Howard says:

    A lot of this is the error of “as-long-as-ism,” as I call it, the idea that as long as people are starving in one place no one is permitted to enjoy beauty or costly excellence. Judas Iscariot represented this view to Jesus after Jesus was anointed by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.

  3. @johngthomas says:

    This is not a fair or reasonable critique of effective altruism. While utilitarians like Peter Singer are influential in the movement, not all effective altruists are utilitarians.

    The effective altruism movement does not depend on any particular ethical theory. Deontologists, virtue ethicists, divine command theorists and consequentialists can all be effective altruists. The manner in which Scott Walter and William Schambra in their linked articles attempt to undermine utilitarianism and progressivism using the classic strawman of Nazism is naive in the extreme. They turn Peter Singer, a highly respected Princeton ethicist, into a cardboard cutout villain. Walter even attempts a nonsensically irrelevant ad hominem attack on the founder of secular utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, someone who from the 1780s campaigned for the abolition of slavery, against racism, for universal suffrage, for equal rights for women, for laws against cruelty to animals, for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, in favor of progressive taxation, in favor of social welfare, in favor of democracy, in favor of public education and in support of public health care. These views were incredibly radical for his time, but they are now conventional wisdom in many first world democracies. Sadly, too many conservatives still haven’t caught up with Bentham’s enlightened thinking across issues like homosexuality, animal cruelty, social welfare and public health care.

    Cherry picking some papers or conference presentations the author doesn’t like is not a fair or reasonable way to attack a whole movement. Effective altruists don’t all think with one mind, but they do agree that, in deciding how to make the world a better place, we should consider the effectiveness of our actions. You don’t need to be a utilitarian to understand that spending $30,000 to train one guide dog for one person who is blind and will remain blind is much less effective than spending the same amount of money to restore the sight of three hundred people who are blind. It’s a no brainer, and it’s mystery to me why some people, like the author of this piece, still don’t get it.

    Characterising effective altruism as a movement of “the left” will serve only to discredit “the right”. Not all conservatives are selfish libertarians. Some happily embrace a generous spirit that cares not just for their friends, family or compatriots, but for those beyond their nation’s borders. Though, to its credit, this is more typical of the left.

    The author may prefer not to think about the effectiveness of his charitable giving, but thankfully more and more people aren’t letting irrelevancies like the ones thrown into this piece get in the way of clear thinking.

    In a linked piece entitled “The First Law of Giving: There is no one right way to give” neatly represents the author’s muddled thinking. Effective altruists and utilitarians like Peter Singer don’t claim to know the “one right way to give”. They simply acknowledge the obvious point that has somehow escaped the author. There are better and worse ways to give, as my example of curing 300 people of blindness for the same amount of money needed to train a guide dog for someone who will remain blind illustrates. It’s not rocket science.

  4. Vincent Duckworth says:

    Great post. I have been following this topic for some time. I have mixed feelings about it not least because it appears to be a fad vs. a trend. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will be putting it in our weekly sector recap.

  5. Julia Wise, Centre for Effective Altruism says:

    I think there’s some confusion here about what the effective altruism community in general believes and does, and what specific organizations within the community believe and do. As you note, people and organizations in effective altruism are currently working on projects ranging from reforming US criminal justice, to developing replacements for meat, to researching how human wellbeing works, to public health projects like malaria prevention. Naturally most of the organizations in effective altruism focus in on a particular area.

    To quote GiveWell’s FAQ: “We believe that there are many organizations that do great work but don’t meet our criteria or work on issues outside the scope of our research. We recommend the organizations that we would (and do) give our personal money to in order to accomplish maximal impact, and we target donors who broadly share our values.”

    Readers who want a more accurate picture of effective altruism might check out this article on effective altruism’s approach to systemic change: https://80000hours.org/2015/07/effective-altruists-love-systemic-change/
    or, for more general information: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/

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