Effective Altruism and its Blind Spots

(This post first appeared on 3quarksdaily.com on August 31, 2015.)

by Grace Boey

31342.f299fdf740a5dd101f058ea5c5a78f98-e1413973538808Want to do some good in the world? There’s a good chance that (like me) you’d at least like to try. So what should you do?

There’s a bunch of reasons that might affect your answer to this question. Should you donate money, or should you volunteer time? Should you start a career in social work? What social cause resonates with you? Do you care more about animals, or army vets? How much time do various causes commit you to, and how much time do you have after meeting work and family obligations? These are common concerns that influence our charitable choices, whether we’re conscious of them or not.

Effective altruism, a growing social movement associated with philosopher Peter Singer, hopes to bring this decision-making process to the forefront of our consciousness. To be more precise: followers of the movement seek to act in the way that brings about the greatest measurable impact, given the resources they have. Effective altruism concerns itself not just with doing good, but finding the best way to do so. And according to (some) effective altruists, the best way for most people to do good is ‘earning to give’, which is exactly what it sounds like: earning lots of money, then giving it away to charity. And not just any charity—in order to maximise good, effective altruists seek to donate to the most cost-effective foundations out there.

Sounds promising? … Maybe.

I first came across the effective altruism movement in a philosophy club meeting, where one of my colleagues—an ethics professor—screened Peter Singer’s TED talk The Why and How of Effective Altruism. In the video, Singer describes the social movement and its motivations, giving numerous examples of relatively well-off people who had used their resources to do lots of good for others. I was quite encouraged and impressed by what I saw. But at the same time, something about the video made me uncomfortable. (I felt bad for thinking this, but it all seemed really smug. Another audience member in the seminar said they found most of the video self-congratulatory.)

Smugness, thankfully, does not make for an illegitimate movement. There are lots of great things about effective altruism; I agree with many of the points its followers make, and I’ve used many tools they’ve recommended to determine where some of my money goes. But effective altruism, I believe, suffers from big problems (yes, other than smugness). Despite being an altruist who wants to be effective, some of the movement’s oversights make me hesitant to identify myself with effective altruism as it currently stands.

Effective altruism and some objections

Before delving into its limitations: a bit more about the movement. What motivates effective altruism in the first place? Peter Singer, as well as many other effective altruists, begins with the philosophical assumption that we ought to act in ways that reduce the suffering of others, just as long as doing so doesn’t involve sacrificing anything nearly as important for ourselves.

Singer famously employs a philosophical thought experiment to demonstrate why this ought to be the case:

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond.One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Singer then argues that the ‘drowning child’ case is structurally similar to the case of global poverty:

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

It must be emphasised that Singer and many effective altruists don’t just believe we have some kind of obligation to relieve suffering—they believe that we should continue helping until we reach a point where helping any more would cause us comparable suffering to that which we’re trying to alleviate. In other words, if you’re in a better position than others, then you ought to help reduce their suffering until all your levels of well-being are more or less equal (or, depending on what you think, until their suffering stops and their well-being reaches an ‘acceptable’ level that may or may not match yours).

So the movement emphasises giving away as much as you can, and living with as little as you can. Some followers give the majority of their income away: as of Singer’s 2013 TED talk, Toby Ord, philosopher and founder of the effective altruist organisation Giving What We Can, lives on 18,000 British pounds a year (he’s married with a mortgage), giving the rest away to charitable causes.

In practice, many who identify with effective altruism don’t really go ‘all the way’. In addition to (at least trying to) give as much as one can, a second key component of the movement that attracts many followers is the following idea: in expending resources, the altruist ought to seek the most efficient way of achieving impact in order to maximise good. In other words, effective altruism is concerned with maximising the ratio of goodness created to resources expended in the process.

In line with this objective, effective altruists and their allies devote much time to identifying charities that achieve large amounts of ‘good per dollars spent’. This is crucial, since—according to Ord’s calculations—some charities are hundreds or even thousands times more effective than others. While evaluating a charity, philanthropists often look at the proportion of donations it spends on projects as opposed to overhead costs, seeing a low proportion of the latter as a good thing. But this is a mistaken approach to the effective altruist, since spending more on projects doesn’t necessarily guarantee better results. Charities that spend more on admin can still be more cost-effective overall than ones that spend less. GiveWell, a non-profit effective altruist organisation that evaluates charities, recommends several charities per year on the basis of their marginal cost-effectiveness.

All this sounds good, but various criticisms have been made against effective altruism. Naturally, the movement is a non-starter if you don’t buy into the idea that we’re required to be altruistic at all, or even altruistic in the specific way that Singer requires. The movement happens to rest on the philosophical position of utilitarianism, which says we always ought to act in ways that maximise good—this isn’t something that everyone agrees with. But utilitarian or not, not too many people reject the idea of altruism altogether.

Other criticisms of effective altruism are practical. How accurately can we really estimate the future impact of our actions? Effective altruist organisations methodically calculate the most cost-effective causes an altruist can donate to, but realistically, such calculations at best give a short to mid-term estimate. In response to this, the effective altruist might concede that although there are many things that might go wrong along the course of our altruistic efforts, we are still obliged at any given time to act in a way that we expect will produce the best results, with the limited information that we have.

The blind spots of effective altruism

I do buy significantly into the philosophical motivations behind effective altruism, and I don’t see practical objections as reasons that we shouldn’t at least try to maximise goodness. But bigger problems make me concerned about the direction the movement seems to be taking.

As mentioned before, effective altruists have claimed that for most people, the most effective thing to do is to spend their lives ‘earning to give’. In his piece To save the world, don’t get a job at a charity; go work on Wall Street, philosopher William MacAskill argues that instead of working in the non-profit sector or even volunteering, the best strategy for most effective altruists is to make lots of money, and then donate much of it to cost-effective charities. Finance can be an ‘ethical career choice’, and altruists needn’t ‘forgo the allure of Wall Street’ in order to be an effective altruist. But what if a job on Wall Street requires one to commonly engage in unethical practices? MacAskill argues elsewhere that the marginal impact of one’s unethical actions in such a career would be small compared to the donations that would come out of it, since someone else would have had your job and done them regardless.

This sort of response raises several huge red flags. For one: it demonstrates a blindness (or perhaps despondency) towards institutional causes of suffering or injustice. If one thinks that Wall Street profits from an unjust system—one that itself perpetuates large amounts of suffering—then one should be concerned with dismantling this system (either now, or eventually). But effective altruism lacks any focus on dismantling systemic injustice, and even encourages its followers to participate in unjust systems.

I’d be more willing to concede to MacAskill’s arguments if having any impact at all on institutions was an unachievable goal, and someone would always be there to ‘take my place’ in an evil system. After all, we can only do what we can. But if I am an effective altruist who earns to give, then I should aim to earn as much as I can—meaning that, if I were an investor, I should aim to be the best one I could be. Quite plausibly, some such players become so good at the game that they become market influencers with irreplaceable expertise (think Warren Buffett). Beyond influencing market movements, some players might even reach levels of political influence. What then? Perhaps this seems like too unlikely an outcome for effective altruists to bother thinking about. But I suspect it isn’t as unlikely as one might think. One needn’t reach the status of Warren Buffet to be capable of making a difference.

One thing an effective altruist might do to justify perpetuating unjust systems it to point out that the suffering they are trying to alleviate is far worse. Perhaps Wall Street causes lots of suffering, but let’s take care of starvation in developing countries before worrying about that; we’ll fix it later. In theory, I am agnostic towards this line of thinking. But in practice, the global economy makes disentangling institutions and poverty very difficult, even when they exist in different countries. Activities on Wall Street commonly contribute—directly and indirectly—to suffering in developing countries.

For instance: take a successful hedge fund manager who gives most of her massive earnings to charity. It does seem pretty cool to infiltrate a conventionally selfish enterprise only to turn around and give all your profits back to the poor. But in reality, there’s a high probability that some of the stocks she invests in are of companies that contribute, directly or indirectly, to exploiting the poor. Perhaps these are even the very people she gives her money to. It is possible for an effective altruist to avoid such situations, but given the opacity of financial instruments and the demands of the market, it’s incredibly difficult. One must at least be extremely cautious.

As demonstrated by the example above, the problem of unjust institutions doesn’t just apply to the sources of an effective altruist’s income—it often extends to the end point of her donations, or the causes of the suffering she tries to alleviate. Effective altruists often focus on providing relief in forms of food, water and medicine to people in developing nations. But what about the social and political institutions that cause and perpetuate these problems in the first place? Much less attention seems to be given to taking care of that.

To sum things up, my main problems with effective altruism are the following. In cases of earning to give, effective altruism doesn’t encourage people to question the source of their income. This matters because in many of these cases, their income comes from unjust institutions, and there is a chance that one’s participation is sufficient to perpetuate ill effects that would not otherwise be. Last, effective altruism lacks focus on dismantling institutions—be it the systems which cause the suffering your donations alleviate, or the systems from which you receive your income. This is a problem if, like me, you believe institutions are a huge source of much of the mess in the world, and must often be changed in order for suffering to end.

A cautionary conclusion

To me, all of the above are things the movement must recognise and improve on, and not arguments against the endeavour of effective altruism altogether. There is, after all, nothing incompatible about being an effective altruist and seeking to remove harmful institutions, if your reason for dismantling the institution is to relieve the large amounts of suffering you believe it perpetuates. One of the things I like about effective altruism is that it’s motivated by the desire not just to feel good by giving to charity, but to make sure you actually achieve lots of good. But ironically, the movement may be encouraging its followers to do this anyway—albeit in a different way. Effective altruists need to be careful that this is not the case.

One last matter: a historically knowledgeable friend of mine remarked that effective altruism, a Western movement, would do well to learn the history and politics behind any suffering it tries to alleviate overseas. Much of the poverty in developing nations is arguably a direct consequence of activities and policies that developed Western countries have engaged in in the not-so-distant past, or even engage in currently. Effective altruists run the risk of being distastefully insensitive by patting themselves on the back for donating money to developing nations, while remaining ignorant of the fact that the wealth and opportunities they enjoy share deep historical roots with foreign suffering.

So, to all effective altruists: be careful about your decisions, be aware of institutions and history… and don’t be too smug about doing good.

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