Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Is there something wrong with motivating for effective altruism?

Peter Singer has come up with what struck me at the time as an obvious proposition, namely that we should maximize the good we can reasonably produce in the world with the means that are available to us. He rightly thinks that that should impact on the kind of work we do, and that it should also impact on the kinds of charities we support, and the amount of resources we donate towards their work. He thinks that we often do lousy jobs when we donate money to charitable causes. One of his examples is David Geffen giving 100 mio US$ to some performing arts place in Manhattan. I always held the view, for instance, that the kinds of research questions we decide to address are decisions that are not ethically neutral. If thru my work I can contribute toward others living better lives and I choose to instead investigate issues that are bound not to achieve that, I would make a choice that is ethically problematic.

So far, this all seems uncontroversial, or so you would have thought. Since then folks, often on the political left, have castigated Singer for allegedly individualising the problem of world poverty. Others have claimed that his proposition is a feel-good activity for white well-off folks with too much time on their hands.

Particular scorn was reserved for one of Singer's poster boys, who apparently works for a nasty bank and then donates a lot of the money he makes there to Singer-approved good causes. Apparently this shows what's wrong with this effective altruism thing Singer is promoting. The criticism is directed squarely at the guy's damage while 'on the job' so to speak, not so much at his donating his wealth to good causes.

I would be sympathetic to the argument about the banking guy, if the premise is correct that his day job causes more damage than he manages to fix with his donations. I don't, of course, know whether that is actually the case, neither do Singer's critics... nor does the banking guy. This is another sore point where Singer critics get excited, claiming that we cannot quantify what's best in any case most of the time. That's theoretically probably a sound criticism, but it misses the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that the world will be made a better place by people making conscious choices that translate into them donating more to quality charitable causes aimed at improving human well-being (ie projects that demonstrably achieve those objectives) than if those same people chose not to do so. It really is that simple. Them considering over time how to alleviate the problem of poverty most effectively by donating deliberately toward projects that are efficient at lifting people out of poverty is a thing to be applauded.

A side effect of this 'considering possible projects to support' will inevitably be that some or many of those same donors consider how we got to having these problems in the first place. With a bit of luck they might decide that taking political action to change some of the economic rules of the game is what is called for. Their time spent on achieving this could also be a form of effective altruism.

Singer is motivating more people to think about these issues. Oh, but here comes the other side's bigger picture argument. They are saying that by individualizing moral responsibility and reducing it unjustifiably to a matter of individual altruism we are missing the global structural injustices that give rise to these sorts of problems. You know, the kind of stuff Thomas Pogge, Amartya Sen and others like them have been droning on about for such a long time.

This criticism misses its target, at least to my mind. There is no doubt that Pogge's analysis of the harmful consequences of the world economic order as we know it is broadly correct. Nothing stops anyone to invest time and resources toward changing those rules of the world economic order, especially if we have decided - on reflection - that this would contribute the most toward changing the amount of poverty in the world. However, it seems fair to note that we have had such writings and demonstrations for about a century, and yet they're not quite motivating people to rise up to change the world. So, frankly, such criticism more often than not comes from people that have done nothing much other than to go on and on about how bad capitalism is, without practically doing anything to improve the living conditions of the world's poor. I do think Singer and his crowd have done one better than that. There is nothing inherent in effective altruism that prevents people from motivating toward radical changes of the world economic order. For that reason I do not understand why critics seem to think it's an either-or type proposition.


  1. I agree that it's not an either-or, and I'm a committed member of Giving What We Can.

    I don't agree that those seeking structural reforms have done nothing to improve the living conditions of the world's poor. First, we have fostered a widespread understanding among the more affluent that they actively contribute to, and often benefit from, institutional structures and policies that also keep large numbers of people in dire poverty. This analysis, which you concede is broadly correct, renders more stringent our duties to practice effective altruism; and the awareness that it does so may well be contributing substantially to the massive increase in the amounts and effectiveness of the giving we have witnessed this century. In short, many of those who do what Peter Singer advises do it, or do more of it, and do it with a sense that they owe it as a matter of justice, because they have become aware of the harm done by structural injustices and of their own contributions thereto.

    Second, you should not think that, so long as capitalism reigns, nothing has been achieved through structural reform. As the comparison of diverse capitalist states (e.g., Norway vs. South Africa) illustrates, the details of a broadly capitalist structure matter enormously. This is true also of the way the global economic system (trade, finance, taxation, national rights over natural resources, intellectual property, etc. etc.) is structured. These details are being continuously renegotiated, e.g. in the WTO, the G20 and so on (currently TTIP and TPP); and I don't see why you are so sure that we have no influence on these rule shaping exercises. Example: our global fiscal and financial systems produces massive illicit financial flows from developing countries to tax havens and developed countries (typically associated with efforts by multinational corporations and rich locals to avoid taxes). These huge outflows (>$1 trillion per annum) were totally undiscussed ten years ago. Today, thanks in large part to the work of Global Financial Integrity, many politicians and ordinary citizens are aware of this huge drain on development, and there is now a large battle over how to reform the system. How much we can achieve on this front remains to be seen, but substantial curbs on illicit financial outflows from developing countries are in the making. Other areas in which substantial structural reforms have occurred or are occurring include intellectual property rights over medicines (Doha Declaration etc.) and the misappropriation of natural-resource revenues by authoritarian rulers.

    These battles over the rules that structure and govern our world are by no means pointless and, at the very least, help motivate effective giving.

    Thomas Pogge

    1. Thanks for taking the time, Thomas.

      Fair enough, may be I am unduly pessimistic.

      I doubt that what drives people to donate has much to do with them thinking that they owe it as a matter of justice. I suspect you'd show that that's true by looking at the causes that people support and when spikes in charitable giving occur. Still, every donor who has been motivated by concerns about structural injustices is to be applauded. I'm just not sure, from a pure marketing perspective, that that has got much traction as a strategy aimed at increasing the number of donors. I suspect that you'll see that it's mostly empathy that drives people's giving (aid agencies are well aware of that, just look at their marketing materials).

      Well, as to our successes (more lack thereof) on the structural reform frontiers. I will wait to see how the efforts you mention wrt the Global Financial Integrity will pan out. I'd be very surprised if the elites that have stripped Africa of its wealth will not be able to continue doing what they have always been doing. We'll see.

      I wouldn't want my comment to be read as saying that I am opposed to such efforts! Far from it! They are important, you are correct. What annoyed me and what motivated the comment has been a whole bunch of sneering criticisms of Peter's work, because he didn't address the root causes of the problems he aims to counter with effective altruism. My point was, that as far as tangible outcomes are concerned, he scores better than those who try to address those root causes. That's not to say that the system should not be changed, it's just that there hasn't been a lot of headway on that front.

      In any case, I suspect our difference is in the emphasis, if we differ at all. We agree that effective altruism is a good initiative, and we agree that structural reform is required and needs to be campaigned for.

    2. Excellent posts Udo and Thomas.

      I absolutely agree that donating money does not prevent one from voting and campaigning for more progressive politics. I also agree with Thomas that campaigning and awareness raising has done a huge amount of good.

      I would like to add that it's not inherent to effective altruism that one ought to give to an organisation where we have very high certainty that our marginal dollar will help people who are poor (e.g. through health interventions in low income countries that have been shown to work in randomized controlled trials). One might think that giving to Global Financial Integrity (or Transparency international) does more good than donating to organisations that distribute bednets and that is perfectly in line with effective altruism. The key issue might be that many people seem to believe that these organisations do a lot of good, but few people donate regularly a significant part of their salary to these organisations.

      Relatedly, the argument that curbing illicit financial flows would be a panacea for development, seems to be a bit overstated - see

  2. Hello, Mr.Udo Schuklenk.
    I recently expressed my opinion on the article below,
    sayng that I think the EA should be considered a philosophy, whose supporters disseminate and put into practice, individually, when, how and if they want to. I also think that it started not long ago and that 'speaks' more to the mind than to the heart, becoming, therefore, unattractive. Somehow, the EA, with an elitist trend, just selecting who should participate in it, which unfortunately excludes the largest share of the world population, as 'lady' of much practice charity in their own way and without rational appeal any, still sees undervalued given the demands it places Singer. I have found the Effective Altruism, page also visit (Facebook), very fertile in ideas but sterile on projects or specific actions. What might be great to be discussed, including the mentor, it is that it should be promoted and developed differently from country to country according to local needs.

    Now, could you say me what do you think about my point of view of EA, please?
    Many thanks.