According to the EA website, there are four values that "unite effective altruism":

  1. Prioritization
  2. Impartial altruism
  3. Open truthseeking
  4. Collaborative spirit

In this post, I'll critique value 2, "impartial altruism". I will then argue that this value underpins the most common EA argument in favour of longtermism and that therefore, if a commitment to impartial altruism is weakened, EA's commitment to longtermism should be similarly weakened.

Impartial altruism #

The value of impartial altruism is described as follows:

Impartial altruism: We believe that all people count equally. Of course it's reasonable to have special concern for one's own family, friends and life. But, when trying to do as much good as possible, we aim to give everyone's interests equal weight, no matter where or when they live. This means focusing on the groups who are most neglected, which usually means focusing on those who don’t have as much power to protect their own interests.

It's interesting that this description explicitly acknowledges the reasonableness of having "special concern" for one's own family, friends and life. Unfortunately, however, it does not explain why it is reasonable to have special concern for certain people. Nor does it explain why, if such special concern is reasonable, we should "give everyone's interests equal weight". After all, if it is in fact reasonable to have special concern for some people, surely it might be reasonable to give those people's interests greater weight?

In my opinion, the most compelling reason to have special concern for certain people is that we have special responsibilities towards those people. This seems particularly compelling in the case of parent-child relationships. I believe that most people would accept that parents have an especially strong duty of care to their children, and that this duty often makes it morally permissible for parents to prioritise their own children's wellbeing over those of others, even if doing so fails to maximise overall wellbeing. Special responsibilities seem to exist in other relationships too, like those between partners, friends and other family members. Many feel that they also exist, albeit to a lesser extent, to one's peers, colleagues and local communities.

It's beyond the scope of this post to put forward a comprehensive account of how special responsibilities might arise, though plausible explanations often appeal to concepts of love, kindness and reciprocity. Nevertheless, a belief in the existence of these special responsibilities is widespread, and on the whole, acting in accordance with these responsibilities is considered morally virtuous. Therefore I believe this makes them moral commitments that we should not give up easily.

Longtermism #

According to the EA website's "Introduction to Longtermism", longtermism is "the view that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time." Specifically, the long-term future, means "something like the period from now to many thousands of years in the future, or much further still."

As I understand it, the value of impartial altruism underpins the most common argument for longtermism. As a reminder, impartial altruism requires that:

when trying to do as much good as possible, we aim to give everyone's interests equal weight, no matter where or when they live. This means focusing on the groups who are most neglected

Accordingly, the most common justification for longtermism holds that the interests of people in the future matter just as much as those of people in the present, and their interests are currently being neglected. Therefore, when trying to do as much good as possible, we should focus on the interests of people in the future.

However, if EAs accept that it is reasonable to have special concern for certain people over others, this leaves open the possibility that it is reasonable to have special concern for currently existing people over future people. And indeed, that is what many people strongly believe. I therefore think that the onus is on EAs to explain why it's reasonable for people to have special concern for friends, family and oneself over others, but not reasonable to have special concern for currently existing people over future people.

Typically EAs criticise future discounting in order to defend the idea that future people matter just as much as currently existing people. However, an argument for special concern need not be based on any notion of future discounting. As discussed above, a compelling argument for the reasonableness of special concerns is one based on the existence of special responsibilities to certain people. I personally find it extremely plausible that we could have special responsibilities to currently existing people that we do not have to future people. Therefore, in order for EAs to make a more compelling case for longtermism, I believe they need to convincingly articulate why it is reasonable to have special concerns for some people over others in a way that does not imply it is reasonable to have special concern for existing people over future people.


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