Does anyone understand this criticism? https://www.oxfordpublicphilosophy.com/blog/letter-to-a-young-philosopher-dont-become-an-effective-altruiststrong-strong? For me it sounds way too abstract, although ironically that article criticizes the 'abstract' moral epistemology of EA. Curious about your thoughts.
I also found this (ironically) abstract. There are more than enough philosophers on this board to translate this for us, but I think it might be useful to give it a shot and let somebody smarter correct the misinterpretations.
The author suggests that the "radical" part of EA is the idea that we are just as obligated to help a child drowning in a faraway pond as in a nearby one:
The morally radical suggestion is that our ability to act so as to produce value anywhere places the same moral demands on us as does our ability to produce value in our immediate practical circumstances
She notes that what she sees as the EA moral view excludes "virtue-oriented" or subjective moral positions, and lists several views (e.g. "Kantian constructivist") that are restricted if one takes what she sees as the EA moral view. She maintains that such views, which (apparently) have a long history at Oxford, have a lot to offer in the way of critique of EA.
In a nutshell, EA focuses too much on what it can measure, and what it can measure are incrementalist approaches that ignores the "structural, political roots of global misery." The author says that the EA responses to this criticism (that even efforts at systemic change can be evaluated and judged effective) are fair. She says that these responses constitute a claim that the institutional critique is a criticism of how closely EA hews to its tenets, rather than of the tenets themselves. She disagrees with this claim.
This critique holds that EAs basically misunderstand what morality is-- that the point of view of the universe is not really possible. The author argues that attempting to take this perspective actively "deprives us of the very resources we need to recognise what matters morally"-- in other words, taking the abstract view eliminates moral information from our reasoning.
The author lists some of the features of the worldview underpinning the philosophical critique. Acting rightly includes:
acting in ways that are reflective of virtues such as benevolence, which aims at the well-being of others
acting, when appropriate, in ways reflective of the broad virtue of justice, which aims at an end—giving people what they are owed—that can conflict with the end of benevolence
In a case in which it is not right to improve others’ well-being, it makes no sense to say that we produce a worse result. To say this would be to pervert our grasp of the matter by importing into it an alien conception of morality ... There is here simply no room for EA-style talk of “most good.”
So in this view there are situations in which morality is more expansive than the improvement of others' well-being, and taking the abstract view eliminates these possibilities.
The philosophical-institutional critique
The author combines the philosophical and institutional critiques. The crux of this view seems to be that large-scale social problems have an ethical valence, and that it's basically impossible to understand or begin to rectify them if you take the abstract (god's eye) view, which eliminates some of this useful information:
Social phenomena are taken to be irreducibly ethical and such that we require particular modes of affective response to see them clearly ... Against this backdrop, EA’s abstract epistemological stance seems to veer toward removing entirely it from the business of social understanding.
This critique maintains that it's the methodological tools of EA ("economic modes of reasoning") that block understanding, and articulates part of the worldview behind this critique:
Underlying this charge is a very particular diagnosis of our social condition. The thought is that the great social malaise of our time is the circumstance, sometimes taken as the mark of neoliberalism, that economic modes of reasoning have overreached so that things once rightly valued in a manner immune to the logic of exchange have been instrumentalised.
In other words, the overreach of economic thinking into moral philosophy is a kind of contamination that blinds EA to important moral concerns.
Finally, the author contends that EA's framework constrains "available moral and political outlooks," and ties this to the lack of diversity within the movement. By excluding more subjective strains of moral theory, EA excludes the individuals who "find in these traditions the things they most need to say." In order for EA to make room for these individuals, it would need to expand its view of morality.
The idea that she and some other nonconsequentialist philosophers have is that if you care less about faraway people's preferences and welfare, and care more about stuff like moral intuitions, "critical race theory" and "Marxian social theory" (her words), then it's less abstract. But as you can see here, they're still doing complicated ivory tower philosophy that ordinary people do not pick up. So it's a rather particular definition of the term 'abstract'.
Let's be clear: you do not have to have abstract moral epistemology to be an EA. You can ignore theoretical utilitarianism, and ignore all the abstract moral epistemology in that letter, and just commit yourself to making the world better through a basic common-sense understanding of effectiveness and the collective good, and that can be EA. If anyone's going to do philosophical gatekeeping for who can or can't count as an EA, it'll be EAs, not a philosopher who doesn't even understand the movement.
My idea of EA's essential beliefs are:
- Some possible timelines are much better than others
- What "feels" like the best action often won't result in anything close to the best possible timeline
- In such situations, it's better to disregard our feelings and go with the actions that get us closer to the best timeline.
This doesn't commit you to a particular moral philosophy. You can rank timelines by whatever aspects you want: Your moral rule can tell you to only consider your own actions, and disregard their effects on the behaviour of other people's actions. I could consider such a person to be an effective altruist, even though they'd be a non-consequentialist. While I think it's fair to say that, after the above beliefs, consequentialism is fairly core to EA, I think the whole EA community could switch away from consequentialism without having to rebrand itself.
The critique targets effective altruists’ tendency to focus on single actions and their proximate consequences and, more specifically, to focus on simple interventions that reduce suffering in the short term.
But she also says EA has a "god’s eye moral epistemology". This seems contradictory. Even if we suppose that most EAs focus on proximate consequences, that's not a fundamental failing of the philosophy, it's a failed application of it. If many fail to accurately implement the philosophy, it doesn't imply the philosophy bad: There's a difference between a "criterion of right" and a "decision procedure". Many EAs are longtermists who essentially use entire timelines as the unit of moral analysis. This is clearly is not focused on "proximate consequences". That's more the domain of non-consequentialists (e.g. "Are my actions directly harming anyone?").
The article's an incoherent mess, even ignoring the Communist nonsense at the end.
This is in contrast with a policies being bad because no one can implement them with the desired consequences. ↩︎