Hi all, I'm currently working on a contribution to a special issue of Public Affairs Quarterly on the topic of "philosophical issues in effective altruism". I'm hoping that my contribution can provide a helpful survey of common philosophical objections to EA (and why I think those objections fail)—the sort of thing that might be useful to assign in an undergraduate philosophy class discussing EA.
Effective altruism sounds so innocuous—who could possibly be opposed to doing good, more effectively? Yet it has inspired significant backlash in recent years. This paper addresses some common misconceptions, and argues that the core ideas of effective altruism are both excellent and widely neglected. Reasonable people may disagree on details of implementation, but every decent person should share the basic goals or values underlying effective altruism.
- Five objections to moral prioritization (including the systems critique)
- Earning to give
- Billionaire philanthropy
- Longtermism; and
- Political critique.
Given the broad (survey-style) scope of the paper, each argument is addressed pretty briefly. But I hope it nonetheless contains some useful insights. For example, I suggest the following "simple dilemma for those who claim that EA is incapable of recognizing the need for 'systemic change'":
Either their total evidence supports the idea that attempting to promote systemic change would be a better bet (in expectation) than safer alternatives, or it does not. If it does, then EA principles straightforwardly endorse attempting to promote systemic change. If it does not, then by their own lights they have no basis for thinking it a better option. In neither case does it constitute a coherent objection to EA principles.
On earning to give:
Rare exceptions aside, most careers are presumably permissible. The basic idea of earning to give is just that we have good moral reasons to prefer better-paying careers, from among our permissible options, if we would donate the excess earnings. There can thus be excellent altruistic reasons to pursue higher pay. This claim is both true and widely neglected. The same may be said of the comparative claim that one could easily have more moral reason to pursue "earning to give" than to pursue a conventionally "altruistic" career that more directly helps people. This comparative claim, too, is both true and widely neglected. Neither of these important truths is threatened by the deontologist's claim that one should not pursue an impermissible career. The relevant moral claim is just that the directness of our moral aid is not intrinsically morally significant, so a wider range of possible actions are potentially worth considering, for altruistic reasons, than people commonly recognize.
On billionaire philanthropy:
EA explicitly acknowledges the fact that billionaire philanthropists are capable of doing immense good, not just immense harm. Some find this an inconvenient truth, and may dislike EA for highlighting it. But I do not think it is objectionable to acknowledge relevant facts, even when politically inconvenient... Unless critics seriously want billionaires to deliberately try to do less good rather than more, it's hard to make sense of their opposing EA principles on the basis of how they apply to billionaires.
I still have time to make revisions -- and space to expand the paper if needed -- so if anyone has time to read the whole draft and offer any feedback (either in comments below, or privately via DM/email/whatever), that would be most welcome!
On page 27, you clarify that many concepts in the article are not core to EA, but are "specific ideas contingently associated with EA, such as earning to give and life-affirming longtermism" that could be rejected "while still embracing the core of effective altruism." I think it would be helpful to distinguish core commitments from non-core issues early on the article.
I would also consider toning down some of the strong rhetorical claims, like "every decent person." You'd need much more space to cover every potential objection to EA's philosophical underpinnings and potentially be able to substantiate this claim to that level of confidence. Moreover, the reader knows they are reading a journal volume on philosophical issues in EA, which implies that the journal editors at least think there are plausible philosophical criticisms. Likely the reader knows that other contributors have identified what they think are substantial philosophical problems, and some EA principles do not align with the assumptions a reader new to EA likely has.
All that is to say that I think a tone of "core concepts are obviously right, and no decent person would argue otherwise" would lead most neutral readers to conclude (1) that you're setting up strawmen, or (2) that you're defining the "core ideas" broadly enough to almost be truisms, leaving a lot of the heavy lifting to be done by unclearly-defined "details of implementation."
I think this paper is weak from the outset in similar ways to the entire philosophical project of EA overall. You start with the definition of EA as "the project of trying to find the best ways of helping others, and putting them into practice". In that definition "the best" means "the most effective", which is one of the ways in which EA arguments rhetorically load the dice. If I don't agree that the most effective way to help people (under EA definitions) is always and necessarily the best way to help people, then the whole paper is weakened. Essentially, one ends up preaching to the choir - which is fine if that's what one wants to do, of course.
I take issue with a number of the arguments in the paper, but I have no desire to respond to the entire thing. However I will focus on the part of the Moral Prioritisation section that quotes Mark Goldring of Oxfam - not because I'm a fan of him or Oxfam, which I am not, but because your misinterpretation of his position is quite illustrative. You claim that "Goldring seems to be implying that so long as we help some children in each country, it does not matter how many children we end up abandoning", but this is not the argument or an i... (read more)
How far are you willing to push this? Presumably, you wouldn't educate 1 child in South Sudan and 10 in Bangladesh, rather than 0 in Sudan and 10 000 in Bangladesh, just so that you can say South Sudan hasn't been abandoned? So exactly how many more children have to go without education before you say "that's too many more" and switch to one country? What could justify a particular cut-off?
The premise that a naive utilitarian calculus that abstracts and dehumanises individuals by presenting them as numbers in an equation unmoored from reality is a useful or ethical way to frame the question of how "best" to help people. As I've said in another comment, the trolley problem was meant as a stimulus to discussion, not as a guide for making policy decisions around public transport systems.
EDIT: I realise that this description may come across as harsh on a forum populated almost entirely by utilitarians, but I felt that it was important to be clear about the exact nature of my objection. My position is that I agree that utilitarianism should be a tool in our ethical toolkit, but I disagree that it is the tool that we should reach for exclusively, or even first of all.
Can you mention some places where you think he has strawmanned people and what you think the correct interpretation of them is?
Any chance we can have a google doc version to read/comment on?
Actually, on reading the passage you quote Goldring again I think you have been uncharitable to him. The passage says 'Goldring says it would be wrong to apply the EA philosophy to all of Oxfam’s programmes because it could mean excluding people who most need the charity’s help.'
That could be read as expressing not the idea that more people in total get abandoned on EA views, which is indeed confused, but rather the (fairly philosophically mainstream!) prioritarian idea that all things being equal it is better to help people the worse off they currently ar... (read more)
Thanks for writing this! My sense from talking to non-EAs about longtermism is that most buy into asymmetric views of population ethics. I'm not sure what you say here will be very reassuring to them:... (read more)
I think the claim that your view doesn't license replaceability because it prioritizes currently existing people is a bit misleading. Unless the priority is infinite, there is presumably some level of well-being at which you swap (i.e. kill) all current people for a population with higher well-being at the same size. 'Oh, but not if they're just a little higher' doesn't seem that comforting. Of course, as you say in a footnote, you can appeal to side constraints here, but if you think side constraints can be overridden when the stakes are high enough (i.e.... (read more)
"Unless critics seriously want billionaires to deliberately try to do less good rather than more, it's hard to make sense of their opposing EA principles on the basis of how they apply to billionaires."
I don't think the only alternative to wanting billionaires to actively try to do good is that you would be arguing for the obviously foolish idea that they should be trying to do less good. There might be many reasons you would not want to promote the ideas of billionaires 'doing more good'. E.g., you believe they have an inordinate amount of power and in ac... (read more)
Yes, they're hostile to utilitarianism and to some extent agent-neutrality in general, but the account of "EA principles" you give earlier in the paper is much broader.
Critics like Crary and Srinivasan (and this particular virtue-ethicsy line of critique should not be conflated wi... (read more)
Big fan of Good Thoughts :)
I'd love to edit/help! Is there a rough date that you'd want edits by?
~ Saul Munn