The Ethics of Giving Part Three: Jeff McMahan on Whether One May Donate to an Ineffective Charity

bykbog10mo10th Aug 20184 comments


A review and critique of the third section of the volume The Ethics of Giving: Philosophers' Perspectives on Philanthropy, edited by Paul Woodruff, with an emphasis on issues relevant to the decision making of Effective Altruists.

Jeff McMahan writes about whether or not it is permissible to donate to a suboptimal charity. He attacks a basic tension in the views defended by several preceding philosophers: that it is permissible to be selfish, and nice to donate to the best charity, but *wrong* to donate to an ineffective charity. The prima facie contradiction should be obvious. How is it that my actions go from being permissible to being impermissible as they become more generous and more beneficial?

But in defense of that view, other authors have provided some reasonably compelling thought experiments. Suppose that I can do nothing or, at great cost to myself, I can save a man from losing either one or both of his arms. It seems reasonable to say that I can do nothing, as part of the general idea that morality doesn't demand us to sacrifice all the time. And it seems reasonable to say that saving both the man's arms at great personal cost would be praiseworthy and supererogatory. But to accept the same personal cost and yet only save one of the man's arms just seems perverse.

McMahan argues extensively about this and other thought experiments to show that the analogy fails to apply to charity. Once we revise such thought experiments to be similar in structure to donations, we no longer find them to be compelling. But McMahan never addresses a much more simple solution to these arguments, which is to deny that the selfish option is permissible in the first place. McMahan briefly mentions this as a potential response:

"A different strategy for effective altruists is to try to develop a robust defense of the demandingness of morality, according to which much less of doing good is supererogatory than we have hitherto supposed."

The way he presents it is odd: given the basic demanding arguments of consequentialism, Singer's demanding argument which formed the basis for the EA movement, the demanding donation practices of many EAs, and the fact there are good existing arguments against the demandingness objection, I would think that this should be treated as the default position. McMahan's argument can be taken to show that it's much more plausible than the mindset held by some EAs, which is that it's a free personal decision whether you want to give a lot of money to charity, but that that money must then be given to an effective one.