For me, basically every other question around effective altruism is less interesting than this basic one of moral obligation. (Scott Alexander)
In the spirit of focusing on the basic cruxes of EA, there's only one conclusion that I find repugnant. It goes as follows:
- P1: We should value outcomes according to the total welfare experienced in each outcome.
- P2: People in poor countries have more difficult and immiserating lives than people in rich countries.
- C1: A person in a poor country whose life is saved experiences less welfare than a person in a rich country whose life is saved.
- C2: All else equal, it is better to save the life of a rich country resident than a poor country resident.
All else equal is obviously an enormous caveat and the reason why in practice we do not actually prioritize interventions in the US over those in India. It is much cheaper and easier to save lives in poor countries, because the causes of death are more preventable.
But I find the conclusion disturbing nonetheless, and as far as I can tell, this is a conclusion of any strain of utilitarianism (except preference utilitarianism). If we could save a life in the US for the same cost as a life in India, would we really prioritize that because a life in the US is happier than a life in India? What if it cost slightly more?
These cross-country comparisons can get even more disturbing if you think about them more. Nick Beckstead:
"To take another example, saving lives in poor countries may have significantly smaller ripple effects (on the long-term future) than saving and improving lives in rich countries. Why? Richer countries have substantially more innovation, and their workers are much more economically productive. By ordinary standards—at least by ordinary enlightened humanitarian standards—saving and improving lives in rich countries is about equally as important as saving and improving lives in poor countries, provided lives are improved by roughly comparable amounts. But it now seems more plausible to me that saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country, other things being equal."
This is a different route to the same conclusion, and it's even less palatable. If we value saving lives instrumentally - as ripple effects for the far future, or as ways to deliver positive life experiences - then we cannot escape the conclusion that some lives are more valuable to save than others.
This is sometimes taken as an implication of the literature showing that under revealed preferences, poor countries have a lower value of statistical life (VSL) than rich countries. This is inaccurate: since VSL = (utility of life)/(utility of money), a low VSL can come from a low utility of life, or from a high utility of money in poor countries. Rather, this premise is more justified by subjective wellbeing measures. ↩︎
You can make a symmetric argument showing that it is better to save the life of an able-bodied person as opposed to a disabled person. That feels repugnant in the same ways as this argument does. ↩︎