Aid Scepticism and Effective Altruism

by William_MacAskill2 min read3rd Jul 201913 comments


EA PhilosophyGlobal Health and Development

This is the first post in a short series where I share some academic articles on effective altruism I've written over the last couple of years. Hopefully, this is also the first in a longer series of posts over the summer where I try to share some of my thinking over the last year - for these, I'm aiming to lower my quality threshold, in order to ease the transmission of ideas and discussion from the research side of EA to the broader community, and to get some feedback.

In 2017, philosopher Larry Temkin gave the prestigious Uehiro Lectures at Oxford University, where he was critical of some aspects of effective altruism. I was invited to write a short critical commentary, which is now on-line here. (You might first want to read Larry's synopsis of his argument in the same volume to understand what I'm responding to; while you're there, Matt Clark and Theron Pummer's entry on effective altruism and each-we dilemmas is also very good. )

Here's my abstract: "In the article, ‘Being Good in a World of Need: Some Empirical Worries and an Uncomfortable Philosophical Possibility,’ Larry Temkin presents some concerns about the possible impact of international aid on the poorest people in the world, suggesting that the nature of the duties of beneficence of the global rich to the global poor are much more murky than some people have made out.

In this article, I’ll respond to Temkin from the perspective of effective altruism—one of the targets he attacks. I’ll argue that Temkin’s critique has little empirical justification, given the conclusions he wants to reach, and is therefore impotent."

This 'aid sceptic' objection to Singer's arguments has been commonly repeated in philosophers' discussion of that argument; I think it's quite badly misguided and hopefully this short article helps put that objection to rest. The general reason why I think the objection is misguided is given at the end of the article:

"Let me end with a comment about the nature of the broader dialectic regarding Singer’s argument for the conclusion that we in rich countries have strong duties of beneficence. Often, critics of Peter Singer focus on whether or not aid is effective. But that is fundamentally failing to engage with core of Singer’s argument. Correctly understood, that argument is about the ethics of buying luxury goods, not the ethics of global development. Even if it turned out that every single development program that we know of does more harm than good, that fact would not mean that we can buy a larger house, safe in the knowledge that we have no pressing moral obligations of beneficence upon us. There are thousands of pressing problems that call out for our attention and that we could make significant inroads on with our resources [...]

In order to show that Singer’s argument is not successful, one would need to show that for none of these problems can we make a significant difference at little moral cost to ourselves. This is a very high bar to meet. In a world of such suffering, of such multitudinous and variegated forms, often caused by the actions and policies of us in rich countries, it would be a shocking and highly suspicious conclusion if there were simply nothing that the richest 3% of the world’s population could do with their resources in order to significantly make the world a better place.

The core of Singer’s argument is the principle that, if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do so. We can. So we should."