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Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism by Prof Jeff McMahan

Background: I'm coming at this from the point of view of someone who thinks it is probably obligatory to give a chunk of one's money to GiveWell-type effective causes, but also thinks moral impartialism is probably false and misguided, and so feels unable to self-identify as an EA.

On tone:

I think the article does a great job of pointing out the contemptuous and disrespectful tone of many EA critics, especially on the philosophical side. I've also been guilty of this.

Corresponding things that I find frustrating on the EA side are the combination of

  • the idea that EA philosophy is "fairly obvious and uncontroversial" and that people might only conceivably disagree because "either they don’t put much of their effort into helping others, or they choose their approach purely on personal interest without doing proper research and comparing their different options first" (and the consequent tone), and

  • some level of ambiguity about what and how extreme "the" EA philosophy is. Clearly it is not just "putting a bunch of effort into helping others, based on proper research", otherwise moral impartialism wouldn't be a contentious issue. And it seems unclear whether, for example, caring especially for one's own family and friends is EA-immoral except on "cheerful giver"-type grounds (which feel a bit fudge-y to me).

On the arguments:

In short, according to those who criticize effective altruism by appealing to Williams’s objections to utilitarianism, the importance to oneself of one’s own projects and attachments limits the extent to which morality can demand that one provide assistance to others.

This interpretation of Williams' argument puts the anti-impartialist in the position of carving out a space for one's own projects and attachments against the impartial demands of morality. It is the so-called "demandingness objection" -- really more of a complaint.

I don't think this is a fair summary of most non-impartialist positions (including one or two of those cited by McMahan) which are not defending partialism from impartial morality, but defending partial morality from impartialism.

Here's a sketch of one possible partial take on morality:

Morality is most fundamentally about being a good person, rather than making the world better. "Good" is used here as an adjective rather than a noun, and doesn't refer to an agent-exchangeable quantity to maximize. Being a good person involves caring for others, especially one's neighbors and family, but also having some concern for those far away. It also involves justice, namely those qualities which help one live well with others, acknowledge oneself as one among many, etc. What it is to be a good person is determined by human nature, which is broadly shared by all people, and not only by the desires individuals happen to have.

Here's McMahan's argument in response to the demandingness objection:

But the problem with this claim is that, to the extent that it is plausible, it ought also to apply to other equally or more onerous demands that morality might be supposed to make. If my being me and having my own life can exempt me from the moral reason I might otherwise have to save someone unrelated to me (even though she is she, with her own life), it seems that these same facts should also exempt me from the moral reason I have not to kill this person if killing her were as important to me or my projects as avoiding having to save her is.

If I understand this right, it seems to be: ditch impartialism, and not only do you lose any reason to help unrelated people, you also lose any reason not to kill them.

But this is a non-starter if you believe you have partial moral reasons not to kill unrelated people (let alone to give to effective charities!).

Some related points:

  • For many consequentialists, impartiality is basically the determining feature of what counts as "moral", e.g. in de Lazari-Radek and Singer 2012. I can see why from this point of view it's hard not to see anti-impartialism in the "demandingness complaint" sense.
  • It's maybe not obvious how a partial view of morality avoids collapsing into "morality is whatever I happen to want" (cf. the term "egoism"). An analogy between goodness and health helps explain why such a collapse isn't necessary; people are often wrong or conflicted about being healthy.
  • I remember once interacting with someone who thought that utilitarianism just meant the idea that we should have VNM-consistent utility functions. When it was pointed out to them that it actually meant we should aggregate across agents, view things from the POV of the universe, etc., their immediate reaction was "that's ridiculous". I think non-consequentialist takes on ethics can seem similarly ridiculous from from a consequentialist point of view.