A Defense of Effective Altruism

Akash MehtaAugust 11, 2016HappinessFeatures
A Defense of Effective Altruism

Americans donated over $350 billion to charity in 2014.

That’s a staggeringly large amount of money, especially considering that over 70% of it was donated by individuals. And yet, according to The Life You Can Save, “only 3% of people donate based on the relative performance of a nonprofit organization.” When most of us choose which groups to contribute to, we do so without considering whether there are other groups that could make more of an impact with our dollars.

The Life You Can Save, along with organizations like GiveWell, Giving What You Can, and 80,000 Hours, believes that the vast majority of philanthropic donations are doing far, far less than they could. According to their research, a donation to some charities can have as much as a thousand times as much impact as an equal donation to others. These organizations are part of the growing effective altruist movement, which seeks to redress what it sees as immensely wasteful “inefficiency” in philanthropy. Effective altruist organizations work to empirically measure which charities are most effective and encourage donors to direct their dollars accordingly.

Effective altruism is a practical application of utilitarianism, the philosophical theory that the best action, morally speaking, is the one that maximizes “utility” — which, for many utilitarians, is roughly synonymous with happiness. Ever since this theory was first proposed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1789, it has attracted vehement debate and criticism. So it is hardly surprising that many (in both philosophical and philanthropic circles) have objected to the effective altruist movement. The conversation among these thinkers is deeply relevant not only to the study of altruism, but also to the philosophy of happiness itself.

How Do Effective Altruists Make Their Calculations?

The argument that unfortunately constitutes the heart of most opposition to effective altruism is that effective altruists are miscalculating which charities are most effective. For instance, a critic might raise objections to the Against Malaria Foundation, which many effective altruists currently recommend sponsoring, and might argue that there are far more effective causes to support. But effective altruists welcome debate over which are the most rewarding avenues of philanthropy. None claim that we have reached a perfect or even near-perfect resolution to the debate, and few believe that we ever will. Indeed, debating effectiveness is a fundamental component of the theory itself, as it helps identify ways to achieve greater and greater levels of efficiency in our giving. As utilitarian philosopher and effective altruist Peter Singer writes, “Effective altruism cannot be refuted by evidence that some other strategy will be more effective than the one effective altruists are using, because effective altruists will then adopt that strategy.” Effective altruism’s prescriptions will always be contested and amended; its doctrine is not static but dynamic and self-improving.

Some have also criticized effective altruism for embracing the status quo and focusing on the symptoms, not the causes, of global inequality and injustice. In a widely read article published in the London Review of Books, English philosopher Amia Srinivasan raises this point, but also notes "there is no principled reason why effective altruists should endorse the worldview of the benevolent capitalist. Since effective altruism is committed to whatever would maximize the social good, it might for example turn out to support anti-capitalist revolution."

She goes on to describe a sect of effective altruists that attempts to evaluate the impacts of efforts, usually in the realm of political advocacy, to procure what they call “systemic change.” But can we really measure how such sweeping change will make us happy? “How,” she asks, “would we go about quantifying the consequences of radically reorganizing society?”

I agree that the more far reaching an action is, the more difficult it is for an effective altruist to evaluate its consequences. And Srinivasan is correct in saying, “the more uncertain the figures, the less useful the calculation, and the more we end up relying on a commonsense understanding of what’s worth doing.” But most effective altruists freely admit that the calculation is a tool serving our commonsense understanding, not the other way around. It is only after our intuitions supply us with a sense of the “good” that reason supplies us with a means to evaluate how best to produce the most good.

Effective altruists fully support more research and thought on the impact of revolutionary societal change, instead of merely sticking with their gut instincts. If an effective altruist believed that with the current (or even maximal) level of understanding that this impact cannot be meaningfully determined, then she would be perfectly content with simply putting a question mark next to it. Critics argue that this means effective altruists end up basing decisions on subjective intuitions and gut reactions. But this is no more a challenge to the fundamental theory of effective altruism than the fact that scientists don’t know whether or not there was ever life on Venus is to astrophysics. Effective altruism is above all a method for approaching ethical questions, especially charity, and not a way to guarantee certainty about them.

Let’s look at a specific example. In her article, Srinivasan asks, “do we really need a sophisticated model to tell us that … the American prison system needs fixing?” To Srinivasan, the horrible condition of the American prison system is patently obvious. And yet, if challenged by one of the many American conservatives who disagree, how would Srinivasan defend that belief? Why, by invoking research that shows how the prison system unfairly discriminates against African-Americans, is counterproductive in its stated mission of preventing crime, incurs huge economic productivity losses, etc.

The prison system only needs fixing because of the suffering — the loss of happiness and wellbeing — it incurs. That suffering can only be shown through the kind of research effective altruists promote. Indeed, if an effective altruist was presented with conclusive evidence that the prison system was a force for good in the world, she would reverse her position on the issue immediately. An altruist who objected to the prison system on principle, or who thought its injustice so obvious that she refused to consider the relevant empirical research, would be far less likely to do the same. Thus, Srinivasan is on shaky grounds when later in her article she attacks effective altruism for “its susceptibility to being used to tell us exactly what we want to hear” — with its strict adherence to rationality and empiricism, effective altruism is arguably the least susceptible to that particular weakness of any theory of giving.

Is Effective Altruism Absurd?

Other attacks on effective altruism are less easily refuted. Some have argued that when its logic is fully carried out, effective altruism seems to lead to absurdity. Srinivasan, for example, refers to the earnest beliefs of some Silicon Valley effective altruists that putting all of our resources into furthering Artificial Intelligence research is necessary to “stop the robot apocalypse.” Why? Because it has an expected impact billions of times greater than everything else, including, say, curing cancer. These effective altruists argue that, even if there’s a 0.0000001% chance of robots ever exterminating humans, such a scenario would deprive the world of all future human beings. In other words, a donor would be better advised to donate to efforts combating the outlandish “robot apocalypse” than efforts to cure cancer.

Since we’re interested in evaluating the theory of effective altruism and not its application, let’s assume that the math is correct and the evidence really does say there’s an enormous expected impact of investing in preemptive measures against super-intelligent robots. What then?

One answer is to “bite the bullet,” and to divert all philanthropic funds to Artificial Intelligence research. Such a brazen decision seems absurd, of course. But that should hardly be surprising. Our intuitions are not “evolutionarily trained” for science fiction-esque scenarios like the robot apocalypse. So it’s to be expected that the rational course of action will not jibe with our moral instincts; those instincts are useful for situations similar to the ones we’ve been facing for millennia, but not for hypothetical rebellions of super intelligent machines.

Another answer would be to dispute the goals of this segment of the effective altruist movement. Specifically, it is by no means evident that we should value future life as highly as we do life in the present. Maybe we ought to focus on our own problems in the here and now, and let people in the distant future worry about theirs. Perhaps the indeterminacy of future life, and the lack of any living people personally invested in its existence, should factor into our calculations.

A less satisfying but more practical approach might be to simply refuse to take effective altruism to extremes. In Singer’s essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,”a classic text of utilitarianism, he presents both a “strong version” and a “moderate version” of his argument. In the strong version, he argues that "We ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility — that is, the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift. This would mean, of course, that one would reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee."

To paraphrase: we should give until we’re as poor as the people we’re giving to. In the moderate version, however, he advocates only that “we should prevent bad occurrences unless, to do so, we had to sacrifice something morally significant.” Singer believes that, rationally speaking, it would be best if we followed the strong version, but he’s also perfectly aware that neither he nor anyone else will fully do so. Instead of bemoaning human immorality and weakness of will, Singer understands that moving closer to the ideal is infinitely preferable to throwing up our hands and doing nothing at all. Similarly, we might use the methodology of effective altruism when it comes to comparing the impacts of two health-providing charities, but discard it when our intuition tells us it has gone too far. In other words, we might hand over the reins to our intuition before the point of absurdity, but keep them firmly in the hands of rationality until then.

Is Effective Altruism Heartless?

Some philosophers claim that effective altruism is heartless. Among these is Srinivasan, who suggests that effective altruism forces donors to perform a form of triage to prevent the most deaths, unfairly ignoring other patients who also clearly need urgent treatment.. However, the burden is on her to prove that we shouldn’t think of ourselves this way, given that in a very literal sense, when we donate dollars, we are choosing one possible recipient over another. She attempts to do so with the following reasoning: "arbitrariness come[s] to mean something else, ethically speaking, when it is constitutive of our personal experience: when it becomes embedded in the complex structure of commitments, affinities, and understandings that comprise social life … What is required [in effective altruism] is impersonal, ruthless decision-making, heart firmly reined in by the head. This is not our everyday sense of the ethical life; such notions as responsibility, kindness, dignity, and moral sensitivity will have to be radically reimagined if they are to survive the scrutiny of the universal gaze."

Let’s unpack this argument. First, she defends making ethical decisions based on arbitrary personal circumstances. On the one hand, this feels very natural — it would seem wrongheaded to criticize a mother for spending more on her child than someone else’s child, regardless of whether the unrelated child needed the money more. This again appears to take effective altruism to an extreme. On the other hand, permitting individuals to value some groups of people over others is a slippery slope. Presumably, Srinivasan would not condone a racist white altruist who, out of a sense of personal connection, only gave to charities working with white children. And surely she would hesitate to endorse an altruist from Holmby Hills (the U.S.’s richest neighborhood), who, out of an affinity for the community in which she grew up, only gave to charities working in the area.

Second, Srinivasan complains that effective altruism is cold and heartless, and divorces morality from “such notions as responsibility, kindness, dignity, and moral sensitivity.” Essentially, she believes that it turns human suffering and joy into mere abstractions, which are rationally evaluated but not emotionally felt. While I have no doubt that there are some effective altruists who may fit this description, as a theory, effective altruism is quite the opposite of heartless. Instead, it expands the definition of all the values Srinivasan lists: it urges us to be responsible as humans, not merely as members of a particular group; to show kindness to all, not just to those we encounter in our day to day lives; to respect the dignity of the unheard and unseen just as highly as the familiar; to challenge ourselves to become more morally sensitive to the plight of all of humanity, and all of life. Effective altruism is how we act with more generosity, more compassion, and more love than we ever knew — or felt — we could.


Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy and Public Affairs. Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243. http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm.

Singer, Peter. “Forum: The Logic of Effective Altruism. Boston Review.” July 1, 2015. http://bostonreview.net/forum/logic-effective-altruism/peter-singer-reply-effective-altruism-responses.

Srinivasan, Amia. “Stop the Robot Apocalypse.” London Review of Books. Vol. 37, No. 18 (September 24, 2015), pp. 3-6. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n18/amia-srinivasan/stop-the-robot-apocalypse

Akash Viswanath Mehta is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He is deeply interested in politics, literature, and mathematics. He’s also the founder of Kids for a Better Future, an organization of teens in New York City, supporting less fortunate children around the world.