My Problem with Effective Altruism

Article originally appeared at Philanthropy Daily – dated September 7, 2017

Effective altruism is a topic I’ve never directly addressed in a Philanthropy Daily post. I’ve written about Peter Singer, whose ideas drive Effective Altruism, several times, most recently here. But my colleagues Scott Walter and William Schambra have written about the Effective Altruists on various occasions. Here’s a post Scott Walter wrote about the effective altruists and here is one by William Schambra.

As I understand Effective Altruism, whose creator is Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, you have 80,000 hours in your working life, and your goal is to make as much money as you can so you can give away as much as you can.

So it’s a good idea to become a management consultant or a lawyer, and sock away tons of money to spend it on causes effective altruists like, such as fighting malaria in Africa.

Scott Walter notes that there’s apparently a raging debate in the Effective Altruist movement about whether or not it is morally acceptable to have children, since babies take time, money, and attention that could be spent on philanthropy. William Schambra compares Effective Altruism against “philanthrolocalism” and argues that Effective Altruism is the top of a slippery slope that leads to eugenics.

Finally, Effective Altruists are leftists, but never talk about politics because, well, that wouldn’t be scientific, would it?

I’ll offer my thoughts at the end, but what prompts me to write about Effective Altruism is this post by Dr. Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist, whose blog, Slate Star Codex, is very popular. In it, Dr. Alexander writes about the Effective Altruism convention, which he attended and wrote about this summer.

The most interesting news from the conference is that some animal rights activists have finally realized that screaming “Meat is murder!” as loudly as they can does not persuade anyone to become a vegetarian. Given that animal rights activists have always been the loudest and nastiest virtue signalers, this is a pleasant development.

They had a presentation by Bruce Friedrich, director of the Good Food Institute which is trying to develop fake meat that is as tasty as a good burger. The institute has gotten money and an endorsement by Bill Gates, although it seems that here Gates is an investor rather than a donor.

I looked at the Good Food Institute website and don’t have any problem with most of what they do. As someone who has eaten canned vegetarian hot dogs and regretted it, I know there’s a lot of room for development in this field. Maybe they’ll actually come up with products people buy because they like them. Let the market decide.

Also present was the Qualia Research Institute whose theory, as I understand it, is that there are times in our lives when we’re really happy—after doing exercise, or being given a present you didn’t expect but that you thoroughly enjoyed. Would it be possible to engineer your brain so that endorphins and other happiness drugs naturally generated by the brain could be increased? That’s what the institute is trying to do.

I’ll skip over the other non-philanthropic activities of this conference. But I’d like to spend a little space discussing the Open Philanthropy Project. This group is an LLC headed by Cari Tuna, but it makes grants through a donor-advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which means that, if I was so inclined, I could call it “dark money” because, as everyone knows, when liberals use donor-advised funds, they do so for selfless heroic reasons while conservatives only have malign intent for keeping their donations anonymous.

The Open Philanthropy Project specializes in animal rights grants and criminal justice reform, including two grants of $200,000 and $220,000 to the American Conservative Union Foundation to support the efforts of Pat Nolan in criminal-justice reform (which I wrote about here).

The difference is that they publish all the internal memos about grants other foundations keep secret. This means you can find out which grantee they believe will produce conferences that “incentivize high epistemic quality,” and if you know what that means, you must have a degree in nonprofit management.

I’d say Effective Altruism does do some positive things.

The charities vetted by GiveWell are probably good ones, and 80,000 Hours does seem to give good career advice. I also bet that attendees at the Effective Altruism conference have more fun than those attending the Council on Foundations annual meeting.

But my problem with Effective Altruism is that it’s very limiting. Consider these grants and whether they’re a good idea:

  1. Giving money to a nonprofit that recruits volunteers in your city to help inner-city children read.
  2. Giving money to a nonprofit that helps talented young people complete their first novel, painting, or film.
  3. Giving money to organizations interested in space exploration.
  4. Giving money to the Against Malaria Foundation to buy nets to protect people in Africa against mosquitoes.

From what I read about GiveWell  they only find alternative #4 acceptable. That’s because they think they have discovered the one best way to give and consider all other forms of aid suspect.

But the problem is that there is no one best way to give and giving is an art, not a science that can be defined by firm and inflexible rules and derived from axioms everyone accepts.

Pretending giving is a science does not make it a science.

I also question the calculus that the only way to give is to give the greatest good to the greatest number. Effective Altruism seems to me to be a cold and joyless way to give. It denies the giver the personal joy that comes when they help another person that they know.

If people want to give to the charities vetted by GiveWell, well, good for them. But Effective Altruists confine themselves to a small corner of a wide world.

Tags: Philanthropy

Martin Morse Wooster

Wooster is senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’ (Capital Research…
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  • Michael Dello

    Thank you for writing this Martin. I agree with some of what you say, but will focus on what I disagree with. In particular, I think you have misrepresented several crucial aspects, and I feel compelled to correct them lest some reader get the wrong impression of effective altruism.

    You say that “your goal is to make as much money as you can so you can give away as much as you can”. This is a drastic oversimplification. If you are an altruist, your goal should be to ‘do as much good as you can over the course of your life’. People disagree often on what exactly they mean by ‘good’, but generally the goal should be the same. (I’ll put my cards on the table and say that I’m a utilitarian, so I care mostly about suffering and wellbeing, but won’t spend much time there)

    Given this goal, there are many ways to achieve this. Let us be clear, there are some ways that will be objectively better than others, even if we don’t know what they are. It is trivial to come up with examples. You say “But the problem is that there is no one best way to give and giving is an art, not a science that can be defined by firm and inflexible rules and derived from axioms everyone accepts.” Depending on your definition of ‘good’, some ways of giving just are better than others. Would you rather give to a charity that saves 1 life with your donation, or 100 lives? With the likes of GiveWell, we can more easily make charitable decisions based on evidence, rather than guesswork and our emotions.

    80,000 Hours believe that there are a number of ways to do good through your life. This might include taking a high impact career in research, going into politics or advocacy or many others. They suggest that one often overlooked but highly effective means of doing good is to take a high paying career to donate a lot to effective charities. This isn’t the best path for everyone, as it takes a certain skillset and mindset. But for some, this could be the most effective means for them to achieve their goal of doing good.

    To my knowledge, 80,000 Hours (no personal affiliation) has never said that the only and best means of doing good is to “become a management consultant or a lawyer, and sock away tons of money to spend it on causes effective altruists like”. You were either not aware of this, or you are deliberately misleading your readers.

    You say that “…my problem with Effective Altruism is that it’s very limiting”. I disagree entirely. The premise of effective altruism is to do as much good as possible with our limited time and resources. That’s it. There are no limitations. There are some causes and charities that effective altruists and associated organisations have suggested are particularly effective, but there is no reason they can’t be proven wrong tomorrow if a new and more effective cause or charity comes along. If someone thinks that there will never be a more effective charity than the one they are currently supporting, they aren’t being a very good effective altruist.

    I think you are confusing optimisation with limitation. If you are seeking to maximise the good you can do, you might apply an expected value to each action you can take, or each charity you can support. Inevitably, one of these charities will have the highest expected value, even if by a small amount. It would be irrational to then support some other charity over that one, unless you have good reason to do so. This is not a limitation any more than it would be to pick a strong scientific theory (the Earth is roughly round) over a weak one (the Earth is flat). We have to make decisions somehow, and we may as well use what evidence we have to do so.

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  • @johngthomas

    A silly piece, but not as silly as the ridiculous critiques by Scott Walker and William Schambra that the author links to. They parrot the worst excesses of Peter Singer’s conservative moralist opponent’s whose failure to understand Singer’s well reasoned positions is evident when they equate his support for euthanasia with Nazi euthanasia. As so often happens, no attempt is made to fairly represent Singer’s nuanced and carefully reasoned arguments. Instead they opt for the ultimate strawmanning of an opponent’s position – Nazi Germany!

    Walker even launches an ad hominem attack on the character of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of secular utilitarianism, who from the 1780s campaigned for the abolition of slavery, against racism, for universal suffrage, for equal rights for women, for laws against cruelty to animals, for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, in favor of progressive taxation, in favor of social welfare, in favor of democracy, in favor of public education and in support of public health care. These views were incredibly radical for his time, but they are now conventional wisdom in many first world democracies. Sadly, too many conservatives still haven’t caught up with Bentham’s enlightened thinking across issues like homosexuality, animal cruelty, social welfare and public health care.

    This piece does not do justice to the effective altruism movement. Calling the movement “leftist” is another flimsy ad hominem. The political leanings of effective altruists, which varies from person to person, are irrelevant.

    More fundamentally, the effective altruism movement does not depend on any particular ethical theory. Not all effective altruists are utilitarians, and attacking the whole movement by cherry picking some positions put by some effective altruists is dishonest or confused. Effective altruists don’t all think with one mind. The thing that they agree on is the simple principle that, in deciding how to make the world a better place, we should consider the effectiveness of our actions. You don’t need to be a utilitarian to understand that spending $30,000 to train one guide dog for one person who is blind and will remain blind is much less effective than spending the same amount of money restoring the sight of three hundred people who are blind. It’s a no brainer, and it’s mystery to me why some people, like the author of this piece, still don’t get it.

    • Walker?

      • @johngthomas

        Scott Walker, one of the two people referred to as a “colleague” by the author in the first paragraph. You can see Walker’s confused piece, also linked in the first paragraph, here:

        • Scott Walker is the governor of Wisconsin, not the author you belittle.

          • @johngthomas

            No, the world contains more than one Scott Walker. The one I am referring to is the author of the piece I linked to in my previous reply to you. Check it out.

          • Still not getting it, I see. Look at the byline this time.

          • @johngthomas

            Please work on your reading comprehension skills Matthew Vadum. This is becoming painful.

          • Yes it is. You are embarrassing yourself. The article was written by Scott Walter, not Scott Walker. T and K are different letters of the alphabet. If you’re going to criticize someone, at least get his name right.

          • @johngthomas

            Ok, if you had pointed that out at the beginning we could have saved time. I agree that it was Scott Walter, not Scott Walker.