Forum Final Response
July 1, 2015
With Responses From
Jul 1, 2015
6 Min read time
The most striking passage in these responses is Larissa MacFarquhar’s description of effective altruists being moved by the suffering of anonymous people, or by suffering in itself. This should dispel the myth that effective altruists are coldly calculating, lacking emotion.
At the same time, MacFarquhar worries that by encouraging people to donate not to the charity that researches a disease from which someone close to them has suffered but to the charity that will do the most good with their donation, effective altruism will “suppress emotional connection” and “crush their moral roots.” But effective altruists are concerned about consequences, so if this does happen, they will have to change tactics. Giving doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision. Someone whose child has died of leukemia might be encouraged to make a modest donation to leukemia research and a larger donation to a charity that is more effective because it helps children in developing countries.
Paul Brest’s support for effective altruism is also tempered by worries about its emotional toll. Yet the portrayal of effective altruism he takes from MacFarquhar’s Stanford lecture—“a young couple who live in total self-denial according to Singer’s mandate”—is at odds with the way the couple (who now have a child) see their lives. I asked Julia Wise, one half of the couple, to comment, and she wrote: “We don’t feel deprived—though we give half our income, the remaining half is still a princely sum by world standards. There’s plenty of room in that budget for the things that matter most to us, including raising our daughter.”
Most respondents, however, worry that effective altruism overestimates its ability to identify the most effective interventions and achieve positive, long-term outcomes.
In his book The Great Escape (2013), Angus Deaton writes some positive things about aid, including: “I think the case for aid to fight disease such as HIV/AIDS or smallpox is strong.” Here, however, he claims that evidence about the amount of good done by specific aid programs is “nearly always” in dispute. The science of assessing the impact of such programs is relatively new, and more and better studies should help. Deaton criticizes GiveWell’s recommendation of treating intestinal parasites in children, claiming that it is contrary to “the latest extensive review of the evidence by the Cochrane Collaboration,” but he fails to mention that GiveWell responded to the Cochrane Collaboration report and indicated why they believe it does not directly challenge their recommendations. Readers may judge for themselves who is right.
I am also puzzled by Deaton’s claim that in aid programs the poor are not asked to participate. As Saunders-Hastings notes, most of the charities recommended by effective altruists work in the health area, where they “do not pose significant tradeoffs between welfare promotion and respect for beneficiary choice.” Other programs, such as GiveDirectly’s cash grants to extremely poor families, are surely immune to accusations of denying beneficiary choice; no one is forced to accept the money or told how to spend it. The available data suggest that GiveDirectly’s grants are also effective in increasing welfare, thus rendering moot Saunders-Hastings’s difficult question about how we trade off beneficiary choice against welfare. Where that tradeoff cannot be avoided, I believe our answer should depend on the terms of each case.
Deaton, Daron Acemoglu, Iason Gabriel, and Jennifer Rubenstein all suggest that effective altruists are likely to neglect the large-scale political and economic reform that would treat the causes, rather than the symptoms, of poverty. It is true that we can’t assess such action by randomized trials, but if large-scale reform offers some prospect of reducing poverty, then effective altruists will try to assess its chance of doing good, and if the expected value of such action is higher than the expected value of more limited interventions, they will advocate working for the large-scale reforms.
The same point holds for Leila Janah’s suggestion that the most effective way of helping the poor is to support fair trade programs or start social businesses that are environmentally sustainable and pay a living wage. It holds as well for Rubenstein’s claim that once the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked, efforts to reduce poverty will succeed only if they work with and follow the lead of activists in poor countries. 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. In The Most Good You Can Do, I describe and recommend examples of advocacy work for the poor, some of it in conjunction with political activists in developing countries. It is not easy to assess the efficacy of such work. But as long as we can rank some interventions as having an expected value that is several times greater than other interventions that are currently being funded—and this is beyond dispute—effective altruists have an important role to play in helping people to do more good than they otherwise would.
In any case, if the objection to effective altruism is that it often takes a Band-Aid approach to poverty, treating its symptoms rather than its root causes, then we should not forget that sometimes we don’t know what the root causes of poverty are, and even should we come to know what some of them are, we may still be unable to change them. In those circumstances, treating the symptoms of poverty will be the best we can do—and we should not forget that this will mean saving lives, alleviating hunger or chronic malnutrition, eliminating parasites, providing education, helping women to control their fertility, and preserving sight. Not bad for Band-Aids.
Finally, several respondents raise suspicions about the politics of effective altruism.
András Miklós asks interesting questions about why effective altruism focuses only on the responsibilities of individuals. I agree that corporations have an important role to play in effective altruism.
Rob Reich asks whether effective altruists prefer technocracy to democracy, but it is no accident that Bentham and his utilitarian followers were leaders of the movement for democratic reform in Britain. Democracy helps to align the interests of the government with those of the governed. I don’t know how many effective altruists believe that democracy has intrinsic, rather than just instrumental, value; most likely some do and others do not. Iason Gabriel makes a similar point about justice, but again, there is no party line on these matters, and not all effective altruists will agree with Holden Karnofsky in allowing justice only instrumental value.
Catherine Tumber asserts that Matt Wage’s work “furthers the suffering of global have-nots.” Wage himself doesn’t think this is the case, so if Tumber knows better, she should tell us how she knows it. She also says that he is being “deskilled and degraded,” again without indicating why we should accept that view. Effective altruists require evidence for their views, which may be why Tumber finds them uncongenial. She makes it clear that she objects to effective altruists’ insistence on quantifying the amount of good done by the various options available to them. That implies that she would be willing to support a charity that, say, will prevent blindness in a small number of people even when the same resources donated to a different charity would prevent blindness in many more people. It is hard to know what to say about such a preference.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
July 01, 2015
6 Min read time