Is Effective Altruism Effective?
Effective Altruism is a global movement to promote efficient philanthropy.
Propelled by Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save and William MacAskill’s 80,000 hours, the movement argues that individuals have a moral obligation to give as much as they can. Effective altruists urge donors to use science and evaluation to determine which action is morally best—defined as helping the largest number of people possible.
Effective altruism is increasingly popular with scientists, philosophers, and donors around the globe. Yet the movement has been criticised by many activists and aid workers.
Is effective altruism just?
The desire to maximise good may lead some effective altruists to overlook those with the greatest need. The extremely poor, disabled people, and those who are disadvantaged in multiple ways are comparatively costly to help because their problems tend to be complex.
Further, some effective altruists may endorse actions that benefit many but carry a heavy cost for a few. For example, they may perceive sweat shops to be morally defensible because they provide cheap and abundant goods to many around the world, even though they are harmful to workers.
Some critics consider effective altruism to be unjust when it overlooks severe need and endorses projects that benefit many at the expense of a few.
Is the measurement of effectiveness appropriate?
Effective altruists seek an evidence-base for the impact of their giving. They generally favour data that is quantifiable and measureable in the short term.
This sounds great, but actually presents some challenges.
Effective altruists put special stock in randomised, controlled trials, a famously robust method of scientific investigation. These trials, however, are costly. Many charities cannot afford to run them. This has lead effective altruists to disproportionately endorse medical interventions, where funding for such trials has been forthcoming.
These trials work best on small, containable solutions. Mosquito nets, for example, can be randomly allocated to some individuals, and infection rates are easy to measure. However, many of the world’s greatest problems—like education, food production, water quality, and human rights—cannot be solved with a simple product.
Important solutions may be overlooked by effective altruists because they are harder to evaluate with preferred quantifiable methods.
Does effective altruism help people in the long-term?
Critics claim that effective altruists focus disproportionately on tangible solutions but fail to consider the wider socio-political landscape that creates and perpetuates human suffering.
First, focusing on personal charity as the solution to systemic inequality may lead some effective altruists to overlook their privilege and the benefits they receive from the political and economic systems that oppress the global poor.
Campaigning and sustained advocacy are required to change many of the systems that oppress people. Effective altruism, with its focus on doing the most good, is cause-neutral. This means that effective altruists may be less likely to sustain focus on a given issue long enough for real change to occur.
Focusing on technical approaches and cost-benefit analyses, effective altruists may prefer to send dependency-oriented help (a total solution to a problem) rather than autonomy-oriented help (the tools and skills people need to help themselves). Rather than lifting people out of poverty and hardship, dependency-oriented help may actually perpetuate a reliance on aid in the long-term.
When beneficiaries take charge, they develop self-esteem and a sense of control over their lives. Communities that develop their own solutions also care more about maintaining change over time. Unfortunately, it is much more expensive and time-consuming to up-skill local community members to drive solutions forward than to provide outside experts who are already trained.
Taken together, these concerns suggest effective altruists may be less likely to recognise the systemic sources of suffering. They may also be less willing to offer aid that brings about sustainable change.
So, is effective altruism effective?
The effective altruism movement has been inspiring to many and has motivated a groundswell of generosity that is wonderful to see. Yet, some claim that effective altruism is unjust, methodologically flawed, and fails to address systemic sources of poverty and oppression.
As a comparatively young movement, effective altruism is still finding its feet. Once the movement considers and responds to such suggestions for improvement, its momentum could make a huge positive impact in the world. Three ways effective altruism could change for the better are: considering the degree of need; broadening the sources of evidence; and seeking to build capacity within beneficiary groups to respond to future crises.
What are the causes and conditions of global inequality? How can I best help? What can I do with my resources and privilege to create a better world?
As concerned humans—whether we be effective altruists, traditional philanthropists, activists, or volunteers—the more we ask ourselves these questions, the better the world will become.
- Cassandra Chapman
The content of this blog post is based on the following article:
Gabriel, I. (2017). Effective Altruism and its Critics. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34(4), 457-473. DOI: 10.1111/japp.12176
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