Sunday, 11 April 2021

Effective Altruism Is Not Effective

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can. (Peter Singer)

It is almost universally agreed that the persistence of extreme poverty in many parts of the world is a bad thing. It is less well-agreed, even among philosophers, what should be done about it and by who. An influential movement founded by the philosopher Peter Singer argues that we should each try to do the best we can by donating our surplus income to charities that help those in greatest need. This ‘effective altruism’ movement has two components: i) encouraging individuals in the rich world to donate more; and ii) encouraging us to donate more rationally, to the organisations most efficient at translating those donations into gains in human well-being.

Unfortunately both components of effective altruism focus on what makes giving good rather than on achieving valuable goals. Effective altruism therefore does not actually aim at the elimination of global poverty as is often supposed. Indeed, its distinctive commitment to the logic of individualist consumerism makes it constitutionally incapable of achieving such a large scale project. Effective altruism is designed to fail.