Why I don’t like Effective Altruism

Welcome, all newcomers, to my Burkean blog. The focus of this little corner of the site will be (usually) brief gobbets approaching ethics, ideology, and political history from a conservative perspective. Occasionally I may treat myself to leaving my comfort zone, but for the most part this blog will be for discussion of ‘conservatism’ itself, and what Aristotle called ‘the Good Life.’ 

I suspect that quite a lot of students will be familiar with the Effective Altruism movement. They tend to lurk at most Uni Freshers’ Fairs, waiting to claim your email address with which to bombard you with incessant information about ‘ethical career choice,’ and the like. However, for those who have never had the pleasure, I shall explain what they are, and why I am being so apparently unfair from the start:

Effective Altruism (henceforth referred to as EA) is a social movement derived from the philosophy of Australian utilitarian Peter Singer, author of Practical Ethics, which has become something of a classic among EA-ists. EA refers to itself on its website as “using reason and evidence to do the most good.” Its goal in a nutshell is to encourage individuals to be more altruistic by specifically targeting certain projects, educational initiatives, and charities, in order to effectively benefit others. Before I begin, therefore, I wish to make something clear: I have no problem with the basic intent of this philosophy, and I believe anyone who wishes to be an altruist should be encouraged and supported every step of the way; altruism after all has been the cornerstone of moral virtue for thousands of years. This, therefore, is not an attack upon altruism, it is rather an attack upon the methods and philosophy of Effective Altruism which, I have to be honest to my reader, I find to practically manifest itself as a kind of pseudo-altruism.

I am going to offer a critique of the behaviours which EA encourages among its adherents. Before this, however, I am going to point out a few issues with the philosophy of its golden no-longer-a-boy, Peter Singer. First of all, he ticks all the boxes for a left-leaning pop philosopher: a vegan, a poverty activist, who has experimented with the idea that objective moral values do not exist, leading to one of his most famous conclusions, that maximising ‘individual preferences’ is the only morally valid position. He presents the image of a man who cares about everything, from the planet, to universal rights, to poverty and even our fellow animals. Unfortunately for Mr Singer’s list of virtues, he cares a little less about babies. Singer is a full supporter of abortion rights, but not for the reasons you might guess. Indeed, Singer has endorsed the ‘preference of the mother’ not out of traditional arguments surrounding women’s rights, but instead because a foetus is not capable of rational thought, and thus, has no right to life. In the same way also he has endorsed the idea that the murder of an infant is less morally unacceptable than the murder of an adult, since a baby is incapable of “having a sense of its own existence over time” (see Part III, Q1 of this FAQ). Whilst Singer of course would never say that killing a child is not a terrible thing to do, the very fact that he seems to use this form of reasoning should sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of any common sense moralist. Singer says:

 [Killing an infant] is [a terrible thing to do], but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.

One assumes therefore, that should an infant be born to parents who do not love it (and my, do we see this in the real world) then it might as well die. The rights of infants, who are usually the first to be protected from harm due to their vulnerability and their untapped potential for life, seem to have been morally inverted. This doesn’t immediately concern the values of EA, but it is not a brilliant starting point, in my opinion, to derive your philosophy from a man with such a troubling approach to moral theory.

EA encourages its adherents to follow a certain lifestyle, a lifestyle which comprises of a tripartite process: first, get yourself an education. They often encourage people from lower-income or underprivileged backgrounds to aspire to higher education as well; this, I can get behind. Second, they urge people to use their education to obtain high-salary jobs. Third, EA-ists siphon off large portions of their salaries to certain cause-prioritised charities (such as those tackling poverty in the third world, or working towards climate change solutions). In this way, claim EA, the largest number of able people are able to do the largest amount of good to the largest number of people. A very utilitarian goal, but nevertheless a very noble one. Such a shame then, that I believe they have got it (for the most part at least) wrong.

EA begins with a firm premise: that education will improve people’s disposition towards altruism. I think they’re right. It then goes downhill, and here’s why: EA perpetuates a system which is bound to disconnect individuals from real altruism. That will upset a lot of EA-ists, so let me say this: I am not asking you to stop donating to charity; for a lot of people, this is all they are able to do, but equally, encouraging this sort of lifestyle on an industrial scale appears to me only to be a masque covering the potential for a great deal more good, particularly amongst educated people. Oftentimes, the sorts of charities EA selects as most ‘effective’ are chosen on the basis of their cause: ‘which causes the most long-term good?’ Hence climate change charities are prioritised. Many are large charities at that. I am not necessarily referring to the recent Oxfam scandal when I say that large charities are imperfect, though it is a happy coincidence. It has been a well-known fact for some time that giving one’s money to a large charity in some ways throws a question mark over whether or not that money will make its way to help those genuinely in need. The precise problem I am referring to is a problem of disconnexion.

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It is not necessarily the giving of money which is the problem, but the third party attitude towards altruism which EA creates. It makes a large number of wealthy, mostly left-leaning urban bourgeois individuals (trust me, I’ve been to some of their events) operate under the delusion that they can quite easily spend their lives emotionally working themselves into the ground for a large firm which demands a de facto 60-70 hr working week (even if official figures are much lower) in the meantime giving away portions of their salary without much knowledge of what is being done, besides what the monthly EA newsletter tells them. In some cases, this causes a corporate system which (even indirectly) causes a concentration of wealth away from the needy. It trains those in high-paying jobs to be content with the system of modern capitalism, which even as a conservative I feel naturally uncomfortable about. That will be a discussion for another time, however.

So what’s the alternative? It is obvious that EA has achieved some success, and for all my criticism of the black hole which is the charity industry, there is of course evidence that donations can be used for good, and supporting smaller charities with more focussed goals is becoming more of a recognised alternative for those who are only able to give small amounts. I would have several recommendations for those who wish to be truly effective altruists, with a small-e and small-a; a method which I call Practical Virtue.

  1. Get an education, and encourage others to do so as well. Tackling the lack of aspiration within many young people head-on is a sure way to prepare the next generation to do good works. Keep reading, and pass on that knowledge as much as possible
  2. Ethical Career Choice: this needs to be redefined. Don’t get six-figure salary and then give it away. Want to make a difference? Work in a charity which allows you to directly interact with the people you are helping. Work within government or as a policy adviser to make an active change. Use your education to teach the next generation the knowledge which you have gained. There are many effective options.
  3. If you must donate, donate as directly as you can. EA is starting to wake up to this. Give directly to poor individuals. Even better, donate things which can only be used directly for positive actions: food, clothes. We hear all about the food bank crisis in the UK, so if you have some leftover non-perishable food, consider donating some to a food bank, or to a charity which ships food donations to the third world. But, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life, so:
  4. Act virtuously; do practical things. There is a reason why the cliche “actions speak louder than words” is a cliche. Do something. Go to a foreign country, help the locals to build that school, to dig a well for fresh water, to inspire them, and teach them that through aspiration they might achieve great things. At home, it often breaks our hearts to see so many homeless on the streets. Give them hot food directly if you can, particularly on a cold evening, volunteer for a soup kitchen, or for a shelter organisation. Campaign unceasingly for their emancipation. All these things involve localised, practical deeds which directly engage with the people needing to be helped. When Roger Scruton came to the Oxford Union the other term he spoke remarkably about this when questioned by an EA-ist: see 49:41 of this video.

In my last Burkean article I argued that the Migration Crisis is beyond our powers of resolution. A lot of people turn their noses up at the idea of helping the needy in their own countries directly; indeed, it is from this problem that EA sprang: the ‘not my problem’ attitude which prevents a lot of people from doing the practical actions which I have listed above. EA’s solutions are supposed to be easier for most people to follow, and therefore achieve more good from the most people. I very much disagree. The people who become EA-ists are precisely the sort of people who could be performing practical virtue, but they are instead made content with a third party system driven by a questionable philosophy.

EA diverts attention away from practical solutions. When it comes to problems like climate change and poverty, we have our work cut out. Local solutions concerning the environment, such as permaculture, and poverty, such as direct education and practical efforts within poor communities at home and abroad can foster the environment in which the ‘good life’ which we are supposed to encourage can develop. It also distracts people away from effecting genuine change by encouraging faddish lifestyle changes, such as veganism and vegetarianism, which again, practically achieve very little.

For me, EA appears to cultivate a generation of armchair altruists who believe they are making a difference, but in reality could be doing much more, if only they would look beyond what, ironically coming from a left-leaner such as Singer, is an immensely Eurocentric attitude towards effective altruism.

I don’t think that everyone in EA is trash, but I’m pretty convinced that the movement itself is built upon some trashy ideas. That’s just something to think about. I am, as ever, more than happy to be proved wrong.

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