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Is effective altruism too impersonal?

Updated: May 1, 2023

Dominoes lined up in a perfect grid

If you haven’t heard of effective altruism (EA), you might be familiar with the basic idea: we should use evidence and reason to determine how to help others as much as possible, and then we should use those methods to actually help people. There are a number of EA-approved charities that operate with this kind of reasoning, including the very popular GiveWell.

This basic idea is great. Effective altruism in practice, however, has some key problems.

This is in part because there are hidden assumptions that not all, but most effective altruists share:

  • Impartiality: We should give each person’s wellbeing the same moral weight.

  • Cost Effectiveness: We should pick charitable interventions that do the most possible good with the investments we put into them.

  • Obligation: We are morally obligated to give in ways that produce the most good.

In other words, if it’s going to do a lot more good to invest five dollars into deworming efforts in developing countries than to donate to a local food bank, then effective altruists would likely say that you are morally obligated to donate to the deworming efforts.

Or, assume it’s going to do a lot more good to invest five thousand dollars into developing safe drinking water systems in impoverished areas than to invest the same five thousand dollars into cancer research that has a low likelihood of breaking through. EAs would likely say that you are obligated to give to the safe drinking water charity rather than to cancer research, even if someone close to you died from cancer.

These may seem like bold claims, but they’re backed up by compelling ideas. It’s good to actually care for people outside of your immediate community, and you should make sure your charitable giving has an impact. Where, then, does effective altruism go wrong?

Before we dig into the philosophy, let’s explore a few common problems that EA charities run into:

  1. If a study indicates that a particular intervention is highly effective in one place, then people tend to wrongly assume that it will scale to other places. Some interventions don’t generalize. Others have a good general idea but still need to be localized.

  2. There’s often a strong post-colonial power dynamic for EA charities that give from previously colonizing countries to previously colonized countries on the terms of the previous colonizers.

  3. When interventions are rolled out too quickly or without adequately communicating with local communities, this can generate distrust and impede charity efforts.

  4. There’s often a focus on easy fixes rather than dealing with more complex problems that are at the root of poverty and other social issues.

Philosophers have introduced several distinctions to diagnose what goes wrong with EA. In what follows, I’ll introduce two of the most common critiques and then follow up with my own critique of EA.

Impartiality vs. Partiality

Impartiality is roughly the claim that we should give everyone’s wellbeing the same weight in our reasoning and actions. Partiality, by contrast, says that we are allowed to give some people’s wellbeing more weight in our reasoning and actions.

A partialist would say that you can give more to people close to you or causes that you really care about, perhaps because you are friends with the person in need or you’re a member of an oppressed community that needs aid. An impartialist would say that you can’t choose who to give to on those grounds—you’ve got to count everyone’s wellbeing equally.

Many people have rejected EA because it seems too demanding in its impartialist perspective. Partialists will point to ordinary acts of kindness and interpersonal support that we engage in because we care about the people around us and ask, “how could that be wrong?”

*Note: Partialists aren’t committed to the claim that you should only care about the people close to you, just that you are allowed to prioritize friends, family, and causes you care about.

Hierarchical vs. Non-Hierarchical

In a hierarchical exchange, one party holds the power, makes the decisions, and otherwise dictates the terms for the other parties involved. In a non-hierarchical exchange, everyone shares power and contributes to decision-making.

Effective altruism is decidedly hierarchical in practice. It usually involves a few, extremely wealthy individuals choosing to donate their wealth through charitable organizations. Those charitable organizations are generally external to the countries they are helping and often make unilateral decisions about which causes to target.

In contrast, mutual aid is a non-hierarchical, grassroots system of asking for and offering aid. While it lacks the same kinds of institutional research and efficacy-checking abilities, it is an exchange between equal community members.

The hierarchical aspect of EA can help to explain at least some of the problems in its implementation: it contributes to uneven, post-colonial power dynamics that can in turn lead to a lack of adequate communication with local communities in decision-making.

Impersonal vs. Personal

This last distinction is my own, and in some ways, it cuts across both the hierarchical/non-hierarchical distinction and the partial/impartial distinction. I think, however, it may more directly explain the key issues we’ve seen with common forms of effective altruism: EA is too impersonal.

On my view, the personal has to do with:

  • real, instantiated people, who have particular histories and cultural environments

  • interpersonal exchanges between actual people, where they get to negotiate what works for them and co-determine what will make their lives better

The impersonal operates at the general level and fails to engage in genuine interpersonal exchanges.

If a charitable intervention is grounded in a personal philosophical approach, there needs to be a genuine interpersonal exchange, which means it will not be a fully hierarchical approach. Likewise, if a charitable intervention is personal, there also needs to be an understanding of the value of the relationships that people have with each other.

By focusing on well-being and maximizing numbers, many EAs tend to treat people like generic containers for good or happiness rather than complex individuals with their own value and worth.

By focusing on measurable, cost-effective, quantifiable solutions, many EAs fall prey to a measurability bias. Some charitable interventions can be easily quantified. Those that require more complicated social changes may not be easily quantified.

By focusing on scalability and finding general interventions that should improve wellbeing everywhere, many EAs tend to ignore complex geopolitical differences and localized issues that often require different treatment.

By focusing on maximizing cost-effectiveness, which means less money spent on communication and community integration, many EAs make the mistake of failing to bring people into a real dialogue about the issues facing their communities.

It’s time to take the basic idea of effective altruism and use better evidence and better reasoning to determine how we can effectively help people, understanding how our specific circumstances, communities, and features of our humanity shape our lives. The focus has to be on actual people, not just on abstract well-being metrics.

Photo Credit: Mick Haupt

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