Friday, April 30, 2021

In Defense of Effective Altruism

With Peter Singer in the spotlight, this criticism of effective altruism—that it is anti-democratic and “excludes poor people”—is making the rounds. There’s a lot wrong with it.


On one interpretation of the objection, it’s obviously false that effective altruism excludes poor people. After all, effective altruists offer aid to the global poor, who willingly accept it. If I’m thirsty and someone offers me a drink, which I in turn accept, it would be bizarre to say that I was excluded from this transaction.


But it seems like Rubenstein has a different sense of exclusion in mind here. When attempting to enact institutional reform within a community, one ought to partner with, and even defer to, members of that community. This sounds absolutely right to me. However, I’ll note that folks on the left who lodge this sort of criticism against Singer often fail to take their own advice when it’s ideologically inconvenient for them (e.g., ignoring communities’ preferences for school choice).


More importantly, this criticism overlooks the crucial point that we can have a division of moral labor. Not all help must or even should involve political reform. It’s true that institutional change is needed to address the root causes of poverty and injustice, but it’s important that some people address the harmful effects of poverty and injustice too. I doubt that critics of effective altruism would criticize food banks and their volunteers on the grounds that food production is at the root of alleviating hunger. It’s good that some people produce food and that others distribute it. Indeed, fewer people would get fed if everyone farmed than if some farm and some volunteer at food banks. So criticizing Give Directly for not focusing on institutional reform is as unpersuasive as criticizing Feeding America for not focusing on farming.


Lastly I’ll add that for almost everyone reading this post, the expected good of allocating your philanthropic resources to reforming global institutions (Rubenstein’s preferred course of action) is zero and it comes at the cost of allowing particular individuals to die that you otherwise could have saved.