Can ‘Effective Altruism’ Really Change the World?

February 25, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Altruism definition image via shutterstock. Reproduced on with permission.

Let’s imagine you have some spare cash to give away and you want to do something useful with your money. Should you spend it on food for starving children or vaccinations in refugee camps? Mosquito nets or courses in financial literacy? Animal rights at home or carbon off-setting in Latin America? Or a ballet school for disadvantaged kids from a slum because you’ve always liked to dance, and beauty helps to fight the ugliness of the world?

Whatever your whims or good intentions, there will be lots of organizations that tell you to support their cause because it’s the most important or urgent or compelling. But a new movement called ‘effective altruism’ claims that there’s a more neutral and ‘scientific’ approach to the thorny questions of philanthropy.

Promoted by philosophers like Peter Singer, William MacAskill and others (along with Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz), the basic premise of this movement is simple: when people want to give money to good causes, they should try to do so in the most effective way. ‘So much more could be done,’ argue the effective altruists, to help those who are ‘less fortunate’ in the ‘natural lottery’ of where and when they are born. This approach leads naturally to a focus on saving lives in lower-income countries where conditions are most acute.

But there’s no agreed or universal definition of ‘most effective’ in the world of social change: how do you measure, let alone compare, the impact of regime change in a dictatorship, for example, the reduction of factory farming, and better schooling in rural India? Can you even put a price tag on such things when relatively simple metrics like “quality-adjusted life years” (this movement’s favourite measurement) lead to huge controversy among philosophers and economists? And even if these thorny issues could be resolved, is it realistic to expect people to spend large amounts of time evaluating every different option, or does this make the exercise of morality too burdensome?

Although the effective altruists are asking serious questions about what it means to be a moral agent, they seem to be missing something essential about the world in which we live: they don’t look at the structures of society that are in most urgent need of transformation. In that sense, the key issue is not that this movement is too demanding, but that it doesn’t demand enough.

Effective altruism starts from a picture in which individuals with money to spare choose between different options in order to ‘maximize their utility’—to do what gives them the greatest satisfaction according to a narrow definition of what that means. This is the same picture that one finds in many economics textbooks, except that in most economic models, utility only encompasses self-interest. By contrast, in effective altruism it includes the wellbeing of other people, animals, and the environment.

What’s missing from this picture is something deep and important about human life: the ways in which social structures shape people’s decisions, habits and preferences. The concept of ‘economic man’ has often been criticized for being utterly unrealistic: human beings are far less rational than utility theory suggests, and they have a far broader range of motivations. How they behave depends on the social settings in which they find themselves.

There’s also something deeply consumerist about this approach, in which people pick  ways of spending their money just as they are supposed to pick the best value-for-money-deal from a menu at a restaurant. It’s also very passive, in the sense that some other organization is expected to bring about the wellbeing of people or animals for you. There’s no close connection between giving and action, no active engagement with problems or solutions. This is an abstract, technical transaction.

But being a moral agent means much more than donating money to far-away places, important as that may be. As philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel and Marx have argued, and as the best evidence about human nature from history and psychological research confirms, human beings are social and political animals. They live in social structures that are inherited from the past. Habits, narratives, and emotions play an important role in maintaining these structures, which are undergirded by formal institutions and practices including those that regulate access to property rights and power.

What matters for a good human life, in which basic needs are met and individuals have some autonomy, is that these institutions and practices function to the advantage of every person, now and in the future. But most existing institutions are defective in this respect. They serve small elites, exploit the environment, and keep large numbers of people in poverty and inequality.

Such institutions are very difficult to change, not only because human beings are creatures of habit, but also because there are powerful vested interests that want to keep the current order in place. But they are not set in stone. They are designed and maintained by human beings, and it is up to us, collectively, to re-order them. Because of its focus on the ‘rational choices’ of individuals within the current system, this is the point that effective altruism misses or ignores.

If social structures are taken as given, then individuals are powerless: each person faces a system that functions according to its own logic. Therefore, the only thing that people can do is to spend some of their money to help repair the worst damage that’s done by this system in parts of the world that need immediate assistance. This is the underlying assumption of Singer and his colleagues: they take the current institutional order as given, implicitly denying that it can be transformed.

The individualistic bias of effective altruism is important here. We seldom change institutions and practices on our own. Instead, we need to develop ties of solidarity with others. And we have to use our knowledge and agency to bring about change collectively. From this perspective, morality is not about picking and choosing charities from an armchair; it’s about trying to become a force for change in daily life, and supporting whatever cause we can contribute to actively, passionately, and in ways that can create institutions and practices in line with our moral values and ideals.

Struggles against climate change and global inequality are striking examples of how we all participate in structures that urgently need to be transformed. Both in our private and in professional lives, each person can take responsibility for reducing emissions, raising awareness, and pushing for change—not only by donating money but also by changing the institutions and practices that keep us tied up in a carbon-intense, unjust economic system.

This alternative approach has one thing in common with effective altruism—it can be very demanding: we can’t simply go on living our lives, but instead must take responsibility for the world around us. What’s different is that it acknowledges the need to transform the underlying structures of self and society if change is going to be effective. Therefore, one of our greatest responsibilities is to address the structures of capitalism-gone-wild that are doing so much harm. This is one of the observations that Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, makes about the effective altruism movement.

The picture of the economy that has been built on the model of utility-maximizing individuals implies that—as jobholders—people are supposed to obey orders and earn money. They are not obliged to take active responsibility for what they do in their organizational roles by asking whether the structures and practices of the economy are compatible with their moral principles. But people are moral and political agents whatever their roles and positions. We are all responsible for doing what we can to repair the ship on which we are sailing, plank by plank by plank.

This doesn’t mean that people should stop donating money, and when they do it’s important to ask what they support and why. The effective altruists are right to raise that question. But when we look for answers to it we have to evaluate the causes of the problems that concern us, and pay attention to the ways in which different actions help or hinder the development of new institutions, challenge power structures, and strengthen the moral and civic capacities of individuals who are disenfranchised and exploited. That’s the only way that altruism could ever be effective in the transformation of society.

Tags: climate justice movements, social movements