Effective Altruism

What to Read

On October 27, we will talk about effective altruism, an offshoot of utilitarianism that is attractive to those who are interested in development or careers that serve the public good.

The readings we have selected are available on public websites and cannot be easily put into our familiar form. Here is what we recommend you read before class.

  1. “The Logic of Effective Altruism,” a forum consisting of a paper by Peter Singer, commentary from a range of critics, and a reply by Singer that appeared in the Boston Review (July 6, 2015). While all of the contributions are worthy, we recommend paying special attention to those by the following authors:

    1. Peter Singer’s initial paper

    2. Daron Acemoğlu

    3. Angus Deaton

    4. Iason Gabriel

    5. Catherine Tumber

    6. Singer’s replies to the other authors

  2. “You have 80,000 hours in your career. Here's how to do the most good with them.” This is an interview with Will McAskill, another effective altruist, published in Vox (August 3, 2015).

What We Said

Effective altruism strikes me as containing some eminently sensible ideas. For instance, as Marco put it, if you want to give money to good causes, it makes sense to at least think about how effective the groups you are thinking of giving to are. Who could deny that?

And yet plenty of people do have problems with effective altruism: look at the list of critics! I surmised that this is because effective altruists say three different things.

  1. Do what you have reason to believe will do the most good.
  2. Do what can be proven to do the most good.
  3. Contribute to charities that have been proven to do the most good.

So, for instance, when Acemoğlu and Deaton train their fire on charitable giving as opposed to political action, Singer responds that effective altruism can accommodate everything they say. He is, in effect, moving from 3 to 1. I think he believes 3 too; I’m just saying that he does not regard those criticisms as hitting the central thesis of effective altruism, which he takes to be 1. Acemoğlu and Deaton, on the other hand, might think that point 3 is the only one that says anything definite enough to generate discussion (maybe 2 as well).

I also think that the difference between McAskill and Singer concerns their respective commitments to point 2 and, as a consequence, 3. Singer seems to me to put more weight on 2 than McAskill does which, in my opinion, explains why Singer talks a lot about charitable giving while McAskill is open to a variety of career choices, not all of which can be proven to do good.

Here are some other goodies in no particular order.

Spencer said that he thought the case of Matt Wage reminded him of the theory of comparative advantage, which I thought sounded pretty nifty.

Morris, on the other hand, thought that people like Wage are alienated from their life’s work. They think the most important thing they can do is to save people but what they spend their time doing is finance. They transfer money without being genuinely connected to their charitable efforts, in his opinion. (There is a similar argument about the division of labor, if I recall correctly.)

Ella said that one thing she took away from this was that it shows you something you might not have expected: that a career in finance, say, can be inspiring to people who think their highest calling is to serve others. That struck me as right. This got us into a mini-discussion of religion, which is curiously absent from this discussion. After all, where do you think this talk of “tithes” comes from? I mentioned Mitt Romney as an example of a very succesful businessman who is also, apparently, quite generous with his money and his time. Mikayla said that Bill Gates, who knows a thing or two about making money and giving it away, regularly attends Mass.

I think I was a little caught up with the way that both authors pick out examples of extremely successful people: ones who easily earn six figure salaries, have world-changing research projects, or serve in high political office. “That’s inspiring but what does it say to me?” was my thought; most graduates of even elite colleges aren’t going to do those things. I think that it’s amazing that people with the head for it can do the work that a high powered law, consulting, or financial services firm requires. I just know that I can’t do any of those things; my mind would wander even if I had the relevant technical or analytical abilities (which I don’t). This got me thinking a bit and I said that these articles seem to me to have been addressed to the people who are making dramatic gains on the labor market, leading to the levels of inequality that Picketty referred to. In retrospect, I think I was getting a little carried away. I should probably go back to Marco’s original observation that the thrust of this is about being effective at doing what you can or decide to do. That applies even to more modest charitable efforts as well as to the dramatic ones.

Anyway, in the course of talking about Picketty, I mentioned an article on donor-advised funds. These are genuinely worth keeping your eye on if you are interested in either inequality or charitable giving. What I had in mind was the tension between charitable giving and politics. Sometimes, people are attracted to charities because they think they can skip the grubby stuff of politics and just do good. There is something to that, of course. But it is also anti-democratic (which is not necessarily a bad thing). One thing that the very rich seem to be using charities to do is to spend their money as they see fit, often on good works, rather than on how the democratic society as a whole sees fit. I think the way we make charitable foundations tax-free reflects the desire of the wealthy to retain control over their money and resist majoritarian political institutions even when they are giving their money away. That is worth pausing over before we declare all charitable giving to be a good thing. But, as I said, the connection between this and effective altruism is too tenuous to warrant the attention I gave to it. Parking your money in a tax free fund is hardly effective altruism, after all.

Sean thought that Deaton’s crack about Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, was only partly accurate. Kagame does use the needy in his country to raise funds from outside donors. But he is also reasonably good at using those funds in productive ways. And, if I recall what Sean said earlier in the term, the people in Rwanda are doubtful that anyone could hold the country together other than Kagame. Would Rwanada develop a more responsive system that does not rely on one man if the government were not backed by foreign aid? Would they just be poorer without any real political improvement? Or, worst of all, would they descend into civil war without foreign aid? Those are the main questions, I think. (I would like to know how, exactly, we go from “let’s not support the dictator with aid” to “their government will be more responsive to the people.”)

And …

Someone made a flag for utilitarians. Maybe Anthony can make something of the rationale for the design.

A couple of Pomona philosophy graduates are working for GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project in the Bay Area. If you think you would like to try your hand at researching what makes altruism effective, I’ll try to put you in touch with them.