Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2017

Effective Altruism


We talked about the idea of effective altruism. This is championed by Peter Singer, among others.

Our Discussion

I described the Effective Altruist position like this.

To the extent that you wish to do good …

  1. you should do what you believe will do the most good.

  2. you should do the things that can be proven to do the most good.

  3. you should contribute to charities that have been proven to do the most good.

I used this to offer a speculative explanation of why the economists, Acemoğlu and Deaton, find themselves at odds with Singer. I find this surprising, as the project of seeking to determine the most efficient use of a resource, such as the money or time one devotes to charity, strikes me as the kind of thing that economists would naturally endorse.

My best guess is that Acemoğlu and Deaton do not think highly of charities as a way of addressing global poverty while Singer endorses them (point 3). I further supposed that they diverge on this point because of a disagreement about the kind of evidence that they count as relevant to determining what the best thing to do is (point 2). You can do empirical studies of how effective charities are in meeting their goals. But you cannot come up with a similar kind of empirical demonstration of the broader political effects of charitable giving that worry Acemoğlu and Deaton. That was my speculative explanation of the split.

Will disagreed with point 1. He noted that people give to lots of causes that don’t necessarily do the most good. That’s true of me! I give to groups that work on problems that affect people I know. I wouldn’t suggest that I’m spending the time and money that I devote to doing good for others in ways that do the most good for others.

Matthew, on the other hand, thought that one of the major achievements of effective altruism is to get people to think about the efficacy of their actions rather than just the warm glow they would get from doing something. Similarly, Blake thought Etelle had gone too far: you can prove that some groups are better than others.

While Will and Matthew seem to be at odds, it seems to me that you could agree with both of them. It is desirable to think about efficacy rather than warm glows and it is also acceptable to do the less effective thing. You should just be aware of what you’re doing.

Etelle disagreed with point 3. She didn’t think that the evidence about the efficacy of charities is very good. While there is some evidence, it doesn’t come close to proof. So the evidence that we have doesn’t give as much support to charitable giving as a way of improving the world as Singer and others suggest.

We discussed the efficacy of programs that send youngster such as yourselves abroad to teach English for a few weeks. Obviously, no one is learning English with two weeks of instruction by a high school student while the cost of sending that student out is pretty high. I think that the idea is to get people to think about the broader world. Having seen life in a poor country, maybe you’ll care more about it when you’re older and have real money, influence, or skills.

Then again, maybe it’s just a cynical ploy to puff up college applications. If so, maybe colleges should follow Paul’s advice: read Singer and give more credit to applicants to do more effective things rather than the showy ineffective ones.

Jesal agreed with Tumber’s criticism of the show piece cases of effective altruism that involve going to work in finance and turning over a large portion of your very large paycheck to charity. Both Jesal and Tumber think it is counterproductive to try to work within the system that, in their opinion, produces the problems charities try to solve. Nico was more inclined to accept Singer’s idea that we should do our best within the system we inhabit.

At the end of class, Prof. Brown dropped a bomb about her brother that completely wiped the memory of everything that had been said out of everyone’s mind. Fortunately, I kept written notes!


Matthews, Dylan. 2015. “You Have 80,000 Hours in Your Career. Here’s How to Do the Most Good with Them.” Vox, August.

Singer, Peter, Emma Saunders-Hastings, Daron Acemoğlu, Rob Reich, Angus Deaton, Paul Brest, Jennifer Rubenstein, et al. 2015. “Forum: The Logic of Effective Altruism.” Boston Review, July.