Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2018

Effective Altruism


We talked about the idea of effective altruism. This is championed by Peter Singer, among others. We read two champions, Singer and Will McAskill, and a wide variety of critics.

Criticism from the Economists

It seems to me that we can distinguish three things that effective altruists say.

  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.

Our Discussion

Zeke was put off by McAskill’s “tech bro” (love that) manner of expression. More importantly, he thought that this way of thinking about doing good misses the point. The point, as Zeke sees it, is to get closer to the problems you wish to address rather than distancing yourself from them, even if the aim of doing so is to accomplish more.

Professor Brown thought that the effective altruists were skipping over disagreements about what is good. In a nutshell, they inherit the utilitarian tradition of reducing everything down to one measure rather than taking up the capabilities approach’s more pluralistic understanding of what is valuable.

Kamyab thinks there is a difference between addressing disasters, like floods or droughts, and trying to provide normal services. (He was musing about Deaton’s point that charities allow governments to skate on their responsibilities.)

Diana agreed with the thrust of Deaton and Acemoğlu’s argument that systematic effects tend to swamp individual effort.

Jeremy had questions about Deaton’s criticism of charities in Rwanda. If the government wouldn’t provide health care, then charities aren’t making anyone worse off by doing so themselves (I can’t recall exactly what he said, but that’s close). Professor Brown said that Deaton had done lots of very careful studies of the effectiveness of charities and come to the sad conclusions that he expressed in his remarks on Singer’s article. (So Deaton could well have accepted point 2 above and rejected point 3.)

Professor Brown reported that at the conference she had attended, the representatives of NGOs working were all concerned with economic development and not with efforts that have discrete outcomes, like providing mosquito nets. She further suggested that there are benefits to not having mosquito nets, as malaria kills children and poor countries will have problems with accommodating a demographic bulge of children as they grown older. Autumn chipped in that the quality of life matters in addition to the number of lives saved.

I ended the class by expressing skepticism that moral thinking could get the right answer. Here is what I mean. If we were in a moral philosophy class, I would take Prof. Brown’s point and ask “would you kill a baby in order to make life more comfortable for an adult?” You would say “no.” But that’s exactly the trade-off that, I gather, everyone who works in this field is willing to make. You can say that there is another moral value on the other side: it’s good that people live dignified, comfortable lives that would be imperiled by a demographic bulge. But I’m expressing doubt that moral thinking would get you to that conclusion. So this might be a case where moral thinking leads us astray. Or it might be a case where moral thinking is right and the things that “everyone” knows we ought to do are wrong. It’s a tough call.

Update: most studies of charities are worthless

In a nutshell, the studies suggesting interventions by charities are effective are rarely replicated and so the interventions are quite unlikely to work on a large scale.

Last year, Eva Vivalt of the Australian National University wrote a paper analyzing the results of international development programs like microloans, deworming, cash transfers, and so forth. … There are two things to notice. First, there’s not a lot of clustering. For nearly all these programs, the results are pretty widely dispersed. Second, where there is clustering, it’s right around zero, where the results are the least meaningful.

I hear Angus Deaton saying “I told you so.” OK, I don’t really hear that. But you know what I mean.


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.