Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2019

Effective Altruism


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

Rachel didn’t see the difference between the three things I wrote down. Alec said that my point would be more effective if I said something about time scales. I’m implicitly saying that Singer favors programs that can be shown to be effective within, say, a year. The critics are interested in things that will only be noticed over a generation. I think he’s right.

Alexa said that the objection to structural change is that it’s too amorphous. Singer is most effective when pointing out things you can do.

Jonathan expressed doubt that people want to do the most good. Charities spend on things like art museums. While those are fine things, they don’t address the most pressing needs in the world. I added that people sometimes want a human connection more than they want to do the most good.

Ali agreed with Singer about batkid.

Alexa noted that giving the way we want to will lead us to give more than we otherwise would.

Molly thought the effective altruists protest too much. They want to feel good too. That’s what all the calculation is about.

Sarthak liked Tumber’s point: the high paying jobs can actually make the problem worse, even if you donate your paycheck to charity.

Evidence that 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.