Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

Effective Altruism


Effective altruism is part of the utilitarian tradition. Like the utilitarians, focus on social reform, expansion of our responsibilities beyond not harming others, belief in a highly rational ethical system modeled on economics.

Those advocating effective altruism have two main ideas:

  1. Individuals should seek to do the most good they can; they should “earn to give.” The chief example of this is Matt Wage, who took a job in finance so he could give lots of money to charities.1

  2. We should quantify the effects of efforts to do good. In particular, charities should be ranked according to how much good they do and preference should be given to those that are ranked highest.

In both cases, there is some looseness in what, exactly, is being claimed.

Singer starts by saying that individuals should do “the most good we can,” which is straight utilitarianism. But he backs off of that elsewhere in the piece by saying that we do not have to be saints, you can give special weight to your kids, and so on. MacAskill does not have any specific statement of what indivduals should do.

There is also some slippage between “do what would, in fact, do the most good” and “do what has been shown to produce good.” MacAskill, for instance, thinks that a political career could be the right thing to pursue while Singer focuses more on charitable initiatives that have been shown to have good results.


Some of the criticisms focus on the claims about how individuals should lead their lives. Others are directed at the idea that charities are the means of producing the best results.

The economists, Acemoglu and Deaton, think that charitable giving is, generally speaking, bad. The evidence of its effectiveness is poor and the money is used to prop up bad governments and so impede the political reform that, they maintain, is necessary to truly addressing the problems that the charities are concerned with.

Acemoglu’s analogy with vigilantes replacing a police force illustrates his point of view pretty nicely, I think.

Deaton adds that the most effective groups working on development projects are the governmental ones like the World Bank and USAID rather than the non-governmental charities that the effective altruists would give to. I can hear MacAskill saying “so effective altruists should go work for the World Bank!” or “give money to politicians who will fund USAID.” Is that an effective answer?

Gabriel and Tumber are more concerned with the utilitarian roots of effective altruism. Gabriel says that interventions that produce the most measurable good may not be the ones that serve those most in need. If, for instance, it is very expensive to address the neediest, then charities that try to do so will score lower than charities that produce significant gains for those who are already better off. Gabriel is more of a Rawlsian than a utilitarian, in other words.

Gabriel is also concerned that in their efforts to do quantifiable good, the effective altruists will ignore what he regards as more important values, such as respecting rights.

Tumber thinks that working to give involves “deskilling” and “degrading” people like Wage. I’m not sure what she means by either term except that I’m pretty sure she thinks it is bad to work in the financial industry. Still, you can see what someone might be worried about here. Someone who follows their advice will spend most of their time doing one thing, like working at a high paying job, while thinking that something entirely different, namely helping others, is what is really important. I can see how this could leave people alienated from their life’s work.

Prof. Brown had a great line about this. She said that sometimes the effective altruists come off as though they think that Dworkin’s case of people who are enslaved by their talents is a good thing. That is a nice way of making the point.

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.

  1. There is a short biography of Wage on the Effective Altruism Funds page. Note the bio right above his. That is Pomona Philosophy graduate Nicole Ross.↩︎