Philosophy, recent

The Problem with the Effective Altruism Campaign

Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance
~Walter Lippmann

I do not question the intentions of the effective altruism movement, as its followers’ goal is simply to do good better. I do doubt that more good will follow from it gaining more traction. This critique by no means denounces meliorism, the belief that the world can be made better by human effort. More people have been lifted out of poverty than at any other time in human history as the unintended consequence of individuals pursuing their own self-interest under the free market system of the past two centuries. Human efforts can and surely do accrue social benefits, even when there is no intent to do so.

However, I believe the manner in which the effective altruism movement is attempting to make the world better is fundamentally flawed given the highly fragmented nature of knowledge in a world with seven billion people. Before delving into my critique, I will present the rationale of effective altruism in the terms of one of its main proponents. In his book, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, William MacAskill argues that effective altruism involves asking: 

How many people benefit, and by how much? Is this the most effective thing you can do? Is this area neglected? What would have happened otherwise? What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

I agree that it is wise to attempt to quantify the return on investment for donations or any other contribution through which people try to make the world a better place. If the evidence suggests that you can help more people for the same amount of money, then by all means do it. Moreover, I think MacAskill is asking the right questions by considering counterfactuals and opportunity costs. Although quantifying value is inherently subjective (what constitutes a good outcome will differ depending on the notions of any one person whose morality and foresight is limited due to the imperfect nature of all human beings), considering trade-offs is a prudent exercise for people attempting to do good. 

The folly of MacAskill and other members of the effective altruism movement is the belief that considering such questions enables them to extrapolate which charities are most effective and how people should donate their time and money accordingly. They believe that we should give our money to the very best charities rather than merely good charities to maximize return on investment. Based on this premise, MacAskill presents a list of seven charities that he believes are ‘the most effective’, including: GiveDirectly, Development Media International, Deworm the World Initiative, Schistomiasis Control Initiative, Against Malaria Foundation, Living Goods, and Iodine Global Network. As far as I can tell, all these charities are great organizations and donating money to their respective causes would be ‘‘good.’’ However, it is intellectually arrogant to decree that a multitude of people who possess varying levels of knowledge on different subjects and have varying skill sets would better serve the world by donating their time and money to these causes. Who is to say what the process cost would be of doing so? I cannot claim to know the net effect of altering the behavior of numerous individuals acting at their own discretion, and I do not believe MacAskill can either. The world is far too complex for any one person or organization to obtain the adequate knowledge to affirm that if thousands or even millions of people changed their behavior and allocated their time and resources to these seven charities, the benefits would necessarily outweigh the costs of doing so.

Generally, people make better decisions when they have firsthand knowledge and experience of the situation to which a decision applies. While all people are ignorant about most subjects, any man may possess superior knowledge and ability to make a difference within his domain of expertise. For example, Bob Woodson, the president and founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, grew up in inner city Philadelphia and, due to his relationships with members of urban communities, is effective at reducing violence in schools. His program that aids in the establishment of violence-free zones in some of the most violence-plagued schools has achieved incredible results. Woodson notes, “Over a two-year period after the program was introduced in Dallas, gang violence at Lincoln High School dropped from 34 incidents to one and at Madison High School from 113 to zero.” Would the world really be better served if Bob Woodson devoted his time and money to the Against Malaria Foundation? There are innumerable examples of individuals that possess the knowledge and ability to do good in their particular areas of competency. Why would members of the effective altruism campaign, whose collective knowledge is a mere speck of dust in the context of the wider world, know better?


Christian O’Connor is a Senior at Williams College majoring in Economics and Spanish. You can follow him on Twitter @Christi09976929


  1. bumble bee says

    Rather a short piece. I was a little put off, thinking this was a sponsored content article for people to donate to certain causes, but perhaps I am being too critical. I do not know these charities.

    I see nothing wrong with groups trying to focus resources to get the biggest bang possible. Time, effort and money are limiting factors in addressing need, desperate needs. However, what sometimes happens as well, when an organization becomes either too flush with resources, or too large in general is that they often times become corrupt and lose sight of what they were attempting to do in the first place. Then there is the issue of control, power, that develops that is the majority factor in why organization fail in their tasks and at times cause more damage and suffering.

    There have been charges against organizations in the past where something that seems benevolent like vaccines have turned into medical testing for desperate people who trust what they have been told. The poor of this world have found themselves at the mercy or worse with groups that have no intention of doing what they claim. We can look no too far for this in the country of Haiti.

    After all this time, all the money, all the different organization that have come about to give Haitians even the basics of life, little has changed. We can sit back and blame corrupt government officials for diverting funds, and supplies, but when you come down to it those same organization just do not deliver what was promised. This includes not only the smaller organizations, relief funds, but well known global groups and even governments.

    For all the poverty in areas of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, why is it that they remain teetering on epidemics, famine, unrest and corruption even with all those charity organizations. Why are there no attempts at real infrastructure, including clean water, roads, housing, medical care, food security, etc. If we are to look at the effective altruism model, then they also need to start in areas by creating real towns with commerce, medical, educational, jobs, rather than only giving handouts.

    What is also keeping these areas in the perpetual state they are in, is that their home grown talent leave those areas for other countries. This leaves a cyclical effect of never being able to grow and prosper, leaving the poor, poor with nothing coming back to renew and reseed for the next generation.

    • Ray the left-finned dolphin says

      @bumble bee

      “After all this time, all the money, all the different organization that have come about to give Haitians even the basics of life, little has changed.”

      That’s because the population is increasing so fast that aid programs rather resemble bailing the Titanic. Last time I checked there were 11 million of them on their third of Hispaniola. If I checked now, it would probably be 12 million. The sustainable population of Haiti would not even be one million, perhaps a couple hundred thousand. And that is presuming an intact ecology — forested slopes, healthy soil, etc. Given the complete deforestation of the place, Haiti should rather be depopulated almost entirely for a hundred years to let the land recover. Perhaps Sweden would like to take 11 million Haitians? It would add even more vibrancy to their multicultural diversity.

      As to their level of social development, suffice it to say that the neighboring Dominicans consider Haitians to be animals. Ask a Dominican next time you meet one.

      • Annabel St Louis says

        Yup, take the Dominican’s word for it. The same nation that has been repeatably accused of ethnically cleansing its population because they dislike anything that is not latino, mulato, or white.

        Are you seriously proposing to take the perspective of Dominicans to understand who and what Haitians are ? Anything Dominicans say must be right because they are Haiti’s neighbor? The simple explanation to Haiti’s problems is that the Haitian population consists of animals?

        Your logic makes no sense.

        Either way I’d like to remind you.

        You are just as much an animal as I am. Ask Aristotle the next time you meet him.

        “Man is by nature a social animal” – Aristotle

    • The 3rd-world brain-drain is definitely a persistent problem that needs to be addressed, but I don’t think EA advocates are at all averse to infrastructural investments or institutional reform. You just need to demonstrate how external investors can actually, um, effect these changes.

      I should also mention that economic indicators in Africa, Asia, Central and South America have actually been very encouraging over the past 30 years. GDP per capita in sub-saharan Africa alone has tripled. I’m not sure to what extent external aid has contributed on that front, but certainly developing nations are far from a lost cause.

  2. TexasGuy says

    As someone who is involved in international mission work, I agree that it is a bit myopic to sort and sift to the extent where only the ‘most effective’ organizations are worth being involved with at all. I do think a level of vetting is prudent, but there are many organizations doing ‘worthwhile’ work, and the abundance of resources (time/money/energy, etc) available to help are worth putting to good use.

    There is always room for improvement in each of these organizations, and those further down the road can be used as guides/mentors for how to keep improving those with less experience or resources. Only if you are a ‘scarcity’ thinker (it is ‘zero sum’), instead of an ‘abundance’ thinker (I tell my kids ‘there is more than enough of everything for everyone’), do you look to parse and withhold from organizations that aren’t at the very top of the ‘effectiveness’ game.

    • @TexasGuy the only problem with that attitude is that it fails to match reality. Good luck feeding the entirety of Africa on your salary. And remember that there are resources which are much scarcer than money or food, such as skilled doctors. This makes wasting resources a very bad idea.

      • Robert Paulson says

        @X the only problem with your attitude is that it is arrogant and dismissive. You know exactly zero about what TexasGuy does or how effective it is, but you are so confidence in yourself that you evidently believe that you don’t have to. Do you always make your judgement from a place of ignorance? I thought the whole shtick of “effective altruism” was that you guys are supposedly more “rational” that the rest of us?

    • Andy Espersen says

      Yes, there is always a “level of vetting” going on, of course – and cases of outright fraud are very rare indeed. Christian O’Connor states, “….the manner in which the effective altruism movement is attempting to make the world a better place is fundamentally flawed ……….”. That is nonsense : People doing missionary work go to the needy places there in person, get involved in the local communities personally. That intangible process is what generates the greatest good, in my opinion. The needy communities understand very well that here are charitable people from much richer countries who want to help them. This experience on its own is quite likely of more lasting, valuable import than the feeble amount of material giving.

      • @Andy Espersen: I’m afraid the moral argument for cost-effectiveness measures here is simply too overwhelming to ignore. In particular I find this idea that the morale benefits of visiting missionaries generate the greatest good to be puzzling. Do you have any data to indicate this might be true?

        “Moreover, these gains have been achieved very cheaply. For instance in the case of smallpox, the total cost of eradication was about US$(2013)1.5 billion.67 Since more than 100 million lives have been saved so far, this has come to less than US$15 per life saved—significantly superior to all interventions in the DCP2…

        …In these examples, we have seen how incredibly variable cost-effectiveness can be within global health. The least effective intervention in the HIV/AIDS case produces less than 0.1 percent of the value of the most effective, and if we are willing to look at different kinds of disease, this fraction drops to less than 0.01 percent. Ignoring cost-effectiveness thus does not mean losing 10 percent or 20 percent of the potential value that a health budget could have achieved, but can easily mean losing 99 percent or more. Even choosing the median intervention can involve losing 85 percent of the potential value.

        In practical terms, this can mean hundreds, thousands, or millions of additional deaths due to a failure to prioritize. In non-life-saving contexts it means thousands or millions of people with untreated disabling conditions.”

  3. “However, it is intellectually arrogant to decree that a multitude of people who possess varying levels of knowledge on different subjects and have varying skill sets would better serve the world by donating their time and money to these causes.”
    Can you cite where in Doing Good Better or any publication associated with effective altruism explicitly implies this? My understanding is that effective altruism [is a question](, and people like William MacAskill assert that we have a tremendous opportunity (and obligation) to do good, that we should be more deliberate about which charities we donate to, and give examples of excellent charities that have been thoroughly vetted. However, I am not aware of anyone that has wrote about effective altruism that has actually said that people should neglect their intuitions about what they think is good and just donate money to charity x, y, and z.

  4. Check Charity Navigator to see what these non profits pay their officers and spend on travel and conferences. Non profits and foundations have become the chic virtue signaling way to globe trot tax free. I know, my sil barracuda lawyer sets them up all the time for her wealthy friends. She even has one for her own global travel.

    I have decided the best way is to look for local need such as buy tires for a poor working single mom. I am done with all non profits. I have seen too much. But if you really want a money laundering operation to live high on the hog, start a mega church.

    • btdrawer says

      Focussing on how much charity execs get paid is a massive red herring, and one which is actually quite damaging to the ability of some charities to fulfil their missions. You should watch Dan Pallotta’s TED talk on this matter:

      • btdrawer, Nice try. I hope it does damage their mission to live high off the hog of their “charity”. Do you have any idea how many nonprofit “CEO’s” I have known over my career lifetime? I blame Peter Drucker. (yet at one time was guilty and on board) He introduced the concept of the “entrepreneurial non profit” with a high flying charismatic “CEO”. If you are not global, you aren’t cool. That was decades ago and I see how it became a scam since then.

        There are Ted Talks on everything. Some great. Some silly.

  5. Farris says

    This quote by the author reminded me of two others:

    “Robert Conquest’s maxim — “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best” — and Williamson’s First Law: “Everything is simple if you don’t know a f*****g thing about it.”

  6. A good example of someone with an idiosyncratic opportunity to do the most good is James Harrison (blood donor), and even he probably could have had a more effective day job or monetary donation habits.

  7. Steve K says

    From this article, it isn’t clear to me that the author has understood the arguments of proponents of effective altruism. The argument of the author appears to be that the core of the movement is to recommend a particular set of charities as the only charities people should contribute to, which entirely misses the point of the movement – which at core is a philosophy of applying careful rigour and analysis to where each of us can do the most good (however we happen to define it).

    There is no suggestion that we are unable to do good through the work we do – indeed, the movement explicitly endorses people using their unique talents, skills and connections to this end and provides a framework for how people can think about maximising the good from their careers. As such the works of Bob Woodson as cited in the article are not antithetical to the movement.

    Another argument made in the article is the potential for negative outcomes were large numbers of people to change their donations to the seven charities listed by MacAskill – this was actually explicitly addressed in the book, was discussion of each organisation having a limited dollar ceiling of what they could usefully do with donations in any given year (limited both by how much money they actually need to administer particular programs, and challenges with expanding the size of an organisation by a particular amount in any given year). As such, the recommended charities change over time depending on their level of resourcing, the effectiveness of their interventions etc.

    • Will says

      I agree; the author seems to be arguing against a highly idiosyncratic view of what constitutes effective altruism, which thereby offers no criticism of effective altruism in the general sense.

  8. Altruism isn’t as altruistic as it seems. It gives us a lot of personal pleasure & satisfaction to help others, which makes it very rewarding.

    From an evolutionary perspective it is clear that altruism is intended to serve not our personal self-interests, but those of our tribe, nation or gene pool, which most men are prepared to even sacrifice their lives for.

    We might risk our lives trying to save a pet dog from downing, which is all very noble, but makes zero evolutionary sense.

    In pre-modern times, our tribe, nation & gene pool were all around us, which all acts of altruism served, as well as serving our individual selves by elevating our social status.

    In the modern world, our original tribes & nations have disappeared and been replaced by a mercenary “patron state”, which deceitfully pose as our tribe or nation, but isn’t.

    Until very recently these “nation states” ensured that we were still surrounded overwhelmingly by members of our own race, so that random acts of altruism continued to make evolutionary sense.

    However, in promoting mass immigration & DIVERSITY (something a genuine nation would never do), the mercenary “patron state” has created a very unnatural situation, which has effectively turned our entire species into a single tribe and gene pool.

    This has profound implications, which social and political academics fail to recognise, because, in overreaction to the horrors of Nazi social Darwinism (which the Nazis abused to justify their insane racial ideology, eugenics and euthanasia programs and wars of aggression) they made a taboo of applying an evolutionary perspective and Darwinian logic to human nature and society altogether.

    • Magnus says

      Im going to be a little hateful now.
      I have similar fears about Hitler, and wondering if it was real, and Hitler follied in his support of the europeans – or a historical concoction which didnt even happen, perhaps fabricated by the big shitty gorrilla upstairs whos up all the blondes 7 in his bed at a time. Holocaust? Denial? The only ppl hitler killed from the videos were other germans, i didnt see the never ending seas of dead africans and other types of monkeys pushed by tractors which is more likely whom hitler despised. None of it makes sense… I wont rely apon any of it as evidence on anything. I just have to stay agnostic about it. Mein Kampf, is not an intellectually superior read is it, but is it the real book? I dont know. Anyhow, ill definitely be running things differently in my neck of the woods, but as far as having children go. nos negros is what im like, I dont rely apon support from history to make my decisions, or anything else for that matter, nor the madness of the joke of babylon, which grants every black man his preference of a white bride, like it makes at all any sense at all and just provokes hatred from me.
      And whats the point of even writing anything, u dont need my support either… its just a pleasant accident if we accidentally agree with each other per-chance, or perhaps NOT!

  9. btdrawer says

    This is a pretty weak critique, even more so given that the author concedes that the questions MacAskill is asking – questions which are fundamental to EA – are the right ones. It’s more a critique of EA in practice rather than in theory, and even then it doesn’t really work.

    Effective Altruism has far more concern for individual talents than you seem to think. 80,000 Hours is the EA organisation which researches how people can do good with their careers, and they always stress that, when thinking about what kind of work to do, one has to ask themself whether they are a good fit. And they don’t just encourage people to donate to AMF etc. – just have a brief read of to see what I mean; there are more causes they are concerned with and more career paths they recommend than, again, you seem to think is true of EA.

    ‘The world is far too complex for any one person or organization to obtain the adequate knowledge to affirm that if thousands or even millions of people changed their behavior and allocated their time and resources to these seven charities, the benefits would necessarily outweigh the costs of doing so.’

    This could apply to any call for things to change – ‘The world is too complex for us to know if this really works!’ So, just keep things as they are, I guess? Despite the myriad problems that exist in the world? This kind of reasoning winds up in a status quo bias as any attempt to improve things can be slapped down with ‘things are (or might be) more complex than that!’

    Furthermore, as has already been pointed out, what’s being called for is not for millions of people to donate to these seven charities. As these charities’ room for more funding is met, EAs will move onto other charities that also need funding. In fact, this is already, to an extent, happening; there is now a website called EA Funds [ ], which anyone can donate to and which invests in far more initiatives, and more causes, than the 7 charities you mention.

    • Very well put. The great thing about EA is that they tend to 2-3 steps ahead of their critics in this respect.

  10. Adjunct-Filth says

    Lots of time spent at a certain Effective-Altruism-promoting website looking at hundreds of comments per post strongly suggests to me that Effective Altruism is a cult offering its devotees redemption from guilt felt at probable childlessness, these being people whose high level of intelligence is such that their having three or more children would do a lot more good for the world than any amount of donating to Foundations for this or that.

    • Donald Summers says

      Yes, a cult the ameliorates the sufferings of millions of vulnerable people every day. What good have you done for others?

  11. Adjunct-Filth says

    Effective Altruism is a cult offering its devotees redemption from the sin of childlessness — certainly a sin according to their own utilitarian calculations, for these are people who would most benefit the world (arresting the collapse of its infrastructure) by having three or more children rather than none at all.

    • Adjunct-Filth, I support Effective Altruism and have 3 children. I know that’s just a data point of 1, but I think it does show that the concept of Effective Altruism isn’t necessarily to make up for not having children. There may be a group that is cult-like that follows recommendations of Effective Altruism, but you can say that about many different philosophies.

  12. btdrawer says

    This is quite a weak critique of EA, especially given that you already acknowledge the questions MacAskill is asking – questions that are fundamental to the movement – are the right ones to ask. In fact, you don’t seem to be disagreeing with EA in theory, but rather how the movement works in practice; and even then, it doesn’t really work.

    Firstly, there is far more concern for individual talents in EA than you seem to think. 80,000 Hours, an EA organisation which researches which careers do the most good, always encourage people to think about whether they are a good fit for a particular job or career path, and in general are very sensitive to the fact that different people are good at different things. They don’t simply recommend that people donate to the 7 charities you mention and be done with it – they talk about a far greater array of causes (including how to help nonhuman animals, and the long-term future of the planet), and a greater number of ways to do something about them (e.g., policy, research, or advocacy).

    ‘The world is far too complex for any one person or organization to obtain the adequate knowledge to affirm that if thousands or even millions of people changed their behavior and allocated their time and resources to these seven charities, the benefits would necessarily outweigh the costs of doing so.’

    This kind of reasoning could apply to any attempt to improve the world, and thus ends up with a status quo bias. Any proposal to make things better could be met with ‘things are (or could be) more complex than you think!’ and that would be that. It isn’t a good argument without explaining the complexities you think are being ignored, and how those complexities mean we should make different decisions instead.

    Furthermore, as has already been pointed out, no one is suggesting that millions of people devote themselves to these 7 charities. Already, with EA as small as it currently is, a far greater number of causes and organisations are being helped. As charities’ rooms for more funding are met, we can move onto funding more charities.

    • btdrawer says

      Sorry for the double-post; I thought my comment had failed to post the first time, so I wrote it out again. Feel free to delete one comment or the other.

  13. Ketil says

    This seems like a very uncharitable interpretation of EA. I don’t think the point is telling people doing altruistic work in Philadelphia to stop, but rather to suggest the best alternatives for people wishing to donate to charity. While I’m sure Woodson does good work, it is not clear that adding my charity dollars to his cause is a better option than fighting malaria or parasites in Africa.

    Also, much of the argument seems to consist of the observation that the world is complicated, and since we can’t predict everything, we shouldn’t try to predict anything, and instead just leave everything as it is. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

  14. For whatever it’s worth, thinking in effective altruism has changed so much since Doing Good Bettre was written in 2014 that it’s a pretty misleading portrayal. If you want to know where we stand today in order to be able to better critique us, it’s worth listening to a recent interview I did on Rationally Speaking:

    RS 226 – Rob Wiblin on “An updated view of the best ways to help humanity”

  15. Eurocrat says

    The biggest Effective Altruism Campaign on-going in the world are European Structural and Investment Funds. Seven year programme is worth close to 1/2 trillion euro and is proportionally targeted to all EU member states with less developed regions receiving higher levels of ESIF funds per investment. All EU tax-payers chip in.

    In order to promote strategic approach, each country has to develop, among other documents, Operational Programmes which are approved by Brussels, and also all national projects worth over 50 million euro have to be approved also by Brussels – in order to make sure that they are in line with programmes, strategies, directives, regulations and that their benefit to cost ration is good enough and it all must be proved in the feasibility study of the project, which also proves the demand and through option analyses selects the best option on how to achieve goals of the project, be it a bridge, or a railroad or a research centre.

    So far so good (and apologies for such a lengthy prologue) – projects have to prove to have financial rate of return negative, yet economic one has to be positive. Meaning, none of these projects would ever be financed by a non-subsidized bank, but are still meaningful to a society.

    But then reality kicks in – due to the very possibility of financing something previously out of reach – some member states decide they need it now. It being competence centres for which there is no internal competence, research centres of broad interest, which end in the form of being empty new buildings, or rent places for companies, bridges with no cars to go over, or hospitals built by countries who would much better do if they invested that very money in doctors’ wages (same goes for investments in schools infrastructure), railroads for empty trains, or economically and ecologically irrational proliferation of recycle centres, in order to satisfy each region. And then, when the implementation period, funded by EU, is finished, member states are repsonsible for operational costs. That’s when tears start to fall.

    Add to all of this 100 000 well-payed bureaucrats scattered around Brussels and member states, assisting the allocation of these funds.

    To conclude, even the most elaborated effective altruism campaign ever implemented by human beings is, in many of its aspects, flawed and, due to operational costs, frequently even damaging to the recipient.

    Therefore, when donating, do it on an impulse and without wasting too much time researching which is the best charity. The truth is, results will probably be the same, however you will have that authentic instant gratification and that is ok.

    • Javk D says

      Yeah, bloody effective altruists, with their flawed and damaging interventions. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a movement that actually cared about the effectiveness of aid and performed regular impact evaluations to see if interventions were effective and didn’t have negative spillovers before… hold on a second…

    • There may well be a case of diminishing returns with respect to particular social interventions in highly industrialised wealthy nations. I don’t think we are anywhere near that point in much of the developing world.

  16. david of Kirkland says

    “I agree that it is wise to attempt to quantify the return on investment for donations or any other contribution through which people try to make the world a better place.”
    While I won’t argue about wisdom or trying to do good, this sort of analysis is less accurate than you might guess based on the fact you agree that central planning doesn’t work as well as the side effects of people going about their own lives to make their lives better.
    The analysis you suggest is, in fact, a prediction about the future, based on assumptions and guesses of a single person on the lives of others we have little actual insight into. Even if you think it will help more, you are likely to get it wrong in reality. The road to hell being paved and all that!

  17. Morgan Foster says

    For those double posting, please be aware that in the last day or two Quillette’s page behavior has changed.

    You used to see your post appear in just a few seconds.

    As of this moment, 1:50 (ish) pm, EST, North America, I – and others, apparently – have had to close Quillette’s page completely. Then wait a couple of minutes and open it again to the main page. Open the relevant article, and then you will probably find your post.

    I am using a Mac and Safari. I don’t know if Windows users are affected.

  18. King Aragorn says

    “A day may come …when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.”

    • Donald Summers says

      LOL apt response to this silly piece. I shouldn’t have let it get under my skin.

  19. King Aragorn says

    “A day may come when…. we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.”

  20. NiceNihilism says

    I think the argument gets at what’s hard about effective altruism as a concept, precisely because it asks us to set aside our intuitions and emotions in charitable giving. Clearly, that’s not going to be how most people operate, but EA doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Rather, it’s a method to apply reason to charitable giving.

    It’s not either/or for Bob Woodson. Nobody’s saying he needs to give up his local engagement to consider a wider perspective in which he likely inhabits the upper 90th percentile of annual income globally speaking.

    There are all kinds of ways to critique EA (the common one is to suggest that it doesn’t deal with structural issues, which are harder to measure in a utilitarian sense) I don’t understand personally why people always go so quickly to the critique when nobody is saying this is an all or nothing proposition. EA wants to extend its zone of influence, but it’s also very attentive to how shifts in charitable distribution change the playing field.

    Peter Singer makes the point that he became much more morally curious when he realized that there is a threshold in philosophy where people get stuck playing language games. People who criticize EA might pause on this point, too.

  21. andrewnwest says

    We have excellent reasons for thinking $n can do more good in a poor country than a rich. Most people who can donate money are in rich countries. They don’t have the local knowledge of poor countries for the argument in this essay to work.

    Finding a few exceptions to this rule does not mean it’s a bad rule. In the absence of a perfect rule, following the next-best rule is a good idea.

    • Nicholas says

      What are you, working for ‘effective rule making’ or something? Get your logic off my lawn!

  22. Nicholas says

    The problem, isn’t so much one of local knowledge, it’s that “what does the most good” in an inherently subjective question. 2.9M in ‘global development’ sounds pretty good, but their next largest fund has spent 2.6M on animal welfare. I’m not saying it isn’t an important issue, but nearly as important as the welfare of all poor people in the world? Doesn’t seem like they’ve really hit the nail on the head in terms of doing *the most good* with each next dollar of spending. The next biggest goal of EA is to stop development of AGI, which they see as an existential threat, but which I think will have a transformatively positive impact on the lives of almost all humans, and we shouldn’t be delaying it.

    So if my values or predictions don’t align with those of the fund managers, then then my dollars won’t be spent effectively from my perspective, plus they take a cut off the top.

    And why are we recreating the managed fund structure? If we learned anything from Vanguard, it seems like we would be able to do more good on average by simply buying an index of all charities instead of trying to cherry-pick the very best ones at any moment.

  23. NiceNihilism says

    It’s not an inherently subjective question. MacAskill argues extensively for several rigorous measures of well-being and suffering. If you want to go down the subjective road take specific issue with these measures (QALYs).

    Animal welfare is arguably the most significant pure moral issue there is. Animals don’t have language and can’t advocate for themselves — but, despite minimal foresight, they likely suffer like us. Factory farming is a horror show. This issue is considered more tractable than most for a variety of reasons.

    There’s a ton of misunderstanding around EA. If anyone’s interested, read MacAskill’s book, it’s harder to brush off than critics make it seem.

  24. Allan Hunt says

    So the entirety of the criticism is “the world is too complicated, and acting on what knowledge we have shows hubris”. Or is it “assuming broad interventions, like reducing malaria, has inherently unpredictable effects”?

    Weak criticism.

    • Donald Summers says

      Exactly. Total quality control failure by editors letting this article see the light of day. Either that or they are going for Facebook-style baiting as an engagement tactic.

  25. tarstarkas says

    The argument against Effective Altruism is basically about who is deciding what is effective or not and how are they measuring effectiveness. Monies and effort donated versus monies and effort expended can only roughly quantify effectiveness, although it is a useful tool. Most of the people who seem to be supporting EA are actually people plugging their particular viewpoints and charities. IMO charity too often begats dependency; a good charity should be about helping people learn how to help themselves, the old ‘teach a man to fish’ standard. This includes overcoming endemic disease, bad farming practices, reducing or ending violence.

  26. This article is deeply flawed on multiple dimensions. So many errors of fact that I stopped reading after the first half dozen. What’s worse is the galling, Ayn Randian misanthropic, philistine selfishness strutting in the guise of logic and rectitude.

  27. Sorry, you need to criticize QALYs (Quality Adjusted Life Years) where your argument is going. You can’t just say “different people hold different perceptions of altruism” and expect that to knock down EA. How capable is a single, opinionated person to provide a compelling strategy for altruism? EA combines economic insights, philosophy, and disgruntled hedge fund management to create a package. Argue against it, by all means, but also let us know what you’re working with beyond personal intuition and bromides. K, that’s likely it for me. Readers, your skepticism is best served for the skeptics here.

  28. jgs says

    What happened to the rest of the article…? Seems like a half-baked assertion.

  29. Matt says

    For an alternative viewpoint on this issue I would strongly recommend reading Jason Hickel’s The Divide. It purposes root causes for would poverty as well as ways to directly address them.

  30. This post being on the “must reads” list points to a serious editorial / journalistic oversight on the part of Quillettes’s decision makers: it is unfortunately an anomaly among mostly well-researched, fair, nuanced writings.

    It reads like a hit-piece — picking out one tiny bit of Doing Good Better, and straw-manning it to an absurd degree, and then claiming victory.

    It would be interesting to run a Gender-Studies-Controversy-style experiment on what naive positions can get past Quillette’s editorial filters, and examine them for bias.

  31. Chuck Berger says

    If the thrust of the “effective altruism” idea is to reduce charitable engagement to a transactional, economic exercise, then it’s proponents miss the point entirely.

    Engagement with a charitable cause is an exercise in love and commitment, not some kind of dry economic calculation.

    Let’s say I live in Wichita and could give $100 and volunteer my time to support a charity in my neighborhood, or I could do the same for a charity that would help more people more effectively in Kenya. Is it wrong for me to give to the Wichita charity? What if giving to the Wichita charity allows me to engage in a meaningful way with a community of like-minded people, in a common enterprise that benefits those immediately around me? Is that better or worse than giving to the Kenyan cause, which I may have no personal passion for, even though it may benefit more people?

    I think the answers to these questions are deeply personal. Charitable engagement is not just a matter of handing over the money and looking for results – it is about one’s own interests and passions, one’s communities (physical and of interest), and one’s circle of care. I can’t see that “effective altruism” provides any deep insight into these questions.

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