The Problem with the Effective Altruism Campaign

The Problem with the Effective Altruism Campaign

Christian O'Connor
Christian O'Connor

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