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3 problems with effective altruism

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In an extremely disturbing video, a two year old girl is run over by a truck in a China. Shortly after being run over, three strangers walk past the girl and do nothing. Eventually, a street cleaner picks her up and transports her to the hospital where she later dies. Utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, uses this real world example in a TEDTalk that has now received over 1 million views to make a point about our global charity and aid efforts.

Singer claims that those of us in the West are just as guilty as the three men that refuse to help the dying child in the video. That’s because we fail to adequately help those dying daily from preventable diseases in the developing world — such as malaria.

The philosophy that springs from Singer’s reasoning is called effective altruism. This, says William McCaskill of the Centre for Effective Altruism, “is the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” Essentially, to be moral agents, we must only use evidence and reason to ensure we are giving to charities that have the greatest return on saving lives and increasing overall wellbeing.

In 2007, effective altruists Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, founded GiveWell.org in order “to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent.” Today, they have curated a list of nine charities that they believe do the “most good per dollar spent.”

The effective altruist would have us believe that unless we are “giving back” to a highly effective charity, as determined by the GiveWell.org utilitarian well-being calculus, we are committing the moral equivalent of walking past the nearly dead child in the street.

I find this line of reasoning to be not just troubling, but wrong. Why?

First, effective altruism requires me to make a cold, impersonal hyper-utilitarian calculation in all of my decisions. It forces me to weigh temporarily helping my younger sister who has just suffered a major tragedy versus saving a person in the developing world from malaria. The effective altruist would say that it is immoral to help my sister, who is relatively well-off, at the cost of giving additional dollars to one of the charities on the GiveWell.org list. The effective altruist is forced to neglect his or her duty to their family or neighbors.

Second, there is a knowledge problem that exists when helping those in need — which is exacerbated when trying to help on a global scale. Yes, GiveWell.org has done a meticulous job of evaluating the effectiveness of nine charities, but there are still many unknown variables which don’t fit into their one-size-fits-all algorithm. While one can know exactly the help that is needed in the case of the little girl laying in the street in China, it is hard to determine the appropriate help in faraway places. We must take into consideration if people in developing countries have access to other means of help, which form of assistance will help them achieve true flourishing, and whether the help we give will be beneficial in the long-term.

Third, Singer praises wealthy business people, like Bill Gates, who have pledged to give away most of what they make to causes deemed “good” by organizations like GiveWell.org. While Singer heaps high praise on business people who pledge to give away their financial resources, he fails to recognize the role that business itself has played in lifting millions around the globe out of poverty. Business can be a good in itself, not simply because it allows us to be more charitable.

Finally, the effective altruism approach fails to recognize the core reason why many people in the developing world live in poverty in the first place. That is, they lack basic economic freedom and institutions of justice, such as sound property rights and equal access to the rule of law. The Fraser Economic Freedom Index shows that nations with a high amount of economic freedom outperform those with low economic freedom in indicators of well-being. It’s strange that the effective altruists, who seek to achieve the maximum amount of human well-being, don’t focus on this more.

The Singerian, or effective altruism, approach to charity views people as problems or equations to be solved through a type of utilitarian calculus rather than as unique, unrepeatable persons created in the image of God with free will, creative capacity, a social nature, and an eternal destiny.

When we view human persons as being unique and unrepeatable, it transforms our charitable efforts in a way that requires us to come into relation with those in need, rather than simply throwing money or goods at people and expecting long-term human flourishing in return.

Instead of adopting the patronizing and dehumanizing utilitarian cry of the effective altruists, we must take a nuanced approach to our charitable efforts that views people as subjects, protagonists in their own story, rather than as objects of our charity, pity, and compassion. There is no silver bullet solution to poverty alleviation. Our charitable efforts must be as unique and diverse as the human person.

Home page photo: Peter Singer at Crawford Australian Leadership Forum, June 2017. Wiki Commons

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Patrick Oetting

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