Doing Good, Effectively

26 August 2022

This week we’re questioning Effective Altruism. That’s Peter Singer’s idea that you should do the most good you can, and you should figure out what that is by doing your homework and choosing the best way to give. For example, you shouldn’t just give some random person $10; you should go online and figure out how many people you can help with that money, and give it to them.

Or better yet, give more than $10—maybe 10% of your annual income. After all, if you’re a good utilitarian you think everyone counts the same—including yourself! So there’s no reason you should be drinking $5 lattes when others are dying of thirst. As Singer says, “give until it hurts.”

Clearly the idea that people should be giving more is a good one. But is there something weird about having to do your homework first? If you see a random person on the street who’s in need of some help, why shouldn’t you just give them a bit of money?

One answer is that you could use that same money to help ten times as many people in the developing world. If you could improve (or even save) ten lives instead of just one, why wouldn’t you?

Maybe the problem is that there’s something a little inhuman about this way of thinking. We’re not robots: when we see a person in need, we feel compassion for them—we don’t get out a calculator. Shouldn’t we want people to feel compassion for those around them?

An effective altruist might well answer as follows: it’s the “around them” thing that’s the problem. Surely it's a little parochial to care more about someone just because they happen to be near you. Why should we think that some person in Mozambique is less deserving of help than someone in Mountain View?

But still, consider the following thought experiment. Two houses are on fire on your block: your house, with a family member in it, and the neighbors' house, with two strangers in it. If saving two people is always better than saving one, dfo we really want to say that you should save the neighbors, just because there’s two of them? Surely most if not all of us would choose to save our family member. Would an effective altruist have to say that we're being selfish and unjust?

Or again, imagine if we were all effective altruists: we’d feed the starving in countries far away, but we’d never get around to feeding our own starving people—it would never be cost-effective enough.

And there's yet another objection to effective altruism, at least in one of its forms: it sometimes recommends that people refrain from going into professions like nursing and instead get a high-paying job on Wall Street, so they can earn zillions of dollars and give it all away. That may be good in the short term, but in the long term, isn't it just a way of leaving the bad system intact—the system that made so many people poor in the first place? Isn't the Benevolent Banker a weird kind of Robin Hood, stealing from the poor to give back to the poor?

So it's a real puzzle. Effective Altruism has raised something like 40 billion dollars for good causes, like the prevention of malaria, and has even convinced people to donate a kidney to unknown strangers in medical need. Yet it also raises some difficult questions.

Luckily our guest is a fan of effective altruism with some ideas of his own: Theron Pummer from the University of St. Andrews, author of the forthcoming book, The Rules of Rescue: Cost, Distance, and Effective Altruism. It should be a great conversation.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, September 1, 2022 -- 2:45 PM

Well, there is right and

Well, there is right and wrong; good and bad. Axiology and deontology. Altruism, compassion, generousity, philanthropy, laegess. We have so many terms from which to choose. We also know people may do right or dood things for wrong reasons; wrong or bad things for right ones. It is all complicated. Whether effective is another matter.

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