On The Leveraging of Effective Altruism

As the practical philosophy of ‘Effective Altruism’ comes under unprecedented public scrutiny, I thought it could be helpful to post a short passage of critical comment on it that comes from my book, Global Justice and Finance (Oxford University Press 2019) pp.75-6:

The practical philosophy applied in the field of charitable giving by those who style themselves Effective Altruists is, simply put, that you should aim to maximize the good you can do by earning as much money as you can so you can donate as much as you can to the charitable programmes that yield ‘most bang for your buck’. In practice, this implies two key objectives: first, to get hold of some funds, and then to disburse them to the most cost-effective charitable operator. Accordingly, there will be two interrelated questions to consider. The first is why one should assume that ‘earning to give’ is better than doing something more directly to help people who need help. …

The first goal, then, for an Effective Altruist, is to maximize the donation they are able to make towards relieving suffering and poverty. This means attending centrally, even if not exclusively, to the question of how to earn the best income one is capable of commanding. If this means taking a job on Wall Street, for instance, the logic follows unfalteringly, as Peter Singer indicates with the observation that a ‘high earner in the corporate world who is giving away large sums can create more social gain than if they did charity work’. Some of those influenced by Singer have followed this advice. Thus we may read reports of one of his students, for instance, whose career choices are taken to have exemplified what this would mean in practice. Having come top of his class at Princeton, where he was taught by Singer, he and his friends looked at research which said it costs ‘around $3,340’ to save a life, and he investigated how best he could set about helping. Taking the view that some people have skills that are better suited to earning money than directly doing good deeds, he decided this applied to him. Accordingly, he took a lucrative job in an arbitrage trading firm on Wall Street, with the explicit purpose of ‘earning to give’, whereby around half his pre-tax salary would go to those charities which, according to his research, are most efficient. Now I do not suppose that all effective altruists would see their own talents as best deployed in that kind of work, and I dare say some might even have moral reservations about undertaking it; however, the more general principle they do accept is that charity is significantly, if not even primarily, about giving the money that you think morally you should to charities that will do the most good with it. What Singer’s teaching—with its focus on moral individualism—did not encourage the young man to question is the set of socio-economic conditions that make it possible for a Princeton graduate to walk into a Wall Street firm and immediately earn so much more than the people he wants to help. Neither teacher nor student appear to have anticipated critical questions about how these Wall Street firms and their employees may ‘earn’ the massive amounts of money they do not by actually producing anything of value but simply by repackaging various complicated arrangements of others’ indebtedness. No account is therefore taken of the literally untold human suffering that may ultimately be generated at the far end of those arrangements for people on the unfortunate side of global inequality. For bright young graduates like this one it perhaps merely appears serendipitous that their particular talents happen to be suited to earning large sums of money in corporate finance so that they can take home 50 per cent of a Wall Street salary, plus any attendant benefits, in addition to the personal satisfaction of believing they are doing the maximum amount of good of which they are capable.

I do not impugn the moral seriousness of such individuals, or of others who approve or commend an approach of this kind. I do however think that if your assumption is that you can achieve a great deal with a little effort, it would be consistent with that seriousness to consider how it can possibly be that so much good can come to you and be done through you in virtue of throwing yourself so fully into the activities of the global 1 per cent that draws so much advantage from the global economy. You may see yourself as giving a little back, perhaps, but have you checked you are not complicit in taking rather more than you return? Perhaps you are content to think that if someone else did your job there might be nothing given back; or perhaps you could argue that critical suggestions about your line of work being exploitative rest on controversial theories? My point is that doing some due diligence concerning the origins of your own income should be part of the process of deliberating about how you can do the most good possible. For there could be more to the question than that of moving some money within the system of global finance, and this is all I want to observe just now. …

Effective Altruism T Shirt Credit: The Sunday Times
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3 Responses to On The Leveraging of Effective Altruism

  1. Ronald Watson says:

    My wife and I are neither wealthy nor did we have big salaries in comparison to others in our community or indeed our country. With that clarified, neither of us come from a Religious background. In fact speaking for myself only, … I am an Atheist.
    We have made it a point of ALWAYS helping those less fortunate than ourselves whether it be taking someone to a doctor’s appointment, picking up someone who is house bound’s mail ( we live in a small rural community ) to simply checking up on someone who has no family close by.
    I used to make business trips to our nearest large city and living on the prairies of Canada, Winter is often miserbly cold. I once noticed a young female prostitute standing shivering as I was about to walk into a restaurant to warm up and have a cup of coffee. I asked her … WHY ? She responded that she was paying her way through University and there was no alternative. She seemed sincere so I asked her to join me and I’d pay for the coffee, no conditions attached. After warming up and finishing her coffee, she left to go back to work but not before explaining that she was working on her BA in NURSING and she had been trying to turn a quick trick before going to the nearby hospital to get ready for her night shift. Never judge a book by it’s cover !
    Every trip I make to the City now, I take a box full of sandwiches and hand them out to homeless people I see. I never give them money as it is more likely to be used for alcohol or drugs.
    My wife is an excellent cook and she always extra Christmas Dinners and I deliver these around town to folks that have no family.
    These are but a few ways one can be charitable without doling out money and then smugly feeling, … Well I’ve done my share.

  2. « Having come top of his class at Princeton, where he was taught by Singer, he and his friends looked at research which said it costs ‘around $3,340’ to save a life. »

    This kind of statement is meaningless – a symptom of an obsession with quantification which distorts and perverts thinking about economics, and therefore about how we live in the world. It costs $1 to save some lives, and a million to save others. Just as “an hour’s work is worth on average $15” hides the discrepancy between Sam’s income and that of the average wage earner.

    As I point out here,

    Bank Man Fried as the World Warms

    the CEO of FTX, Nick Beckstead, is a founder of Effective Altruism, and the groups financed by FTX are all, like Effective Altruism, not involved in actually doing good (curing diseases, building infrastructure etc.) but in finding ways to do good, or to encourage other people to do good.

    It’s the Ponzi scheme principle applied to ethical living, and it’s deeply disturbing in its implications.

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