On effective altruism

Peter Singer has an essay on effective altruism in the Boston Review, with responses from several authors and academics. One of the more interesting responses came from Jennifer Rubenstein.

She writes:

A central strength of the effective altruism movement is that it urges donors to make empirically informed decisions that focus on effects rather than good intentions, “warm glow” feelings, or the intrinsic value of actions. In this respect, it is far superior to charity appeals based on identifiable victims, charismatic megafauna (e.g., polar bears), charismatic mega-stars (e.g. Bono), oversimplified villains (e.g., Joseph Kony), and dramatic images of disaster.

….  The effective altruism movement retains members by directing their emotional energies and commitments toward each other, not the people they aim to assist. Singer thus profiles effective altruists for his readers to emulate; he does not depict poor people using assistance to exit poverty. Likewise, organizations such as Giving What We Can encourage their members to make commitments to, and engage in community-building with, each other—not poor people. These strategies rightly avoid using pity as a motivational tool, but they also preclude more promising forms of connection, such as political solidarity.

By excluding poor people and encouraging a savior complex and insularity among its members, the effective altruism movement fails to meet normative criteria of democracy and equality. A supporter of this movement might respond that democracy and equality are less important than improving individual welfare. Yet in the medium-to-long term, the movement will likely fall short in this regard as well. As the low-hanging fruit of basic health programs and cash transfers are exhausted, saving lives and alleviating suffering will require more complicated political action, such as reforming global institutions. Undertaking this action will require outsiders to work with, and follow the lead of, activists in poor countries. Yet the effective altruism movement as Singer describes it does not cultivate the expectations, attitudes, or relationships necessary for this kind of work.

The whole exchange is here.

It’s hard to argue against public health interventions or direct cash transfers that save lives and marginally improve living conditions for the world’s poorest.

But at the same time, you’ve got to wonder why well-to-do people in rich countries would be into uncritically subsidizing the bad habits of their counterparts in poorer countries (through “technical” targeted interventions that sidestep political processes). Why should Obiang’s son have the luxury of buying a private jet rather than building clinics for his country’s poor?


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