Responding to a Marxist Critique of Effective Altruism

Introduction

In his recent article in Jacobin magazine, Mathew Snow argues that Effective Altruism as a movement is ‘myopic’ and ‘pernicious’ because of its focus on ‘creating a culture of giving’ instead of ‘challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking’. Here I present a critique of Snow’s argument, analysing why first and foremost it fails as a critique of effective altruism, and secondly highlighting some problematic aspects of his critique of ‘capital’ that are of relevance.

Misunderstanding EA

Briefly at the outset, I want to emphasise that I do not believe Snow understands effective altruism very well at all. One key reason for this is his statement that ‘Effective Altruists treat charities as black boxes — money goes in, good consequences come out’. Even a cursory look through the intricate and careful process used by organisations such as GiveWell and GiveDirectly to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of different charities, which incorporate a diversity of different considerations and lines of evidence, should be more than sufficient refutation of this absurd claim. The fact that Snow makes it in such a cavalier fashion indicates I think a fundamental misunderstanding of the movement – although possibly it also bodes ill for the ability of effective altruists to clearly communicate our core ideas to others in a clear, concise manner.

On Political Predispositions

Snow’s piece is clearly written from a Marxist perspective – the word ‘capital’ appears some sixteen times, often used in an oddly reified way, as if ‘capital’ were some sort of malevolent force which has particular motives and takes specific actions to oppress the poor. I do not share this perspective, and later on in this piece I will make some further comments about the weakness of Snow’s arguments against capitalism. But for the moment, let us suppose that Snow is completely correct in his indictment of capitalism. Let us suppose that capitalism really is responsible for the vast majority of the world’s ills as Snow says that it is (and I don’t think this is a strawman). Granting Snow all this, we now ask – does his conclusion about effective altruism follow? My contention is that it manifestedly does not.

Before I begin, I think it is appropriate to articulate my own political biases, for such biases afflict us all in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways. For my part, I used to describe myself as a libertarian. I now reject this label, preferring something along the lines of ‘classical liberal’, or even more recently ‘radical centrist’. As a result, I am naturally predisposed against the sort of Marxist critique presented here by Snow. That said, I do not here wish to offer a comprehensive critique of Marxist political theory (a surprising amount of which I actually agree with – at least in its more classical incarnations), nor do I wish to expound the virtues of free markets (I think they do have many virtues, as well as many important vices). Rather, what I want to focus on here are some particular claims that Snow makes, and why I think they are mistaken and unhelpful.

Snow on Effective Altruism

One of Snows core arguments is his assertion that ‘(effective) altruists abstract from – and thereby exonerate – the social dynamics constitutive of capitalism’. I agree with Snow that effective altruists typically ‘abstract from’ the social dynamics of capitalism, as they seldom discuss such things and generally speak at a higher level of analysis, abstracting from the particulars of any specific economic system. Does it follow, however, that this constitutes an ‘exoneration’ of said system? I do not believe that it does. Merely to not focus on something, to abstract from details and focus on some other aspect or broader issue, is not in any way to condone or ‘exonerate’ said thing. To give an example, suppose I were to say ‘such and such many people are murdered every year, and through better policing and criminal justice laws, as well as improvements in education and social welfare programs, etc, we could reduce this number by so and so percent’. By Snow’s logic, such remarks would be illegitimate because I would be ‘abstracting from the social dynamics of violent crime’ thereby apparently ‘exonerating the actions of the perpetrators and overlooking their role as agents in the process’. I contend that this is simply nonsense – to adopt an abstract view of a phenomenon, or to focus on one aspect of it, in no way necessarily exonerates or condones anything. Often it is helpful to focus on particular aspects of reality (complex and multifaceted as it is), and indeed this is precisely what effective altruists claim, namely that it is helpful to talk about giving abstracted (to a degree) from the particular economic system in which they are embedded. Snow does not dispute this, he merely accuses them of ‘exonerating capitalism’ for doing so. To me, this seems little more than a way for Snow to whine that discussion of his evident pet topic is not what effective altruists judge to be the most productive method of aiding the world’s poor.

Snow then proceeds to describe the ‘irony of effective altruism’ as demonstrated by its ‘imploring individuals to use their money to procure necessities’ while ‘ignoring the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place’. While it may be the case, as indicated above, that effective altruists seldom discuss ‘the system’ as such, what Snow does not establish is that this constitutes ‘irony’, or indeed that there is anything wrong with EAs focusing their attention and exhortations in the way that they do. It is quite plausible, indeed I think history indicates overwhelmingly probable, that even if all EAs on the planet, and ten times more that number, denounced the evils of capitalism in as loud and shrill voices as they could muster, that nothing whatever of any substance would change to the benefit of the world’s poor. As such, if our main objective is to actually help people, rather than to indulge in our own intellectual prejudices by attributing all evil in the world to the bogeyman of ‘capital’, then it is perfectly reasonable to ‘implore individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them’, rather than ‘saying something’ (what exactly? to whom? to what end?) about ‘the system that determines how those necessities are produced’.

Later on in his article, Snow utters the seemingly incredulous exclamation ‘(the fact) that subsidizing capital accumulation has become the only readily available way for most to act on compassion for others is perverse’. He subsequently refers to much the same phenomenon as an ‘insidious state of affairs’. Once again, however, the reader is left wondering exactly why this outcome should necessarily be so perverse? Again, even if ‘capital’ is the uniquely culpable cause of so much ill, as Snow is want to continually reiterate, it is extremely common in this non-utopian real-world in which we live that we must choose the least bad of several unpalatable alternatives. Likewise, it is often the case that working within the constraints of a flawed and ineffectual system is the best method available for achieving actual progress. (I invite readers to reflect on their own experiences with literally any human institution they have been involved in as validation of this key point.) As such, I argue that it is perfectly plausible, and not at all ‘perverse’ that, even if capital is to blame for the problems of global poverty, working within the capitalist system may still be the best method that we have available for helping those in extreme poverty.

Finally, let us examine Snow’s second last paragraph. Here he states: ‘rather than asking how individual consumers can guarantee the basic sustenance of millions of people, we should be questioning an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable. Rather than solely creating an individualized “culture of giving,” we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking’. As previously, however, Snow here makes strong injunctions without providing any clear argument for them. At best, all that Snow could be said to have argued in his piece is that ‘we should be questioning capitalism’. He does not even try to establish why we should be doing this instead of, or at the expense of, ‘creating an individualized “culture of giving”‘. To make this argument, Snow would need to provide some basis for the one being better than the other – but yet he does nothing of the sort. Indeed, reading this piece I am quite at a loss to say what Snow’s goals or objectives actually are. He seems to strongly desire the overthrow of ‘capital’, and seems to scoff in derision at those who are working as ‘accountants and marketers for charities with pretensions of “acting now to end world poverty” and figuring out “the most good you can do”‘, but yet it remains a mystery as to exactly what his more immediate objective might be. Does he want to help the world’s poor as best as he can? If so, what is his argument that writing polemical pieces against capitalism is the best way of doing this? (or, indeed, is beneficial in any way for achieving this?) Conversely, if he does not care about helping the world’s poor as best he can, then why should effective altruists pay heed to his injunction to prioritise armchair Marxist critique over charitable giving that demonstrably saves lives?

Snow on Capitalism and Scarcity

So much for Snow’s critiques of effective altruism as a social movement. Now I wish to turn my attention to some of his criticisms of ‘capital’, demonstrating how they rest upon faulty logic, and historical and economic misconceptions. Note that my purpose here is not to get distracted into a discussion of political philosophy per se. I want to focus on a subset of the claims Snow makes which I think are incorrect or highly misleading, and furthermore which I think are relevant to effective altruists as informing how we go about attempting to do the most good we can.

The single largest mistake that I believe Snow makes, in a variety of different ways, is to ignore the fact of scarcity. By ‘scarcity’, I mean that there are not enough goods and services for everyone to have as much as they would like, and therefore some form of allocative rationing is necessary to decide who gets what. Numerous times, Snow argues in a way which belies either ignorance of, or naïve lack of concern for, the fact of scarcity. As one example, he states ‘as men and women with money and moral consciences, we can’t put a price on life, but as men and women participating in a system governed by the logic of capital, we must’. Snow is a student of Kantian ethics, so it is perhaps not surprising that he thinks this way, but I would argue the exact opposite – namely that it is precisely because we are moral men and women that we must (with appropriate care) put a price on human life. By doing so we able to make intelligent and informed decisions about how to allocate scare resources to protect as many lives as we can. Without putting a price on life (implicitly or otherwise), we are unable to make any decision about whether a given safety initiative, health intervention, public policy, or other action we might take is beneficial. Absent sufficient resources to accomplish every good outcome we would want, we are forced to make decisions about prioritising some things over others, and it is precisely by putting a price on life that we are able to do this. Even such mundane decisions as driving an automobile involve putting an implicit price on our own lives (as well as those of others), given that we are taking a non-zero risk of death or serious injury for ourselves and others, in exchange for greatly reduced travel time and increased convenience. Most people will have a notion that this tradeoff is ‘worth the risk’, and in thinking this way, about driving or anything else, they are implicitly ‘putting a price on life’. Without doing so, we would be paralysed in all our decision making, unable to weigh any action that involves risk to life or safety (i.e. any action at all) against any other outcome that we value.

Snow again illustrates his neglect of the fact of scarcity when he speaks of ‘capital demanding’ a market price be paid for goods and services. He argues as if it is only the existence of ‘capital’ which causes there to be people suffering extreme poverty, as demonstrated by his use of phrases like ‘capital’s commodification of necessities’ and ‘capitalism’s institutionalization of immoral maxims’. Even a cursory study of economic history, however, is more than sufficient to demonstrate that essentially all societies (certainly all those of even moderate size and complexity, perhaps excluding certain isolated tribal peoples) engage in trade and barter of goods – the ‘commodification of necessities’ that Snow attributes to capitalism. Now it is true that the global capitalist system in existence today does so to a much greater extent than ever before in human history. If Snow’s analysis were correct, however, we would thereby expect to be seeing absolute poverty becoming worse over time, as the degree of ‘commodification of necessities’ increases. In fact, what we see is precisely the opposite. Three centuries ago, practically the entire population of the world lived in what we would today call ‘absolute poverty’. Today the proportion is less than one quarter, even despite massive increases in global population. As the world becomes ever more globalised, the proportion and even absolute number of people in absolute poverty is still declining by the decade. I won’t go so far as to argue here that this is because of global capitalism (I think that is true to a notable extent, but there isn’t space to argue that here, nor to make all appropriate caveats that such a claim requires), but at the very least it certainly seems highly inconsistent with Snow’s claim that ‘capital’ is the source and cause of global impoverishment.

Snow likewise explicitly states that capital is the cause of the inability of the global poor to access necessities such as vaccines, malaria nets, basic education, nutritious food, etc. In a sense I agree with him, because the world’s economic system (like any that has ever existed on the face of the planet, ‘socialist’ ones included) is set up in many instances to favour the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalised. (Rather than blame this all on ‘capital’ as such, I would describe the situation as resulting from an unfortunate confluence of interests between governments and powerful corporations and other lobby groups, but that’s another matter). That being said, it demonstrably was not the case that the world’s poor had plentiful access to such things before the rise of global capitalism, and that somehow they have now been deprived of them.

Malaria nets, vaccines, and everything else are scarce, meaning (as stated above) that there is not enough for everyone to have as much of them as they would like. This necessitates some form of allocation, or of rationing. Snow sometimes talks as if his idealised socialist utopia would do away with all scarcity and hence of the need to ration such goods at all. I contend that there has never existed a single society in the Earth’s history that has not rationed ‘essentials’ by some method. This is essentially true almost by definition, since not everyone can have as much as they would like, some people must necessarily go without, at least to an extent (note: that doesn’t mean some people need to go hungry necessarily, it just means food etc must be rationed somehow). In the modern market economy, rationing takes the form of prices to be paid for goods and services – in Snow’s words this is ‘what capitalist institutions demand’. What Show neglects is the because of scarcity, any other possible system would necessarily ‘demand’ something similar, be it in the form of ration cards, political connections, or sheer luck, examples of other, I would argue far worse, mechanisms of rationing scarce resources.

There is a final point I wish to make about Snow’s analysis, which concerns the identity of his mythical ‘capitalist class’. At least in classical Marxist analysis, the ‘capitalist class’ are the owners of capital, that is the owners of the means of production (such as land and factories). Today they would, presumably, constitute the owners of the world’s great corporations. But who owns the world’s corporations? The answer is that we (read wealthy westerners) all do. Anyone who has a superannuation fund, owns shares, or even has money in a bank account is, directly or indirectly, an owner of capital. Now granted, the ownership of capital is far from evenly distributed, and a very small number of individuals own a disproportionate share (probably it is this so-called ‘1%’ that Snow demonises repeatedly in his piece, efforts of the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet evidently notwithstanding). Nevertheless, the fact remains that we, as part owners of capital and custodians of resources far greater than most people in history could ever dream of, it is up to us to rectify what Snow correctly identifies as an ‘inability of companies to profit from those with little or no purchasing power’, precisely by improving the purchasing power (directly or indirectly) of those in the greatest need. Snow presumably supports this outcome, though probably he would advocate changes in purchasing power brought about by revolutionary struggle (this having always worked out so well in the past, as indeed recalled (ironically?) in the name of the very magazine Snow is writing for), instead of by philanthropic empowerment of the poor to improve their own lives by providing them greater resources. Granted, this has often been done poorly in the past as well, but effective altruists have advocated numerous, very specific ways in which the process and outcomes can be improved, something the likes of Snow seldom express much interest in doing when it comes to socialist revolution.

Conclusions

Snow seems to want to avoid sharing any of the blame for the plight of the global poor. He wants to blame everything on global capital (once again, I do not think this is a strawman of his argument), denying both his own culpability (by not doing more to help, something we all are culpable of alongside him), and also of the amazing opportunity he has to do real, demonstrable good for others. When people die from lack of food, clean water, and medical care, Marxists like Snow seem to callously say ‘it is not owing to me; it is owing to capital’. Rather than blaming others for the plight of the global poor, based on faulty arguments, questionable economic doctrines, and inaccurate beliefs about history, we should instead acknowledge the good we ourselves can do to make a real difference in this world, and join effective altruists in creating a ‘culture of giving’.

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4 thoughts on “Responding to a Marxist Critique of Effective Altruism

  1. Woof. There’s a lot of personal attacks here. I’m just going to ignore those.

    Black box: I considered your objection in the editing process but left this bit in. A key part to understanding in what sense I take this to be true is reading the next sentence. The only aspect worthy of analysis is how much moral bang one can expect for his or her buck – where this includes knowledge of what one’s buck buys and potential side effects that might outweigh the aimed-for consequences. Still, we can’t leave the rudimentary dynamics involved with charity or those that necessitate it out of our moral analysis. Some EAs get this, hence things like Open Philanthropy, but anti-capitalists hold that they just get the moral and structural analysis wrong. This is the sense in which EAs treat charities as black boxes: they morally analyze expected consequences for the money without morally analyzing charity as such – where this isn’t just limited to “how does this compare to other ways of spending money?”

    Political Predispositions: How plausible this all is depends on what you mean by “responsible”. Responsibility doesn’t just reduce to exploitation and exclusion (although these are important). If we have the means of, say, eradicating malaria without sacrificing anything nearly as important, we ought to do so. This is the whole idea behind EA. So who or what is responsible for the fact that we haven’t? Or what explains this fact? Anti-capitalists assert that it’s the logic of capital accumulation, dictating on what terms these things are produced and distributed (people only if profitable). This violates EA’s main principle.

    Abstraction & Exoneration: Abstraction doesn’t imply exoneration. The exoneration is exemplified in the drowning stranger example where capital’s terms for production & distribution are analogized with facts of nature. That’s more than just abstraction. It follows from what anti-capitalists would argue to be false consciousness or capitalist ideology. Abstraction from this objectionable starting point (the entire target of my piece) yields exoneration. Also, that’s an incredible analogy and fallacious form of argumentation you’re employing there. Here’s a more appropriate one: a stranger’s drowning in a pond whom you can save if you purchase a life-preserver from an institution, governed by the logic of capital accumulation, adjacent to the pond. If the stranger dies – as many certainly do – EAs focus on the bystander who might’ve paid to help, whereas I maintain that the proper/primary object of our moral opprobrium is the institution or logic. How we actually act should be governed by pragmatic considerations EAs take into account. There’s often a hard-headed focus on what to do. Of course we should focus on this, but I don’t think it’s objectionable to take five pages to express the anti-capitalist evaluation of our theoretical starting point and the moral judgments it yields.

    Irony: It’s ironic if I care that people not starve while paying little or no mind to why they’re starving in the first place and what might be done about that.

    Perversity: Does this really need explanation? Keep in mind that the object is states of affairs here, not what you do with your money.

    Injunctions: As mentioned above, the target of my paper is the false consciousness or capitalist ideology underlying much of the recent philanthropic fervor. As such, the ‘rather than’ bits express the proper orientation and reaction to a one-sided dialectic. How this proper orientation cashes out in practice will depend on a lot of pragmatic factors EAs overzealously point out. Nobody’s disputing that and a lot of these seem to count against what the proper orientation would make top priority. More needs to be said to establish that what the non-bourgeois hold to be top priority in general should be our top priority in practice. Of course, the way I phrased things invites this sort of confusion, but that’s intentional. It rings the proper rhetorical note for anti-capitalists who believe there is a case to be made for anti-capitalism in practice as the most indispensable element of combatting global poverty, even if they give their money to AMF while occupying Wall Street.

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    • Hi Mathew, will get back to some of your other points in a bit, but just wanted to thank you for your engagement. I’m sorry if my piece came off as a personal attack, but honestly I re-read it and I can see I am very hostile to many of your arguments, but I don’t think I ever attack you as a person.

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      • No worries, James. It depends on what you mean by ‘personal attack’, but I really don’t care. I don’t take anything people say about me or my piece personally. By the way, I also wanted to engage on your bit about scarcity because it is important – and we disagree on it – but it’s off in one direction a bit and I’m gearing up for a trip overseas to present at a conference on something completely unrelated. As a result, I’ll likely be incommunicado for the next week or so.

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        • Thinking about your points further, I think the real crux of the matter is that, in my experience, few EAs share your views concerning the role of ‘the logic of capital accumulation’ (etc) in causing or perpetuating global poverty, and so they are seldom interested in the sorts of critiques you provide. The second aspect is that even if they may have some sympathy with such critiques, they are generally quite skeptical about our ability to do much in the way of systemic change, and instead believe that working within the system will be the most effective way of doing good. In either case, focusing on the sort of things you discuss is mostly not something EAs think is or should be a priority.

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