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’.

Advertisements

The Ethical Imperative of Effective Altruism

Synopsis

In this piece I argue for the ethical imperative of Effective Altruism, by which I mean that I believe we are ethically obligated to donate as much money as one can to the charities which save the most lives per dollar spent. I take a rough figure of $2000 per live saved from GiveWell, and argue that we must always consider this as the benchmark against which all other proposed donations and causes are judged. I then expand this argument to apply not only to charitable donations, but also to all our purchasing decisions. I argue we must seriously consider the lives we could save for every single dollar we spend on anything.

Saving More Lives is Better

How much does it cost to save a life? Many people don’t even like to think about such a question – after all, isn’t it crass and vulgar to put a dollar value on human life? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think it’s positively immoral not to ask this question, and seriously consider the answer. We simply must ask the question of how much it costs to save a life. Why? Basically the argument goes like this:

1) Holding other relevant considerations approximately equal, we ought to take the action that saves more lives over any actions that save fewer lives
2) Donating all one’s charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost will lead to more lives being saved than any other action we could take
3) Therefore, we should donate all our charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost

Some Responses

There are a lot of ways one could object to this argument. One could debate about the merits of attempting to deal with deeper structural or social problems, rather than donating exclusively to specific global health initiatives. One could question the value of present lives versus future lives, and how that might affect our analysis. One could argue that life itself is not all that matters, and that we also should consider the good being done in improving the quality of life. All of these objections, and many others like them, are completely valid and worthy of discussion and serious consideration. They also, I think, largely miss the point. And what is that point? The point is, whatever else one proposes that we use or money or resources for, whether it be environmental activism or political reform or human rights protection or art preservation or whatever else, we must everywhere and always remember this fact: that every dollar spent on such causes could (in general) have instead been used to save lives. This is a concept called opportunity cost – the forgone benefit that we could have received had we used our resources in another way. In arguing that we ought to donate time or money to a particular cause, we must always and everywhere remember that this represents time and money that could have been used to save lives by instead donating to the most cost-effective charities.

Our Opportunity Cost

So how much does it cost to have a life? GiveWell has some excellent analysis of this question, some of which can be found here. The issue is stupendously complicated, but let me just pick a ballpark figure. Based on the GiveWell data, let’s say that the best charities can save a life for about $2000. Maybe its really $1000, or $5000. And maybe there are other benefits of these programs too besides just saving lives. That’s not really important. The rough figure is what matters, and it seems pretty clear that it is on the order of a few thousand dollars.

So what does that mean? First of all, I think it ought to put a lot of things in perspective. When I’m considering whether to give to an art gallery or an environmental lobby group or to cancer research, I must remember that every $2000 I give is one less life saved. That’s my opportunity cost. So I had better be pretty damn sure that the money I’m donating to this other cause is going to have some very significant impact, if this is to outweigh the forgone benefit of one life saved. This isn’t some abstract intellectual exercise. GiveWell considers all sorts of factors in evaluating charities, including actual on the ground effectiveness and room for more funding. That means, as best as we can tell, you can, in fact, actually increase the number of lives saved by providing these charities with additional funding, allowing them to expand their operations (e.g. buy more bed nets, disperse more money, fund more deworming programs, etc). I’m not saying here that none of these other causes can ever be worth it. My point is simply that we have an ethical obligation to be aware of what we could be doing with our funds, and what we are giving up when we donate to charities other than the most cost-effective charities.

Doing Both?

But can’t we do both? Can’t we donate, say, to deworming and also to cancer research or greenpeace or whatever else? No, you can’t. At least, not in any meaningful sense. Unless you are someone like Bill Gates, your funds are very limited compared to the capacities of the organizations in question. This means that every dollar you don’t give to the most cost-effective charities is failing to have as much impact as it could. You can’t just pretend that the opportunity cost somehow magically disappears just because you donated some of your money to the more effective charity. That alternative still exists for every single dollar you give away. So you simply cannot ‘do both’. For every dollar, the question is the same: donate to the most effective charities which can save a life for $2000, or donate so some other organisation. Again, I’m not saying that the ‘some other organisation’ option is never the better choice (though I do think it very rarely is). I’m just saying, this is the alternative that we always have. This is the reality we face.

The Ethics of Every Purchase

My argument here, however, does not extend only to our charitable donations. It also can (and I think ought to) be applied to absolutely every purchase decision we ever make. Here is the brute fact: every dollar we spend on anything is one less dollar that could have been spent on GiveWell top charities, saving (something like) one life per $2000 donated. Thus, every single purchase we make is a moral act. Every time we hand over money for anything, we are handing over some part of a chance to save a life. Whenever you see a price tag, you should mentally divide by 2000, because that’s the number of lives you are not saving by buying that thing. How much does a car cost? Several thousand dollars for a used one. That’s a couple of lives right there. How much does it cost to attend a music concert? A hundred dollars? Several of those in a year is maybe a fifth of a life. How much does a cup of coffee cost? A few dollars? How often would you buy one? Ever other day? Every day? That’s some non-trivial fraction of a life. How much does an overseas holiday cost? Several thousand dollars? Another couple of lives. How much do you spend on jewellery? Alcohol? Eating out? Electronics? DVDs? Airfares? Vacations? How much money do you earn every year? How much do you spend in things that you do not really need to get by? How many lives could you have saved, but did not?

Conclusion

I do not paint a very attractive picture here. I’m saying that most of what we spend our money on is frivolous in comparison to the good that we could do by donating this money to the most effective causes. And I don’t mean to put myself on a pedestal. I do try to limit unnecessary purchases. But am I really any better? I doubt it. There are numerous luxuries that I allow myself which I nonetheless don’t really need. But however much of a hypocrite I may be, I don’t think that in any way diminishes our ethical obligation to do better. We simply must do better. Many, many lives depend on it.

Why Income Inequality Doesn’t Matter

Synopsis

I argue that income inequality by itself is not that important an issue, and that it gets far too much attention in the political discourse, relative to other problems and issues. I argue that instead we should focus more directly on making the poor better off, and worry less about relative levels of wealth or income.

Introduction

I am writing partly in response to this article (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/16/australias-richest-1-own-as-much-as-bottom-60-says-oxfam?CMP=twt_gu), though I think my argument applies more broadly than this article alone. Let me first present my basic approach to the issue. I am strongly influenced by John Rawl’s “maximin” principle, which essentially states that social and economic systems and resources should be arranged such that “they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society”. That’s where I think the focus should be: how can we make the most marginalized and the needy better off?

Bad Arguments from Oxfam

Given that, I ask what value there is in discussing income or wealth inequality per se? (Aside: this article conflates the two, which I think is sloppy at best and disingenuous at worst). Income inequality can increase because the rich are getting richer while the poor are staying the same, or because the poor are getting poorer while the rich are staying the same, or some mix of both. I care about the latter situation much more than the former. Indeed, empirically for the most part the poor have been getting richer, globally and within Australia, but not as fast as the rich.

Consider this quote from the article:
“The report said some economic growth was essential to drive growth and progress, but extreme wealth concentration threatened to exclude hundreds of millions of people around the globe from realising the benefits of their talents and hard work. It could also affect economic growth and poverty reduction.”

I think this is just a confused way of looking at things. If economic growth is not benefiting some subset of society, that is a problem we should be concerned about, and it will be manifested in growing income inequality. But its not as if the income inequality caused the problem. Its just a sign that some people aren’t benefiting. That’s relevant because if we focus too much on the inequality per se, we will be missing the deeper causal mechanisms of what is going on, and why some people aren’t benefiting. Also, while growing inequality can be a sign that some people are not benefiting from economic growth, that need not be the case. It could be that they are simply benefiting somewhat less than the rich, and indeed it could be the case that attempting to redirect resources from rich to poor in such cases could even make the poor absolutely worse off.

Bad Arguments from Hockey

I’ll also respond to some remarks from the “other side”, as quoted in the article:
“Hockey said uninterrupted economic growth over two decades had served Australia well, with official data showing average real household disposable income had increased from $540 per week in 1994 to over $820 per week now.”

This may be true but it does not support the contention that inequality is nothing to worry about. Average real incomes will increase even if only the top 1% are getting richer and everyone else is staying the same. Empirically that isn’t the case, and if you look at the data in Australia even the lowest percentiles have gotten better off in real terms, however the growth isn’t as large as this average makes it appear. Quoting the average in this way is misleading. (Aside, I’m interpreting this as mean household income. My remarks are less relevant if this is the median, but its not totally clear.)

Political Power

Some people argue that income/wealth inequality per se is a problem because it leads to inequality of access to power or influence over political institutions. I agree that this is true, but I question how much difference an increase in the gini coefficient from 0.3 to 0.4, or an increase in the percent of wealth owned by the top 1% from 40% to 60%, is going to make on such matters. The rich always have more power and influence. I am dubious that increasing the gap really changes this very much. Nor am I convinced that trying to reduce inequality per se is the best way to tackle this issue of relative power, as opposed to more direct measures like campaign finance reform or reforms in the criminal justice system.

Conclusion

So, to sum up, my overall point here is that income inequality is at best peripherally relevant to what our main concerns should be, which is maximising the position of those most marginalised and most disadvantaged in society. Reducing inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient for this, so I think excessive focus on it is a distraction. Instead, public debate should focus more on specific problems and specific proposals to remedy them. What concretely can be done to aid the disabled, or to combat urban poverty, or to reduce drug-related crime, or to assist single parents? What are the effects, good and bad, of minimum wages, higher/lower marginal tax rates, medical copayments, school vouchers, etc? Serious discussion about these issues would potentially be useful. I don’t think that sound bites like “Australia’s richest 1% own as much as bottom 60%” are especially informative or useful in this regard.