Arguments Against Effective Altruism

Synopsis

Here I present an argument against the ‘Effective Altruism’ (EA) movement. First, I argue that the philosophy of the EA movement is predicated upon a contested utilitarian ethical framework which the movement makes insufficient efforts to justify, and seems to lead to positively perverse conclusions when taken to extremes, as can be seen in the ‘repugnant conclusion’. Second, I argue that the myopic EA focus on empirical evidence of charitable efficacy is misguided, as it leads to worthwhile interventions being neglected simply because they are too difficult to measure. Third, I argue that in focusing excessively on empirical evidence and cost-benefit calculations, EA ignores many longer-term systemic flow-on effects, which in many cases can be far greater than short-term charitable outcomes. Finally, I argue that the EA movement’s lofty standards for empirical evidence and rational decision making are so onerous that even the EA movement itself cannot live up to them, meaning that EA fails in its endeavor to extirpate personal intuition and subjective judgements from charitable analysis.

Introduction

There have been a number of critiques of effective altruism put forward, for example here, here, here, here, and here, but at least in my view, most of them aren’t very compelling or coherent. This piece is attempt to remedy the situation by providing a more robust case against EA. For purposes of this piece, I define effective altruism as a social movement, drawing particular inspiration from the work of Peter Singer, the core characteristics of which is a focus on achieving maximum charitable impact by targeting donations to causes which have been empirically demonstrated to yield the most cost-effective outcomes, and shaping one’s life and career so as to maximize the aggregate impact one can make through such programs. Note that the views expressed in this piece do not necessary reflect those of the author of this piece.

Utilitarian Presumption

EA is based upon an underlying presumption of utilitarian ethical theory. Indeed, it often seems such utilitarianism is treated as an axiom not worthy of further discussion. But the trouble is, not everyone shares such a utilitarian ethic. In particular, deontologists and virtue ethicists will not necessarily agree with the hard-nosed EA utilitarian that we should let the blind man down the road go without a guide dog if doing so means that we are able to instead repair the eyesight of fifty Africans. Nor is there any clear reason for such people to accept this utilitarian viewpoint, aside of course from extended philosophical discussion, which given the past two millennia of philosophical history seems unlikely to yield much consensus anyway. Given such differing views on ethics, why is EA so dogmatically confident in their utilitarianism, taking it as so obvious and basic that all others should just automatically agree?

Indeed, there are some fairly simple yet powerful arguments against the sort of utilitarian ethic championed by EA. Consider, for instance, the general EA antipathy towards donations to art or cultural organizations, or even ‘community building’ sorts of activities like donating to the local scouting group or the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The standard argument against such donations is that, whilst they may be ‘nice’ and improve our communities, these benefits are overwhelmed by the utility of the many lives that could be saved if the same resources were redirected to health and education interventions in the Third World. The trouble with an argument like this, however, is that taken to its natural end, it leads to the repugnant conclusion: namely that it is better to have a world comprised of a very large number of people whose lives are just barely worth living, compared to a world comprised of a much smaller population of healthier, happier, flourishing persons. Virtue ethicists in particular would likely object to the notion that saving lives is the overriding ethical consideration that we face – what also matters is what we do with those lives, for example, to build happy, supportive, flourishing communities. But EA utilitarianism seems to tell us that more lives is always preferable.

EA supporters might retort that this abstract philosophical problem has little bearing on the actual real-world decision of whether we should donate to an art gallery or to AMF, but this seems like a highly unsatisfactory, and indeed positively evasive, response from a movement so founded on intellectual rigor and philosophical clarity. Analysis such as these demonstrate how EA rests on a much shakier philosophical grounding than its proponents care to consider or admit.

The Limits of Empirics

EA advocates careful measurement of the cost-effectiveness of donations, and generally recommends against donations to charities unable to demonstrate measurable positive impacts. Consider for instance GiveWell’s recommended charities: these are the charities for which GiveWell was able to find sufficient empirical evidence of cost-effectiveness. The ‘non-recommended’ charities are such not because they have been found to be ineffective, but only because they have not been found to be effective. The problem with this is approach is that, in general, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The question one must consider is: would we expect to have quality evidence of efficacy for charities that were effective? If so, then absence of evidence would be evidence of absence. But there seems to be no reason whatever to think this, and many reasons to think otherwise. In particular, social interventions of the kind carried out by charities are exceptionally complex, multi-faceted, and difficult to measure. It is not at all clear, therefore, that the absence of the evidence of efficacy tells potential donors anything at all about the charity in question. But EA treats such absence of evidence as if it were positive evidence that the charity is not worth donating to.

There are deeper issues with this overarching focus on the empirical. An obsession with specific measurable outcomes inevitably leads to a focus on those outcomes to the exclusion of other considerations. Even specific exhortations to the contrary are often ineffective, as the formal and informal incentives of the relevant organisations are all focused towards the specific goal that is actually being measured: for corporations this is profits, leading to neglect of environmental and other considerations. For charities, this problem could manifest itself in other ways. For example, if a program’s efficacy is measured by the number of bednets placed, this produces an incentive to supply large numbers of low-quality nets to easily-accessible populations who may not necessarily need them. One can consider many similar examples where a focus on one or two easily-measurable outcomes results in a neglect of other important aspects of a program, catastrophically undermining its efficacy.

The retort to these sorts of problems is usually the assertion that one simply needs to adopt better metrics. But that is exactly the point – often there are no good metrics, or the only good metrics would be too complicated and expensive to collect given limited resources and infrastructure. So either the program goes ahead with lousy metrics, in which case EA over-emphasis on empirical outcomes can lead to adverse consequences owing to the inadequacy of the metrics being used, or the program just doesn’t go ahead at all, owing to the lack of any ability to demonstrate its efficacy. EA philosophy seems impotent to deal with this deep dilemma.

Flow-On Effects

Excessive focus on empirically-proven charitable interventions also means that the EA movement has a tendency to ignore other causes and consequences which are harder to quantify or even define with any precision, but are nonetheless no less real or important. One example would be ‘flow-on effects’, or second and third-order consequences of charitable programs. What effects does a program have on community cohesion in the long-run? How does this particular initiative alter the incentives faced by local officials, charity workers, and donors? What unintended consequences may this action have? Such indirect consequences are by definition hard to foresee or measure, and therefore tend to be neglected in the sort of outcome-based analyses favoured by EA advocates.

Consider another example. If EA had existed in the 18th century, its advocates would presumably have argued for the upper classes and emerging bourgeoisie of Western Europe to invest their time and energies in poverty reduction, promoting basic health care and education for the masses, etc. Much as contemporary EA supporters decry donations to art galleries as being comparatively ineffective, our imaginary 18th century EA predecessors would presumably have opposed the use of time and resources for speculative research in physics, chemistry, and biology, or work in areas that obviously have no practical value for improving peoples lives, such as archaic mathematical concepts like calculus and statistics, or inventing new fields of study like ‘economics’, or new ethical philosophies like ‘utiliarianism’, given that lack of any evidence at all that this sort of work would yield any practical benefits at all for the needy. And yet, without these pioneering developments, the modern EA movement would be without the technical ability to carry out its approved interventions, the statistical and modelling tools necessary to gauge their effectiveness, or even the very philosophical and theoretical framework with which to articulate their position and analyze opposing views. Examples such as this show that, at best, EA recommendations about cause prioritization seem to be missing a great deal of importance.

Impossible Standards to Meet

This issue of the limits of empirics brings me to a final point about the impossible standards that EA sets, standards which even it is unable to meet. The EA movement calls for charitable efforts to be prioritized on the basis of objective cost-effectiveness analyses. But there are numerous ‘meta-level’ questions surrounding EA which simply cannot be decided on the basis of such criteria, either because of lack of data, lack of agreement about key concepts, lack of time for analysis, or some combination of these factors. Consider the debate over the question of whether to give now or give later. What is the evidence-based, objective basis for deciding one way or the other on this question? Or consider the debate about the relative importance of ameliorating global poverty vs tackling existential risks. Again, where is the evidence or objective criteria for arriving at a position on this matter? Similar questions could be raised regarding disputes concerning earning to give, environmental ethics, population ethics, animal suffering, and many other matters. What EA supporters end up doing, of course, is make a decision based on intuition, emotion, personal experiences, and vagaries of their particular situation – precisely the decision making methods which the EA movement decries in charitable giving more broadly. This comes about, as I have said, because the standards that EA sets for itself (and others) are simply impossible to meet. We don’t have enough data, we don’t have enough agreement about core concepts, and we don’t have enough time or ability to weigh up and analyse all the various considerations.

EA supporters might respond by saying “yes but at least we’re trying to use evidence and rationality as much as we can, so our donations will on average be at least somewhat more effective, even if we make some mistakes and leave out some factors”. It is not at all clear, however, that even this claim is true. Since EA supporters cannot agree about whether to give now or later, or whether to support malaria eradication or friendly-AI research, and since no objective rational basis exists for supporting one over the other (at least by EA standards, given the lack of any clear evidence), the effectiveness of these different approaches could well vary just as much as the effectiveness of traditional charities. As such, EA giving falls prey to the very same criticism it levels against traditional charities – one might be doing good, but we can’t really tell because we can’t measure it.

 

Happiness and the Good Life

Synopsis

I argue that happiness, meaning subjective wellbeing, is not especially important, and that what we as individuals and as a society should focus far more attention on is the notion of living a ‘good life’.

Introduction

There has been a lot of academic interest of late in the idea of ‘happiness’. There is the burgeoning field called ‘happiness research’ which incorporates insights from economics and sociology, there is a newly popular school of thought known as ‘positive psychology’, and governments are taking notice of happiness as manifested by notions like Gross National Happiness and the World Happiness Report from the UN. Here I want to question the importance of happiness as a moral, social, and political objective, and consider what I think is a much more important goal, that of the ‘good life’.

Defining Happiness

When I say ‘happiness’, I use the term as it is generally employed in the research, in that it does not refer to hedonism, consumerism, or transient emotional states, but to overall life satisfaction and feelings of wellbeing. An assumption behind much contemporary research is that happiness (so defined) is really the primary thing that matters in life. Researchers may not say it is the only thing, but certainly a strong implication is that it is a major focus, perhaps the major focus, of life and (by extension) increasing happiness should also be the prime end of public policy.

Some people think that happiness (again, in the non-hedonistic way I am using the term) is just self-evidently the end goal, the final good to which all other goods are aimed. Asking what is good about happiness is like asking what is bad about pain – its just so manifestly obvious that it does not warrant talking about. I disagree with this conception of the issue. I think what matters is living a good life. What is a good life? That is obviously a very hard question to answer, but at least in my view, one thing that ranks rather low on the list of priorities is that such a life should incorporate a large degree of subjective wellbeing, or ‘happiness’.

On Virtue

I’m heavily influenced in this respect by Aristotelian Virtue Ethics. Aristotle certainly talked a great deal about what we might call ‘happiness’ (or ‘eudaimonia’, for which ‘happiness’ is not a particularly apt translation), but his conception of it was very different from that used in modern happiness research. Modern research measures happiness as subjective welling and life satisfaction. In contrast, Aristotle talked about happiness as being inextricably linked with arete (‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’) and phronesis (‘practical wisdom’). For Aristotle, the good life constituted acting virtuously in accordance with reason to achieve one’s potential as a rational being.

Obviously there is a lot to unpack in this explication, and I certainly don’t agree with all elements of Aristotelian ethics. My point is simply that I don’t think that happiness, (again, understood in the way the term is generally used in the field of happiness research), is very important at all for the good life. I think the good life is about cultivating virtue, doing good, achieving excellence, growing in wisdom, and being kind to others. These things might lead to happiness, but I think often they do not. Conversely, things that lead to happiness (again even of the ‘life fulfillment’ sort) may promote the achievement of these aspects of the good life, but I think often they are not. Put simply, happiness is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good life. The two things are at best only loosely related.

The Happy and the Good

Let me give two examples to make this more real. Imagine a middle-class American individual with a steady job, a loving family, and good friends. This person is actively engaged in various valuable, but fairly inconsequential, community projects. They have a number of hobbies and interests into which they inject their energies and spare time, things such as sports, gardening, or sundry crafts. They are generally satisfied with life and are content for things to continue more-or-less as they are.

Now imagine a social activist, scientist, politician, philosopher, inventor, entrepreneur, artist, philanthropist, or any number of other such people. They are deeply dissatisfied with some aspect (or perhaps many aspects) of how the world is (be it some politial institution, social injustice, unsolved puzzle, etc), and devote a large fraction of their time and energy trying to change the world for the better. Their progress in this endeavor may be slow, and they may very often be discouraged because they feel that little can be achieved, or that so few others share their convictions. They may regularly struggle against the immensity of their task, and battle with self-doubt at their ability to make any meaningful contribution. They may be highly critical of their own abilities or temperament, and strive regularly to change and improve themselves. Their obsessive intensity and unremitting focus may make it difficult for them to relate to others, potentially leading to loneliness and feelings of isolation. Whatever accomplishments they do achieve may never sufficient for them, as they are always driven for further improvement and growth.

I ask the reader now to consider which of these two people will be likely to have a higher subjective wellbeing; who would report themselves as being ‘happier’? Conversely, which of these people is living more in accordance with what we might call the ‘good life’? You may dislike my particular examples or choice of wording, but I hope the fundamental point is clear: that subjective wellbeing is just not something that is inextricably bound up with living a good life. It seems very clear to me that many people can live happy, contented, comfortable, fulfilling lives, while nonetheless failing to cultivate virtue in themselves, neglecting to help others to any significant degree, not having strained their abilities or attempted to push the boundaries of what mankind could achieve or know. I am not claiming here that such people are evil or immoral. In general I think such people are just ordinary, everyday people, for whom notions of cultivating virtue, pursuing truth, and living a truly ‘good life’ are just utterly alien.

Concluding Thoughts and Implications

Our culture does not teach that the good life is important. Our culture says that happiness is important – both of the ephemeral consumerism kind and also the more long-lasting fulfillment kind. I think this is very sad, and truly and indictment of modern western culture. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this focus on happiness (again, even of the lasting fulfilling kind) over that of the good life should be seen as an instance of decadence. There is, of course, plenty of disagreement about what ‘the good life’ looks like, but that is precisely the sort of discussion that we, as individuals and as a society, need to be having. Aside from a few philosophers at university and few other select groups, I don’t hear people talking about this. People talk a lot about what is ethically right and wrong, what is environmentally friendly, what is fair, what is tolerant, what is efficient, and what promotes happiness and wellbeing, but seldom do they talk about what it is to live a good life. And if there is one thing that I think should indubitably be a part of the good life, it is spending time to thoughtfully consider and discuss what it is to lead a good life.

On day, in the far future, I would hope that my epitaph will read something like “he lived a good life”. I don’t really care nearly so much about whether that life was a happy one.