Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer:

Daron Acemoglu: Assigning to individuals and groups the roles typically reserved for societal institutions poses some dangers .. Building trust in the state and developing state capacity in other crucial areas may become harder. .. Precise measurement of the social value of a donated dollar may be impossible. .. One has to take into account how charities’ activities affect economic development, which is essentially impossible. .. Imperative to maximize their earnings so they can give more might influence what society views as a meaningful life.

Angus Deaton: Why do the world’s poor have such a passive role in all of this happiness creation? Why are they not asked if they wish to participate, if they too feel the warm glow? .. Evidence is nearly always in dispute. .. Experiments be wrong .. because they consider only the immediate effects of the interventions, not the contexts in which they are set. Nor, most importantly, can they say anything about the wide-ranging unintended consequences. .. If it were possible to use this sort of evidence to eliminate global poverty, [World Bank, etc.] would be better placed to do so than a handful of wealthy individuals working through NGOs.

Jennifer Rubenstein: 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.

Larissa MacFarquhar: This sense—that it is disturbing to act upon people at such a distance that they become abstractions, even if the consequences are better—explains something many find off-putting about Singer’s movement

Leila Janah: Suppose after college I take a high-paying job at a private equity firm. What if that firm invests in companies that produce the very negative social outcomes my donations are supposed to fix? .. Singer’s approach .. sorts people into the helpers and the helped, which reinforces prevailing beliefs about the best way to generate and distribute wealth instead of questioning what led us here in the first place. .. Creating living-wage jobs for poor people, so long as one avoids negative social and environmental externalities, is the *maximally decent ethical choice.

Emma Saunders-Hastings: Even a narrow focus on welfare can lead to programs that are objectionably paternalizing if donors and volunteers view themselves as entitled to make decisions on behalf of the poor. ..

Rob Reich: Giving in support of particular candidates for office, ballot initiatives, or policy advocacy can be as or more effective than giving to alleviate poverty. .. I believe effective altruism has a clear politics in each of these ways. .. Effective altruists see the best state of affairs, I think, as that in which good-maximizing technocrats are in charge. .. But this politics is suspicious of, or rejects .. democracy.

Paul Brest: I wonder whether effective altruists aren’t free-riding on other altruists in order to live in a world in which they can enjoy the arts, literature, and other cultural and leisure pursuits. .. One might worry that if people regard effective altruism’s demands as excessive, it may provide an excuse for doing even less.

Iason Gabriel: Effective altruists know there is good instrumental reason to promote equality, focus on the worst off, and respect human rights. Yet when the cards are on the table, their failure to value these things as ends in themselves induces forms of moral blindness. .. They often overlook the weakest and most vulnerable members of a population

András Miklós: Many of us think we have a special responsibility not to harm others, even if that means forgoing benefits of similar magnitude that we could have provided to many more. .. Effective altruism could have even greater impact if it did not focus exclusively on individual philanthropy. Firms also need guidance.

Catherine Tumber: Donors are .. tasked with giving up meaningful work, even if it means lending their talents to the very financial institutions that deepen global poverty. Such circular reasoning .. [puts] painful, conflict-ridden political recourse at a dim remove. That is what happens when you reduce self and others to quantifiable widgets, much as the global financial markets regard us.

Added 5p: Rob Reich has in fact published an essay criticizing charity in general for being apolitical.

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  • Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue

    The main issue is dominance. I suspect these writers are smart enough to know dominance issues applies to charity generally. It isn’t an arcane critique.

    Failure to publish essays? No one but the effective altruists are interested in debating their approach.

  • Lord

    It seems like the tension is between charity as an act and charity as an institution If you believe charity should be immediate and temporary and should do its best to find solutions and put itself out of business, then systematizing it becomes a way of perpetuating it, not that there aren’t a lot of long lasting charities but there is at least change in those helping and being helped, but while all institutions systematize, this can also reduce their effectiveness even when increased effectiveness is their goal.

  • ChanaM

    Perhaps the ambition and high-mindedness of EA is what opens itself to this kind of criticism. When you declare yourself interested in limited goals, the expectations are lower. When you declare yourself interested in saving the world, people find all the reasons you can’t do it.

  • Meegs

    This kind of reminds me of the Moneyball debate where players are “reduced” to mere numbers and the status of scouts and general managers is lowered. Their wisdom, experience and gut feelings are less valuable.

    The human element is taken out, supposedly, even though the team is better off and better players are rewarded.

    Same here, they seem to be arguing that effective altruism is dehumanizing despite saving more lives.

  • Matt Sharp

    I was surprised to see Iason Gabriel’s critique, given that he has signed the Giving What We Can pledge. It seems he (quite reasonably) thinks effective altruism has various problems, but it’s still worthwhile to be an effective altruist.

  • Robert Koslover

    Some people help others simply because they consider it the right thing to do, or that they are commanded to act righteously by God, or both. E.g., see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tzedakah, among others. I don’t see how you can have a realistic discussion about what motivates people toward acts of charity, or about what kinds of charities they prefer, without including the impact of their religious beliefs, even if you are only interested in why or how agnostics or atheists act charitably, since even agnostics and atheists are very likely to have been influenced by many others that embrace principles found in religious beliefs. Anonymous giving is not about signaling (unless you include a small group who may actually know the donor’s identity, or you perhaps consider it to be signaling to God himself?) and yet such donations are very, very common.

    • Religious people might donate anonymously because it isn’t anonymous to God.

      • Robert Koslover

        Yes. Thank you for agreeing with me.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    Recent relevant blog post from EA career advice organization 80000 hours:


    I’m hoping the EA movement can avoid staying attached to the causes & approaches it’s historically been associated with and be a question about how to do the most good:


    For example, I am more optimistic about efforts to decrease political polarization than I am about the kind of global poverty alleviation that Givewell does:



    It’ll be interesting to see if any new causes acquire significant popularity within the EA movement over the next several years. If none do, I think that’s a pretty bad sign.

    • lump1

      You know, I think that Givewell really underestimates the positive outcomes of me volunteering my time to gently correct the misconceptions that crop up in various online forums. You’re welcome, everyone. Really, no need to genuflect before me. I’m here because I’m clearly too virtuous to instead be helping the blind see again, and shot-range crap like that.

  • Anonymous

    I think Effective Altruism is too good and too objective. It removes the opacity that allows people to appear good without too much sacrifice. EA makes other people look bad, and people feel this. (Lower-status people need to avoid doing too much good in order not to be a threat to higher-status people.) In general: don’t expose the fashionable lie unless you’re at the top.

    • lump1

      I think it’s as simple as you say: EA makes other people look bad, so they react to it with predictable and obvious defensiveness. What’s especially threatening about EA is that it paints other charitable givers as weak-minded, sentimental dupes who fell for hype instead of substance.

      That must really sting their pride, because when you want to kick some fancy person in the status, painting them as weak-minded, emotion-driven and gullible is pretty much a blow in their most vulnerable spot.

      • But let it not be forgotten that EA consciously aims to exploit this vulnerability. If defensiveness (rather than generosity) is the “predictable and obvious” reaction, EAers have grossly misunderstood human nature.

        Moreover, it doesn’t take great perspicacity to see that EAers are subconsciously driven by the (sadistic) desire to attack this vulnerability.

      • oldoddjobs

        You can be motivated by sadism and also be right. How do you know sadism is not actually required to solve certain problems? You don’t. Anyway, can you substantiate your claim that the EAers are “subconsciously driven” by “sadistic desire”?!

      • lump1

        I’d also be slightly more charitable and say that even EAers detect the sentimentality and weakmindedness in themselves, but are proud in having overcome it. This makes them eager to spread the word about 1. how there is a genuinely better way to make a difference in the world, and 2., how they defeated the irrational ape within and are now on a truly higher plane of ethical thinking, and everyone should notice. Since 1. and 2. are both done in a single fell swoop, it’s hard for anyone to diagnose which one is doing more of the pushing. Also, someone who is moved entirely by 1. will still probably appear to be largely moved by 2. in the eyes of cynical onlookers.

      • You’re saying EAers often had been conned by “traditional charity”? It seems then that another factor in EA has been ignored: associating with wealthy elites.

  • Sam Dangremond

    A great many of these pull quotes sound like the complaints of a middle-man getting cut out.

  • G Diego Vichutilitarian

    Agree with Sam that: A great many of these pull quotes sound like the complaints of a middle-man getting cut out.
    But would also like to point out that some of them feel like people trying to be off the hook. It is really hard to be on the hook, and once on the hook, really hard to stop being there as discussed in Joshua Greene (2013).

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  • Zhang Tingyu

    Note that Asians don’t do charity. Empathy to strangers is not seen as a virtue. Filial piety, even to a fault, is.

  • Pingback: Being good at empathy means caring about effectiveness | topherhallquist()

  • edward0h

    I’m surprised Robin refrains from commenting on the signalling inherent in effective altruism itself, given the extent to which the organisations in it seem drawn to prestigious, “cool”, interesting, academic work and redirect the generous donors they’ve found towards funding that.

    • oldoddjobs

      Ok, let’s admit that signalling is unavoidable…. and then can we discuss effective altruism? What difference does it make if people are attracted to it because of prestige? The point about traditional charity is that the desired social signal may hinder the stated goal of the charitable activity.

      • Details of motivation can explain details of behavior. Donors motivated by status may well donate differently than those with other motivations, even if both claim to want to be “effective.”

      • The point about traditional charity is that the desired social signal may hinder the stated goal of the charitable activity.

        Why privilege the stated goal and ignore the unintended (or subconsciously intended) consequences? [That was, after all, edward0h’s point.]

      • Ok, let’s admit that signalling is unavoidable?

        Signaling is ineliminable, but the same doesn’t hold for hypocrisy. Sending kindly signals when you’re really a prestige glutton isn’t truthful conduct.

  • truth_machine

    “I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general”

    So you base your entire analysis on an unevidenced doubt. You haven’t even bothered to get the conditions right — it should be whether people have published essays complaining about charity in general *in response to a request to respond to an essay about charity*. You should reconsider retitling your blog to “How to avoid overcoming bias”

    On the substance: it’s self-defeating to ask people to do things that are less emotionally satisfying, and indicates a failure to understand emotion and what function it serves.

  • Dániel

    Robin, I think this is one of those lucky cases where your hammer (*) is perfectly suited for the nail at hand.

    (*) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hammer

  • Anon

    It’s hard to take Effective Altruism seriously if they want to “save the world” all the time. Even if they focus their charity on x-risk, the best they can hope for are small reductions in risk probability. But they use these overselling phrases even outside of x-risk.

  • jtlevy

    Several of the participants have, in fact, published substantially on the aid/ politics question and on the beneficiaries’ participation question, and their essays here reflect their developed views about charitable aid in general; that is, they think that there are ethical concerns about charitable aid that EA doesn’t address or aggravates. See, for example, Rubenstein’s book: http://amzn.to/1HfTGHI

    Doesn’t mean one would have to agree, but it’s a strange, ungenerous, and false assumption to start with the suspicion that the authors are coming up with ad hoc criticisms that only apply to EA.

    • If they intended to merely criticize charity in general, don’t you think it odd that they did so in a debate explicitly comparing effective altruism to other charity, without noting that their comments were intended to apply to all charity?

      • No, I don’t think a good arguer would expand the question to charity in general. For one thing, the concept of charity is vague. EA claims to have overcome widely known defects of traditional charities. (Cf.recently, the exposures of the Red Cross.) An opponent properly shows it hasn’t overcome the central defects.

        [There seem to be two lines of criticism of EA: leftist, represented by the participants and involving domination and political anodyneness; and rightist, focusing on hypocrisy. Rightist critics reject the leftist critique, but leftists may also be receptive to the rightist critique, as long as it doesn’t center on narrow egoism.]

  • dzhaughn .

    Or, consider not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Plausible signaling function indeed.

    Maybe you’ve heard of St. Nick?


  • LLC

    As to whether or how it profits anyone to question the motives of givers, I suggest we ask the receivers whether they give a damn.

    • Ronfar

      Some gifts are more trouble than they’re worth. Ask the Trojans.

  • Philon

    I don’t think the critics’ point is that *we should be very suspicious of someone who presented himself as an “effective altruist”*, for that wouldn’t contradict Singer. Singer suggests that you *be* an
    effective altruist, not that you *give credit* to whoever presents himself as an effective altruist. Perhaps the
    (unarticulated) point is that effective altruism’s lack of emotional connection between giver and recipient (as opposed to the emotional connection that exists with non-effective altruism) is a negative feature, which should be taken into account
    in our evaluation of effective altruism. (Not that I consider this a *good* criticism of effective altruism.)

    The critics also suggest that the attempt to be effective is better left to some sort of collective organization rather than being left in the hands of the individual philanthropists. But, of course, the would-be effective individuals should already have taken this into account (if, indeed, it is a valid point), and banded together in their effort to make the judgments needed for effectiveness.

    But you are right that the actual criticisms of Singer are strikingly weak. Most people who like the idea of charity seem
    uncomfortable with any attention to its effectiveness.