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.