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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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* aneffective 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 accountin 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 seemuncomfortable with any attention to its effectiveness.
Motives matter. Ask the people of Troy about a certain wooden horse, or anyone who's been accused of taking a bribe...
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. But--this might be the source of your misinterpretation--the rightist critique of EA does not necessarily apply to traditional charities.]
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.]
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."
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.
Robin, I think this is one of those lucky cases where your hammer (*) is perfectly suited for the nail at hand.
"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.