The Philosophical Foundations of Effective Altruism

by Michael Lopresto Vacation_Marriot_Paris_12_2012-06-29

We, as members of an affluent society, have a moral obligation to help those who are far worse off than we are. To establish this moral obligation, I'll use Peter Singer's Life Saving Analogy from his seminal (1972) paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality” – an argument that strongly influenced my thinking when I first read it as an undergraduate (more years ago than I care to remember), and still strongly influences me today. It sparked off a movement known today by the name Effective Altruism.

The Life Saving Analogy asks us to imagine walking past a pond, where we happen to see a child drowning. We can safely and easily save the life of the child, but in the process would ruin our new pair of shoes, which cost, say, $300. We all judge that it would be wrong not to save the life of the child, and that the cost of the shoes doesn't have any moral significance in comparison. And yet – and this is the analogy – we are in a position right now where we could save someone's life for exactly the same cost, who would otherwise die of poverty-related illness. The only difference is that we can't directly see the person we would save; but this fact alone makes no moral difference. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to give money to those who would die of poverty-related illness, and to alleviate poverty-related suffering, because our money would actually make a difference – that's the effective part of effective altruism – and because our lives would not be any worse off in any significant sense.

So the view is that we as affluent people have a moral obligation to donate a percentage of our income to charities that have been proven to be highly effective, since it's inconsistent to accept that we ought to save the drowning child in front of us, but not save a person who's far away, when it's within our ability to do so. I'll quickly rebut three common objections to the effective altruist view.

1. The first objection is that donations to charity can't make the different that people would like them to, because charities invariably have massive overheads and administrative fees that prevent your money getting to those who need it. However, the problem with this objection is that there are non-profit organisations like Give Well that analyse a huge number of charities for their efficiency and effectiveness. For example, Give Well have shown that if you donate $10 to the Against Malaria Foundation, at least $7 goes to those who need it, and if you donate $10 to Give Directly, $9.10 goes to those who need it. This money makes a huge difference to those living in extreme poverty, on less $1.25 per day.

2. The second objection is that contrary to the Life Saving Analogy, being a great spatial distance away from someone in need does in fact make a moral difference, such that the further away you are from someone, the less moral obligation you have to them. To see that this objection doesn't work, we can imagine a different scenario. Imagine being a security guard watching a pond that on the other side of the world, via CCTV. You see a child fall into the pond, and there's no one around to save her. You can push a button that will instantly drain the water from the pond, saving the child's life, but you know you'll be up for a water bill of $300. Should you push that button? Again, we'd say of course you should, and that the $300 you'll have to pay is insignificant in comparison.

3. The third objection is perhaps the most serious, and I must admit that I don't have a principled answer to this objection like I do the previous objections. It says that accepting the Life Saving Analogy leads to extreme demand. If we're ever in a position to make a different in the life of someone who lives in extreme poverty, we ought to perform that action. However, it's nearly always the case that instead of buying tickets to the movies or paying for our child's violin lessons, we could be giving that money to someone in desperate poverty. But, goes the objection, this leads to an absurd outcome, so there must be a problem with accepting the Life Saving Analogy. As I said, I don't have a principled answer to this objection, but I do have a pragmatic answer: for anyone who lives a comfortable life in an affluent society, giving around 10% of your income to those in desperate need won't make your life any less comfortable. And furthermore, if everyone in affluent societies gave 10% of their income, that would make massive difference.

Thinking about the moral demands of affluence elucidates many other closely related issues and questions. For example, a charity like Give Directly is only made possible by current technology, and its availability and cost effectiveness. Part of their process is to satellite imagery to identify places where people live in thatch roofs, one of the most reliable indicators of poverty. Furthermore, the abundance of very cheap mobile phones makes it easy for organisations for Give Directly to keep in touch with recipients. Technology transforms the ways in which we can exercise our moral agency, and perform moral actions that have effects on the other side of the world. So there's no question of spatial distance having absolutely no moral significance.

Another philosophical question that's elucidated for me concerns the nature of morality itself. Many of us have a strong intuition that we have moral obligations, first and foremost, to our loved ones, friends and those in our own community. These intuitions can obviously go too far, and give rise to ugly forms of nationalism. However, many people feel the need to hold on to a healthy form of partiality. This forcefully raises a fundamental question about the nature of morality. Are moral obligations partial or impartial? That is, do moral obligations to our friends and loved ones override the moral obligations we have to strangers? Most people believe that they do override the obligations we have to strangers. Or at least, that's how they live their everyday lives (that's certainly how I live mine). But he Life Saving Analogy teaches us that they don't. We have the exact same, impartial, obligations to family and stranger alike. It makes absolutely no moral difference whether or not it's our child drowning in the pond, or someone else's.

So far so good. The only problem is that this conclusion is somewhat at odds with human nature. This is because our moral intuitions are the product of evolution, and the mechanisms of human evolution were gene selection, kin selection and group selection. And for most of human history, humans lived in groups of no more than 150. So our moral intuitions were never designed to think about larger numbers of people, still less people we never see. Evolution has made our moral intuitions profoundly unreliable. Throughout our evolutionary history, we only ever had to make moral decisions about people we knew intimately (unless if it was someone from an out-group, in which case they would be extended little or no moral consideration). The best way to our intuitions back on track, it seems to me, is to consult our best moral theory. And our best moral theory says that morality is impartial.

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