Criticism of effective altruism
See also: Common objections to effective altruism
A variety of criticisms have been leveled against effective altruism. This page keeps track of these.
List of critiques of effective altruism
There have been various critiques of effective altruism both inside and outside the community.
- Ben Kuhn
- More minor points:
- David Brooks and followup on LW (GiveWell has also mentioned Brooks's article somewhere)
- Effective Altruism Complaints
- RationalWiki's article on EA
- "The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism" by Charity Navigator people
- Lila comments on The Outside Critics of Effective Altruism
- Boston Globe: "The Logic of Effective Altruism" (this one has several responses in one)
- Overcoming Bias's response (by Robin Hanson): "Effective Altruism Complaints"
- reddit thread
- Some discussion at this post by Eliezer
- A Note on Framing Criticisms of Effective Altruism and Facebook post
- Another Critique of Effective Altruism
- Youth Movements
- I spent a weekend at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away … worried.
- Against Charity:
The core problem is the bourgeois moral philosophy that the movement rests upon. Effective Altruists abstract from — and thereby exonerate — the social dynamics constitutive of capitalism. The result is a simultaneously flawed moral and structural analysis that aspires to fix the world’s most pressing problems on capital’s terms.
- The Jacobin piece also links to So You Want to be a "Radical" Philanthropist? and The fallacy of philanthropy (by Paul Gomberg)
- Another critique from the left: "Stop the Robot Apocalypse: The New Utilitarians" by Amia Srinivasan
- "EA's Image Problem"
- "Could effective altruism destroy the arts?":
The effective altruists’ completely dispassionate assessment of “value” — lives saved per dollar — does not allow for a holistic approach to what makes a healthy society. If everybody gave as they did, we might well end up solving Third World crises at the expense of deepening crises right here at home. Rampant poverty and public health challenges in the United States would ultimately damage our local and national economies, diminishing our long-term capacity to help abroad. In addition, many of the things that are important to our souls — beauty, hope, joy, tolerance, inspiration — are fostered through the arts. They may be very hard to sufficiently measure in a world of purely data-driven philanthropy. This does not mean they are not important.
There is also a condescending undertone to the effective altruist approach. It assumes, however unintentionally, that the poor need only their basic needs met, that they do not have the same need as others do for the beauty and inspiration of the arts. Clearly we need to do a much better job communicating to the effective altruists the connection between the arts and other social challenges.
- "Traditional charity fosters love. Effective altruism doesn’t.":
[Traditional charity] may not change the world in the most “logical” way, but it nevertheless has an important effect: It protects, preserves and grows local economies of love. Effective altruism leaves such economies wholly unaccounted for. And when followed to its logical conclusion, it is their enemy.
- Vipul Naik on growth of effective altruism
- Holden Karnofsky, touching on the "obligatory" nature and overconfidence of EA
- "Number and numbness: Data journalism, the rationality community, and the misuse of mathematics" by Sam Hopkins: "We can see how casting morality in such starkly reductionist and quantitative terms would appeal to someone who wants the world to be 'neat and simple.' We can also see how this moral program would appeal to anyone who does not really want to challenge the structures that perpetuate injustice."
- "Effective Altruists are Cute but Wrong" by evolutiontheorist
- Rob Bensinger sets up an anonymous form to collect responses to the question "If you could magically change the effective altruism community tomorrow, what things would you change?" This was later published as "Anonymous EA comments" on the EA Forum.
- Herald's comment on a Slate Star Codex post about "eigenaltruism": "In short, I am an eigenaltruist because I believe in being altruistic mainly towards other altruistic people who can pay it forward. I suspect that eigenaltruism is game-theoretically superior to merit-blind altruism and also more sustainable and psychologically palatable. I would like to see a version of effective altruism that emphasizes concentric eigenaltruism instead of leapfrogging altruism."
- "Legitimate Criticisms of EA?" on /r/smartgiving
- "Add Your Own Egg (critique of EA)" on /r/smartgiving
- "Add Your Own Egg" by Nakul Krishna
- Pacific University's Essays in Philosophy, Volume 18, Issue 1 (January 2017) is about Effective Altruism. Not all essays are criticisms.
Much of the controversy about effective altruism is due to the idea that it can be ethical to take a high-earning career in a potentially unethical industry if this allows one to donate more money. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized effective altruists who adopt the earning to give strategy, i.e., they take high-earning careers in order to have more money to donate. He believes that most people who work in finance and other high-paying industries value money for selfish reasons and that being surrounded by these people will cause effective altruists to become less altruistic. Some effective altruists also mention this possibility, and aim to reduce this risk through online communities, public pledges, and donations through donor-advised funds. He also questions whether children in distant countries should be treated as having equal moral value to nearby children. He claims that morality should be "internally ennobling", a position similar to virtue ethics.
An article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in The Week questioned whether effective altruism could change the world. It said: "The point is this: Effective Altruism, while very welcome, is not an "objective" look at the value of philanthropy; instead it is a method replete with philosophical assumptions. And that's fine, so long as everyone realizes it."
In a response to criticism of this aspect of effective altruism, the National Review questioned whether industries commonly believed to be unethical, such as finance, are actually unethical. The writer claimed that often these industries produce more benefits than harm. The business magazine Euromoney has praised effective altruism for its emphasis on individual charitable action.
Paul Brest of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (one of GiveWell's funders) wrote an article for Stanford Social Innovation Review and concluded by writing: "All things considered, my unsolicited advice to proponents of effective altruism is to stay the course." In contrast, Ken Berger and Robert Penna of Charity Navigator wrote a lengthy critique of the philosophy of effective altruism in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Their critique, which goes so far to label the movement "defective altruism", alleges that effective altruists moralistically select a few causes as worthy and deem all others "a waste of precious resources." The critique provoked strong responses from effective altruists, both in the comments on SSIR's website and elsewhere, including a response piece (also published in SSIR) in which William MacAskill defended the utilitarian logic the movement uses to evaluate the effectiveness of different charities.
A Kenyan activist argues that Americans (though the point applies more broadly, of course) should stay in their own countries and tackle problems like homelessness and police racism, rather than trying to save Africa. He explicitly disagrees with the suggestion (made by a young black American woman) that we should prioritise problems in the developing world because they are more severe. It's also noteworthy for making many of the same arguments for "Philanthrolocalism" as the article "The coming showdown between philanthrolocalism and effective altruism" e.g. that it's better to focus on your local community where people know you and you know them.