Criticism of effective altruism

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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.


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.[7] Some effective altruists also mention this possibility, and aim to reduce this risk through online communities, public pledges, and donations through donor-advised funds.[50] 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.[7]

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."[51]

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.[52] The business magazine Euromoney has praised effective altruism for its emphasis on individual charitable action.[53]

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."[54] 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."[55] 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.[56][57][58][59]

Some people sympathetic to effective altruism have also written critiques of it, partly to voice criticisms they believe in and partly as an ideological Turing Test.[60][61]

Critical pieces

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.