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The smugness of effective altruism

This post is much more of a rant than my usual ones. But stuff related to effective altruism has been increasingly annoying me, recently. So here goes.

Before I start, let's get some things clear. As I see it, the interesting core of effective altruism is three claims:
(1) When you give to charity, you should give to charities that use the money most effectively.
(2) You should give more to charity. (That is, to highly effective charities.)
(3) You should arrange your life so that you can give as much as possible to charity.
I think the first two of these are pretty plainly true; I'm somewhat less convinced about the third. There is an interesting philosophical question about how inclusive 'you' has to be before the claims here become false, or more dubious. But that's not really the main point: you, reading this, should just find a list of effective charities, and when you earn money, you should give quite a bit of that money to the charities on the list.

That is: I'm not very interested in giving a critique of effective altruism, per se. Nor is this meant to be a personal critique of everyone who considers themselves an effective altruist. The effective altruists I know personally are lovely and caring people. My target here is more an archetype of an effective altruist, one that if you spend a bit of time reading and thinking about the philosophy of philanthropy, you'll pretty quickly become acquainted with.

Bearing that in mind, here's Jeff McMahan, being extremely harsh on 'philosophical critiques' of effective altruism. It's an interesting article. I think the philosophy in it is extremely shallow, but it's not meant to be a rigorous piece of philosophical writing, so that's fine.* Here's what caught my eye:
"published commentaries on effective altruism written by philosophers ... are often derisive and contemptuous in tone ... While I do not find this surprising, I do find it depressing. ... It is ... dispiriting to read their criticisms, which often ridicule people who are devoting their lives, often at considerable personal sacrifice, to the achievement of [the shared goal of improving the situation of the extremely poor] and are often gleeful rather than constructive
One may think that I have harped excessively on the fact that the philosophical critics of effective altruism tend to express their objections in such a mocking and disdainful manner. ... The issues that the effective altruists are addressing are of the utmost seriousness. They should not be occasions for the scoring of debating points or for displays of cleverness, rhetorical prowess, or moral exhibitionism."
McMahan says he'll "refrain from speculating about the psychology behind the critics' antagonism." I'm going to go ahead and do that. I think the critics are antagonistic because, for the most part, effective altruists are so dismissive and overweening in their sense of moral and intellectually superiority

The reason these passages were striking to me is that they seem like they could only have been written by someone with very little exposure to effective altruism in the form of the campus movement it's become. If you've learned about effective altruism by reading MacAskill, Singer and Parfit, and learned about criticisms of it by reading the various reviews of their books, then maybe you could hold the view that effective altruists are the genuinely passionate moral strivers, and their opponents are the derisive moral exhibitionists.

There's no other way you could think that. In my experience - at university and, mostly, on social media - the critics of effective altruism are passionate campaigners for justice who are worried that effective altruism blinds us to the necessity for more major structural changes. Whether or not that's a good criticism, these are clearly good people trying sincerely to address important issues. Likewise, people who give to charities that are not on GiveWell's most-effective list are trying honestly to make a difference for the better.

Effective altruists, by contrast, extremely frequently target these people in order to score debating points, display their cleverness and exhibit their moral superiority. People who posted videos in the 'ice bucket challenge' and gave money to help fight ALS, apparently, have blood on their hands and don't care about doing good. People campaigning for minimum wage increases and redistribution in Western democracies are myopic moral idiots. People who give money to help train guide dogs are stupid, and moral failures.

In general, effective altruism seems to have been incorporated into a pre-existing, fairly obnoxious pattern of 'hyper-rational' behaviour. If you've been on LessWrong and that kind of thing, you'll know the sort: really relentless Bayesian reasoning, application of economic logic, extremely high degree of interest in AI and the tech sector. These are technolibertarians who think they are smarter than you, because they understand a whole lot of weird paradoxes about AI, and because they have credences, and talk about expected utility functions. Now that effective altruism is in the mix, they also think they are morally better than you - and they can explain why, by talking about Bayesianism and economic logic and expected utility and, if you're really lucky, weird stuff about AI. (This last sort of effective altruism is my favourite, where the way-smarter-than-you techies become way-more-moral-than-you techies without even changing anything that they were doing.)

People are annoyed about effective altruism because in so many of its manifestations on campuses and in the social media of university students - notice that most of the critics McMahan cites are much younger philosophers, more likely to be exposed to this part of the movement - it's a sneering philosophy of moral superiority used by the smug to ridicule people who are much more passionately and reliably dedicated than them to improving the world. It's bullshit, and people don't like it.

Here are the websites of Giving What We Can, a prominent effective altruism organisation where you can read a lot more about why and in what ways you should give more to charity, and GiveWell, a charity evaluator which will help you find charities that will use your money most effectively. As I said, this was a rant about a certain subset (prominent in certain spheres) of effective altruists. Effective altruism as a moral philosophy contains a lot that is true, and everybody who's in a position to be reading this should be trying to take that on board.

* This post, obviously, is also not a work of philosophy. But to briefly point out two of the problems that are particularly striking. One is that the critics are meant to be misguided since all they do is use Bernard Williams' arguments about personal projects to target utilitarianism, which need not be the theoretical basis of effective altruism. At their most radical, effective altruism claims that you are morally required to take a job you won't enjoy at a company you regard as immoral, work as hard as possible there in order to make as much money as you can, and give most of that money to charity. This is clearly the sort of moral requirement that prevents you from undertaking your own projects and upholding your personal commitments. Williams' arguments are perfectly pertinent. Another argument McMahan makes is that if this was right, then our personal projects would also justify being able to kill people. There are obviously plenty of ways of distinguishing between not giving to charity and killing someone - many of which, I'm pretty sure, McMahan subscribes to - and there's not even the slightest attempt to pursue whether this off-hand criticism makes sense.