How many effective altruists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
None. There are better uses of their time.
How many critics of effective altruism does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Who knows? They’re still waiting for structural reform to take care of it.*
A few years back, the movement known as “effective altruism” began to make a splash, and over the past year there has been a series of splashing back from critics. Now wading into the muddy waters to clean things up a bit is Jeff McMahan (Oxford). He has written a short piece, “Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism,” in which he takes a look at how the debate has unfolded, along with one of its historical precedents—Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die, its review by Martha Nussbaum (Chicago) in the London Review of Books, and the follow-up to that review.
One of the central issues is whether the appropriate locus of attention is on individual voluntary actions, or on what our political, economic, and social institutions are like, with critics of effective altruism complaining that its emphasis on the former is misplaced given the urgent reforms needed in regards to the latter. In one passage on this, McMahan writes:
I am neither a community nor a state. I can determine only what I will do, not what my community or state will do. I can, of course, decide to concentrate my individual efforts on changing my state’s institutions, or indeed on trying to change global economic institutions, though the probability of my making a difference to the lives of badly impoverished people may be substantially lower if I adopt this course than if I undertake more direct action,unmediated by the state.
It is obviously better, however, if people do both. Yet there has to be a certain division of moral labor, with some people taking direct action to address the plight of the most impoverished people, while others devote their efforts to bringing about institutional changes through political action. To suppose that the only acceptable option is to work to reform global economic institutions and that it is self-indulgent to make incremental contributions to the amelioration of poverty through individual action is rather like condemning a doctor who treats the victims of a war for failing to devote his efforts instead to eliminating the root causes of war.
That some philosophers work to understand what our individual duties might be against a background of malfunctioning institutions does not free ‘the philosopher’ from trying also to understand issues of global justice and institutional reform. No philosopher I know is looking for reasons to avoid working to achieve an enhanced moral understanding. Yet if others who are not philosophers become persuaded that Srinivasan and Herzog are right that the appropriate agents for addressing problems of global poverty are communities, classes, and states, they are likely to be quite content to leave the problems to these entities and not bother with them themselves.
McMahan has more fundamental things to say about moral philosophy, too, especially about the conservatism in moral philosophy typically expressed by critics of effective altruism. These critics “repeatedly appeal to sturdy common sense, to what all right-thinking people believe, which they appear to assume is immune to rejection or revision in response to philosophical argument.” McMahan’s view is different: