Individuals, Institutions, and Conservatism in Moral Philosophy

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:

It might seem self-serving for me, a moral philosopher, to express skepticism about the supposition that the truth about morality is already contained in the common sense moral beliefs of ordinary people. For if that were true, the job of substantive moral philosophers (though not of those who work in metaethics) would be merely to fill in some of the details. Nonetheless, my experience as a moral philosopher has been that, with every issue I consider in depth, it is possible to go deeper and deeper. I share the sense, articulated in the final chapter of Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, that we have only just begun to understand morality independently of constraints on moral inquiry imposed by deference to ancient religious texts. I therefore think it is a mistake to suppose that the moral views of effective altruists can be rejected on the ground that they are more demanding than people now and in the past have thought that morality could be. It may well turn out that future people will view the failure of affluent people to take individual action to save the lives of people in impoverished are as in much the way we now look back on the drivers of slaves, who were also acting in conformity with ‘the view of most people’ during their time. It is salutary to recall that the early efforts of those we now recognize as having been in the vanguard of moral progress – abolitionists, campaigners for women’s rights and female suffrage, vegetarians and opponents of vivisection—have always been fiercely resisted and ridiculed by those to whom it was inconceivable that the common sense view at the time might be mistaken.


Thanks to Robert Long for bringing this article to my attention. The whole piece is available here.


(*The first joke is by Jason Brennan, the second by me.)

(Detail of Palais des Papes Avignon by Paul Signac. Click for full image.)

(Detail of Palais des Papes Avignon by Paul Signac. Click for full image.)