ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello, and welcome to another episode in our Ethics in International Affairs interview series sponsored by Carnegie Council. My name is Adam Read-Brown, and I’m the managing editor of Ethics & International Affairs (EIA), the Council’s quarterly peer reviewed journal which is now in its 30th year, and is published by Cambridge University Press.
With me today is Professor Jennifer Rubenstein here to discuss her essay “The Lessons of Effective Altruism,” which appears in the Winter 2016 issue of the journal. Welcome, Professor Rubenstein. Thank you for joining us.
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Professor Rubenstein is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia, where she teaches political theory. She is the author of the book Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs and she is currently working on two projects—one on the role of money in supporting political and social change, and one on emergencies.
With that introduction, let’s get started with our conversation. As I mentioned, your essay for EIA is called “The Lessons of Effective Altruism.” Start us off there: What is “effective altruism”?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Effective altruism (EA) is the idea that individuals should do as much good as possible, so it’s a pretty simple idea. Concrete examples of the kinds of things that effective altruists might do include donating a lot of money to the most cost-effective charities; spending a lot of time volunteering for organizations that do a lot of good; working in a job that does a lot of good, so picking a career that they think will do the most good; and even donating an organ. Some effective altruists also make lifestyle choices that they think will do the most good; for example, not eating meat, trying to use less energy, things like that.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Can you unpack this idea of doing the most good a little more?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Sure. Effective altruism, then, has two main elements: Altruism, or doing good; and effectiveness as doing the most good. Let me say a little bit about each of those.
For effective altruists, doing good basically means increasing the welfare of sentient beings—animals as well as people. Effective altruists have tended to focus on reducing pain and suffering rather than increasing happiness as their conception of what increasing welfare is. With this understanding, we might think of increasing welfare as an alternative to other kinds of social goals that you might have, such as fighting for justice, or fairness, or equality. For effective altruists, the really important thing—the way to do good—is to increase the welfare of sentient beings. That’s the doing-good part.
The effectiveness part—or doing the most good—we can think of as also having two elements. One is about basically how much you should sacrifice. You should be willing to do a lot; you should donate a lot of money; you should volunteer a large number of hours. But the effective altruists really emphasize that it is not only about how much you sacrifice; what’s maybe even more important is making sure that your sacrifice is oriented toward doing the most good, so that not only do you donate a lot of money, but you donate a lot of money to organizations that are doing the most good. You not only volunteer a large number of hours; you volunteer for an organization that’s doing the most good.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Got it. Thanks.
In your essay, you focus on two books: Peter Singer‘s The Most Good You Can Do and William MacAskill‘s Doing Good Better, both of which make the case for practicing effective altruism. What are the basic arguments in these books in favor of this philosophy and as you see them for practicing effective altruism?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Singer and MacAskill are both utilitarian. Utilitarianism is a philosophy that says that—there’s a lot of versions of it, but the basic idea is that we should aim to maximize utility. Utility can be conceptualized in lots of different ways. It’s helpful when you’re thinking about the arguments in favor of effective altruism to understand that MacAskill and Singer are utilitarians, but in their books they try really hard to pitch their arguments even to people who aren’t utilitarians, even to people who don’t think that either the aims of individuals or the aims of policies should be to maximize utility. Because they’re trying to have this broad-tent approach and appeal to a lot of different people, their arguments in favor of effective altruism are pretty much empirical arguments.
They make three arguments that I think are powerful in some ways. One is they argue that there are huge differences in the good that can be done by different sorts of intervention, so it matters a lot whether you donate your $100 to one kind of cause or to another or one kind of organization or another.
The second thing that they say is these differences between the good that you can do by donating to different kinds of causes are measurable, and even though our ability to measure these differences is rough and sometimes does not work very well, the differences between different kinds of causes are so big that the limitations in our ability to measure this stuff exactly don’t matter that much.
My favorite example of this is from Will MacAskill’s book. He argues that a donation of $50,000 can be used to train and provide one guide dog to one blind person in the United States, or it can be used to fund surgery to prevent blindness from trachoma for 500 people in a poor country. As you can see there, it makes an enormous difference whether you donate to an organization that provides guide dogs or to an organization that helps to prevent blindness. If what you really want to do is help prevent blindness or address the difficulties associated with blindness, you’re going to do a lot more good, in MacAskill’s argument, if you donate to an organization that provides surgery for trachoma rather than one that helps to fund guide dogs. It’s not totally clear that there are many examples that are this dramatic, but I think Singer and MacAskill provide a lot of evidence that there are really pretty significant differences along these lines.
The third important argument that Singer and MacAskill make is that most people in wealthy countries are really very well-off in absolute terms and vastly better off than many people in poor countries. This sometimes can be hard to see insofar as there is a lot of poverty and deprivation in the United States, but that poverty and deprivation along some dimensions pales in comparison to poverty and deprivation elsewhere; so a worker in the United States who earns $52,000 a year is still in the top 1 percent of earners globally. In MacAskill’s estimation it costs about $3,400 to save a life, so their argument is that most people in wealthy countries do not have to impoverish themselves in order to do quite a lot of good for people who live elsewhere.
In their view, these three ideas together—that there are huge differences in the good that can be done by different interventions; that these differences are measurable; and that people in well-off countries are quite well off in relative terms compared to people in poor countries—to them suggests that there is a really powerful case to be made that people in wealthy countries should be willing to do quite a lot to help address suffering and deprivation and increase welfare in other countries.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Right. As you note in your essay, effective altruism and these ideas that you’re explaining and that are explored in both of these books, have become more than just a philosophy that is being written about; it has developed into a movement of sorts. What form has this movement taken?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: I think this is a really interesting thing about effective altruism. From the beginning it has had both of these elements of being a movement and being a philosophy. The central heart, I would say, of the movement is organizations that are sometimes called “meta-charities.” Two examples are Giving What We Can, and GiveWell. Giving What We Can is more closely associated with effective altruism as a movement. There is also Peter Singer’s organization, The Life You Can Save. What all these organizations try to do is give individuals guidance about what organizations they can donate to in order to do the most good, and that is a central feature of what they do. You go to any one of these websites of these organizations and they will list a couple of organizations where they have done the research and they say, “Look, these are the places where you can do the most good.” They give lots of empirical evidence to back up this idea.
Organizations like Giving What We Can also offer—you can become a member of Giving What We Can; you can make a pledge; you can read the blog posts; you can participate in debates and online discussions. There are also effective altruist TED Talks, chapters, meet-up conferences, all sorts of things along those lines.
While there is some historical precedent to the movement, I think we can also see it in some respects as novel and a real improvement over other efforts to motivate people along these lines in the recent past.
ADAM READ-BROWN: We recently went through an election season here in the United States, as some listening may have noticed, and many people listening may have donated to one or more political campaigns—presidential or otherwise—and people around the world donate to political campaigns in the hopes that they will be contributing often to these institutions that run their countries and that they will strengthen them and have an impact that way.
What does EA have to say about this? How do effective altruists view contributions to the political realm?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Effective altruists want to do the most good, and they want to have some empirical verification that they are doing the most good. Those two goals can sometimes stand in tension with each other, so you might be tempted to try to do something that is going to do a lot of good even though you might not succeed—you might fail, right?—but if you succeed you will do a lot of good. Or you might go in the other direction and do something where maybe the amount of good you are going to do is less but you have more certainty that you are going to succeed and it is more likely that you are going to be able to have empirical verification that you have succeeded.
The challenge for effective altruists—while they would have no problem in principle with donating to an election campaign, I think they would be unlikely to think that would be the most effective way to use your money except if certain conditions were met that would be very difficult—like it would have to be the case that there was some chance your candidate could win, but it’s not certain that your candidate would win. Your contribution has to actually help make it more likely that they would win; and this has to be a better use of your money than all available alternatives.
So you can imagine some cases in which those criteria might be met and an effective altruist might say, “Okay, well, then this is probably the best use of your money,” but in most cases that is unlikely. But again in principle they have no objection to it.
This whole description that I am giving of why one might donate to a political party gets us to a distinctive feature of effective altruism, which is again their focus on increasing individual welfare. For a lot of us, when we donate to a candidate for elective office, we have other kinds of goals: We think the candidate that we are supporting will promote policies that are fair, more just, or more egalitarian. Maybe for some people they identify with a particular candidate; some people voted for Hillary Clinton because they wanted to see a woman in elected office. Those are all the sorts of goals that effective altruists thus far have not really recognized as important.
ADAM READ-BROWN: I am imagining that something, say, if we were to set aside the electoral process and then think about political change more broadly, that there is a similar set of considerations for effective altruism for people who are concerned about civil rights in a new administration donating to organizations that might make a difference there, to protect the rights of underprivileged classes and whatnot. Again, is it that same set of calculations of how this is increasing individual welfare versus other priorities? Is that any different?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Yes. I think there are a couple of ways to think about this. Many of your listeners—I am sure not all of them—have Facebook feeds or Twitter feeds that are full of people talking about what organizations to donate to in the wake of Trump‘s election. You might ask what effective altruists would say about this.
I think one thing they would say is in all of the focus on domestic politics in the United States, which of course will have reverberations elsewhere, we should not forget about other people in other countries. An effective altruist might say that even considering all that has happened it may still be the case—for them it is a largely empirical question—that the best use of your money is to donate to the organizations on effective altruist websites. I think one role of effective altruism in this context is to encourage people to take that broader view, however difficult that might be.
At the same time, one thing I have been thinking about a little bit as I am looking at all of these organizations that are working to address the potential for rights violations, the curtailment of services, the breakdown of institutions, press freedoms, things like that—so many issues in the United States right now—how if at all might effective altruism help me to figure which are the most important of those causes? On the one hand, this is already something that effective altruism narrowly conceived would not go in for because I am thinking about a whole bunch of different values—I’m thinking about justice, fairness, and rights—but still I think there are some aspects of effective altruism that are really helpful here.
For example, one of the things that effective altruists really focus on is whether or not a particular organization has room for more funding, whether or not it can actually use the amount of money that people are donating to it. You take particular sorts of organizations that are receiving a huge influx of funding, and one of the questions I want to ask is: Are they going to be able to really scale up and use all of that money effectively?
Another effective altruist question you might ask is: Are there particular causes where they are only going to be able to do a significant amount of good if they get a minimum amount of money, if they reach a certain floor, and what’s the likelihood that they are going to get that? Again, I would not want to donate to an organization that is not going to get the amount of money it needs to do the promising work that it sets out to do.
More generally, effective altruism’s focus on not just donating because it feels good but donating with an eye toward what are the effects of your donation likely to be, I think that is a helpful piece of advice moving forward.
One other thing I think that the more institutional movement side of effective altruism might lead us to think about is: What sort of mediating institutions might be helpful going forward? For you and I as individuals, the epistemic burdens—the challenge of getting enough information and the right kind of information to make an informed decision about where to donate—are enormous, and those burdens are even higher when we try to really think about what is the best organization working on a particular issue and how do I even compare different issue areas. That is very hard and time-consuming for any individual to try to undertake.
One of the things that effective altruists have done really effectively is develop these organizations, these meta-charities that have tried to help individuals make these decisions by giving them lots of good information in one place. We already have organizations like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and Charity Watch, but none of these do quite the same kind of—they are rigorous in their own way—work that Giving What We Can and GiveWell do in terms of providing very explicit and well-developed accounts of why particular organizations are effective in doing what they can do and giving us tools to help us think comparatively about different sorts of organizations and different causes.
The challenge to doing this kind of thing when you are attentive to a range of different values—not only individual welfare—is really great. But I still think it’s worth thinking about what kinds of organizations might bridge the gap between individuals who want to fight for justice and want to fight for fairness, equality, and inclusion, and prevent rights violations and provide services to people who are going to go without—what kinds of independent organizations might help us do that work even better going forward over the next however many years?
ADAM READ-BROWN: You’ve been describing a lot of the elements of the philosophy of the movement. So much of what effective altruism is trying to accomplish makes a lot of sense and seems like a really important addition to the philanthropic landscape. That said, I know my first reaction upon being introduced to the concept—to go back to your example from earlier in our discussion about the guide dogs—it sounds at once very effective and also very clinical, the idea that you would not give to train that guide dog for maybe someone who you know who lives in your town, so there’s this gut reaction against wanting to do that good for someone close to you. Beyond that gut reaction, what are some of the criticisms that the movement faces?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Let me talk about four criticisms: Two common ones that I think effective altruism has the resources to handle, and two that I think are a bit more serious. I know later we will move on to some other even more serious criticisms.
To take up the issue that you just mentioned—your grandma really loves dogs, she really loves blind people, and she passes away, and of course you want to donate in her honor to the guide dogs organization of America after her death, and what would an effective altruist say about that?
Effective altruism actually has resources to say, “Okay, that’s okay, that’s a nice thing, donate in honor of your grandma,” but I think one thing they would want you to do, as you are tallying up or characterizing what you’re doing when you’re making that donation, is think of it as putting it in the luxury spending category; it is more like buying yourself a sweater than it is like sending money to one of the most cost-effective charities, like an organization that helps fight trachoma or an organization that fights malaria.
Effective altruists do not say that you have to spend every single second and every single dollar that you have maximizing the good. I think they realize that is both hugely unrealistic and unlikely to be sustainable. Both MacAskill and Singer leave room for personal luxury spending of various kinds, spending on things that are not necessities. They would, I think, just want you to characterize your donation to your grandma as that, and not confuse it with a donation that would do the most good.
If you’re resistant to the idea that there is no moral difference between buying yourself a sweater and making a donation in honor of your grandma, I think they could accommodate that too. They are mostly trying to redraw our moral landscape to draw more of a distinction between doing the most good and everything else and put less emphasis on the distinction between all kinds of doing good and being self-interested.
Another objection that is often made to effective altruism is that it does not support advocacy efforts, so if you go and you look at the kinds of organizations that effective altruists—meta-charities—endorse as doing the most good, the vast majority of them provide public health interventions or cash transfers; most of them do not do advocacy on political issues.
ADAM READ-BROWN: We touched on that a little bit with current events, political climate, and civil liberties and all that.
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: As I said earlier, in principle effective altruists have no objection to this kind of activity. The only issue for them is that it is harder to measure the effects; the likelihood of success is lower. While in practice—and because it is a movement the practice part counts—they do not tend to support these sorts of activities yet. It is not the result of a principled commitment. That is changing also; I think effective altruist organizations are making concrete moves—especially through GiveWell’s Open Philanthropy Project—in the direction of supporting advocacy.
The two bigger issues that I think effective altruism has a harder time with—one is what we might call “measurement bias.” Here the idea is: You have these organizations They want to do the most good, and because they want to do the most good and do the most good in a way that is empirically verifiable, they focus on interventions, the effects of which can be easily measured. I think this also contributes to the focus on individual welfare; it is much easier to measure an incremental improvement in individual welfare than it is to measure an incremental improvement in justice, for example, or in empowerment. It is possible to measure that latter stuff, maybe, along some dimensions, but it is a lot harder, and in some respects it might be in some way impossible to measure in a commensurable way.
There is a way in which the measurement tail is wagging the whole dog here. I think the more that effective altruists focus on empirically verifiable, comparable interventions where they seek to do the most good the more limited they are going to be in the kinds of activities they are going to be able to endorse.
A second bigger issue is what I would call a sort of anti-political sensibility. Sometimes in reading effective altruist materials you get an overall sense that it is not just the desire for increasing individual welfare that leads away from politics—which is what I was just talking about—but there is also sometimes a sense that it is an aversion to politics that leads to the focus on welfare.
For example, Singer in his book discusses the mega-donors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and he talks about the fact that they have accumulated a lot of money is a good thing and that they are willing and able to give a lot of it away and do so in a thoughtful way. He says it is not clear that a completely different non-capitalist governance structure would have better results in terms of individual welfare.
It strikes me that the more relevant comparison is not to global communism but to a world in which individuals are not able to translate huge amounts of money into political power—the agenda-setting power in public health that Gates in particular has. When we are looking at somebody who accumulates a vast amount of money, we want to pay attention not only to what they do with that money in terms of spending it to help other people, but also the kind of political power that that money enables them to have. It seems to me that effective altruists tend to focus less on those kinds of political dynamics than they might.
ADAM READ-BROWN: As you mentioned before you laid out those concerns, you go on in your essay actually to explore what is the heart of your criticism, which involves this idea of a “hidden curriculum” behind effective altruism’s teachings. Could you first explain the concept of a hidden curriculum and then get into what you think that the hidden curriculum is for effective altruism?
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: This concept of a hidden curriculum first came into prominence in the 1970s among educational reformers who were criticizing public schools in the United States. For them, a hidden curriculum is a set of unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that are taught alongside an explicit official curriculum. In schools, what African-American kids learn about themselves and what their value is, for example, is not via the explicit curriculum in the school but how they are treated by their teachers and by other students.
Likewise, I think when we are evaluating the effective altruist movement we should also look at members of that movement—in particular members of Giving What We Can, members of these organizations, people who go to the conferences and read in the effective altruist websites—what kinds of things are they implicitly being taught. I think we need to focus on this as a category of analysis when we are looking at the effective altruist movement.
I think the effective altruism hidden curriculum teaches four lessons at least. I will say what those are and then I want to say a little bit about more about what I’m saying about them in more detail. One is that effective altruists are heroic rescuers; another is that doing good is largely an individualistic project; a third is that doing the most good does not require listening to the people affected by the issue you are trying to address; and a fourth one is that anger is not an appropriate response to severe multidimensional poverty.
I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that any effective altruist consciously believes any of these lessons, nor am I suggesting that they are consciously trying to teach them. I also do not have much evidence about the extent to which they are taken up by effective altruists, but I do think these are lessons that are taught by effective altruism.
I think these lessons are important to recognize mostly insofar as they are connected up with broader, deeper aspects of effective altruism as a movement. To the extent that these are window dressing and could be changed by tweaking the language or changing the pictures on the website, I do not think they are that important. Where I think they become really important is where the logic of the movement of effective altruism relies on particular lessons in order to both attract members and retain members, so that their motivational project requires them to teach these sorts of lessons or that something about the content of effective altruism as a movement incorporates these lessons.
I think effective altruism teaches this lesson that individuals are heroic rescuers to some extent just by the language that effective altruists use to motivate individual donors. Both Singer and MacAskill talk about being an effective altruist as something like running into a burning building where people are being engulfed in flames, kicking down the door, and rescuing a lot of people; and they say that by donating to a highly effective organization that does the most good you can be like that—you can be like the hero who kicks down that door and rescues lots of people. That is a powerful way of motivating people to act.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Yes.
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: In some ways it is a lot better or at least different from using images of emaciated children or these other sorts of narratives, but it has real costs too. If you are the hero, then the people you are rescuing are powerless victims; if you are the heroic rescuer, then you did not play any role in causing or benefiting from the problem that you are trying to address.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Right.
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: I think both of those are often inaccurate assessments of the situation. Often the “victim” has a lot of important central ideas about how best to address the issue. In many cases—both directly or indirectly—people in wealthy countries benefit from or even indirectly contribute to issues of severe poverty elsewhere, so I think the overall picture that this analogy to the heroic rescuer creates is inaccurate and is not helpful to donors in wealthy countries who want to have an accurate understanding of their relationship to the issues that they are addressing.
A second lesson that effective altruism teaches is that addressing severe poverty elsewhere is an individualist project. In particular, MacAskill—and to some extent Singer—conceptualizes donors using two other analogies: One is the bargain-hunter and the other is the self-improver. MacAskill emphasizes that because of differences in the value of currency in different places and the costs of doing things in different places it is a huge bargain to donate money to organizations working in other countries. You can do a ton of good, and that is the guide-dog-versus-trachoma example that we talked about earlier, so it conceptualizes donors as being savvy consumers.
Singer emphasizes the idea of effective altruists as individual self-improvers. Every year you are going to donate a little more; you are going to act in a way that is slightly more consistent with the effective altruist lifestyle; you can be content with yourself for doing this as you are slowly becoming a more and more effective altruist.
Here I think historically about other kinds of social movements that have done a lot to improve the welfare of human beings—civil rights movements, human rights movements—where people have understood themselves to be acting in a more solidaristic way with others where they focus less on the personal incremental improvement that they themselves can add and more on working together with others to achieve a shared goal.
My worry is that casting donating as being either a bargain hunter or a self-improver or casting the role of an effective altruist as being like a bargain-hunter or self-improver might make those other modes or registers of acting a little harder to see and appreciate.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Right.
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: There is one other issue with the bargain-hunter appeal, and that is that moving forward it is likely that the cost of what MacAskill calls “saving a life”—the cost of intervening in a way that is going to improve other people’s welfare—is likely to go up. Effective altruists really emphasize what they often call “low-hanging fruit,” so you want to pick first the interventions that are cheapest to undertake. As you do that, there become fewer of them, and intervening in ways that improve individual welfare is going to become more and more expensive.
This is an entirely empirical question and I am not sure how it will go, but it is possible that if you attract people with the notion that they can save lives cheaply, once those live become more expensive to save, people will become more cynical and turn away from the movement, whereas if people are motivated by a different set of images and by a different set of understandings about what they are doing, the fact that doing good becomes more expensive, becomes more difficult, or takes a longer amount of time might not dissuade them from action in quite the same way. So there is that additional worry about the bargain-hunter idea.
The third one is that doing the most good does not require listening to those affected by the issues that one is trying to address.
Most of the organizations that effective altruists and meta-charities recommend do try to get feedback from the people they aim to assist. For example, Give Directly does a lot of work talking to both people who receive cash transfers and people who do not in the towns and villages where they work. But overall, when you look at effective altruist websites and materials from the perspective of a donor, you do not get the sense that the people who they are trying to assist are or should be front and center in everything that they are doing.
Part of this is the result of the very concept of what an effective altruist is. Anyone in a sense with a little extra money or time can be an effective altruist, but the idea of looking all around through the whole world, through every sort of cause or issue you could imagine, and figuring out how you can do the most good is probably most likely to appeal to people who do not have severely pressing issues to address in their own backyard.
The concept of effective altruism itself—and both Singer and MacAskill in their books are themselves talking to people who are relatively well off—Singer in his book gives profiles of various effective altruists that includes people from India, and I think Brazil, but the structure of the way that effective altruism as a movement has been organized has not in any way suggested that the people who they are trying to assist ought to be either equal partners or the leaders of efforts to address what they are doing. In this respect, effective altruism is out of step with the conclusions of much of the development and to some extent humanitarian organizations and literatures of the last 40 years. Even if not in practice, in theory, at least, a major conclusion has been that the people affected need to be the main drivers of whatever happens, both because that kind of self-determination and autonomy is important in its own right and also because it’s the only way to be effective.
ADAM READ-BROWN: Right.
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Let me just say two other things about this whole listening bit. One is that to some extent I think effective altruists really are trying to address this; I think there has been some recognition certainly about the limitations of randomized control trials as a way of gathering information about the effectiveness of certain kinds of interventions; there has been a recognition of what effective altruists call the importance of reality checks and intuition and not relying on more deductive ways, or the randomized control trials to the inductive approach. I think there is some movement in this direction.
I think that structurally, effective altruists are a bit limited by two features of what they are trying to do: One is what we might call “cause neutrality.” Insofar as your aim is to do the most good, you have to be willing to cut bait with any particular approach or organization and shift to do something else if that something else looks like it is going to do more good, and that can limit the ability of effective altruism to work in a deep and ongoing partnership with organizations that are devoted to a particular issue not for effective altruist type reasons—for organizations that are going to stay working on a particular issue even though it is not the most effective use of money.
The last lesson that I think effective altruism teaches is about the role of anger as an appropriate response to severe poverty. Throughout both Singer’s and MacAskill’s books, emotions play a role. Singer emphasizes that while effective altruists are very rational there is a role for emotion in effective altruism, but those emotions tend to be emotions of, for example, excitement about being able to do the equivalent of breaking into a burning building and rescuing people; emotions of joy at being able to help other people; contentment—feeling like you’ve done your share.
What there is not a lot of at all is anger—anger at injustice. Of course some of this is because effective altruists tend not to see the world primarily through the lens of injustice or unfairness or inequality; they tend to see it more through the lens of individual welfare. I think that in some ways anger is sometimes an entirely appropriate response to what we see around us in the world and can be a way of acknowledging and recognizing what is actually going on, and it can be a way of acknowledging—and this connects up to the third lesson—the experience of people who are actually affected by these sorts of issues.
I think there is a connection between effective altruism’s focus on these more positive emotions and the disconnection with people who are actually affected and the focus on individual welfare.
ADAM READ-BROWN: That makes sense. You’ve laid out these four lessons and some other deep concerns with certain aspects of effective altruism—the movement and the philosophy—but at different points in our conversation you have indicated that there are important lessons here—as we talked a great deal at the outset—from the philosophy and the movement, and I am wondering if you see ways that more traditional organizations or do-gooders can take some of these lessons and maybe integrate them in ways that they have not done in the past to create more robust and effective philanthropy in a way that is different than effective altruism qua effective altruism, and how you would see this working if that is possible.
JENNIFER RUBENSTEIN: Yes. Even though I am critical of effective altruism in the way that I have described, I hope it is clear that I also think it is a huge advance and improvement and contribution in a lot of ways. I think a lot of those contributions can be to some extent disconnected from some of the parts of effective altruism that I find more objectionable.
For example, effective altruism’s focus on effects and outcomes I think is something that could have much wider applicability and pickup. The idea that we should not just donate because it feels good or because our friend is doing it but that we should really attend to the effects of what we are doing I think is valuable and important. What that kind of attentiveness to effects and consequences is going to look like is going to take a very different form if we expand the kinds of things we are trying to achieve to other values, such as more justice-based values, or equality, or fairness. It is also going to change if we focus on ensuring that the people who are affected by the issues in question take the lead role in addressing them, but the basic commitment to outcomes and effects I think is really valuable.
Even if there are some kinds of activities where part of what matters is the process by which they are undertaken and even if we decide that in some cases there are important reasons to do things that cannot really be measured easily or commensurated across different kinds of activities, I still think to ask the question is really important. Even the way that effective altruists are coming up against difficulties in seeing some of the perverse effects of trying to measure things too much or too accurately I think will be helpful in circulating out into other kinds of endeavors.
Likewise, even though I’ve talked about some of the hero narratives as being problematic, the fact that effective altruists have moved away from some of the poverty pornography, famine iconography kinds of ways of motivating people and some of the more reductive kind of victim-villain narratives, I think that is also really valuable. I think they have shown that you can attract people with a somewhat more sophisticated set of quantity of empirical information, and I think that is another important insight that they have had that maybe will generalize to other sorts of organizations.
ADAM READ-BROWN: At this point in our discussion, unfortunately our time is up and we do need to stop here.
Once again, I am Adam Read-Brown, and I have been speaking with Professor Jennifer Rubenstein, whose essay “The Lessons of Effective Altruism” appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Ethics & International Affairs. That essay—as well as much more—is available online at www.eiajournal.org.
We also invite you to follow us on Twitter, @eiajournal. Thank you for joining us, and thank you Professor Rubenstein for this wonderful discussion. It’s been a pleasure.