The Problem With Effective Altruism


Ruritania, let’s suppose, is flooded with water. There are 100 people in Ruritania, half of them Muslim and the other half Hindu. You hear that aid flows from Muslims in other countries to Muslims in Ruritania. If you’re an alien from Mars who wants to really help the flood victims in Ruritania, what would you do? You’d try to find out whether that’s true because that’s important. If that’s true, you’d donate to people who aren’t already helped, which means, mostly to Hindus. If that isn’t true, you’d still try to help the ones who aren’t helped yet.  You wouldn’t worry too much about their identity, and where aid for the other guys comes from. You won’t care much about that, partly because, coming from Mars, you don’t get why these people hate each other so much.

But that isn’t how people responded when Rajiv Malhotra said Hindus should help their own, because Christians and Muslims are already doing that. They went ballistic, instead of treating that as an empirical matter. I’ve no doubt his intentions are bad, and from what I hear, he got the facts wrong.  But let’s suppose he’s right. What would you do? 

If you believe in effective altruism, I’d like to hear what you think about this. For an effective altruist, the most important question here is whether he’s right about this. He says he has some important information to share. To do the most good, you got to find out whether he’s right. If this makes you uncomfortable, then some introspection is in order.  It’s important to remember that you aren’t harming anyone by helping the ones who aren’t helped yet. You’re helping people who need it more. Why would that make you uncomfortable?  If you agree it’s rational to feel discomfort, it isn’t hard to understand why people like me are uncomfortable with effective altruism.

Doing the most good can often be repulsive, and there are good reasons why it’s repulsive. 1) To do the most good for large numbers of people, you may have to sacrifice people who are truly good. 2) When you do the most good for large numbers of people, you help plenty of undeserving people.

Effective altruists think people who disagree with them aren’t rational. Hardly anybody is against charity. Why would anybody be against doing good better, they wonder, unless they want the warm glow that comes from buying food for the starving child they see on the street? I think this is just because they haven’t encountered intelligent criticism. It’s lack of imagination on both sides. It’s easy to make a rational case against charity— except in the exceptionally rare cases when somebody deserves it.

What would be the rational case against charity be like? Kerala is being flooded with water. A good rule of thumb would be to help people who wouldn’t take advantage of you given a chance. If you want to help a Malayali guy who lost his home in the floods, ask yourself whether he’d do the right thing even when there are strong incentives to be awful. Say, would he backstab you at work? If he wouldn’t leave you alone when he isn’t in trouble, then you have no obligation to help him when he’s in trouble. If he isn’t the sort of guy who would fulfill his negative obligations toward you, then you have no positive obligations toward him. It’s fine to do good, so long as you don’t ignore the moral status of recipients. I believe this is a controversial view. But I would like to hear why. If giving to GiveWell or Oxfam makes me uncomfortable, this is why.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *