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In defense of effective altruism

This is the best collection of essays on effective altruism I’ve read, with responses by Daron Acemoglu, Angus Deaton, Jennifer Rubenstein, Larissa MacFarquhar, Leila Janah, Emma Saunders-Hastings, Rob Reich, Paul Brest, Iason Gabriel, András Miklós, and Catherine Tumber.

I think most people are criticizing the things the movement has focused on and how effective altruists have gone about it, and a lot of that criticism is valid — but I don’t think these approaches or charities are implied by effective altruism. If you think that the best approach is not to give to charity but for people to agitate politically, for example, you can imagine an effective altruist supporting that (and I know many who have fought for same-sex marriage, etc.). If the best thing one could do were to mind one’s own business, perhaps one could be an effective altruist by not doing anything at all.

Perhaps the only sense in which there is some concrete content to criticize is in that, in asking people what they can do for others, effective altruists might subtly nudge them towards thinking they can do something. There are many situations in which that is arrogant. But it also has to sometimes be correct. For example, there are some who truly have no voice and must be spoken up for, such as non-human animals. The difficult part is knowing which situation is which.


  • Ben Kuhn |

    It may be abstractly true that “these approaches or charities are [not] implied by effective altruism.” But in practice, EA-the-community can’t be easily separated from EA-the-abstract-argument, so I think it’s pretty fair to criticize EA-the-community for getting the implications of EA-the-abstract-argument wrong. It seems better for us to try and answer those criticisms rather than dodging them by claiming that effective altruism has no concrete content to criticize.

    (I elaborated on this in a post of my own: http://scraps.benkuhn.net/2015/07/07/slippery.html)