There has been much talk about effective altruism recently (see e.g. here or here) – the idea that you should try to do as much good as you can, using the most effective means. It reads a bit like an update of good old Jeremy Bentham and “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” by a McKinsey consultant. It is easy to ridicule, and ridicule is indeed a frequent reaction because humour eases the tension that one can feel when confronted with these ideas. For there seems to be more than a grain of truth in effective altruists’ claim that we could do so much more to help those who were less fortunate in the “natural lottery” of where and when they were born. One thing that speaks in their favor, after all, is that effective altruists ask serious questions about what it means to be a moral agent in today’s world. What I here want to pick out from the debate is their picture the social world and of human institutions, which I take to be flawed. It is an illustration of why moral philosophy should not neglect the world we live in and the institutions that structure it.
Effective altruism’s picture is one in which single individuals, with independently formed utility functions, choose between different options in ways that maximize their utility. Sounds familiar? It is basically “economic man”, the figure used in economic modelling – except that in most economic models, utility functions contain only one’s own utility, whereas here they contain the wellbeing of other people or animals. There is something deeply consumerist about it: you pick effective ways of spending your money just as you would pick the best value-for-money-deal from a restaurant menu. In effective altruism, the idea is that someone is bringing about the wellbeing of other people or animals for you. There is no close connection, no active engagement – and just as in economics, there is an assumption that we can and should quantify and compare different options, whether about preventing human diseases or avoiding animal suffering.
I take it that there is something missing in this picture, something deep and important about human life. Economic man has often been criticized for being utterly unrealistic: human beings are far less rational, and have a far broader range of motivations, and how he behaves depends on the social settings he finds himself in. These criticisms carry over to the picture that is implicitly presupposed in effective altruism.
What, then, would be an alternative picture? There is a strand of philosophical thinking, from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx, that provides an answer, and this answer fits much better with the best evidence about human nature that we have from history and from psychological research. According to this picture, human beings are social and political animals. They live in social structures that they inherit from the past. Non-cognitive elements play an important role in maintaining them. They are undergirded by institutions, including those that regulate access to property rights and to control rights.
What matters for a good human life, in which basic needs can be justified and individuals have some degree of autonomy, is that these institutions and practices function to the advantage of everyone. To see whether they do so, it is not enough to ask individuals about them, because their preferences and mind-set might already be shaped by them. We need some degree of idealization, for example by imagining a social contract (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, etc.) or an impartial spectator (Adam Smith). Many existing institutions and practices are at quite some distance from what we could endorse from that perspective. And unfortunately, they can be very difficult to change, not only because human beings are animals of habit, but also because there are usually powerful vested interests that want to keep the current order in place. Nonetheless, these institutions and practices are not set in stone.
If we take social structures as given, we see ourselves as powerless: each of us, as an individual, is up against a powerful system that functions according to a logic of its own. The only thing we can do, then, is to spend some of our spare money to help repair the worst damage that this system does in other parts of the world. This, I take it, is the most dangerous underlying assumption in the worldview of effective altruists: that they take the current institutional order as given, implicitly denying that it is open to change.
It is in particular the individualistic bias that leads to that impression. We can seldom change institutions and practices on our own. We need to develop ties of solidarity with others. And we need to use our local knowledge and our local scope of agency in order to bring about change. From this perspective, morality is not about picking and choosing charities from the armchair. It is about trying to become a force for good in our daily lives (and, as Srinivasan notes, it matters that it is our live in which we do so), and contributing to whatever cause it is we can contribute to – actively, passionately, and in order to bring about lasting change that brings institutions and practices in line with our moral values and ideals. Currently, the fight against climate change and against global poverty are striking examples of how we are all participants in structures that urgently need to be changed. Both in our private and in our professional lives, each of us can take responsibility for reducing emissions, raising awareness, and pushing for change.
This approach has in common with effective altruism that it can be pretty demanding – we cannot simply go on living our lives, but have to take responsibility for the world around us. What is different is that it assumes that for change to effective, we need to change the institutions and practices of today’s world, and the best way to do so is to change them from within. This means that as Westerners, one of our greatest responsibilities is to try to change the structures of the capitalism-gone-wild that does so much harm in today’s world (as Angus Deaton also notes here). But while we see ourselves as moral agents in our private lives, many of us feel powerless and unable to push for change in our jobs, as members of the very organizations and institutions that keep the current system in place. The picture of the economy that has been built on the model of economic man implies that as jobholders, we are supposed to obey orders and earn money – instead of taking active responsibility for what we do in our organizational roles and asking whether it is compatible with our moral principles. But we remain moral and political agents no matter what our roles are. We are responsible for doing our bit to repair the ship on which we are moving – plank by plank by plank.
Does this picture imply that one should stop donating money? Not quite. Our world is deeply unjust, and some live in institutional frameworks that allow them to live happy and flourishing lives, whereas others live in places in which they have to fight hard for satisfying even their most basic needs. I take it, however, that when evaluating which causes to support, we should pay attention to the way in which they help build institutions, or fail to do so. We should support those individuals and groups in other parts of the world who try to do so, speaking truth to power and strengthening the moral and civic capacities of individuals. And if you like, find a savvy consultant who comes up with a metric that describes this as the most effective option – I’m sure it can be done!