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(One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s), or: why moral theory needs institutional theory

Blick aus dem Bürofenster kleinThere 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!

Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



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  1. Tom Parr

    Thanks for these comments, Lisa. You say that effective altruists ‘they take the current institutional order as given, implicitly denying that it is open to change’. I’m not sure this is quite correct. Might an effective altruist believe that it is open to change, but (i) deny that it would be an efficient use of resources to bring about the change (given that those resources could be spent in other things) and/or (ii) hold that we can bring about institutional change through other means, such as at the voting booth? Of course, you might deny (i) and/or (ii), but at the very least, this strikes me as a more charitable reading of their view.

  2. I am sure Bentham lurks out the grave, when effective altruism proponents march down the street. I am sure he watches them, smiling, before he goes back to earth.
    I like your article and your energetic optimism, Lisa, and I have a question. Which are then the core activist groups nowadays in the poor part of the world, where I should give my money so they can change the structures?

  3. Lisa, what a beautifully written, energetic piece! I agree with you that “there is something missing in this picture [of effective altruism], something deep and important about human life.” But (like Tom above?) I don’t think it’s a matter of incompatibility: one can, and probably should, try to help create better institutions *and* alleviate suffering/meet important and urgent needs. What you say at the end makes me wonder if your favourite approach leaves space for both endevours: You say 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.” Donating money to Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, may fail to accomplish institutional change. But, at least as long as there is not enough coordinated action that makes it very likely that institutional improvement will be achieved, it seems to me perfectly justifiable to give priority to organisations lkke MSF. Do you disagree?

  4. Matt

    “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”

    Here’s an article from a leading effective altruist explicitly stating some examples of others involved in effective altruism who are supporting systemic and institutional change.


    As you suggest in your final paragraph, donations can be used to support institutional change; the challenge is to find those organisations that can cost-effectively help implement such change.

  5. Lisa Herzog

    Hi all, thanks for these comments. I am aware that effective altruism is in principle compatible with focussing on systemic change – even though it really hasn’t been their main focus in the past and by choosing a certain focus one inevitably makes implicit statement about other things (but thanks for the link, Matt – that’s the strongest commitment to systemic change I’ve seen from effective altruists so far). My last phrase was meant to capture that. It also seems eminently plausible to use some mixed approach, as Anca suggests.
    I see two remaining problems: the first is how to measure and compare the effectiveness of different forms of change and the means we could use to achieve them, and whether we can reasonably remain in a consequentialist framework when doing so – or whether we might conceptualize some of the problems as matters of things that should simply not be done. This boils down, on a theoretical level, to the question about the relationship between deontology and consequentialism, and the means-end-relation. On a more practical level there are questions about which causes to support – I wish I had a clear-cut answer to Valerie’s question. I’m a big fan of Amnesty International and Transparency International, but I’m sure there are other groups as well.
    The second question I see is, again, one of focus: do I focus on “buying” change elsewhere in the world (by supporting charities or NGOs that work for change) or do I also “start at home”, as the saying goes, and try to change the injustices of the current system I’m part of? In today’s world, structures of power are fluid and scattered – this makes it so hard to bring about change. Hence, our strategies for change also need to be multidimensional, building coalition between people who fight for change from the inside and those who support them at the outside (think, for example, about what it takes to push a large corporation to adopt “greener” policies). Most of this can, again, be captured in consequentialist terms – but phenomenologically and psychologically, it seems that what we need are often forms of principled and sort of rigorously moralistic behavior. I’ll probably write a blog post soon about some examples of people who became “transformational agents” in the organizations they work for, to illustrate this approach.

  6. Tomer Perry

    Lisa, great post – an itneresting and important one.

    Following the discusssion, I also agree that the approaches are comptaible – and I think Tom’s formulations shows that there are ways in which we can agree on means and disagree on theoretical frameworks.

    But I think we need to be clear about the criticism and what it is about. There’s a bit of a slide, back and forth, from normative to empirical theoertical framework and it’s not always clear to me where the problem. First there’s the divide between economists and sociologists (used here as stylzed archetypes). This is an argument about empirical social reality – is the best to explain human behavior to build models that are based on individuals maximizing some kind of utility function or should be examine society broadly for patterns that represent the way people respond to roles and norms? I personally think the most plausible answer to this contrversy is something like Granovetter’s middle-ground model of embeddedness (similiar approaches are used by Finnemore, Sikkink and others) – where rational agents with preferences operate within social strcutres that shape their preferences, alternatives etc. But, of course, it all depends on your reseraach question and (if you want to be philosophical) the kind of inquiry you take yourself to be doing (or what you think social science is about). And there’s great value in having clearly distinct analytic tools and theories that we can test rather than mushing them together into some mega-theory that is ‘more’ true but is harder to apply to specific circumstances (as some would say, less ‘scientifically useful’).

    Second, there’s the divide between deontolgy and utilitarianism. These two divides are not the same thing, though I think you are right to point that there are hidden or unacknowledged relationships between them (and they share an intellectual history). But you really don’t have to be committed to anything like the ‘economic man’ (or ‘rational agent’) picture to be a utilitarian and vice versa. Thus, you can think that the institutions are the most important determinant of huamn behavior and also that the best way to think about our moral duties is in consequentialist maximizing terms. You might then conclude that you have to spend all your money and time on promoting institutional change (unless the returns are too low, in which case you wouldn’t).

    Therefore, it seems to me (not being a big fan of utilitarianism) that the problem you are pointing is the utilitarianism that is sometimes implicit (or, as in the case of Peter Singer, explicit) in the effective altruism movement. There’s a relationship to the picutre of the rational agent but it’s not a necessary one. You can ask yourself ‘what is the most effectice change one can promote given that people are political animals’ etc. etc. I say that to agree with much of your point but try and sharpen what the problem is (and it’s not a new one – debates about the merits of utilitarianism aren’t new).

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Tomer, thanks – these are points I had in mind while writing the post, but decided not to cram too many things into one post. But to try a short reply: the two things are related, because if you take social embeddedness into account, I’d argue that (reasonable) forms of consequentialism start to look rather deontological. If we want to maintain various formal and informal institutions that serve to keep a society together (and maybe not only to maintain them, but try to make them more just than they currently are) then we have certain duties that look counterintuitive from a simple utilitarian framework – but which can nonetheless be justified, in the final analysis, by certain kinds of beneficial outcomes. But this analysis has to take place for rather specific historical situations, which may make it look relativistic – but in its core it is not.

      • Tomer Perry

        I tend to agree with you Lisa, but I think it’s important to note that there are many consequentialists who don’t, and they make some reasonable points. For example, Rob Reich says in the forum on effective altruism in the Boston Review: “Some effective altruists believe that, under certain circumstances, giving in support of particular candidates for office, ballot initiatives, or policy advocacy can be as or more effective than giving to alleviate poverty. (See, for example, the Open Philanthropy Project).” There are people who insist on being committed to a consequentialist approach while also accepting some form of embeddedness view – and I think your argument with them is not about the rational agent (economic man) but more fundamentally about your rejection of consequentialism. Or it might be that in this case there’s more agreement than disagreement. But that’s where the action seems to be.

  7. Lisa Herzog

    If you think about “voting” as embeddedness, I agree. I had in minute things much closer to home, that really concern one’s own life and the way in which one relates to concrete institutions one is part of. I continue to think that if you make your social ontology rich enough, you can capture a great deal of actions (voting is an easier one, I guess) in a consequentialist framework – which is why the social ontology matters for the purely theoretical questions. I am actually more interested in the more practical questions, and in the visions and narratives about society that we implicitly draw on, because I think that these have more argumentative force than fine-grained theoretical distinctions – which might make me a meta-theoretical consequentialist, who knows!

    • Tomer Perry

      I guess I think voting is pretty minimalist – it might put into power someone who would change some of the rules, but it’s still playing within the rules of the game. Since I’m personally mostly troubled by the broad acceptance of the system of states as a normative status-quo (and that’s a giant stumbling block on the road to effective altruism), I also think about the need to reform institutions in ways much more drastic than voting. But of course I agree that you can have a rich social ontology that would capture everything, that was kind of my point.

  8. Kyle

    I think you’re looking for too much out of effective altruism. It’s not a moral theory, and it doesn’t aim to provide answers to “how would the best system of government work”, or things like that. Effective altruism does influence ideas about how governments can and should work, so there is overlap, but ultimately it doesn’t preclude institutional theories, so I really don’t see how there is a blind spot.

    Ultimately, the question of “should we buy change, or do it ourselves” isn’t black and white and it isn’t something that isn’t already captured by the effective altruist framework. Typical consequentialist considerations do provide reasons for and against various types of careers and efforts. And of course there will always be opportunities for anyone to do a little bit of both. It may be difficult to apply consequentialist ideas to questions about what sort of career to follow, but that doesn’t mean that following the consequentialist framework won’t lead to good results. When you get into higher levels of decision making theory, applying heuristics and correcting for biases, then finding justified consequentialist answers to such questions isn’t impossible.

  9. Kyle

    Also, note that there is a significant difference between microeconomic choice theory where individuals maximize their preference satisfaction, and utilitarian moral theory where the ethical thing is to alleviate suffering and promote happiness. Aside from use of the word ‘utility’, they don’t have much to do with each other, and while effective altruism assumes neither, you can also believe the former without believing the latter and vice versa.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Kyle, thanks for your comments. By calling institutional questions a “blind spot” I meant to indicate that it is not something that is in principle incompatible with the approach of effective altruism, but that it has been neglected relative to its real life importance. My exchange with Tomer above responds to some of your points. As far as the similarity with microeconomic theory is concerned: I think the structural similarities are quite deep and they have common historical roots. If you “plug” different things into people’s utility functions, you can get either individual preference satisfaction or the maximization of overall happiness (I’ve even see a paper where someone reconstructed Rawls’ difference principle in terms of rational choice by plugging in some assumptions about risk preferences). But I agree that holding one does not commit one to holding the other.

      • Kyle

        The question of whether a cause has been neglected is ultimately no different than what effective altruists talk to each other about all the time, where the political-reform EAs believe that EAs generally underprioritize political reform, and the animal-welfare EAs believe that EAs generally underprioritize animal welfare, and the poverty-relief EAs believe that EAs generally underprioritize poverty relief, etc because effective altruism, contrary to common misconception, is a framework rather than an doctrine (relevant – http://effective-altruism.com/ea/9s/effective_altruism_is_a_question_not_an_ideology/).

  10. Joashc

    Hi Lisa, you might be interested in this argument from Scott Alexander: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/09/22/beware-systemic-change/

    He argues that it’s relatively easy to gain a consensus on simple, non-systemic interventions- feeding the hungry, treating easily preventable illnesses, etc. But when it comes to systemic change, there’s a much higher chance that people- even people that are ostensibly under the one EA umbrella- can fundamentally disagree on the best systemic change we can invest in.

    Scott draws heavily on the partisanship of politics to argue that disagreements about systemic change can cancel each other out:

    “Suppose effective altruists get involved in the 2016 US presidential election – which isn’t prima facie a bad idea; think about how easy it would have been to make Gore win in 2000 and how much would have changed if he had. Lots of people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Democrats. Lots of other people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Republicans. Now the Democrats and Republicans are at exactly the same position vis-a-vis each other as they were before the effective altruists got involved, but we have wasted $20 million that could have gone to healing the sick or feeding the hungry.”

    I don’t find this argument to be super persausive without additional evidence, but I can see that it’s at least plausible that this could be a factor that weighs against the effectiveness of systemic change.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Joashc, thanks for the link. It’s an interesting argument, but it really depends on empirical evidence, and might be quite different in different countries and different election cycles. When I talked about systemic change, though, I meant not only voting, but also various other ways in which we can make a difference in our daily lives (both in our private lives and, importantly, in our roles as jobholders). These can be as important as donating money, although I agree with previous commentators that it’s not a strict either-or.

  11. Jakob Olofsson

    Hi Lisa! Thank you for a nice comment on the EA-movement. I think it is possible to interpret the EA-movement in two ways: 1. In the non-trivial sense which you describe above dependent on the idea of the economic man and; 2. In the trivial sense where all they say is “if you want to give – give as efficient as possible”.
    The trivial interpretation, I believe, is what gives the movement much of its appeal, and this is indeed compatible with changing the global economic structures. A defender of such a view might say “Yes we should change the global economic structure, but as it is now: we should give as effective as possible” – which seems as a no-brainer.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Jakob, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure all EAs would agree with your description of the “trivial” interpretation (and if this is all that the movement is about – then they are really reinventing the wheel, because many other people before them have said that one should (try to) give effectively). One of the claims that had upset me most was the idea that one should go into investment banking – without, initially, any question about its social usefulness or harmfulness – to earn a lot of money to donate it as effectively as possible. This is far more than your “trivial” interpretation suggests, but I think some EA proponents have qualified this claim by now.

  12. [Inappropriate name, deleted by admin]

    So much strawmanning, it’s no wonder Rob wrote this in response: https://m.facebook.com/robert.wiblin/posts/702607264295

  13. Please see here:


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    And do leave a comment at 3QD if you like!




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