Notes: Effective Altruism or Mobilization for Institutional Reform?

October 2013

Thomas Pogge recently gave a talk for Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy. I took notes on it, which I’ve summarized below.

Note: the opinions expressed below are not my own. They may not be Thomas Pogge’s, either, depending on how good I am at taking notes.


Effective Altruism or Mobilization for Institutional Reform?

Thomas Pogge

for Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy

October 11, 2013


There are two different arguments for effective altruism. One is that we have a positive duty to help others, following Singer’s “child drowning in the pond” thought experiment. But this is too favorable to us: we’re implicated in harming the children that Singer wants us to rescue, because we participate in a global system that causes poverty and suffering in the developing world.

World poverty today

Of the 7.5 billion people in the world:

Roughly one-third of deaths are poverty-related. This dramatically overshadows every type of governmental violence and violates the universal human right to an adequate standard of living, because extreme poverty would be completely avoidable with an expenditure of only 2% of global income.

Influences on global poverty

The global institutional architecture is biased in favor of the rich. Examples:

Global institutions also give privileges to people running countries, regardless of their legitimacy: illegitimate rulers can sell the resources of the country, borrow in the name of the country, participate in arms trades, and control labor standards, even without a popular mandate. This is comparable to crooks stealing your identity and borrowing money in your name. In the US, you would not be liable for this debt, but there’s no such protection in the developing world, so a totalitarian dictator can borrow crazily and leave the rest of his country to clean up the mess when he’s deposed.

This makes being a leader in the developing world is quite lucrative, so developing countries are rife with corruption, civil wars, and repression.

This rich-favoring system is kept in place by an inequality spiral caused by regulatory capture. Those in power can lobby for regulations that favor them, which let them become entrenched. This happens in the US:

Supranational rule shaping

Supranational rule shaping is an especially fertile ground for regulatory capture. It offers especially high returns from lobbying because such rules emerge in a bargaining environment where

All of these make it much easier for entrenched interests to throw their weight around. Therefore, the most cost-effective lobbying by entrenched powers is work to shape supranational institutions and move institutions from the national level to international. It is done by wealthy banks, corporations, associations and people, often by way of influencing officials (especially the US) whose job it is to broker such international agreements.

Human rights as a minimal conception of (global) justice

The upshot is that we talk a good game about human rights, but at the same time there’s this massive jungle of special-interest law that causes violations of human rights everywhere.

In the usual conception of justice, we can divide our duties into four quadrants along two axes: positive-negative, and local-global. Most people regard negative duties (fixing harms we’ve caused) as more salient than positive ones (helping with things we’re not complicit in), and local duties are more salient than global ones. However, our duties to distant strangers are negative, not positive, because we are complicit in the system of supranational regulatory capture that violates their right to a good standard of living. And negative duties to foreigners are no weaker than to friends; it’s just as bad to e.g. poison a stranger as to poison a friend.

Our obligations

If you accept this, you have two obligations:

Implications for effective altruism

How does this affect our thinking about effective altruism? You might say that it makes effective altruism more important, and it makes the “effective” part in particular more important. What matters about philanthropy is not how much you sacrifice but how much you accomplish.

On the other hand, what if we look at income maximization through the lens of negative duty? Are you incurring more negative duties by working for organizations that create the crappy international system?

Arguing that you’re not doing anything on the margin doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: suppose 50 soldiers massacre a village together. Each soldier pleads that counterfactually, had he not participated, the whole village would still have been massacred, so he is blameless. But clearly there must be some culpability for this massacre! So even if you have no marginal contribution, you’re at least somewhat complicit in the harms and have a negative duty to work to rectify them.

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Luke Muehlhauser

I’ve never really identified with Singer’s argument or the “duty” way of thinking about effective altruism. I’ve always thought more along the lines of what Holden Karnofsky calls “Excited Altruism”: I already happen to want to do good in the world, and I like the idea of doing more good rather than less good, if I can find the information to distinguish the two. Moreover, I don’t spent much time trying to convince non-altruists to become effective altruists. Instead, I just encounter not-so-effective altruists and try to convince them to be more effective in their altruism, which is often not so difficult.


Pablo Stafforini

Moreover, I don’t spent much time trying to convince non-altruists to become effective altruists. Instead, I just encounter not-so-effective altruists and try to convince them to be more effective in their altruism, which is often not so difficult.

Katja Grace makes a similar point in her post, Effectiveness or altruism.