The Slippery Utilitarian

July 2015

The Boston Review recently held a forum on The Logic of Effective Altruism, with an initial piece by Singer, responses by a bunch of people, and a final counter-response by Singer. Reading the responses was pretty interesting, as this is perhaps the most thorough, cogent, and intellectually solid set of criticisms that effective altruism has received.

In his counter-rebuttal, Peter Singer pulls a rhetorical move that I like to call the “slippery utilitarian:”

[Angus] Deaton, Daron Acemoglu, Iason Gabriel, and Jennifer Rubenstein all suggest that effective altruists are likely to neglect the large-scale political and economic reform that would treat the causes, rather than the symptoms, of poverty. It is true that we can’t assess such action by randomized trials, but if large-scale reform offers some prospect of reducing poverty, then effective altruists will try to assess its chance of doing good, and if the expected value of such action is higher than the expected value of more limited interventions, they will advocate working for the large-scale reforms.

The same point holds for Leila Janah’s suggestion that the most effective way of helping the poor is to support fair trade programs or start social businesses that are environmentally sustainable and pay a living wage. It holds as well for Rubenstein’s claim that once the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked, efforts to reduce poverty will succeed only if they work with and follow the lead of activists in poor countries. Effective altruism cannot be refuted by evidence that some other strategy will be more effective than the one effective altruists are using, because effective altruists will then adopt that strategy.

It’s true that “effective altruism,” qua relatively uncontroversial claim that you should try to improve the world as effectively as possible, can’t be refuted in this way. But effective altruism isn’t just that claim; it’s also a group of people trying to figure out and act on the implications of that claim, and those people are certainly able to get that part wrong! Like any community, EAers are going to reach a consensus or near-consensus on claims other than their uncontroversial basic principles. And I think it’s fair to criticize effective altruism by criticizing the consensus view of its implications rather than the basic claim itself.

To me, that seems to be the point that Deaton, Acemoglu, Gabriel and Rubenstein are trying to make. Peter Singer tries to get out of their sights by arguing that, if their favorite strategies were really effective, then EAers would adopt them. But that’s precisely what the critics are getting at–that the EA community hasn’t adopted these strategies despite their promise (at least, in the critics’ views). A cogent defense of effective altruism should respond here by either explaining why the critics’ strategies aren’t really the best way forward, or conceding that the EA community has collectively gone astray when figuring out how they should improve the world.

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Luke Muehlhauser

Though of course, OpenPhil does in fact have program areas devoted to criminal justice reform, macroeconomic policy, immigration policy, etc. — though they’re just getting off the ground. OpenPhil also wants to investigate structural interventions on global poverty, but has decided it doesn’t have the staff to cover that ground just yet. (All this is on the GiveWell blog.)


Denise Melchin



David Mathers

This is really important. Please, please keep pushing this line to other EA people!