An effective introduction to effective altruism

February 03, 2023 09:01
Photo: Reuters

A few months back I sat down with a couple of friends from a leading university in Hong Kong – and we had a terrific, electrifying chat about how we could bring Effective Altruism (EA) to the city. Many amongst them had spent nearly a decade teaching philosophy in the city, and had sought to instill in our city this philosophy – which has taken the world by storm. Full disclosure: I have, myself, spent months planning and spearheading an Effective Altruism debate camp.

It'd be helpful to backtrack a little – what, really, is Effective Altruism?

A convenient way of thinking of it would be to see it as ‘Doing good, but better’. Simply put, EA encourages us to scrutinise, critically measure, and seek to targettedly improve the ways by which we engage in philanthropy, in ensuring that we maximise the positive impact we can bring forward to the world. It also extends beyond philanthropy – in challenging us to reimagine and plan accordingly our career choices and personal preferences in ways that generate the most long-term good. Setting aside the fringest versions of the account, EA is perhaps a philosophy that has been rendered controversial not so much in virtue of its arguments, but its associates – e.g. Sam Bankman-Fried, the erstwhile Darling of cryptofinance.

So here’s a quick summary. EA makes the argument that we should seek to do the most good – the definition of the good, in turn, is best captured by a broadly pluralist framework: good consequences. For some, this would be best rendered through pleasure or happiness. For others, who do not see pleasure, happiness as the necessary features of a good life, this would be rendered through preference satisfaction. Most EA fellows tend to eschew paternalistic/over-esoteric conceptions of welfare, and tend to refrain from over-complicating the picture concerning what the good is.

Having established a reasonable account of the good, the next step becomes – what do we do with it? As broad consequentialists, EA individuals would argue that we bear responsibilities to maximise the good. In other words, what is right, is what brings about the largest volume of good for the largest number of individuals. Yet in a notable departure from good ole utilitarianism/consequentialism, there’s an added catch – EA-aligned individuals should aim to maximise the good over a continuous and sustained period of time, which means they ought to refrain from undertaking actions that expend political capital, and that undermine their abilities to pursue the greater good in the long run.

All of this sounds rather abstract. A helpful illustration would invite us to look at two possible policy options – A and B. A brings about 10 utils of happiness each for 100 folks, whilst B generates 50 utils of happiness for 19 folks. On surface we may have reasons to prefer whatever gives rise to a higher level of average utility (e.g. make some folks really happy). Yet per an aggregationist approach to welfare and evaluation of the consequences of these options, the 1,000 total utils induced by A outweigh the 950 utils per B. This is pivotal – and ceteris paribus, the prescribed path would be to pursue A.

The EA movement wants us to think carefully about the choices we make in our lives. Whilst not everything can be simplistically quantified or rendered into numerical juxtapositions, to the extent such quantification and numerical weighing are in fact feasible, they are to be adopted. This also explains why devout EA supporters tend to go to great painstaking lengths in order to identify the costs and benefits of each and every choice they commit when it comes to their diet. Should they eat meat? The answer is not always straightforwardly vegetarianism or veganism – consider, for one, instances where animals farmed for mass consumption in fact lead net-utility-positive lives.

As a practical philosophy, EA compels us to go above and beyond the obvious. It encourages us to be willing to go against the grain – to take on norms and expectations, when it comes to life choices. Indeed, one of the most (in)famous prescriptions it has yielded over the years, is the view that we might in fact have moral duties to pursue a career in investment banking, in order to maximise our innings and financial capacities, with which we can then donate large volumes to effective charities that are capable of doing the greatest good. In lieu of advocating simplistic revolutionary or totalistic, abolitionist solutions, the movement tells us to think rationally and rigorously about how we should act, and with what effects.

There are inevitably concerns to be raised – reasonably so – with the EA movement. Some would say, it is too Machiavellian and restrictive in its conception of the good and the right. Others would perhaps cast doubt on its reticence to acknowledge other elements of our moral fabric and lives. These are all fair concerns, to which we shall return shortly. Yet for now, at least, the hope is that we’ve established a pretty good understanding of what EA constitutes. Onwards and upwards.

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Assistant Professor, HKU