Effective altruism encourages people to do “the most good they can,” typically by contributing a portion of their income to the best-performing aid organizations. This is a plausible account of what morality requires in a world riven by extreme poverty, but before we heed the call to action, we need to know more about what it means to do good. We also need to know more about the kind of outcome effective altruists believe should be promoted.
In practice, effective altruists tend to answer these questions by drawing on their giving philosophy's utilitarian roots. The core message is that suffering and premature death should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. In this calculation, other values such as social justice tend to lose out. As Holden Karnofsky, cofounder of GiveWell, puts it, “Justice as an end in itself, liberty as an end in itself—those aren’t things we’re interested in.” Of course, effective altruists know there is good instrumental reason to promote equality, focus on the worst off, and respect human rights. Yet when the cards are on the table, their failure to value these things as ends in themselves induces forms of moral blindness.
For example, effective altruists do not care about who benefits from an intervention or in what way, only that the greatest total gain in well-being is achieved. This means they often overlook the weakest and most vulnerable members of a population, who are frequently illiterate, victims of discrimination, and consigned to geographically remote places. Many of them also suffer from disabilities that place out of reach the welfare gains able-bodied people can achieve. Therefore effective altruists tend to focus their efforts elsewhere. This approach leads to systematic neglect of those most in need, something that strikes many people as unjust.
Focusing on the greatest gain may lead to systematic neglect of the neediest.
In addition, effective altruists often favor policies that overlook the importance of rights. This can be seen in their general attitude toward sweatshop labor. Peter Singer has expressed sympathy for the view that a factory owner who pays above average wages in a poor country may be an effective altruist. Others go further. William MacAskill, cofounder of the effective altruism movement, believes “there is no question that sweatshops benefit those in poor countries.” For Singer and MacAskill, the morally salient fact is that sweatshops provide income for people in developing countries. However, human beings also have a right to adequate protection from dangerous working conditions. Sweatshop labor therefore involves a dubious trade-off. It makes some people better off, but at the expense of those who are injured or killed in workplace accidents. This is a high price to pay for economic progress.
Finally, effective altruists tend to ignore the problem of structural injustice in the global economy. A common defense of sweatshop labor, for instance, is that employees choose to work under harsh conditions. Yet this argument obscures the role of affluent nations in forcing the world’s poorest to choose between exploitation and destitution. Wealthy states could work to address global poverty through trade, aid, and the reform of global institutions, while also ensuring that labor standards are respected. So long as they fail to do so, their citizens profit from an international regime that foreseeably and avoidably harms the poor. People living in rich countries therefore have additional reason to support advocacy organizations that put pressure on governments to bring about more just global institutions.
Utilitarians do not recognize many of these moral categories and values. Faced with the above criticism, they will be tempted to engage in more detailed philosophical debate in an attempt to hold the line. But it would be a mistake for effective altruism to go down this path. The movement would weld itself too closely to a moral theory that could be mistaken, and it would also alienate many potential supporters.
The alternative is to embrace greater pluralism about value and to work with people who want to see suffering reduced, gains distributed fairly, and rights upheld in an effective way. Some organizations do this. For example, the Gates Foundation has committed to focusing on the poorest of the poor, even when they are difficult to help. Other organizations take rights seriously. By working with them, and advising their supporters about how to realize their objectives, effective altruists could help remedy injustice. They could also build the alliances needed to address a wide range of global problems.