Does effective altruism have a politics?

There are three ways to answer this question.

First, if effective altruism aspires to be a social movement, bringing its approach to charity into the mainstream, then it must have a politics. Its greatest advocates, such as Peter Singer, must be savvy about coalition-building, mobilizing public support, crafting appealing messages, and so on. With his new book, Singer hopes to contribute to an effective altruism movement, and it is not a change in his philosophical beliefs that accounts for his decision to dilute the severity of his earlier arguments that identified a moral obligation to give money away until doing so caused suffering to the donor comparable to the suffering of the desperately poor. Now Singer endorses a more moderate approach—tithing, for example—presumably seeking to appeal to a broader audience.

Second, if effective altruism aspires to endorse causes that aim to bring about political or institutional change, moving beyond efforts, such as GiveWell’s, to channel charitable dollars to nongovernmental organizations that deliver empirically demonstrable results for the poor, then it must have a politics. (Disclosure: I am a member of the GiveWell board.) 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).

For effective altruists, the best state of affairs places technocrats in charge.

I believe effective altruism has a clear politics in each of these ways. In the first sense, effective altruism is political because it must manage the politics of movement building. In the second sense, effective altruism is political because it seeks to engage formal and informal political mechanisms in order to improve human well-being.

But there is a third and deeper sense in which effective altruism is apolitical. In my experience, effective altruists are unabashed technocrats. They seek to maximize good in the world, and they deploy the best evidence they can marshal to identify the mechanisms by which one can pursue that goal. Effective altruists might locate instrumental value in politics—to the extent that political engagement is necessary to promote good—but not, I suspect, intrinsic value.

Plato identified the best city as that in which philosophers were the rulers. Effective altruists see the best state of affairs, I think, as that in which good-maximizing technocrats are in charge. Perhaps it is possible to call this a politics: technocracy.

But this politics is suspicious of, or rejects, the form of politics to which most people attach enormous value: democracy. Would effective altruists attach any independent value to democracy? Given the chance to craft social and political arrangements from scratch, would effective altruists select democratic rather than technocratic rule? I suspect the answer is no, and to that extent, effective altruism is in tension with the commonplace philosophy that identifies in democracy a powerful normative force.