Stoic advice: effective altruism

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

J. wrote: Should a Stoic prokopton be an effective altruist? Effective altruism is a utilitarian-inspired movement which advocates that well-off people from rich countries ought to make significant altruistic efforts, through their time and/or money, and that their efforts ought to be directed in whatever way they expect to have the most beneficial marginal impact on the world. Stoics are clearly not utilitarians, but can it ever be virtuous to choose a less effective cause over a more effective one? Can it ever be virtuous for a well-off person in a rich country to not put substantial efforts towards altruism (i.e. donating at least 10% of one’s income as advocated by Giving What We Can’s pledge)? From a virtue ethics perspective, are eight hours volunteering at a local soup kitchen equally meritorious to eight hours spend earning money at a high wage to then donate 100% to the same soup kitchen, even when the latter is certain to have more consequential benefits to others? If so, what are some conditions under which Stoic virtue would depart from a more consequentialist effective altruism stance?

This is an excellent, and difficult question. But I broadly think the answer is no, there is no ethical obligation for a Stoic to be an effective altruist. To begin with, as you note, Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics, not a utilitarian philosophy. Even more to the point, its entire framework is fundamentally incompatible with modern ethical approaches, not just utilitarianism, but Kantian-style deontology as well. As I pointed out in a previous post, modern ethics attempts to be universal, seeking a point of view from nowhere, as Thomas Nagel famously put it. Virtue ethics, by contrast, is focused on individual character development, its fundamental question — how should we live our lives? — being much broader than the specific issue of whether a particular behavior is right or wrong.

Moreover, there seems to be a certain degree of inconsistency in the effective altruism approach, which would probably not go unnoticed when scrutinized from the point of view of one of the three Stoic fields, logic. As you mentioned, organizations such as Giving What We Can usually suggest about 10% of one’s income, and so does famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. But, very obviously, we can give much, much more than 10%, or 20%, or even 50%, and still survive. (I’m not talking about a simple sliding scale where the ultra-rich give more, which EA supporters already acknowledge. I’m talking about the fact that all of us could give away almost our entire wealth, if we really wanted to.) Where, then, is the stopping point? I suspect the answer is that even supporters of effective altruism concede that one’s life cannot be reduced to just being a source of resources to improve other people’s predicaments. There must be room for pursuing one’s own goals as well, which by definition takes away from charitable activities. But then any particular percentage becomes an entirely arbitrary cutoff point, the underlying principle being not to give what we can, but what we feel comfortable with. Which is certainly something no Stoic would object to.

Similar reasoning applies to the other component of effective altruism that you mention: the choice of one’s career. Sure, in narrow utilitarian terms it would be far better to choose a highly lucrative job that we may hate and then give away money to help others, rather than volunteer at the local soup kitchen.

But the Stoic is concerned with her own character first and foremost, and writing a check that doesn’t really hurt our material conditions to benefit anonymous human beings on the other side of the planet is very different from giving up the only resource that cannot be replenished (time) in favor of our our neighbors, people with whom we actually interact in the streets.

Yes, justice is one of the Stoic virtues, so there is a Stoic imperative to care about other people. But setting aside that material wellbeing (anyone’s material wellbeing) is only a preferred indifferent, it would seem to me that the focus ought to be on changing the structural conditions that allow for an advanced technological civilization such as ours, with plenty of resources to feed everyone in the world, to still experience massive poverty and even starvation. Simply giving money away not only does not address those structural problems, it arguably reinforces them by failing to question them and taking them for granted. Unless one attempts to change society one is in fact complicit in reinforcing its inherent injustice, and giving money away is a stop-gap measure that can be indulged in by those of us who are privileged by that very unjust system. It heals our conscience, but ultimately does little to really change things.

It is of curse true that the ancient Stoics did not themselves address social injustice. There were occasional exceptions, like Marcus passing legislation that improved the conditions of women and slaves, and Seneca saying this about slavery:

“They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. … Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (XLVII. On Master and Slave, 1, 10)

But generally speaking when the Stoics took arms against tyranny, as in the case of Cato the Younger against Julius Caesar, they did not have anything like the modern concept of social justice in mind.

Then again, neither did pretty much anyone else at the time. It’s not like Christian or Buddhist texts brim with calls for upending the social status quo, so it is rather hide to raise that criticism against the Stoics in particular, a classic example of ethical presentism.

However, we are modern Stoics, and our goal is to apply the broad principles of Stoicism — which we feel are just as relevant today as two millennia ago — to modern life, filtering them through modern ideas about justice and human welfare.

None of the above implies that effective altruism isn’t a morally worthy and valiant effort to address the world’s problems. But I don’t see a Stoic imperative to follow it, and I honestly don’t think the movement will have more than an ephemeral impact, because of the twin problems of being difficult to sustain for most human beings as well as of failing to address the structural problems lurking just below the surface.

If anything, a modern Stoic should take a look at the way the world works and put her efforts into doing her best to change things at a deeper level. While charity can certainly be a part of this, as a stop-gap measure, working on one’s own character, leading others by example to work on their own ethical mindfulness, supporting political causes and individuals who want to change things (including running for office oneself), talking about injustice as loudly as possible, and minimizing her own complicity in the current system, are all components of a virtuous approach.

This, of course, may result in a bit less pleasurable life for ourselves, in agreement with Marcus:

“I see no virtue that is opposed to justice; but I see a virtue that is opposed to love of pleasure, and that is temperance.” (Meditations, VIII.39)

The emperor-philosopher also said this, which seems awfully pertinent to the matter at hand:

“Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.” (Meditations, IX.1)

Stoicism, if practiced well, can be just as demanding, perhaps more so, than effective altruism, precisely because it responds to what it perceives as an imperative imposed by the nature of things on the way human beings ought to act. That is one way of interpreting the maxim that we should live according to nature.

36 thoughts on “Stoic advice: effective altruism

  1. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I read one of Singer’s popular books in my search for a more organized ethical approach to life, and two objections stand out: (1) there really was no good argument, other than it’s too hard (but that shouldn’t be a deterrent from trying if something’s really important, right?) to decide not to be a “happiness pump” who devotes his or her entire life to helping strangers, which is the logical conclusion of utilitarianism; and (2) “happiness” was defined in a way that was highly dependent on externals, probably even more neo-Epicurean (happiness as absence of pain and presence of simple pleasures and good company) than neo-Aristotelian (happiness as virtue plus favorable externals). I hadn’t thought of the whole thing of playing into the economic structure as it is, but that’s also a pretty good objection.

    I do try to include a little bit of charity in my own practice, but I see many of the most compelling problems in society as a result of privileged people like myself not having our priorities straight, and that goes way beyond whether we’re willing to offer a bit of money or time to our neighbors. So I focus most of my efforts on trying to straighten out my own priorities, particularly in short-term decision making where my vices are most likely to come out. That’s where the dichotomy of control, cause and effect, preparing for the worst case, and the like come in.

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  2. Jason Malfatto

    …it would seem to me that the focus ought to be on changing the structural conditions that allow for an advanced technological civilization such as ours, with plenty of resources to feed everyone in the world, to still experience massive poverty and even starvation.

    This is a natural segue into politics, but what if a Stoic is also a “conservative” in the traditional Burkean sense of skeptical towards radical and/or revolutionary change?

    Or, to reframe the question: What if “simply giving money away”, combined with moderate political reform, is the most one can achieve to alter the maldistribution of wealth, given the world as it is today and for the foreseeable future?

    After all, while my imagination is vivid enough to envision societies much better than ours, a survey of real-world countries (as opposed to the imaginary ones that utopians put forth) usually leads me to the conclusion that the Nordic countries are the ones to beat (e.g. in terms of metrics of social well-being) and those aren’t radically different in structure than, say, the US. For example, both the US and Sweden are market economies and representative democracies, though taxes are higher in Sweden and its welfare state is more generous.

    I’m tempted to mention something re: the Stoic dichotomy of control (which you, Massimo, could easily match with a quotation), but really what I have in mind here is something more akin to an empiricist or evidence-based approach to politics, which I reckon is quite compatible with Stoic virtue ethics.

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  3. Alessio Persichetti

    Professor Pigliucci, you have remembered Nagel’s criticism against an universalistic approach in moral issues. But, is possible to live an ethical life without the evaluation of the general consequences of our actions, even when I haven’t direct causal control on it? Example: when I choose to throw paper or plastic in undifferentiated junk, instead of the proper containers, within my limits I’m doing a damage to the enviroment, which will be inherited by next generations; but at the other hand I don’t have the chance to properly influence the global situation. What It could a be a “stoic” answer to this problem?

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  4. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    “what if a Stoic is also a “conservative” in the traditional Burkean sense of skeptical towards radical and/or revolutionary change?”

    They would have to ask themselves why they support a society that allows massive inequality, poverty, and famine.

    “while my imagination is vivid enough to envision societies much better than ours, a survey of real-world countries (as opposed to the imaginary ones that utopians put forth) usually leads me to the conclusion that the Nordic countries are the ones to beat”

    Moving the US toward a Scandinavian model would be a revolution, from the current starting point. But I take your point, one has to take into account the reality on the ground and not engage in wishful thinking. That said, Cato gave his life in opposition to what turned out to be the inevitability of the end of the Republic…

    Alessio,

    “is possible to live an ethical life without the evaluation of the general consequences of our actions, even when I haven’t direct causal control on it?”

    No, I don’t think it is. But the issue here is what follows from such evaluation. I’m not convinced that effective altruism is the only way, nor that it is the best way — because it tacitly reinforces the underlying, unjust, structure of our society.

    “when I choose to throw paper or plastic in undifferentiated junk, instead of the proper containers, within my limits I’m doing a damage to the enviroment, which will be inherited by next generations; but at the other hand I don’t have the chance to properly influence the global situation”

    You do have a chance to influence the global situation, by acting in the right way at a personal level, influence others, donate to politica campaigns, running for office, teaching other people, voting for better candidates. And yes, throw your paper and plastic in the appropriate containers too!

    In general, everyone, Stoicism doesn’t guarantee a good outcome (i.e., a better world), it only tells you that you should behave to your best. The latter is under your control, the former isn’t. But there is a correlation between the two…

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  5. saphsin

    No I reject this solution. Charity is better than no charity, but it barely mitigates poverty and can even have deleterious effects. Also charity projects provide a mechanism for elites to have increased concentration of power in international development decisions. It distracts from the real causes of poverty by the global economic system. What the dispossessed need most is anger at injustice.

    (I could go into detail about all these claims, but I don’t know where you are on this so I’ll leave it as an opening statement. Again, I think a world with charity is better than no charity, but focusing on this has serious issues & drawbacks.)

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Saphsin,

    I’m not sure where we disagree, and therefore why you began your comment with “No I reject this solution.” Unless I musunderstood you completely, what I say in the OP is precisely what you are saying here, no?

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  7. saphsin

    Ah also one thing, I don’t want this to be an economics/political discussion because I know where you’re trying to go with this. But in terms of a revolving lifestyle, there are serious humanistic problems with how individuals relate to global problems. There are tremendous limitations with this mentality of “if I’m donating money, or engaging with business that deal in contributions to the community, I’m doing something for the world” as a way for individuals to engage with human suffering around the world. I think these quotes from this article put it best (a bit exaggerating, but rings a general truth for how charity works)

    “It is not enough to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty. If we have the generosity to give a stranger a hot meal or a bed for the night, we must also have the courage to ask why they were hungry and homeless in the first place.”

    “Charity, by contrast, creates a relationship that compromises the humanity of both parties. It humiliates the recipient at the same time it gratifies the giver. One cannot fight shoulder-to-shoulder with someone while looking down at them. The proper response to the suffering around us is not sympathy but anger, and with it, a commitment to political solidarity.”

    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/private-charity-holidays-philanthropy-poverty-inequality/

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  8. Massimo Post author

    Saphsin,

    Again, agreed. Except that a Stoic would replace “anger” in both your comments with righteous indignation and a sense of justice…

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  9. Eric

    I’ve been a fan of Effective Altruism, as opposed to other charitable endeavours, for a while. So I really enjoyed this perspective, and it happened to share one of my criticisms. I’m awful at this, but it seems that devoting one’s time to charity is more likely to produce a change in one’s self, even if it is less effective in terms of overall outcomes than donating the money spent working that time (assuming you earn a good wage).

    Recognizing that not everyone has the virtue ethic ideal, I’ve sort of settled on virtue ethics for myself, but consequentialism for others. Meaning that I try to donate to charity because others don’t feel that only their virtue matters, and I try to support political causes that will help the externalities of others. However, I realize that guideline is laden with potential conflicts and contradictions, this case of supporting EA being one of them.

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  10. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo,

    They would have to ask themselves why they support a society that allows massive inequality, poverty, and famine.

    Since you took my overall point re: “wishful thinking”, I don’t want to quibble too much with your reply, but “support” is a stronger and less charitable word than I had in mind for this hypothetical conservative, whose stance is more akin to a Stoic acceptance of what’s beyond his control (or so he believes, rightly or wrongly, based on his knowledge of the world).

    After all, even the Nordic countries (the American progressives’ “one to beat” from my previous comment) feature varying degrees of inequality and poverty, albeit in mitigated forms relative to the US (and of course other countries are in turn worse off than the US). I get that the modern Stoic, as you envision her, will support progressive causes, aimed at nudging the world further along this progressive axis towards those desirable Nordic-like social outcomes and I’m glad to hear it. And the modern Nordic Stoic may in turn endeavor to push even further along it, though I would ask her to bear in mind hard-earned lessons from 20th-Century experiments with radical & revolutionary ideologies.

    Where we may differ is in how we describe the policy changes required to approach those outcomes. For example, I would describe an extension of Medicare or Medicaid from coverage of specific demographics (seniors or the poorest citizens) to all US citizens as a rather moderate imitation of what other wealthy countries – like Canada or Taiwan – already have. What’s more, the program would build on a time-tested service that the US government has provided in varying degrees for roughly half a century. The idea may seem radical or revolutionary to us, given the powerful political interests arrayed against it, but the US would not be structurally all that different from what it is now, were this universal “single-payer” goal at last achieved here. Similar arguments apply to other reinforcements and expansions of the US welfare state (e.g. SNAP, TANF, ACA, etc.).

    I’ll just add that UBI (universal basic income) happens to be one of my policy pets, even though it’s never been fully implemented by any country as far as I know. Were the politics less discouraging, I expect that a UBI plan in the US would likely build off of existing conceptual and bureaucratic frameworks, like Social Security and federal unemployment & disability. The consequences of such a move could indeed prove radical (as in: the eradication of absolute poverty in this country), but the basic structure of the political system or of civil society would not necessarily have to change in order to achieve it.

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  11. saphsin

    A question, do you think it’s possible to speak and act “with righteous indignation and a sense of justice” completely without anger? Some of the best political polemics were inspired by feelings of anger, and it’s difficult to imagine that their heightened feelings of outrage towards injustice didn’t greatly help their moral reflections by expanding the range of their own emotional explorations.

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  12. jbonnicerenoreg

    This is a problem I see in many recent discussions. Unintended consequences become as important as the original intention. So charity has a serious defect because it will support the current structure. War is just as good as peace because new social structures are created. For the Stoic, what counts as moral is that which is under our control– the intention of the act and not the consequences which are at best preferred indifferents and at worst merely nothing to me.

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  13. Massimo Post author

    Eric,

    “it seems that devoting one’s time to charity is more likely to produce a change in one’s self, even if it is less effective in terms of overall outcomes than donating the money spent working that time”

    Right, one criticism of EA being that writing a check clears one’s conscience without need to question the fundamental injustice of the system.

    Virtue ethics for oneself and consequentialism for others is not a bad compromise, but I prefer to work toward influencing others to come to the virtue ethical side of things… Hence this blog.

    Jason,

    “”support” is a stronger and less charitable word than I had in mind for this hypothetical conservative, whose stance is more akin to a Stoic acceptance of what’s beyond his control”

    Perhaps that’s true for your hypothetical conservative, but many conservatives I know want the world to stay a certain way, they don’t frame it in terms of the dichotomy of control.

    “even the Nordic countries (the American progressives’ “one to beat” from my previous comment) feature varying degrees of inequality and poverty, albeit in mitigated forms relative to the US”

    True, though Harry Frankfurt has made a decent philosophical argument that inequality per se isn’t the problem, poverty is. And there is little of that in Scandinavian countries. (And even the inequality is far lower than in the US, where it has reached truly indecent levels.)

    “though I would ask her to bear in mind hard-earned lessons from 20th-Century experiments with radical & revolutionary ideologies.”

    Indeed. Personally — but this is my personal view, not necessarily a Stoic one — the best system we’ve discovered so far is one of managed capitalism, where essential services, as well as a robust safety net, are guaranteed by the state, and where there are measures in place to limit the power of the private sector, especially when it comes to large banks and international corporations.

    The problem I have with UBI is that in the US it begins to be seriously considered by actors I dont’ trust, like libertarian think tanks. Why? Because they are readying themselves to make the argument that once we have UBI then we can dismantle the (little, woefully inadequate) social net. That would be a disaster, I think.

    Saphsin,

    “do you think it’s possible to speak and act “with righteous indignation and a sense of justice” completely without anger?”

    For a Stoic, absolutely yes. Even Nelson Mandela — influenced in prison by reading the Meditations — made his breakthrough once he overcame his anger and turned it into something positive. See my post on Stoicism as a way to shift, not suppress, emotions: http://tinyurl.com/ybv2m25m

    Jbonni,

    “charity has a serious defect because it will support the current structure. War is just as good as peace because new social structures are created”

    I wouldn’t put those two even near the same category.

    “For the Stoic, what counts as moral is that which is under our control– the intention of the act and not the consequences which are at best preferred indifferents and at worst merely nothing to me.”

    I disagree. Yes, the focus is on intentions, and consequences are preferred indifferents. But if they were truly “nothing” to me then I wouldn’t be a moral person, and the practice of the virtue of justice, or the concept of cosmopolitanism, would just be empty words.

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  14. Jason Malfatto

    The problem I have with UBI is that in the US it begins to be seriously considered by actors I dont’ trust, like libertarian think tanks. Why? Because they are readying themselves to make the argument that once we have UBI then we can dismantle the (little, woefully inadequate) social net. That would be a disaster, I think.

    So let’s simply not do that.

    Just to be clear, I see UBI as a complement to (not a substitute for) other valuable social insurance programs, including some we still lack, like Medicare-for-all and (outside of NY) free tuition at public colleges & universities.

    That said, it’s at least arguable that citizens who enjoy a UBI will have less need for, say, food stamps or minimum wage laws, in which case progressives will have a bargaining chip with conservatives, who seem especially averse towards government paternalism (as in: micromanagement of the economy, in this example by dictating how consumers spend their money and how much employers pay their workers).

    Again, the key is to do this (and other desirable policy prescriptions, like carbon taxes) in an evidence- and outcome-based way.

    OK, that’s enough of a tangent from the topic of Stoicism. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  15. saphsin

    “True, though Harry Frankfurt has made a decent philosophical argument that inequality per se isn’t the problem, poverty is. And there is little of that in Scandinavian countries. (And even the inequality is far lower than in the US, where it has reached truly indecent levels.)”

    The problem with that argument is that wealth inequality is far from just about poverty & living standards. It’s about power & decision making. Extreme inequality & concentration of wealth is about extreme inequality & concentration of power. In the United States, elites have enormous amounts of decisions making privileges about how the society is run. They have control over government, the allocation of resources, armies to invade other countries to get access to oil, how the media is run, etc. etc. They may use that power to keep the population poor, but all of that is not directly related to problems of poverty.

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  16. Massimo Post author

    Saphsin,

    Indeed, and Frankfurt discusses that. That’s why he says that the problem is not inequality per se, but rather its derivatives, such as those you list.

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  17. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I guess in theory, if the wealthy were good Stoics, they would use their money and influence to, say, pay even better Stoics to make policies that benefit everyone, rather than make laws that favor the preservation and increase of their money over all other social goals. The temptation toward corruption and luxury is very difficult, but not necessarily impossible, to resist. “Power corrupts” is a good rule of thumb, but not necessarily an unbreakable law of nature.

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  18. saphsin

    Julie Nantais

    It’s much more complicated than that, it’s the structure of society’s institutions that are the core of the problems. They incentivize & reward people the people in society that maximize profit & personal gain, coupled with the ideological apparatus (the media, education system, the elite culture at the higher rungs in society) convinces those who are rewarded that they deserved all their wealth and that the poor are there because they didn’t work hard enough. That goes even for the so-called altruistic billionaires. Take a look at the political beliefs of people like Warren Buffett & Bill Gates and some of it is extreme.

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  19. Benjamin Todd

    Hi Massimo,

    I work at an organisation in the effective altruism community (80,000 Hours). I just have a quick comment to add:

    I understand that effective altruism is often portrayed as being about donating 10% of your income and being utilitarian, but it’s not.

    Effective altruism is about trying to do good, through whatever means, in the ways that most help others. It’s not about charity. Many people in the community work in research, policy, non-profits, do political advocacy and so on.
    https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism/

    It’s also not underpinned by utilitarianism, and many effective altruists aren’t utilitarian. Rather, it rests on the principle that if you can help someone else a great deal with little cost to yourself, then you should do it. I think that’s an ethical principle that most people should be able to get behind. It’s hard to imagine how ignoring easily-preventible suffering would constitute a virtuous life.

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  20. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Yes, there is a close relationship between culture and inequality. However, I would say that extreme inequality could just as easily be a consequence as a cause of the structural problems. Realistically, they probably operate as both cause and consequence in a feedback loop. A good philosophy could break the feedback loop on the side of culture, in theory, but it would have to be consciously adopted and practiced by the vast majority of rich people, plus anyone they might associate with who can culturally nudge them toward not slipping back to their previous “winner take all” philosophy. Trying to combat the inequality itself directly is the other option, hoping that it can get the affluent to rethink their culture or the common people to be able to oust the affluent, but of course that’s made hard by the very influence that the infamous 1% have, and the culture of selfishness prominent at all levels now. Even most people who aren’t that rich want to protect or enjoy their tiny piece of the pie above other goals.

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  21. saphsin

    Julie Nantais

    Yeah well convincing the elite class to give up their wealth & power and work to help reform our political & economic institutions is pretty much antithetical to the whole human history of democratic struggle. Anyone who wants to try, good luck with that. Let’s go with what’s been proven to work, changing social structures by popular force (usually by nonviolence, violence as a last resort).

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  22. Massimo Post author

    Benjamin,

    I’m familiar with 80,000 hours. I take your word for it, but if EA is defined that broadly then I wonder what the fuss is all about.

    “it rests on the principle that if you can help someone else a great deal with little cost to yourself, then you should do it”

    Indeed.

    “It’s hard to imagine how ignoring easily-preventible suffering would constitute a virtuous life.”

    Because pursued to its logical conclusion this is devolves into something analogous to the famous utilitarian “repugnant conclusion”: everyone in the world will live a barely livable existence. I don’t think there is an ethical imperative to do that.

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  23. cmplxadsys

    I take EA to be more broadly the philosophy that one should be smart about one’s altruism. The specifics such as donating 10% to effective charities, etc. are not at the core of EA. And as Ben said, although Singer’s preference utilitarianism contributed to early thought about the EA movement, it is not at the core, either.

    Instead, I see some of EA as being strongly in line with Stoic oikeiosis, in that distance and cultural considerations take a back seat in one’s altruism.

    Also mildly surprised that the common virtue ethics response to EA wasn’t given here: that one has duties to take care of people in one’s communities over others further away due to the roles one plays and the interactions one has with people closer to home. Did you not include it because you think this is against Stoic oikeiosis, or for some other reason.

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  24. Massimo Post author

    Cmp,

    As I said, if EA simply means “do your best to help your fellow humans” than there is no Stoic objection to it, and indeed, the idea is in perfect harmony with okeiosis. However, if that’s truly all that EA is about then I don’t see why we need a special term for that idea, which has literally been around for thousands of years.

    And yes, you are correct that virtue ethics in general says that we have a special duty to people who are members of our family or community. I have, for instance, a special duty toward my daughter, because I chose to bring her into the world. And while I do my best to help others by way of charitable donations, regardless of how far from me they are in the world, my first duty will always be to my daughter. Which, of course, is most definitely not what a utilitarian would say.

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  25. Benjamin Todd

    Hi Massimo,

    but if EA is defined that broadly then I wonder what the fuss is all about.

    The bite comes in the second part, “using evidence and reason to work out which efforts to help others are most effective.” Most efforts to help others are based on what feels right. There’s merit in that approach, but EA claims it’s no longer sufficient in the modern world, which is a pretty unintuitive place. Singer’s pond argument is one illustration of this, among many others.

    Because pursued to its logical conclusion this is devolves into something analogous to the famous utilitarian “repugnant conclusion”: everyone in the world will live a barely livable existence.

    The repugnant conclusion is usually thought to follow from total utilitarianism. The principle “if you can help someone else a great deal with little cost to yourself, then do it”, which is all that’s needed for EA, is much weaker. For instance, it doesn’t imply you should sacrifice all the way until you’re living a life that’s barely worth living. It also looks like it could be consistent with an average rather than total view of population ethics.

    The objections in this thread are mostly addressed in more depth here:
    https://www.effectivealtruism.org/faqs-criticism-objections/

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  26. Massimo Post author

    Ben,

    As I said, I don’t object to the basic idea of doing what one can for others (obviously), and as a scientist I wish to do that in the most effective way.

    But EA seems to come built in with a particular concept of “effective,” which I don’t buy. Effectiveness isn’t just a matter of numbers, but of values and priorities, and the latter can’t just be determined by crunching statistics.

    Obvious example: according to my values as a Stoic, oikeiosis means that I should be concerned with all humanity, but my immediate family is closer to me within Hierocles’ circles of concern, which means that it gets priority in terms of my efforts.

    I’m sure one could arrive at an algorithm that can help me decide the optimal allocation of my resources and time between my family and the rest of the world, but it is hard to imagine how to build such an algorithm without incurring in a lot of subjectivity.

    And if your reply is that I shouldn’t be concerned about my family more than about someone I don’t know on the other side of the planet, on the ground that they are all human beings, then you are surreptitiously importing utilitarian values into what is now no longer a value free discussion. Indeed, there are no value free discussions.

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