effective altruism

Partiality, Ethical Theory, and Christmas

                                                                                                                                                                                  Written by Roger Crisp

Over recent decades, a lively debate has arisen in ethical theory over whether so-called ‘impartial’ views, such as utilitarianism, are inconsistent with the view that we have reasons, or even moral obligations, of partiality. Consider someone converted to utilitarianism who decided against a life-saving operation for their own child because the money could do more good if used to help strangers.

The standard utilitarian response has been that relationships involving partiality – relationships of love, friendship, and so on – not only produce a lot of good or well-being for those involved, but also, because of the kind of beings we are, motivate us to help others when otherwise we wouldn’t. This seems a reasonable defence, at least to some extent, though the question remains just how partial we should be.

Consider Christmas. Deloitte estimate that in 2016 US citizens spent $1 trillion during the Christmas period, much of which will have been on gifts and hospitality for family, friends, and colleagues. If we accept Jeffrey Sachs’s  claim that to end extreme world poverty in twenty years would cost around $175 billion p.a. (The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in our Lifetime (New York: Penguin, 2005)), then it seems that Americans would need to channel less than one fifth of their current spending over Christmas into overseas development to bring to an end the terrible injustice and suffering caused by extreme world poverty. And of course if the rest of us in the developed world did the same, the amount required from each of us would be even smaller.

There is still a difference between utilitarians and those who believe in non-derivative obligations of partiality, of course. Utilitarians think I should look after my children because the world will go better if I do; partialists believe I just should. But, given the current state of the world, relatively little of practical importance hangs on this debate. No plausible version of partialism could allow the huge disparities that exist between the amount spent in the developed world within partial relationships and that spent on alleviating suffering and injustice in the world as a whole. That is something all of us, whether impartialist or partialist, might do well to remember when Christmas comes round again.

Video Series: Larry S. Temkin on Peter Singer, Effective Altruism and Our Obligations to the Needy

What does Peter Singer’s famous ‘pond example’ tell us about our obligations to the world’s needy? Is rescuing a child drowning in a shallow pond really the same as donating money to effective aid organisations? Is it okay to spend large amounts of money on ‘dramatic rescues’ (e.g. after an earthquake, to find perhaps one more person alive…)? Does donating money to poor countries with corrupt regimes do more harm than good? Is the approach of Effective Altruism too narrow? In this interview with Katrien Devolder, Professor Larry S. Temkin (Rutgers) casts serious doubts on views that have been widely accepted for decades.

2017 Annual Uehiro Lectures in Practical Ethics: Audio Recordings Now Available

We were extremely honoured to welcome Professor Larry Temkin (Rutgers University) to Oxford to deliver the 2017 Annual Uehiro Lectures on 6, 8 and 10 November.  The engaging lectures were fully booked well in advance, and were each followed by a lively discussion.  Continue reading

Announcement: 2016 Effective Altruism Global Research Meeting Call for Abstracts

Location: August 5th to 7th, University of California, Berkeley

Abstract Deadline: July 10th

Contact: researchmeeting@centerforeffectivealtruism.org

Overview

The 2016 Effective Altruism Global Research Meeting is an opportunity for Postgraduate students and early stage academics from a variety of disciplines to present research relevant to Effective Altruism. The meeting will take place on August 5th to 7th, 2016 at UC Berkeley alongside the Effective Altruism Global conference. The meeting will consist of two events, an academic poster session and a number of short oral presentations. Presentations will be awarded to the most exceptional submissions. Participants selected for presentations will still have the option to present a poster.

The Effective Altruism movement, which promotes the use of reason and evidence to determine the most effective ways to improve the world, has grown rapidly over the last three years. It is an interdisciplinary movement which has gained traction amongst academics in a wide range of fields, including Philosophy, Economics and Health. Last year’s Effective Altruism Global conference welcomed renowned philosopher Peter Singer and behavioral economist Dan Ariely, as well as 1000 attendees. This year, our speakers include Philip Tetlock (author of Superforecasting), Cass Sunstein (legal scholar and former Administrator of the White House OIRA), Thomas Kalil (Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House OSTP), Jaan Tallinn (Co-Founder of Skype) and Irene Pepperberg (noted animal cognition scientist).  

Effective Altruism Global’s featured topics include discussions of the replication crisis, prediction markets, decision making under uncertainty, CRISPR, our obligations to the global poor, as well as a number of other topics that are important to shaping the future. The Research Meeting will run alongside Effective Altruism Global to give academics access to the large audience of interested attendees, and expose the more than 1,000 expected philanthropists, CEOs, and students to research relevant to Effective Altruism. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “Should You Switch to an Altruistic Career?” Written by Benjamin Lange

This essay was awarded second place in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics graduate category.

Written by University of Oxford student, Benjamin Lange

1. INTRODUCTION

Consider

Important Decision: Imagine that you are about to finish your philosophy PhD and are faced with the following two choices: You can either accept a postdoctoral position at a prestigious university or you can take up a job that will enable you to positively impact the lives of other people who are very badly off. Suppose further that you would strongly prefer to become a philosopher. However, you are having second thoughts. It’s also clear to you that you could spend your time and energy in a more beneficial way by helping others. And you recognise that you have strong moral reason to do so.

With this in mind, and standing at this important juncture in your life and career you now ask yourself:

“Given that there is some moral leeway, am I justified in pursing a philosophical (minimally helpful) career even though I could also choose a (more helpful) altruistic career?”

How would you answer? Continue reading

Five ways to become a really effective altruist

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu and Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

This is a cross-post of an article which was originally published in The Conversation

Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which aims not only to increase charitable donations of time and money (and indeed more broadly to encourage leading a lifestyle which does good in the world), but also encourage the most effective use of these resources, usually by looking for measurable impacts such as lives saved per dollar.

For an effective altruist, the core question is: “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?” It might be argued, for example, that charity work isn’t the best use of time; a talented financier may be better off working for a bank, and use their earnings to pay for others to work for charities instead. Continue reading

If you want to do the most good, maybe you shouldn’t work for Wall Street

Suppose you are an altruistically minded person who is adamant about doing the most good you possibly can. If you are lucky enough to have a wide range of options, what career should you choose?

Two years ago, William MacAskill, President of 80,000 hours, a non-profit organisation focused on “enabling people to make a bigger difference with their career,” suggested you steer clear of charity work and aim for Wall Street. He called this approach earning to give. A couple of days ago, MacAskill has published a blog post where he admits that heavily pushing for the idea of earning to give was “a marketing strategy,” and that, although 80,000 hours did believe that “at least a large proportion of people” should become high-earners in order to donate more money, placing so much emphasis on this idea may have been mistaken. The 80,000 hours page on earning to give now reads: “This page was last updated in 2012 and no-longer fully reflects our views.” MacAskill’s current point of view is that only a “small proportion” of people should strive to earn to give. Continue reading

How morality might ask less of scrooges (and more of kinder folks)

Could the fact that someone is more scroogelike – less willing to sacrifice for the sake of doing good – entail that morality is less demanding for her?  The answer to this question has important implications for a host of issues in practical ethics, including issues surrounding adoption, procreation, charity, consumer choices, and self-defense.

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Optional whether to give, therefore optional where to give?

You might think that if it’s not wrong not to donate to charity, then it’s not wrong to give to whatever particular charity you choose (as long as no harm is done).  I’m going to argue against this view.  Very often, it is wrong to give to an ineffective charity, even when it’s not wrong not to give at all.

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What Kind of Altruism is Most Effective?

Imagine that you have been left a large legacy, and would like to donate it to a charity, with a view to doing the most good possible.

It’s natural to think that one set of charities you should consider are those which cheaply save people’s lives, and perhaps particularly young people’s lives. For then you can count the good in the rest of those people’s lives as a good you’ve brought about. Continue reading

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