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The effective altruism movement seems to be taking off. It is not at all hard to understand the appeal. Many of us (not me of course, I don’t care) struggle every day with the notion of trying to live a good life and as part of that life we want to have a positive impact on the world. Faced with the constant struggle of trying to evaluate just what are some of the good (best?) ways to do this, we just sort of go through a mish-mash of efforts and hope they work. Maybe we were inspired by a book (such as Room to Read) or a story from a friend about a particular place she visited. But how do we know that our efforts, large or small, are doing any good? Don’t we want to know given our limited time and resources here on Earth, whether our contributions are helping others? Furthermore, many of us know the long history of political efforts to promote development has been checkered, certainly not universally successful and in some cases it is thought that foreign aid and other development projects have actually made things worse by unleashing unintended consequences or entrenching vile dictators whose sole purpose is to extract as much as possible from his people while keeping them mired in lives of poverty.

Layer on top of this the fact that many of the world’s citizens now find themselves unconscionably wealthy by world standards, and that human well being can be improved, theoretically, very cheaply, in those places that have yet to develop, and there is a real opportunity for people to think harder about “doing good better.” In other words, people are thinking hard about the marginal benefits and marginal costs of their various forms of charitable giving. The effective altruism movement therefore is not merely a movement to encourage more people to give and to give more and to earn more to give more … but it promotes research into best giving practices, so we can be sure that we get the most poverty alleviation bang for the buck.

And as far as I can tell from a few interviews, the founder, Will MacAskill, is an admitted person of the left, and former participant in the typical college-type socialist workers meetings and such, and he seems to have fully embraced this economic way of thinking about the problem of poverty and charity. And as far as I can tell, the Effective Altruism movement seems to be supported across the political affiliation spectrum – I certainly do not get the sense that the progressive left is appalled at this sort of thing (wholly aside from the issue of whether governments should or should not also be doing this, I am talking about the movement itself).

So what now really puzzles me is why when the very same ideas and tools are applied outside of the Effective Altruism movement, not only are they ignored, they are sometimes vigorously attacked. I’ve yet to read a criticism of MacAskill on the left that accuses him and the movement of being paid lackeys for crony capitalists, or that the “economist-y” tools he is employing somehow are not appropriate or diminishes what he is doing. But good lord, if you do the exact same thing MacAskill is doing when it comes to public health triage in America, or environmental issues in America or around the world, then you are actually the devil.

Don’t believe me? Go look at what has happened to people like Bjorn Lomborg, whose book I read a decade and a half ago and really got me started thinking more seriously about environmental issues. He basically has encouraged hundreds of people to come together to evaluate some of the world’s most pressing problems, many environmental, and come up with a ranking of where we will get the most improvement for our efforts at alleviating the problems. For lack of a better description, he is broadly applying efficiency analysis to many environmental and health issues. And he has been absolutely been nailed as a pariah, lackey, etc. He was even “forced” to not accept a new faculty position in Australia because people simply didn’t like the work he was doing. Now, go look at the excellent book, “How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World” or the original idea from whence all of this grew, “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and read them without knowing about the current hatred for him and without knowing anything about him. My reading is that you’d think he was an extremely thoughtful social scientist, worried about lots of things, with a strong progressive streak that wishes to see government action working on these things. I certainly don’t think you’d get, “Man, how much did Continental Resources pay this dude to write this book!?!?”

But that’s where we are. Mr. MacAskill applies very sensible tools to the issue of global charity, the very basic tools economists use, and he combines it with an emotional message that we CAN do more to help others and that we SHOULD do more to help others, and he seems to me to be the flavor of the month. When Bjorn Lomborg, or really anyone for that matter, applies the very same tools with a slightly less strong (though still somewhat emotional) appeal to do more and to do better, he is completely scorned, an outcast, evil, and so on. This, to me, is not only disastrously inconsistent, but extremely cold-hearted to not just the people doingwork like Lomborg, but to the billions of people whose lives would be improved if folks like this were paid attention to.

2 Responses to “Effective Altruism and My Lack of Understanding”

  1. David Nash says:

    This may be a critiscism from the left that was shared around a lot in the last month, there are also a few rebuttals on the EA facebook page


  2. Doug M says:

    It is spin. MacAskill says these are causes no one is compelled to support, but you should consider it, and this is the most efficient way to do it.
    Lomborg says there are causes the government currently supports, and here is what we think of the efficiency of these projects.
    From an economic point of view, they are equivalent. From a political point of view Lomborg’s work carries with it an implication, that perhaps government should support certain causes more. Where MacAskill’s work suggests that perhaps individuals should support certain causes more.

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