Effective Altruism and the Unavoidability of Ethical Trade-Offs

The so-called “effective altruism” (EA) movement has recently received a significant attention in the press. Many articles have been critical of EA for various reasons that significantly overlap over the general theme that too much quantification and calculus implies the risk of losing the “big picture” of the issues related to charity and poverty. The last example is an article published on the website “The Conversation”. The author’s main argument is that as a reason-based approach to charity and poverty, EA proponents ignore the fact that ethics and morality cannot be reduced to some “cold” utilitarian calculus:

“[EA proponents] have PhDs in the disciplines requiring the highest level of analytical intelligence, but are they clever enough to understand the limits of reason? Do they have an inner alarm bell that goes off when the chain of logical deductions produces a result that in most people causes revulsion?”

According to the author, a society full of “effectively altruist” people would be a society where any ethical issues would be dealt with through cold-minded computations actually eliminating any role for emotions and gut instincts.

“To be an effective altruist one must override the urge to give when one’s heart is opened up and instead engage in a process of data gathering and computation to decide whether the planned donation could be better spent elsewhere.

If effective altruists adopt this kind of utilitarian calculus as the basis for daily life (for it would be irrational to confine it to acts of charity) then good luck to them. The problem is that they believe everyone should behave in the same hyper-rational way; in other words, they believe society should be remade in their own image.”

The author then makes a link with free-market economists like Gary Becker, suspecting “that, for most people, following the rules of effective altruism would be like being married to Gary Becker, a highly efficient arrangement between contracting parties, but one deprived of all human warmth and compassion.”

There are surely many aspects of EA that can be argued against but I think that this kind of critique is pretty weak. Moreover, it is grounded on a deep misunderstanding of the contribution that social sciences (and especially economics) can make to dealing with ethical issues. As a starting point, I think that any discussion on the virtues and dangers of EA should start on a basic premise that I propose to call the “Hard Fact of Ethical Reasoning”:

Hard Fact of Ethical Reasoning (HFER) – Any ethical issue involves a decision problem with trade-offs to be made.

Giving to a charity to alleviate the sufferings due to poverty is a decision problem with a strong ethical component. What the HFER claims is that when considering how to alleviate those sufferings, you have to make a choice regarding how to use scarce resources in such a way your objective is reached. This a classical means-ends relationship the study of which has been at the core of modern economics for the last hundred years. If one accepts the HFER (and it is hard to see how one could deny it), then I would argue that EA has the general merit of leading us to reflect on and to make explicit the values and the axiological/deontic criteria that underlie our ethical judgments regarding what is considered to be good or right. As I interpret it, a key message of EA is that these ethical judgments should/cannot exclusively depend on our gut feelings and emotions but should also be the subject of rational scrutiny. Now, some of us may be indeed uncomfortable with the substantive claims made by EA proponents, such as Peter Singer’s remark that  “if you do the sums” then “you can provide one guide dog for one blind American or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness [in developing countries]”. Here, I think the point is to distinguish between two kinds of EA that I would call formal EA and substantive EA respectively.

Formal EA provides a general framework to think of ethical issues related to charity and poverty. It can be characterized by the following two principles:

Formal EA P1: Giving to different charities leads to different states of affairs that can be compared and ranked according to their goodness following some axiological principles, possibly given deontic constraints.

Formal EA P2: The overall goodness of states of affairs is a (increasing) function of their goodness for the individuals concerned.

Principles P1 and P2 are very general ones. P2 corresponds to what is sometime called the Pareto principle and seems, in this context, to be hardly disputable. It basically states that if you have the choice between giving to two charities and that everyone is equally well-off in the two resulting states of affairs except for at least one person that is better in one of them, then the latter state of affairs is the best. P1 states that it is possible to compare and rank states of affairs, which of course still allow for indifference. Note that we allow the possibility for the ranking to be constrained by any deontological principle that is considered as relevant. Under these two principles, formal EA essentially consists in a methodological roadmap: compute individual goodness in the different possible states of affairs that may result from charity donation, aggregate individual goodness according to some principles (captured by an Arrowian social welfare function in social choice theory) and finally rank the states of affairs according to their resulting overall goodness. This version of EA is thus essentially formal because it is silent regarding i) the content of individual goodness and ii) which social welfare function should be used. However, we may plausibly think of two additional principles that that make substantive claims regarding these two features:

Formal EA P3: Individual goodness is cardinally measurable and comparable.

Formal EA P4: Number counts: for any state of affairs with n persons whose individual goodness is increased by u by charity giving, there is in principle a better state of affairs with m > n persons whose individual goodness is increased by v < u by charity giving.

I will not comment on P3 as it is basically required to conduct any sensible ethical discussion. P4 is essential and I will return on it below. Before, compare formal EA with substantive EA. By substantive EA, I mean any combination of P1-P4 that adds at least one substantive assumption regarding a) the nature of individual goodness and/or b) the constraints the social welfare function must satisfy. Clearly, substantive EA is underdetermined by formal EA. There are many ways to pass from the latter to the former. For instance, one possibility is to use standard cost-benefit analysis to define and measure individual goodness. A utilitarian version of substantive EA which more or less captures Singer’s claims is obtained by assuming that the social welfare function must satisfy a strong independence principle such that overall goodness is additively separable. The possibilities are indeed almost infinite. This is the main virtue of formal EA as a theoretical and practical tool: it forces us to reflect on and to make explicit the principles that sustain our ethical judgments, acknowledging the fact that such judgments are required due to the HFER. Note moreover that in spite of its name, on this reading EA needs not be exclusively concerned with efficiency: fairness may be also taken into account by adding the appropriate principles when passing from formal to substantive EA. What remains true is that a proponent of EA will always claim that one should give to the charity that leads to the best state of affairs in terms of the relevant ordering. There is thus still a notion of “efficiency” but more loosely defined.

My discussion parallels an important discussion in moral philosophy between formal aggregation and substantive aggregation which has been thoroughly discussed in a recent book of Iwao Hirose. Hirose provides a convincing defense of formal aggregation as a general framework in moral philosophy. It is also similar to the distinction made by Marc Fleurbaey between formal welfarism and substantive welfarism. A key feature of formal aggregation is the substantive assumption that numbers count (principle P4 above). Consider the following example due to Thomas Scanlon and extensively discussed by Irose:

“Suppose that Jones has suffered an accident in the transmitter room of a television station. Electrical equipment has fallen on his arm, and we cannot rescue him without turning off the transmitter for fifteen minutes. A World Cup match is in progress, watched by many people, and it will not be over for an hour. Jones’s injury will not get any worse if we wait, but his hand has been mashed and he is receiving extremely painful electrical shocks. Should we rescue him now or wait until the match is over?”

According to formal aggregation, there exists some number n* of persons watching the match such that for any n > n* it is better to wait the end of the match to rescue Jones. Scanlon and many others have argued against this conclusion and claimed that we cannot aggregate individual goodness this way. Hirose thoroughly discusses the various objection against formal aggregation but in the end concludes that none of them are fully convincing. The point here is that if someone wants to argue against EA as I have characterized it, then one must make a more general point against formal aggregation. This is a possibility of course, but that has nothing to do with rejecting the role of reason and of “cold calculus” in the realm of ethics.

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