What Effective Altruists need to answer: how much good is enough?

The growing movement of Effective Altruism has received a spike in attention in recent months with the publication of two long-awaited books on the subject, Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do, and William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better. Both have prompted critical responses, typically rehashing the objections that EAs (Effective Altruists) have heard time and again for the past five years. However, there is one line of criticism that I am not sure EAs have a clear response to (yet): the question of what Effective Altruism implies in terms of moral obligation.

Effective Altruism provides an excellent set of resources for making moral comparisons between different actions. For example, if I want to give £10 to charity, EA can tell me whether charity A or charity B does more good. Similarly, it can compare the good done by two different career paths. What it does not, at the moment, have a framework for, is telling me how much I should give to charity (is £10 enough?) or whether I should follow the more moral career even if this is harder, more boring and less enjoyable than alternatives. In other words, how should I weigh moral goods (such as reducing diseases in poor countries) against non-moral goods (such as pursuing my own hobbies or aesthetic pursuits)?.1

It is this ambiguity that many of EA’s critics understandably latch on to. When Singer starts talking about ‘doing the most good’, then many people naturally assume this means sacrificing their most cherished passions and goals at the altar of altruism. Summoning the notorious spectre of Susan Wolf’s moral saints or Bernard Williams’ unfortunate characters, it is easy to see what makes John Gray so uncomfortable about the idea of “devoting one’s life to doing the most good”. As Gray puts it,

For many of us a world in which our own projects and attachments were accorded value only insofar as they enabled us to maximize the general good, where human values were subject to a test of marginal utility and the relief of suffering given overriding priority over aesthetic pleasure, would be hardly worth living in

Gray’s piece takes the most severe possible interpretation of the sacrifices demanded by Effective Altruism. Presumably to forestall this line of criticism, Peter Singer has claimed that

Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.

Most effective altruists…are pragmatic realists, not saints, so very few claim to live a fully ethical life. Most of them are somewhere on the continuum between a minimally acceptable ethical life and a fully ethical life.

In other words, you can be an effective altruist without donning a hair shirt and giving yourself wholesale to the cause.

Unfortunately, I find Singer’s distinction more confusing than enlightening. What is the difference between a ‘minimally acceptable’ and ‘fully’ ethical life? How am I supposed to choose between them? The most straightforward interpretation is to assume that acts that are ‘minimally acceptable’ are morally obligatory, while those above this level as we approach a ‘fully ethical’ life are supererogatory: morally good but not required.

If we accept this framework it can help resolve the problem above: I ought to give enough money and choose a moral enough career to live a ‘minimally acceptable’ life, and then it is up to my own preferences as to whether I feel strongly enough to do any more. Part of what makes many people so uncomfortable about Effective Altruism, I suspect, is the implicit accusation: you should feel bad because you are not meeting your moral obligations by not giving enough to effective charities, by not having an ethical career, by not submitting to voluntary organ transplants etc. Singer’s line of argument suggests is that these people need only worry if they are not living minimally ethically.

But all this of course merely raises the question of how much is demanded by a minimally acceptable life. Is it 10% of your income, as required by Giving What We Can? But GWWC’s own reasoning for developing that number doesn’t seem robust enough to bear such moral significance: essentially it is what they think people will be willing to agree to, and it has useful historical significance. Are there any moral obligations related to career choice? Common sense morality would certainly put organ transplants beyond the scope of minimal requirements, but since when has EA worried about common sense?

Personally, I don’t think there are clear answers to these questions. My inclinations are towards scalar consequentialism, which rejects the clear division of good and bad actions or morally permissible or impermissible actions. Instead it acknowledges degrees of moral value – actions can only be better or worse than one another.

As for the Effective Altruism movement more generally, I think it would benefit from being similarly circumspect on the question of moral obligations. EA, in my view, is best as an ecumenical movement, able to fit in with as many moral positions as possible. There should be no standard dogma or party line on how much people need to sacrifice. Instead, EA should acknowledge that it is a framework or set of tools for thinking about moral issues without  being a complete moral system. Indeed, it should be upfront about the moral questions it remains agnostic on, such as this one.

Frustratingly unclear though it may be, I am most comfortable with a world where EA leaves people to work out how much sacrifice they believe morality entails independently, and then advises them on how to do the most good within those parameters. Clarity on this point can help ward off caricature and unwarranted criticism.

[1] Gray’s piece is a little ambiguous as to whether he believes that these projects and attachments ought to be given moral weight themselves, or whether his objection is to moral value overriding all other values.  I find the latter objection more plausible, so that is the version I have focused on here.


  1. Sam Hilton · · Reply

    I like the idea that each of us should be looking to do our personal best.

    As Charlie Bresler says here very well here. It: “is about setting yourself challenging but realistic targets and increasing those targets once you’ve met them…and not forgetting to congratulate yourself when you reach each target!” http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/Blog/ID/11/Personal-Best

    I believe the EA community should have an ethos whereby each person is on their own ethical journey and we help them take the next step that is suitable for them, whether that is a first donation or significant career change.

    And when I talk about “doing the most good” it is in the context of deciding what good actions to do not in the context of how many good actions you do. (ie. Making sure that you are doing not just ‘a good thing’ but you have given some thought to making sure your good actions are ‘the most good’).

    Also I worry about EAs comparing themselves to others who are doing more good deeds or are more successful. Comparisons can certainly be inspiring, but can also be damaging, and should be done with caution.

    (Cross-posted from EA facebook)

    1. I think that’s fine, but two worries:

      i) if EAs are so non-prescriptive as to claim “each person is on their own ethical journey”, does that mean someone giving £10 a year can claim to be an EA (which seems odd), and that we have no grounds for criticising their lack of generosity?

      ii) EA is set up as a supportive community of like minded individuals. One of my struggles within it (and I highly doubt I am alone) is this question of how much sacrifice is enough? It certainly doesn’t seem desirable for EA to have nothing to say on that point. Is it enough to say ‘There is no party line, but as part of the EA community you will inevitably encounter people with their own response to this issue’?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: