The life you could save but shouldn’t have to: ineffective altruism


Paraguayan children from the Cateura garbage dump play instruments made of trash

Rhys Southan wrote a piece for Aeon Magazine entitled “Is it OK to make art?” in which he explores (incompletely) the effective altruism movement and the ramifications of its philosophy. Effective altruism at its most basic says that those who have are morally obligated to do what they can to help those who have not (if you’re reading this on your own computer or mobile device, you probably find yourself squarely in the have category). It seems to me that EA (as it is abbreviated) is simply an extension of Utilitarianism in that its adherents seek to bring about the greatest positive impact in whatever they do in their lives.

The specific manifestation of EA that Southan introduces us to is an organization called The Life You Can Save. The organization takes its name from a book by Peter Singer in which he expands upon arguments he introduced earlier in his career in a paper entitled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality;” the larger EA movement itself also owes its existence to Singer’s philosophy. Singer’s argument is supported by his “shallow pond” thought experiment, which (along with some of its context) follows:

[I]f it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance.
It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.

Convincing, isn’t it? One can almost see how a person could turn their life around in service to this principle and join the ranks of the EAs. Almost.

Southan’s article centers around the dilemma that arises as a consequence of Singer’s principle with respect to the arts. And the sciences. And, really, it seems, anything that isn’t directly and immediately pouring cash into war-torn refugee hell-holes the world over. Basically, in the face of the mandate to do the most good possible, one must ask oneself if what one is currently spending one’s time on is helping to alleviate any of the unimaginable suffering that is taking place all over the world. No? Then forget about it.

With this reasoning, by Kant’s categorical imperative, we lose the arts, the sciences, (presumably) leisure, and pretty much anything not charity-directed. Ignoring the obvious problem of how exactly an effectively altruistic world would function practically, I’d like to go back to the root of what I see to be the misconception involved here.

My intuition, and I presume most people’s, is to perhaps suggest moderation. To save the arts from the maw of Utilitarianism. Thomas Nagel’s response is to make the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons. But it seems to me that, in the face of Singer’s heartstring-tugging principle, trying to wriggle our way around the mandate to supererogatory actions seems a little beside the point. The child is still in the pond after all.

But there isn’t any child remember? It’s only a thought experiment, a model. And a model is only useful so long as it accurately describes the real world. So does the shallow pond represent the situation faithfully?

I think not. For a couple of reasons. For one, it is an easy task to pull a child from a shallow pond. Muddy clothes notwithstanding, relative to the ends, the means take no effort at all. But the Singer and the EAs urge people to give to charities. Does that save a life? How do you know? Did you research your charity, read their financial reports? And granting that a bit of homework is no reason to refrain from altruism, this nevertheless reveals that perhaps the illustration isn’t so useful as it seems to be at first blush.

Now imagine that there isn’t just one child in the pond. Imagine it’s not even a pond, it’s a great wading pool and it’s full to bursting with drowning children. And why children? There are adults and elderly people drowning too. All of them packed so tightly you could walk across the water on their heaving backs. Thousands and thousands of people drowning in a metaphorical pool of poverty. Suppose there are so many people that even with 24 hours a day spent pulling them from the water, you could never save them all. Now what? Do you sleep when you’re too exhausted to go on? Eat when the hunger becomes too great? When is it justified for you to stop playing lifeguard?

When, for instance, is there time to stop and think: why are all these people drowning in this water? Where are they coming from? Suppose there’s a giant machine, huffing smoke, hurling people into the pool like a steampunk trebuchet. Do you continue saving individuals or try to dismantle the machine? Suppose you don’t know how to disassemble it. Do you give in to despair? Drop to your knees weeping on the bank? Or do you perhaps walk away? To a far remove where you no longer hear the splashing of the drowning or the clanking of the machine.

Is this too gruesome an illustration? Or does it more accurately represent the world we live in? A world where every day 22,000 children die of poverty related causes and where 80% of people get by on less than 10 dollars a day (x). The same world where one of the most powerful governments spends over $600 billion per year to kill people better (x). Too often the same people who are mired in poverty. These conditions are created by an economic system which no one alive created and which very few “normal” people consciously and directly perpetuate. Certainly I’m not at the wheel. And neither, presumably, are you. Tithing a percentage of our income to charity will never dismantle it.

So I guess in the end, after all the dramatic illustration-making, I really just object to the first assumption of Singer’s argument. It is not, in fact, in our power to prevent this bad from happening. At least not without a concerted, conscious effort that amounts to a whole lot more than some soggy shoes.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that the EAs are doing so much to give back. I do think it’s bad to encourage people to give up their passions. For one thing, it’s perpetuating the ‘machine.’ In the words of Southan:

Effective Altruism is part subversive, part conformist: subversive in its radical egalitarianism and its critique of complacent privilege; conformist in that it’s another force channeling us towards the traditional success model.

And so, arguably, by its own logic EA is having a net-negative impact by perpetuating the conditions it seeks to alleviate.

And also, Southan, in ringing the death knell of the arts, says: “It would be great if the arts and humanities were hugely beneficial to the world, because they tend to be personally satisfying.” Is not something that is personally satisfying, when undertaken by scores of people worldwide, having a positive impact in aggregate?

I think Southan was too rash in ignoring Steven Soderbergh’s words at the beginning of the article: “I think this world would be unlivable without art.” Without art, without science, without passion, without some hope for fulfillment, who wants to be saved in the first place?


2 thoughts on “The life you could save but shouldn’t have to: ineffective altruism

  1. A most thought-provoking post. It gets at the heart of the question of how much of one’s resources should be donated to charities. And there is a lot to be said for following one’s passions – even if it involves developing a huge fortune. By some accounts Andrew Carnegie became wealthy by exploiting his workers but his foundation continues to enrich our world including support of the arts.

    I agree with you that the key here is moderation. One rides a bicycle successfully by not tipping too much to the left or to the right. But the question remains – what degree of self-sacrifice is appropriate. Food for thought.

    Thanks for the meal!

  2. Mark

    I think there’s a misunderstanding of effective altruism. If you feel like people will be too busy saving drowning people to look at why they’re drowning, then you’ve not understood effective altruism.

    Taking time to find the real source of a problem is encouraged in effective altruism. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it’s other types of charities that cannot deal with your thought experiment. The goal of effective altruism, after all, to be as effective as possible. That pretty much by definition involves doing proper research. And that’s why organizations such as GiveWell exist, which are a very important part of effective altruism.

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