A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Effective Altruists need not be Moral Saints

There is an ongoing debate in philosophy about how demanding our moral obligations can be. One of the most popular objections to utilitarianism (roughly, the view that we ought always to maximise the sum of happiness, regardless of whatever else this entails) is that it is impossible to live up to.

Philosophy Bro has summaries of two of the most important writings on this subject, which I highly recommend reading even if you have no prior understanding of philosophy: Peter Singer's Drowning Child Argument and Susan Wolf's Moral Saints.

Singer argues, very convincingly, that we have almost unlimited duties to help the poor of the third world. Wolf argues that a life which is 100% dedicated to doing good is in fact a rather unappealing idea, and that this kind of existence misses out on many valuable pieces of life.

I actually lean towards agreeing with Wolf here. This means that I reject Singer's ultimate conclusion. But I still think his argument goes a lot further than most people would be comfortable with. For people who (a) can donate money to combating third world poverty while maintaining a minimally decent standard of living and (b) are aware that effective third-world charities exist, I think there is a duty to give at least some of your income to effective charities.

This kind of donation should not ruin your life. No effective altruist that I know devotes themselves 100% to helping people. Indeed, if we're honest I suspect that being involved in effective altruism represents a form of consumption for many members. You meet all kinds of intelligent and interesting people, leapfrog a great deal of inferential distance, and get to hang out with high-status people.

There are a number of different claims that you could make regarding the demandingness of our positive obligations:
(1) We must maximise the amount we give; that is, giving all that we can without damaging our ability to give in future.
(2) We must give all we can above what is necessary for a minimally decent lifestyle.
(3) We must give enough that, if everyone else were to give the same amount (or the same proportion of their income), every single person would have a minimally decent lifestyle.
(4) We must give a modest proportion of our income above what we need.
(5) We must give everything that we are legally obliged to give.
(6) We have no positive obligations.

All of these, with the exception of (5), are statements which I consider plausibly true. My own intention is to give more than is implied by (3) or (4), but less than that which is implied by (2). Living according to (1) seems quite simply impossible.

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