Naomi Michael

Effective Altruism Blog Post: Criticisms of EA

For the past eight weeks, we have examined the motivations, doctrine, and application of the growing Effective Altruism movement. But, to more effectively tackle the world’s biggest problems, as EA hopes to do, we must also look at where we could fall short of this goal. Most criticisms of EA emphasize the faults in the “thick” rather than “thin” version of EA. The “thin” version is that people should do the most good they can. To disagree with this fundamental principle would be to reject EA altogether. But, critics more often take aim at the “thick” version of EA that consists of a wide range of assumptions and ideas associated with EA. Broadly, these ideas are welfarism, consequentialism, and scientific evidence. Speaking to welfarism, critics of EA often point to the fact that EA doesn’t give enough weight to equality or rights when deciding which causes to dedicate resources to. EA looks instead to maximize rather than distribute overall good. In regards to the other associated ideas, critiques typically center around the fact that EA can’t focus on systemic causes and structural inequalities when analyzing RTC or cost effectiveness experiments.   

The main takeaway from these critiques is that effective altruism may not by nature focus on the systemic causes of problems and may rather seek to mitigate immediate causes of harm and death. By focusing on these problems, however, EA is able to mobilize resources from the wealthiest parts of the world and allocate them to those in most desperate need. As the movement grows, space may emerge to broaden the scope of EA’s efforts and metrics to encompass sociopolitical factors as well as the currently used metrics of QALYS and RCTs. But, as of now, the goal of EA is to do charity in the most effective manner under the methodical assumptions that it is best to save the most lives possible, seek tractability, help where there is the greatest potential for increased funds, and do so impartially. Perhaps charitable efforts that can’t be measured with RCTs and hard data will be undervalued by the movement, but that doesn’t undercut EA’s ability to mobilize those with the time, talent, or financial resources to do immense amounts of good, particularly in regards to extreme poverty, existential risk, and global health. And at the end of the day, if your goal is to do the most good you are capable of, regardless of which career path you undertake, the framework of EA supports such an endeavor.