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Notes on the Boston Review Effective Altruism Debate [DRAFT]

General themes of the responses:
  1. "The movement excludes poor people." (so say Deaton, Rubenstein)
  2. "Treats symptoms, not the systemic causes."
  3. Relatedly: "It is anti-democratic, technocratic."
  4. Relatedly: "It lets institutions off the hook."
  5. "Evaluation research is too flawed to guide action."
  6. "Calculating the right thing to do is creepy."
A short and comprehensive answer to 1,2,3,4,5 and 6 above is: if that's the case, we will change our behaviour without having to alter the philosophy; altering our behaviour in response to evidence is the philosophy. Your evidence isn't yet enough.

1,2,3 all apply to more or less all charities.

I had planned to rank the following by their empirical backing, but unfortunately the Boston Review biases everyone against this; there is but one hyperlink in all 13 essays, and that one broken. I have thus added the dubious honour of their implicit evidence: how much of their case is based on the current balance of evidence, to the best of my knowledge anyway?

  • Daron Acemoglu:
    Argument: EA might crowd out state solutions and erode democratic spirit. Every measurement involves value judgments. How much more valuable is [it] to save the life of a one-year-old than to send a six-year-old to school?

    Many of us would consider the life of a young person who foregoes the comforts of a well-paying job to work as a community activist or a doctor in a war zone not just meaningful but also highly valuable for society. But effective altruism may slowly chip away at this conception. What about civic duty—being an informed citizen, an active political participant ready to speak out against injustice, and a member of society willing to help others directly? Is that not part of a meaningful life?

    Implicit empirical backing: Considerable
    Singer's reply:

  • Angus Deaton:
    Implicit empirical backing:
    Singer's reply:

  • Catherine Tumber:

    She goes to show off some philosophical research by mentioning Singer's preference utilitarianism; this happens to backfire, since he has been giving up that position for a number of years now. ("in the case of Singer means candidly acknowledging that... a desire or preference satisfaction theory of the good were not in the end advances on the hedonistic utilitarianism set out by Sidgwick")


Title image is from the Mechanic's Magazine (1824)