Effective Altruism and Its Discontents

December 04 2014

On November 25th, Robbie Shade posted about effective altruism. He
explained what it is. I would like to continue the discussion.

Why am I not replying to Robbie directly, rather than posting to the
list? I thought it would be fun to introduce a little public
conversation over the list itself.

I have a background (Ph. D.) in moral philosophy. Coincidentally, the
day I won TheListServe lottery was also my last day at work before
retiring. I retired early, in part so I could devote more time and
energy to "doing good". I read Peter Singer in the early 1980s and
have been a supporter of Oxfam America or similar organizations for
over 30 years. However, while I am an effective altruist veteran, I
have my doubts.

About three years ago, I decided to pick an issue and a location to
see if I could gain a more local and better informed perspective about
a particular problem. I picked malaria and western Kenya. Back then I
thought malaria was the do-gooder's low hanging fruit. Malaria seemed
like a simple problem. If people are protected from mosquitoes, they
won't contract malaria. So hand out bed nets for $10 a net and save a
child's life.

Unfortunately, fighting malaria is not so simple. Bed nets seem to be
helping in some marginal areas, but at least in western Kenya, where
the parasite is endemic, Kenya's long-term bed net program is not
winning the war on malaria. The nets make sleeping more uncomfortable
by hindering air circulation, require maintenance when torn, and
retreatment when the "long-lasting" insecticide wears off.

Several years ago, Bill and Melinda Gates, Ray Chambers, and others
started a global campaign to eliminate virtually all deaths from
malaria by 2015. Most professionals who work in the field thought the
goal was wildly unrealistic. Unfortunately, the pessimists were right.
The deadline is almost here and we are not even close. Now Gates is
hoping to eliminate malaria in his lifetime. I am not abandoning the
fight against malaria as a worthwhile pursuit. The problem still
fascinates me, but I no longer think it is an easy one to solve.

At first it seems rational to think in terms of "maximizing" good. If
you want to do good and you can do more good with the same amount of
money, then you ought to opt for the choice that does the most good.
That is fine in principle. However, I wonder if the uncertainties of
doing good call for more moral humility. If Gates and others had a
less ambitious goal, would they have succeeded?

What about the rest of us? Many people just want to do some good, not
the most good they can. Aiming for the most good can seem arrogant or
naive. What if you have more passion about a cause with which you have
a personal connection? Will your commitment be greater and longer
lasting if you pursue that cause rather than follow the
recommendations of WiseGiving?

I would love to hear from others who are interested in effective
altruism or malaria.

Related Reading:
David Brooks, "The Way to Produce a Person," New York Times, June 3, 2013
Sonia Shah, The Fever
Peter Singer, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality"

Cliff Landesman
[email protected]
Brooklyn, NY USA

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