Reflections on The New Philanthropy - report from Effective Altruism conference, May 6-7 2016

Effective Altruism Keynote Session Photograph

GJP Fellow, Daniele Botti, reports on the event ‘The New Philanthropy: Effective Altruism and Beyond’, April 6th-7th 2016, New Haven

The two-day conference “The New Philanthropy: Effective Altruism and Beyond” took place on May 6 and 7, 2016 in the Faculty Room of Yale’s Philosophy Department. The well-attended event included passionate participation from prominent scholars, young researchers, and students of diverse backgrounds, including development economics, comparative politics, political theory, philosophy, law, and international relations.

Participants engaged in a lively conversation on Effective Altruism (EA), “a growing social movement” — so it is written in the EA website — “that combines both the heart and the head: compassion guided by data and reason.”

Angus Deaton, recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, was keynote speaker for the event. He presented a critical analysis of EA on Saturday, May 7. Renowned philosopher, ethical theorist, and prominent advocate for Effective Altruism, Peter Singer, joined the conference via Skype on Friday, May 6.

Two keywords to characterize the discussion that emerged from both the critical analyses and the defenses of EA could be “knowledge” and “power.”

The problem of knowledge underpins the “Effective” part of EA, which requires an effective altruist to have a reliable grasp of what we could plausibly expect as effects of an individual action. The “E” of EA requires epistemic stability and prediction capabilities. In this context, the use and reliability of Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) were frequently at the center of the discussion throughout the conference.

On the other hand, the issue of power problematized the philosophically loaded use of the noun “Altruism.” Could relatively affluent citizens of liberal-constitutional regimes possibly be in the position to claim altruistic credentials, especially once we have agreed that they are causally involved in harming the global poor through direct and indirect support of the global institutional scheme? If we agree with Thomas Pogge’s argument that relatively affluent citizens of liberal-constitutional regimes are benefitting from a harmful institutional arrangement, then individual actions to mitigate such harms should, in the first instance, be considered compensation owed rather than altruism.

It is interesting to note that, with a few exceptions, philosophers at the event seemed more focused on investigating the epistemic questions surrounding efficiency while economists were generally more focused on the more political questions about the nature of our responsibility.

Deaton, in particular, made the point that the consequentialist approach of EA — an approach which claims ideological agnosticism — may run the risk of trading welfare for oppressive rule. By pointing out that the aids from such institutions as the World Bank or the U.S. Agency for International Development may as well provide incentives for local powerful elites to establish oppressive regimes in exchange of some form of welfare, Deaton also suggested that these larger organizations are better equipped than NGOs to tackle the problem of global poverty.

May 17, 2016