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Effective Altruism and Collective Obligations


Effective altruism (EA) is a movement devoted to the idea of doing good in the most effective way possible. EA has been the target of a number of critiques. In this article, I focus on one prominent critique: that EA fails to acknowledge the importance of institutional change. One version of this critique claims that EA relies on an overly individualistic approach to ethics. Defenders of EA have objected that this charge either fails to identify a problem with EA's core idea that each of us should do the most good we can, or makes unreasonable claims about what we should do. However, I argue that we can understand the critique in a way that is well motivated, and that can avoid these objections.

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1 For introductions to effective altruism, see MacAskill, William, Doing Good Better (London, 2016); Singer, Peter, The Most Good You Can Do (London, 2015).

2 MacAskill, Doing Good Better, pp. 14–15.

3 For overviews, see Gabriel, Iason, ‘Effective Altruism and its Critics’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 34 (2017), pp. 457–73; McMahan, Jeff, ‘Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism’, The Philosophers’ Magazine 73 (2016), pp. 92–9.

4 See Srinivasan, Amia, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’, London Review of Books 37 (2015), pp. 36; Herzog, Lisa, ‘Can “Effective Altruism” Really Change the World?’, openDemocracy, <> (2016); Gabriel, ‘Effective Altruism and its Critics’. For responses, see Robert Wiblin, ‘Effective Altruists Love Systemic Change’, 80,000 Hours, <> (2015); McMahan, ‘Philosophical Critiques’; Berkey, Brian, ‘The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism’, Utilitas, 30 (2018), pp. 143–71.

5 Berkey, ‘Institutional Critique’.

6 See Jackson, Frank, ‘Group Morality’, Metaphysics and Morality, ed. Pettit, Philip, Sylvan, Richard and Norman, Jean (Oxford, 1987), pp. 91110; Parfit, Derek, ‘What We Together Do’ (ms.); Alexander Dietz, ‘What We Together Ought to Do’, Ethics 126 (2016), pp. 955–82.

7 Gabriel, ‘Effective Altruism and its Critics’, p. 468.

8 See Matthew Snow, ‘Against Charity’, Jacobin, <> (2015); and Srinivasan, ‘Robot Apocalypse’.

9 Gabriel, ‘Effective Altruism and its Critics’, p. 468.

10 Srinivasan, ‘Robot Apocalypse’; Herzog, ‘Can “Effective Altruism” Really Change the World?’.

11 Herzog, ‘Can “Effective Altruism” Really Change the World?’; Berkey, ‘Institutional Critique’, pp. 12–13.

12 Srinivasan, ‘Robot Apocalypse’.

13 Berkey, ‘Institutional Critique’, pp. 153–4. See also Peter Singer, ‘The Logic of Effective Altruism’, Boston Review, <> (2015); Wiblin, ‘Effective Altruists Love Systemic Change’.

14 Berkey, ‘Institutional Critique’, p. 158.

15 Gibbard, Allan, ‘Rule-Utilitarianism: Merely an Illusory Alternative?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 43 (1965), pp. 211–20; Regan, Donald, Utilitarianism and Co-operation (New York, 1980). The kind of example that Gibbard and Regan focus on is similar to the ‘Hi-Lo’ and ‘Stag Hunt’ examples discussed in economics and decision theory.

16 Berkey, ‘Institutional Critique’, pp. 163–4.

17 Parfit, ‘What We Together Do’.

18 For a more detailed defence of this proposal, see Dietz, ‘What We Together Ought to Do’, pp. 960–3.

19 Lawford-Smith, ‘What “We”?’, Journal of Social Ontology 1 (2015), pp. 225–49. See also List, Christian and Pettit, Philip, Group Agency (Oxford, 2011); Collins, Stephanie, ‘Collectives’ Duties and Collectivization Duties’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91 (2013), pp. 231–48.

20 See Held, Virginia, ‘Can a Random Collection of Individuals Be Morally Responsible?’, The Journal of Philosophy 67 (1970), pp. 471–81, at 476–7; Wringe, ‘Global Obligations and the Agency Objection’, Ratio 23 (2010): 217–31; Killoren, David and Williams, Bekka, ‘Group Agency and Overdetermination’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (2013), pp. 295307; Schwenkenbecher, Anne, ‘Joint Duties and Global Moral Obligations’, Ratio 26 (2013), pp. 310–28.

21 Niv M. Sultan, ‘Election 2016: Trump's free media helped keep cost down, but fewer donors provided more of the cash’,, <> (2017).

22 MacAskill, Doing Good Better.

23 Regan, Utilitarianism and Co-operation, pp. 54–5.

24 Sugden, Robert, ‘Thinking as a Team: Towards an Explanation of Nonselfish Behavior’, Social Philosophy and Policy 10 (1993), pp. 6989; Bacharach, Michael, ‘Interactive Team Reasoning: A Contribution to the Theory of Co-operation’, Research in Economics 53 (1999), pp. 117–47; Bacharach, Beyond Individual Choice: Teams and Frames in Game Theory, ed. Natalie Gold and Robert Sugden (Princeton and Oxford, 2006); Gold, Natalie and Sugden, Robert, ‘Theories of Team Agency’, Rationality and Commitment, ed. Peter, Fabienne and Schmid, Hans Bernhard (Oxford, 2007), pp. 280312.

25 Bacharach, ‘Interactive Team Reasoning’.

26 Railton, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984), pp. 134–71.

27 MacAskill, ‘Opening Talk’, <> (2017).

28 For helpful feedback and discussion, I would like to thank Amy Berg, Mark Schroeder, Jonathan Quong, and an audience at the Second Annual PPE Society Meeting.

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