Left-wing critique of effective altruism

I very much enjoyed the new LRB piece by Amia Srinivasan.  Here is a good “standing on one foot” statement of what effective altruism recommends:

The results of all this number-crunching are sometimes satisfyingly counterintuitive. Deworming has better educational outcomes among Kenyan schoolchildren than increasing the numbers of textbooks or teachers. If you want to improve animal welfare, it’s better to stop eating eggs than beef, since caged layer hens live worse lives than farmed cows, and because eating eggs consumes more animals than eating beef: the average American consumes 0.8 layer hens but only 0.1 beef cows per year. Buying Fairtrade goods can be worse than buying regular goods, since the extra cost goes mostly to middlemen rather than farmers, and when it doesn’t, it benefits farmers in relatively rich countries: because Fairtrade standards are hard to meet, most Fairtrade coffee production comes from Mexico and Costa Rica rather than, say, Ethiopia, where the marginal pound would go much further. The green value of buying locally grown food is overblown, too, since transport accounts for only 10 per cent of the carbon footprint of food, while 80 per cent of it is generated in production; tomatoes grown in the UK can have five times the carbon footprint of tomatoes shipped from Spain because of the energy required to hothouse them. If you’re really committed to minimising your carbon footprint, MacAskill recommends donating to the carbon offsetting charity Cool Earth; he estimates that the average American could offset all his carbon emissions by donating $105 a year. There isn’t much point in unplugging your electricals, either: leaving your mobile phone charger plugged in for a whole year contributes less to your carbon footprint than one hot bath.

And here is part of the critique:

MacAskill is evidently comfortable with ways of talking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism: the will to quantify, the essential comparability of all goods and all evils, the obsession with productivity and efficiency, the conviction that there is a happy convergence between self-interest and morality, the seeming confidence that there is no crisis whose solution is beyond the ingenuity of man. He repeatedly talks about philanthropy as a deal too good to pass up: ‘It’s like a 99 per cent off sale, or buy one, get 99 free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.’ There is a seemingly unanswerable logic, at once natural and magical, simple and totalising, to both global capitalism and effective altruism. That he speaks in the proprietary language of the illness – global inequality – whose symptoms he proposes to mop up is an irony on which he doesn’t comment. Perhaps he senses that his potential followers – privileged, ambitious millennials – don’t want to hear about the iniquities of the system that has shaped their worldview. Or perhaps he thinks there’s no irony here at all: capitalism, as always, produces the means of its own correction, and effective altruism is just the latest instance.

Not my view, but well written as a piece and definitely recommended.  Here is comment from Scott Alexander.


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