Effective Altruism and the Repugnant Conclusion

Here is an excellent essay by Peter McLaughlin, here is one excerpt:

So, the problem is this. Effective Altruism wants to be able to say that things other than utility matter—not just in the sense that they have some moral weight, but in the sense that they can actually be relevant to deciding what to do, not just swamped by utility calculations. Cowen makes the condition more precise, identifying it as the denial of the following claim: given two options, no matter how other morally-relevant factors are distributed between the options, you can always find a distribution of utility such that the option with the larger amount of utility is better. The hope that you can have ‘utilitarianism minus the controversial bits’ relies on denying precisely this claim.

This condition doesn’t aim to make utility irrelevant, such that utilitarian considerations should never change your mind or shift your perspective: it just requires that they can be restrained, with utility co-existing with other valuable ends. It guarantees that utility won’t automatically swamp other factors, like partiality towards family and friends, or personal values, or self-interest, or respect for rights, or even suffering (as in the Very Repugnant Conclusion). This would allow us to respect our intuitions when they conflict with utility, which is just what it means to be able to get off the train to crazy town.

Now, at the same time, Effective Altruists also want to emphasise the relevance of scale to moral decision-making. The central insight of early Effective Altruists was to resist scope insensitivity and to begin systematically examining the numbers involved in various issues. ‘Longtermist’ Effective Altruists are deeply motivated by the idea that ‘the future is vast’: the huge numbers of future people that could potentially exist gives us a lot of reason to try to make the future better. The fact that some interventions produce so much more utility—do so much more good—than others is one of the main grounds for prioritising them. So while it would technically be a solution to our problem to declare (e.g.) that considerations of utility become effectively irrelevant once the numbers get too big, that would be unacceptable to Effective Altruists. Scale matters in Effective Altruism (rightly so, I would say!), and it doesn’t just stop mattering after some point.

There is much more to the argument, recommended.


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