Common criticisms and (potentially) useful responses

Common criticisms and (potentially) useful responses

Last updated: 4th October, 2023


1. Philosophical questions

a. What makes effective altruism different than other approaches to doing good?

Effective altruism isn’t about committing to particular causes but taking a step back to consider different issues and identifying where you can have the biggest positive impact.

Effective altruism focuses on improving lives, including animals and people in future generations. Other kinds of charitable work might focus on the value of art, for example, or preserving natural environments; the main focus of effective altruism is reducing suffering and increasing well-being.

b. What if I don’t agree with the conclusions or suggestions from effective altruism about what’s important?

You can agree with the idea of effective altruism—finding and prioritizing the most effective ways to do good—without agreeing that the practical suggestions for interventions, careers, or charities are particularly effective. Effective altruists discuss and can disagree on the best ways to do good, which is why several cause areas are associated with the movement. If you have good reasons to disagree about what’s currently considered effective or a suggestion for something new, discussing that can help other people take action more effectively.

c. Is EA just utilitarianism? What if I’m not utilitarian?

Utilitarians might find effective altruism attractive because of its focus on doing as much good as possible. But effective altruists are not necessarily utilitarians, and many effective altruists care intrinsically about things besides welfare—such as rights, freedom, inequality, and personal virtue. In practice, most effective altruists give some weight to a range of different ethical theories.

The only ethical position necessary for effective altruism is believing that helping others is important. Effective altruism doesn’t advocate for “ends justify the means” thinking, like violating people’s rights even if doing so would lead to the best consequences.

d. What about systemic change?

Some people think effective altruism is too concerned with ‘band-aid’ solutions like direct health interventions without seriously challenging the broader systemic causes of important global issues. Many people believe unfettered capitalism, wealth inequality, consumer culture, or overpopulation contribute significantly to the amount of suffering in the world, and that attempts to make the world better that don’t address these root causes are meaningless or misguided.

It’s certainly true that effective altruism started with a focus on approaches that are ‘proven’ to work, such as scaling up rigorously tested health treatments. These provide a good baseline against which we can assess other, more speculative, approaches. However, as we get more skilled in evaluating what works and what doesn’t, many in the community are shifting into approaches that involve systemic change.

It’s important to remember that opinion is heavily divided on whether systems like trade globalization or market economies are net negative or net positive. It’s also not clear whether we can substantially change these systems in ways that won’t have very bad unintended consequences.

This difference of opinion is reflected within the community itself. Effective altruism is about being open-minded — we should try to avoid being dogmatic or too wedded to a particular ideology. We should evaluate all claims about how to make a difference based on the available evidence. If there’s something we can do that seems likely to make a big net positive difference, then we should pursue it.

e. Does EA care about social justice?

The principles of effective altruism are not mutually exclusive with the principles and motivations of social justice. One principle of choosing causes within effective altruism is neglectedness, which aligns with the social justice goal of helping those who are underrepresented or marginalized in society. Effective altruism also deeply relies on the idea of expanding your moral circle, which means caring about sentient beings—no matter who they are or where they come from.

So while effective altruism isn’t based on a social justice framework, the ideas and practices of EA can coincide with those of social justice. Some EAs engage with both and some don’t.

f. Does effective altruism only recommend things that are proven to work?

Not necessarily, though effective altruists often prioritize having hard empirical evidence that an intervention is positively impactful when considering how to help people. Effective altruists recommend a range of interventions from those with hard supporting evidence (like vitamin A supplementation) to those opportunities that are more experimental or speculative but have high potential upsides (like scientific research or political advocacy.

g. Isn’t it obvious?

Many people find the idea of trying to maximise the amount of good they do fairly obvious and uncontroversial. But most people don’t dedicate much effort towards helping others, or are swayed on how to channel their efforts by personal interests or biases, without thoroughly comparing their options first. If it does seem obvious to you though, great! You’d probably enjoy joining the community. What actually does the most good is far from obvious - our intuitions can be very wrong and indeed some things that sound great actually have no impact or do harm.

h. If everyone followed effective altruism wouldn’t this lead to a misallocation of resources?

If everyone took the same action and never updated their views in response to changing circumstances, then yes, that would create problems. Effective altruism makes recommendations about the best available opportunities to help, taking what other people are already doing into account.

General recommendations within the EA community are made with the actions of others in mind. When enough people take certain recommended actions to the point that a certain issue isn’t so neglected, the value of more people working on the problem will go down. At that point, general EA recommendations change accordingly to encompass other opportunities.

2. Negative attitudes to EA

a. EA seems calculating and impersonal

Like other forms of charity and generosity, effective altruism is rooted in a desire and enthusiasm for helping others. In a world of limited resources and many problems, it’s not always clear how we can best help others or what to do first. Effective altruism answers this question by using reason and evidence to identify the most effective charitable interventions.

When working on charitable issues that invoke strong emotions—like trying to address global poverty—the use of reason or evidence to guide our actions might come off as impersonal or cold. But effective altruism does not devalue emotion or prioritize intellect over emotion; for many effective altruists, the two are intrinsically tied together and can work together. Because of the desire to really help people, many effective altruists want to use reason and evidence to make sure the interventions they donate to or work on are actually helping people as much as they can.

This doesn’t mean that effective altruists don’t see the importance of local causes or less cost-effective interventions. It means the principles of effective altruism often lead people to value highly cost-effective interventions over less cost-effective ones from the perspective of a world in triage. See this GiveWell blog post and this Op-ed from William MacAskill about the triage idea of EA.

b. EA seems like a cult

The community that’s grown around the ideas of effective altruism does have some prevailing norms and jargon that differ from popular culture in many places. Some of these can understandably seem strange or weird to someone who hasn’t been around the ideas or community of effective altruism much—but this isn’t unique to effective altruism. You might not understand the norms and jargon of academia, academic fields, or investment banking before you were more involved in any of these spaces.

Effective altruism encourages diversity of thought, particularly related to engaging in disagreement and acknowledging when you’re wrong. While different people have held official or unofficial leadership positions in the movement, EA encourages people to think for themselves and to specifically not defer to others on important issues and questions. Particularly given the presence of EA groups around the world and the variety of people who associate with EA, there isn’t one “right” opinion or way of thinking within EA.

Many people who work for EA organizations have some overlap between their personal and professional lives. This isn’t a requirement to engage with EA by any means, and people are welcome and encouraged to engage with EA in whatever ways are healthy and enjoyable for them—through their career, through effective giving, through dialogue with other EAs, etc.

c. EA seems too homogeneous and not diverse enough to make suggestions about the whole world

The effective altruist community could stand to be more diverse. We’re aware of this and trying hard to improve. And if you have suggestions about ways we can improve, please do let us know. While the community first emerged among people in richer nations, as it grows, it’s drawing in people from many different backgrounds. We’ve been excited to see  cities across the globe hosting EA conferences, from Hong Kong to Nairobi.

In terms of our beliefs and practices, we’re very diverse. Some are vegetarians, others aren’t. The community as a whole is secular, but some members are religious. And there’s a wide range of political beliefs. While many people have strongly-held beliefs and values, there is a strong emphasis on building a community that is respectful of difference, and open to listening to criticism. What unites us is a shared passion for helping others as much as possible.

d. Is EA just about specific suggestions for what to do in the world? What if I don’t agree with those suggestions or conclusions from effective altruism about what’s important?

It’s unfortunately easy for someone going to an event about a particular topic within EA (or even going to a whole conference but mostly going to tracks about a specific topic) to come away with the impression that EA is all about that topic.

If a speaker is brought in to speak about EA in general but actually just speaks about their specialty (nuclear disarmament), it’s easy to come away with the understanding that EA is basically about nuclear disarmament. Check with speakers what they plan to speak about, and if it’s topic-based rather than an overview (which it likely will be, since most speakers don’t know enough about EA to give an overview), your materials and your introduction to the speaker can frame them as speaking about a particular topic of interest to those interested in the broader area of effective altruism.

If your group is particularly focused on a certain issue, acknowledge that. Some groups that are former GWWC chapters or formed largely of people who came in through GWWC retain a strong focus on global health/development. That’s fine, but be clear to group members that this represents a particular focus within the larger spectrum of EA. For example, when I give an introductory talk on EA most of my examples are about global poverty because that’s the area where I’ve been most active and that I know the most about, but I try to flag that and give indicators of where people can find more information about other areas (describing ACE as well as GiveWell, for example).

3. Global health questions

a. Does effective altruism imply that local forms of charity aren’t useful or good / Doesn’t charity start at home?

Many people agree that we should try to make a difference, but think that we should give our money or our time to people in our local communities. There’s nothing bad about helping people you know or around you—but often the opportunities to help people far away can be more impactful, especially if you live in a wealthy country. The same amount of money donated to a cause can have a much larger impact in some parts of the world than others. For example, GiveDirectly estimates that $1,000 can double the annual income of a family engaged in subsistence agriculture in Kenya when it might not achieve as much in your local community. Many effective altruists also donate to both highly impactful charities and local community causes.

b. Doesn’t donating to charity just subsidise billionaires?

It’s plausible that if individuals stopped donating to the most effective charities, larger philanthropic organizations would step in to fill in the gap. So, in the end, the effect of the individual donations would just be to free up money for the larger philanthropic organizations.

This is a difficult question to resolve. On the one hand, it’s likely that, if individual donors didn’t exist, larger donors would take up some of the slack. On the other hand, if money is freed up for large and effective philanthropic organizations, they can then fund other effective interventions,including those that are important but that individual donors would be less likely to support. But there are some highly effective charities which can productively absorb a lot more funding. For instance, in 2018, GiveDirectly transferred more than $30 million to the poorest people in the world, and they could transfer far more money if they received more donations. Donating to charities with a large funding gap is less likely to displace funding from others sources.

Hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed to fund effective interventions in the next fifteen years. This gap cannot be fully covered by big foundations. For example, Good Ventures and the Gates Foundation have endowments of around $8bn and $41bn respectively.

c. Does charity aid really work?

A lot of charity work is probably ineffective, and there are many examples of aid and development having no real impact. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some charities which achieve amazing outcomes. In fact, that’s exactly why it’s so important to find the best ones, and to use our best judgement when working out which causes we should spend money and time on supporting.

If you’re extremely skeptical of non-profits though, there are many other opportunities for having a big impact, including for-profit entrepreneurship, policy, politics, advocacy, and research.

If you think that it’s hopeless to do good through donating to non-profits then please let us know why! We’re always open to changing our minds.

d. Is it just about donating money

Donating to charity isn’t the only way to have a large impact. A lot of people can make even more of a difference by using their careers to do impactful work. Many effective altruists both donate money and work in impactful careers, and people practice the principles of effective altruism in other ways as well—like reducing meat or dairy consumption, applying rationality to more aspects fo your life, or volunteering time towards impactful work outside of your job.

e. How are the people you’re trying to help involved in the decision-making?

The possibility that we don’t actually understand and address the needs of the people we are trying to help is real, and a risk we have to remain constantly vigilant about. If we don’t listen to or understand recipients we will be less effective, which is the opposite of our goal. Some people support the charity GiveDirectly because it gives cash to people in poverty, leaving it entirely up to them how they spend the money. This might empower people in poverty to a greater extent than choosing services that may ultimately not be desired by the local community.

Other charities we support provide basic health services, such as vaccinations or micronutrients. These are so clearly good that it’s very unlikely the recipients wouldn’t value them. Better health can empower people to improve aspects of their own circumstances in ways we as outsiders cannot. In cases where the above don’t apply, we can conduct detailed impact evaluations to see how the recipients actually feel about the service that purports to help them. Of course, such surveys won’t always be reliable but they’re often the best we can do.

In other cases, such as when we’re trying to help non-human animals or future generations, these issues can be even more difficult, and people do their best to predict what they would want if they could speak to us. Obvious cases would include pigs not wanting to be permanently confined to ‘gestation crates’ in which they cannot turn around, or future generations not wanting to inherit a planet on which humans cannot easily live.

4. Community health

a. What’s the deal with EA and FTX? Was EA responsible for what Sam Bankman-Fried did?

Recent events have caused many in the EA community to reflect on how we got to where we are today, how this will impact our work going forward and how we can reduce the risk of something like this happening again. If Sam Bankman-Fried and other FTX executives were involved in lying to or defrauding customers or otherwise acting immorally and unethically, that was certainly not in accordance with the principles of effective altruism. Such activity would be incompatible with our values and has no place within our community.

Effective altruism is rooted in a desire to help others, which requires integrity. The effective altruism community has overwhelmingly held that we should always act within a strong moral framework of honesty, trust, and collaboration. We regret EA’s close affiliation with Sam Bankman-Fried and its reliance on him as a major donor. We feel deep sympathy for everyone affected by the fraud. The EA community is large and global. Most people practicing effective altruism had no relationship to FTX or Sam Bankman-Fried.

b. Are EAs just all crypto, tech people from Silicon Valley who associate with billionaires?

No, not by any means! EA has groups around the world, from the Philippines to Hungary to Mexico and Australia. You can read more about the different demographics within EA in this post on the 2022 EA survey.

While EA does receive major funding from high net-worth individuals, some of whom might have a history of working in tech, living in the Bay Area, or associating with billionaires, these people do not represent the majority of EAs by any means—whose main similarites relate to the shared goal of helping others in effective ways.

c. Disability and singer

You can search for “Peter Singer protest” to get a sense for the history of protests against him going back to 1989. These protests are in response to some of his opinions on the morality of killing newborns with certain disabilities and the rights of parents to do so.

Most recently, in March 2017 an event at University of Victoria at which Singer was giving a Skype talk was disrupted by protesters with a megaphone.

Despite the fact that he hasn’t really said anything new on this topic in decades, objection to what he has written seems to be heating up, and you should be aware if you choose to host him either in person or virtually at events.

d. Lack of diversity

EA groups can often be limited in different kinds of diversity, including socioeconomic background, race, and gender. As discussed in 2c, the effective altruist community is aware of the lack of diversity in many spaces of the movement. Though effective altruism first emerged in wealthy, predominantly white countries, the movement has grown to comprise EA groups and effective altruists around the world.

We encourage you to make your group as welcoming as possible to people with a range of backgrounds and identities (we recommend this post from Julia Wise on“Making your group more welcoming”). We also recognise the value of representation in helping people of different backgrounds feel comfortable in a space; so if someone in your group represents what’s an underrepresented group in EA, you might consider them having a more visible role so they can be a welcoming presence to people with similar identities.

5. Cause specific

a. What does EA have to do with AI?

One of the things that many effective altruists care about (and many non-effective altruists too!) is existential risk. This is a risk that has the potential to have huge negative impact for the future of humanity, think of nuclear winters, extreme climate change, or deadly global pandemics. Many EA’s think that AI has the potential to cause existential catastrophe if not developed safely. Hence, many people in the movement advocate for increased awareness of this issues and for more safety measures to be introduced.

b. Further resources

  • Global Poverty FAQ including FAQs about GiveDirectly, the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.
  • Existential-risk FAQ from the Future of Humanity Institute.
  • S-risk FAQs from Tobias Baumann. S-risks are events that would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale.
  • AI Safety FAQ from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

6. Personal/Individual questions

a. What about volunteering

Volunteering is a bit like donating. It can be harmful if you do it wrong, but it could also make a huge difference. Volunteers take time to train and manage, so be sure to only volunteer if you are able to commit, otherwise you may create more costs than benefits to the charity. Another thing to be careful about is if you volunteer in countries where you don’t understand the community well, or doing a job you aren’t adequately trained for - you could be doing a worse job than the locals would do, or even causing harm. For example, working with children in orphanages can be particularly bad, as the demand for orphanage tourism has resulted in children being taken off their parents to pretend to be orphans, and the lack of consistency with adult carers causes psychological problems.

But volunteering can be an excellent way of gaining useful skills and a deeper understanding of the world, which can help you make more of a difference in the future.

b. How much of my time/money should I give? What about burnout?

It’s difficult to figure out where the line is between giving your time and money and looking after yourself. Should you buy that extra thing you want or donate the money? One idea that many effective altruists endorse is that you are likely to do the most good in your life when you are at the latter-stage of your career. Because of this, many EA’s think it’s important to look after yourself so that you don’t burn out - this way, you’re more likely to have the ability and motivation to do for many years, as opposed to just doing a short sprint now.

7. Further reading