A note about methodology

What I will not assume

Many challenges to effective altruism turn on fundamental normative debates in ethics and decision theory.

Where decision theory is concerned, we might worry that effective altruists place fanatical emphasis on low probabilities of high payoffs, allowing them to assume arbitrarily large importance in decisionmaking. Or we might be concerned that effective altruists are not sensitive enough to risk in decisionmaking.

Where ethics is concerned, we might worry that effective altruists overemphasize the value of unidentified future lives, the strength of duties to aid future people, or the ability of many small claims to assistance to aggregate into very large claims. We might also worry that effective altruists underemphasize competing factors, such as duties of reparative justice, collective obligations, or permissible partiality to our own interests over the interests of others.

For the most part, I will remain neutral on these debates. Almost everything that I say will be compatible with:

  • Consequentialism: We ought to do what is best. What is best is to promote as much value as we can.
  • Fanaticism: Low probabilities of harm can assume arbitrarily large importance in decisionmaking If the harms are great enough.
  • Expected value maximization: Agents should take the actions with highest expected value.
  • Totalism: One distribution of well-being is better than another just in case the one contains a greater sum of well-being than the other.
  • Spatiotemporal neutrality: The importance of an agent’s welfare is not changed by her location in space or time.
  • Risk neutrality: Philanthropic decisions should be made from a risk-neutral standpoint.

I do this for two reasons. First, I want to do what I can to persuade effective altruists of my conclusions. Because many effective altruists are sympathetic to the views that I just listed, I do not want to make arguments which depend on denying those views. Second, in full honesty I have considerable sympathy for many of the views just listed. 

The long road to effective altruism (and longtermism)

It is often thought that opposition to effective altruism, and in particular opposition to longtermism, must of necessity be rooted in denying these or similar philosophical views. Totalism, consequentialism, fanaticism and the like lead inexorably to longtermism and other mainstays of effective altruist theorizing.

I am not so sure. There are many steps from the claims just listed to claims such as:

  • One ought to spend many billions of dollars preparing for the possibility that artificial agents will rapidly gain the ability to take over the world, and then exercise that ability.
  • It is more important to do what you can do ensure that the long-term future of humanity goes as well as possible than to save a life today, at an expected cost in the low four figures (USD).
  • Causes such as prison reform, racial justice, and climate change should take a back seat to other philanthropic cause areas.

While I am considerably sympathetic to consequentialism, totalism, fanaticism and the like, I am profoundly unsympathetic to all of the claims that I just listed. I hope to show how it is possible to take on the first set of views while resisting, in the strongest possible terms, the second set of views.


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