Is Effective Altruism fundamentally flawed?

Up­date on Mar 21: I have com­pletely re­worked my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 1 to make it more con­vinc­ing to some and hope­fully more clear. I would also like to thank ev­ery­one who has re­sponded thus far, in par­tic­u­lar bri­an­wang712, Michael_S, kbog and Telofy for sus­tained and helpful dis­cus­sions.

Up­date on Apr 10: I have added a new ob­jec­tion (Ob­jec­tion 1.1) that cap­tures an ob­jec­tion that kbog and Michael_S have raised to my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 1. I’d also like to thank Alex_Barry for a sus­tained and helpful dis­cus­sion.

Up­date on Apr 24: I have re­moved Ob­jec­tion 1.1 tem­porar­ily. It is un­der­go­ing re­vi­sion to be more clear.

Hey ev­ery­one,

This post is per­haps un­like most on this fo­rum in that it ques­tions the val­idity of effec­tive al­tru­ism rather than as­sumes it.

A. Some back­ground:

I first heard about effec­tive al­tru­ism when pro­fes­sor Singer gave a talk on it at my uni­ver­sity a few years ago while I was an un­der­grad. I was in­trigued by the idea. At the time, I had already de­cided that I would donate the vast ma­jor­ity of my fu­ture in­come to char­ity be­cause I thought that pre­vent­ing and/​or alle­vi­at­ing the in­tense suffer­ing of oth­ers is a much bet­ter use of my money than spend­ing it on per­sonal lux­u­ries. How­ever, the idea of donat­ing my money to effec­tive char­i­ties was a new one to me. So, I con­sid­ered effec­tive al­tru­ism for some time, but soon I came to see a prob­lem with it that to this day I can­not re­solve. And so I am not an effec­tive al­tru­ist (yet).

Right now, my stance is that the prob­lem I’ve iden­ti­fied is a very real prob­lem. How­ever, given that so many in­tel­li­gent peo­ple en­dorse effec­tive al­tru­ism, there is a good chance I have gone wrong some­where. I just can’t see where. I’m cur­rently work­ing on a dona­tion plan and com­plet­ing the plan re­quires as­sess­ing the mer­its of effec­tive al­tru­ism. Thus, I would greatly ap­pre­ci­ate your feed­back.

Below, I state the prob­lem I see with effec­tive al­tru­ism, some likely ob­jec­tions and my re­sponses to those ob­jec­tions.

Thanks in ad­vance for read­ing!

B. The prob­lem I see with effec­tive al­tru­ism:

Sup­pose we find our­selves in the fol­low­ing choice situ­a­tion: With our last $10, we can ei­ther help Bob avoid an ex­tremely painful dis­ease by donat­ing our $10 to a char­ity work­ing in his area, or we can help Amy and Susie each avoid an equally painful dis­ease by donat­ing our $10 to a more effec­tive char­ity work­ing in their area, but we can­not help all three. Who should we help?

Effec­tive al­tru­ism would say that we should help the group con­sist­ing of Amy and Susie since that is the more effec­tive use of our $10. In­so­far as effec­tive al­tru­ism says this, it effec­tively de­nies Bob (and any­one else in his place) any chance of be­ing helped. But that seems counter to what rea­son and em­pa­thy would lead me to do.

Yes, Susie and Amy are two peo­ple, and two is more than one, but were they to suffer (as would hap­pen if we chose to help Bob), it is not like any one of them would suffer more than what Bob would oth­er­wise suffer. In­deed, were Bob to suffer, he would suffer no less than ei­ther Amy or Susie. Susie’s suffer­ing would be felt by Susie alone. Amy’s suffer­ing would be felt by Amy alone. And nei­ther of their suffer­ing would be greater than Bob’s suffer­ing. So why sim­ply help them over Bob rather than give all of them an equal chance of be­ing helped by, say, toss­ing a coin? (foot­note 1)

Foot­note 1: A philoso­pher named John Tau­rek first dis­cussed this prob­lem and pro­posed this solu­tion in his pa­per “Should the Num­bers Count?” (1977)

C. Some likely ob­jec­tions and my re­sponses:

Ob­jec­tion 1:

One might re­ply that two in­stances of suffer­ing is morally worse than one in­stance of the same kind of suffer­ing and that we should pre­vent the morally worse case (e.g., the two in­stances of suffer­ing), so we should help Amy and Susie.

My re­sponse:

I don’t think two in­stances of suffer­ing, spread across two peo­ple (e.g. Amy and Susie), is a morally worse case than one in­stance of the same kind of suffer­ing had by one other per­son (e.g. Bob). I think these two cases are just as bad, morally speak­ing. Why’s that? Well, first of all, what makes one case morally worse than an­other? An­swer: Mo­rally rele­vant fac­tors (i.e. things of moral sig­nifi­cance, things that mat­ter). Ok, and what morally rele­vant fac­tors are pre­sent here? Well, ex­pe­rience is cer­tainly one—in par­tic­u­lar the se­vere pain that ei­ther Bob would feel or Susie and Amy would each feel, if not helped (foot­note 2). Ok. So we can say that a case in which Amy and Susie would each suffer said pain is morally worse than a case in which only Bob would suffer said pain just in case there would be more pain or greater pain in the former case than in the lat­ter case (i.e. iff Amy’s pain and Susie’s pain would to­gether be ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than Bob’s pain.)

Foot­note 2: In my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 2, it will be­come clear that I think some­thing else mat­ters too: the iden­tity of the sufferer. In other words, I don’t just think suffer­ing mat­ters, I also think who suffers it mat­ters. How­ever, un­like the morally rele­vant fac­tor of suffer­ing, I don’t think it’s helpful for our un­der­stand­ing to un­der­stand this sec­ond morally rele­vant fac­tor as hav­ing an effect on the moral wors­e­ness of a case, al­though one could un­der­stand it this way. Rather, I think its bet­ter for our un­der­stand­ing to ac­com­mo­date its force via the de­nial that we should always pre­vent the morally worst case (i.e. the case in­volv­ing the most suffer­ing). If you find this re­sult deeply un­in­tu­itive, then maybe its bet­ter for your un­der­stand­ing to un­der­stand this sec­ond morally rele­vant fac­tor as hav­ing an effect on the moral wors­e­ness of a case, which al­lows you to say that what we should always do is pre­vent the morally worse case. In any case, ig­nore the morally rele­vant fac­tor of iden­tity for now as I haven’t even ar­gued for why it is morally rele­vant.

Here, it’s helpful to keep in mind that more/​greater in­stances of pain does not nec­es­sar­ily mean more/​greater pain. For ex­am­ple, 2 very minor headaches is more in­stances of pains than 1 ma­jor headache, but they need not in­volve more pain than a ma­jor headache (i.e., they need not be ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than a ma­jor headache). Thus, while there would clearly be more in­stances of pain in the former case than in the lat­ter case (i.e. 2 vs 1; Amy’s and Susie’s vs Bob’s), that does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that there would be more pain.

So the key ques­tion for us then is this: Are 2 in­stances of a given pain, spread across two peo­ple (e.g. Amy and Susie), ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse (i.e. do they in­volve more/​greater pain) than one in­stance of the same pain had by one per­son (e.g. Bob)? If they are (call this the­sis “Y”), then a case in which Amy and Susie would each suffer a given pain is morally worse than a case in which only Bob would suffer the given pain. If they aren’t (call this the­sis “N”), then the two cases are morally just as bad, in which case Ob­jec­tion 1 would fail, even if we agreed that we should pre­vent the morally worse case.

Here’s my ar­gu­ment against Y:

Sup­pose that 5 in­stances of a cer­tain minor headache, all ex­pe­rienced by one per­son, are ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than a cer­tain ma­jor headache ex­pe­rienced by one per­son. That is, sup­pose that any per­son in the world who has an ac­cu­rate idea/​ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what 5 in­stances of this cer­tain minor headache feels like and of what this cer­tain ma­jor headache feels like would pre­fer to en­dure the ma­jor headache over the 5 minor headaches if put to the choice. Un­der this sup­po­si­tion, some­one who holds Y must also hold that 5 minor headaches, spread across 5 peo­ple, are ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than a ma­jor headache had by one per­son. Why? Be­cause, at bot­tom, some­one who holds Y must also hold that 5 minor headaches spread across 5 peo­ple are ex­pe­ri­en­tially just as bad as 5 minor headaches all had by one per­son.

So let’s as­sess whether 5 minor headaches, spread across 5 peo­ple, re­ally are ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than a ma­jor headache had by one per­son. Given the sup­po­si­tion above, con­sider first what makes a sin­gle per­son who suffers 5 minor headaches ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse off than a per­son who suffers just 1 ma­jor headache, other things be­ing equal.

Well, imag­ine that we were this per­son who suffers 5 minor headaches. We suffer one minor headache one day, suffer an­other minor headache some­time af­ter that, then an­other af­ter that, etc. By the end of our 5th minor headache, we will have ex­pe­rienced what it’s like to go through 5 minor headaches. After all, we went through 5 minor headaches! Note that the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-5-headaches con­sists sim­ply in the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-the-first-minor-headache then the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-the-sec­ond-minor-headache then the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-the-third-minor-headache, etc. Im­por­tantly, the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-5-headaches is not what­ever we ex­pe­rience right af­ter hav­ing our 5th headache (e.g. ex­haus­tion that might set in af­ter go­ing through many headaches or some su­per painful headache that is the “syn­the­sis” of the in­ten­sity of the past 5 minor headaches). It is not a sin­gu­lar/​con­tin­u­ous feel­ing like the feel­ing we have when we’re ex­pe­rienc­ing a nor­mal pain epi­sode. It is sim­ply this: the what-it’s-like of go­ing through one minor headache, then an­other (some time later), then an­other, then an­other, then an­other. Noth­ing more. Noth­ing less.

Now, by the end of our 5th minor headache, we might have long for­got­ten about the first minor headache be­cause, say, it hap­pened so long ago. So, by the end of our 5th minor headache, we might not have an ac­cu­rate ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what it’s like to go through 5 minor headaches even though we in fact have ex­pe­rienced what it’s like to go through 5 minor headaches. As a re­sult, if some­one asked us whether we’ve been through more pain due to our minor headaches or more pain through a ma­jor headache that, say, we re­cently ex­pe­rienced, we would likely in­cor­rectly an­swer the lat­ter.

But, if we did have an ac­cu­rate ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what it’s like to go through 5 minor headaches, say, be­cause we ex­pe­rienced all 5 minor headaches rather re­cently, then there will be a clear sense to us that go­ing through them was ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than the ma­jor headache. The 5 minor headaches would each be “fresh in our mind”, and thus the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-5-minor-headaches would be “fresh in our mind”. And with that what-it’s-like fresh in mind, it seems clear to us that it caused us more pain than the ma­jor headache did.

Now, a headache be­ing “fresh in our mind” does not mean that the headache needs to be so fresh that it is qual­i­ta­tively the same as ex­pe­rienc­ing a real headache. Be­ing fresh in our mind just means we have an ac­cu­rate ap­pre­ci­a­tion/​idea of what it feels like, just as we have some ac­cu­rate idea of what our fa­vorite dish tastes like.

Be­cause we have ap­pre­ci­a­tions of our past pains (to vary­ing de­grees of ac­cu­racy), we some­times com­pare them and have a clear sense that one set of pains is worse than an­other. But it is not the com­par­i­son and the clear sense we have of one set of pains be­ing worse than an­other that ul­ti­mately makes one set of pains worse than an­other. Rather, it is the other way around: it is the what-it’s-like-of-hav­ing-5-minor-headaches that is worse than the what-it’s-like-of-hav­ing-a-ma­jor-headache. And if we have an ac­cu­rate ap­pre­ci­a­tion of both what-it’s-likes, then we will con­clude the same. But, when we don’t, then our own con­clu­sions could be wrong, like in the ex­am­ple pro­vided ear­lier of a for­got­ten minor headache.

So, at the end of the day, what makes a per­son who has 5 minor headaches worse off than a per­son who has 1 ma­jor headache is the fact that he ex­pe­rienced the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-5-minor-headaches.

But, in the case where the 5 minor headaches are spread across 5 peo­ple, there is no longer the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-5-minor-headaches be­cause each of the 5 headaches is ex­pe­rienced by a differ­ent per­son. As a re­sult, the only what-it’s-like that is pre­sent is the what-it’s-like-of-ex­pe­rienc­ing-one-minor-headache. Five differ­ent peo­ple each ex­pe­rience this what-it’s-like, but no one ex­pe­riences what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-5-minor-headaches. More­over, the what-it’s-like of each of the 5 peo­ple can­not be linked to form the what-it’s-like-of-ex­pe­rienc­ing-5-minor-headaches be­cause the 5 peo­ple are ex­pe­ri­en­tially in­de­pen­dent be­ings.

Now, it’s clearly the case that the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-1-minor-headache is not ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than the what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-a-ma­jor-headache. Given what I said in the pre­vi­ous para­graph, there­fore, there is noth­ing pre­sent that could be ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than the what-it’s-like-to-go-through-a-ma­jor-headache in the case where the 5 minor headaches are spread across 5 peo­ple. There­fore, 5 minor headaches, spread across 5 peo­ple, can­not be (and thus, is not) worse, ex­pe­ri­en­tially speak­ing, than one ma­jor headache.

In­deed, five in­de­pen­dent what-it’s-likes-of-go­ing-through-1-minor-headache is very differ­ent from a sin­gle what-it’s-like-of-go­ing-through-5-minor-headaches. And given a mo­ment’s re­flec­tion, one thing should be clear: only the lat­ter what-it’s-like can plau­si­bly be ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than a ma­jor headache.

Thus, one should not treat 5 minor headaches spread across 5 peo­ple as be­ing ex­pe­ri­en­tially just as bad as 5 minor headaches all had by 1 per­son. The lat­ter is ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than the former. The lat­ter in­volves more/​greater pain.

We can thus make the fol­low­ing ar­gu­ment against Y:

P1) If Y is true, then 5 minor headaches spread across 5 peo­ple is ex­pe­ri­en­tially just as bad 5 minor headaches all had by 1 per­son.

P2) But that is not the case (since 5 minor headaches all had by 1 per­son is ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse than 5 minor headaches spread across 5 peo­ple).

C) There­fore Y is false. And there­fore Ob­jec­tion 1 fails, even if it’s granted that we should pre­vent the morally worse case.

Ob­jec­tion 1.1: (Im­prov­ing it)

Ob­jec­tion 1.2:

One might re­ply that ex­pe­rience is a morally rele­vant fac­tor, but when the amount of pain in each case is the same (i.e. when the cases are ex­pe­ri­en­tially just as bad), the num­ber of peo­ple in each case also be­comes a morally rele­vant fac­tor. Since the case in which Amy and Susie would each suffer in­volves more peo­ple, there­fore, it is still the morally worse case.

My re­sponse:

I will re­spond to this ob­jec­tion in my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 2.

Ob­jec­tion 1.3:

One might re­ply that the num­ber of peo­ple in­volved in each case is a morally rele­vant fac­tor in of it­self (i.e. com­pletely in­de­pen­dent of the amount of pain in each case). That is, one might say that the in­her­ent moral rele­vance of the num­ber of peo­ple in­volved in each case must be rec­on­ciled with the in­her­ent moral rele­vance of the amount of pain in each case, and that there­fore, in prin­ci­ple, a case in which many peo­ple would each suffer a rel­a­tively lesser pain can be morally worse than a case in which one other per­son would suffer a rel­a­tively greater pain, so long as there are enough peo­ple on the side of the many. For ex­am­ple, be­tween helping a mil­lion peo­ple avoid de­pres­sion or one other per­son avoid very se­vere de­pres­sion, one might have the in­tu­ition that we should help the mil­lion, i.e. that a case in which a mil­lion peo­ple would suffer de­pres­sion is morally worse.

My re­sponse:

I don’t deny that many peo­ple have this in­tu­ition, but I think this in­tu­ition is based on a failure to rec­og­nize and/​or ap­pre­ci­ate some im­por­tant facts. In par­tic­u­lar, I think that if you re­ally kept in the fore­front of your mind the fact that not one of the mil­lion would suffer worse than the one, and the fact that the mil­lion of them to­gether would not suffer worse than the one (as­sum­ing my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 1 suc­ceeds), then your in­tu­ition would not be as it is (foot­note 3).

Nev­er­the­less, you might still feel that the mil­lion peo­ple should still have a chance of be­ing helped. I agree, but this is not be­cause of the sheer num­ber of them in­volved. Rather, it is be­cause which in­di­vi­d­ual suffers mat­ters. (Please see my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 2.)

Foot­note 3: For those fa­mil­iar with Derk Pere­boom’s po­si­tion in the free will de­bate, he makes an analo­gous point. He doesn’t think we have free will, but ad­mits that many have the in­tu­ition that we do. But he points out that this is be­cause we are gen­er­ally not aware of the de­ter­minis­tic psy­cholog­i­cal/​neu­rolog­i­cal/​phys­i­cal causes of our ac­tions. But once we be­come aware of them – once we have them in the fore­front of our minds – our in­tu­ition would not be that we are free. See pg 95 of “Free Will, Agency, and Mean­ing in Life” (Pere­boom, 2014)

Ob­jec­tion 2:

One might re­ply that we should help Amy and Susie be­cause ei­ther of their suffer­ing neu­tral­izes/​can­cels out Bob’s suffer­ing, leav­ing the other’s suffer­ing to carry the day in fa­vor of helping them over Bob.

My re­sponse:

I don’t think one per­son’s suffer­ing can neu­tral­ize/​can­cel out an­other per­son’s suffer­ing be­cause who suffers mat­ters. Which in­di­vi­d­ual it is that suffers mat­ters be­cause it is the sufferer who bears the com­plete bur­den of the suffer­ing. It is the par­tic­u­lar per­son who ends up suffer­ing that feels all the suffer­ing. This is an ob­vi­ous fact, but it is also a very sig­nifi­cant fact when prop­erly ap­pre­ci­ated, and I don’t think it is prop­erly ap­pre­ci­ated.

Think about it. The par­tic­u­lar per­son(s) who suffers has to bear ev­ery­thing. If we save Amy and Susie, it is Bobthat par­tic­u­lar van­tage point on the world—who has to feel all of the suffer­ing (which it bears re­mem­ber­ing is suffer­ing that would be no less painful than the suffer­ing Amy and Susie would each oth­er­wise en­dure). The same, of course, is true of each of Amy and Susie were we to save Bob.

I fear that say­ing any­more might make the sig­nifi­cance of the fact I’m point­ing to less clear. For those who ap­pre­ci­ate the sig­nifi­cance of what I’m get­ting at, it should be clear that nei­ther Amy’s or Susie’s suffer­ing can be used to neu­tral­ize/​can­cel out Bob’s suffer­ing and vice versa. Yes, it’s the same kind of suffer­ing, but it’s im­por­tantly differ­ent whether Amy and Susie each ex­pe­riences it or Bob ex­pe­riences it, be­cause again, who­ever ex­pe­riences it is the one who has to bear all of it.

No­tice that this re­sponse to ob­jec­tion 2 is im­por­tantly com­pat­i­ble with em­pathiz­ing with ev­ery in­di­vi­d­ual in­volved (e.g., Amy, Susie and Bob). In­deed, to em­pathize with only se­lect in­di­vi­d­u­als is bi­ased. Yet, it seems to me that many peo­ple are in fact likely to for­get to em­pathize with the group con­tain­ing the fewer num­ber. Note that as I un­der­stand it, to em­pathize with some­one is to imag­ine one­self in their shoes and to care about that imag­ined per­spec­tive.

Also, no­tice that this re­sponse to ob­jec­tion 2 also deals with Ob­jec­tion 1.2 since this re­sponse ar­gues against (what seems to me) the only plau­si­ble way in which the num­ber of peo­ple in­volved might be thought to be rele­vant when the amount of pain in­volved in each case is the same: when the amount of pain in­volved in each case is the same, it might be thought that one per­son’s pain can neu­tral­ize or can­cel out an­other per­son’s pain, e.g. that the suffer­ing Amy would feel can neu­tral­ize or can­cel out the suffer­ing Bob would feel, leav­ing only the suffer­ing that Susie would feel left in play, and that there­fore the case in which Amy and Susie would suffer is morally worse than the case in which Bob would suffer. But if my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 2 is right, then this thought is wrong.

Just to be clear, this is not to say that I think one per­son’s suffer­ing can not bal­ance (or, in the case of greater suffer­ing, out­weigh) an­other per­son’s equal (or lesser) suffer­ing such that the rea­son­able and em­pa­thetic thing to do is to give the per­son who would face the greater suffer­ing a higher chance of be­ing helped. In fact, I think it can. But bal­anc­ing is not the same as neu­tral­iz­ing/​can­cel­ing out. Bob’s suffer­ing bal­ances out Amy’s suffer­ing and it also in­de­pen­dently bal­ances out Susie’s suffer­ing pre­cisely be­cause Bob’s suffer­ing does not get neu­tral­ized/​can­cel­led out by ei­ther of their suffer­ing.

My own view is that we should give the per­son who would face the greater suffer­ing a higher chance of be­ing saved in pro­por­tion to how much greater his suffer­ing would be rel­a­tive to the suffer­ing that the other per­son(s) would each oth­er­wise face. We shouldn’t au­to­mat­i­cally help him just be­cause he would face a greater suffer­ing if not helped. After all, who suffers mat­ters, and this in­cludes those who would be faced with the lesser suffer­ing if not helped (foot­note 4).

Foot­note 4: My own view is slightly more com­pli­cated than this, but those de­tails aren’t im­por­tant given the sim­ple sorts of choice situ­a­tions dis­cussed in this es­say.

Go­ing back to Ob­jec­tion 1.3, this then ex­plains why I agree that we should still give those who would each suffer a less se­ri­ous de­pres­sion a chance of be­ing helped, even though the one other per­son would suffer more if not saved. Im­por­tantly, the num­ber of peo­ple who would each suffer the less se­ri­ous de­pres­sion is ir­rele­vant. I would give them a chance of be­ing saved whether they are 2 per­sons or a mil­lion or a billion. How high of a chance would I give them? In pro­por­tion to how their de­pres­sion com­pares in suffer­ing to the sin­gle per­son’s se­vere de­pres­sion. So, if it in­volves slightly less suffer­ing, I would give them around 48% of be­ing helped. If it in­volves a lot less suffer­ing, then I would give them lot lower of a chance (foot­note 5).

Foot­note 5: No­tice that with cer­tain types of pain epi­sodes, such as a tor­ture epi­sode vs a minor headache, there is such a big gap in amount of suffer­ing be­tween them that any clear-headed per­son in the world would rather en­dure an in­finite num­ber of minor headaches (i.e. live with very fre­quent minor headaches in an im­mor­tal life) than to en­dure the tor­ture epi­sode. This would ex­plain why in a choice situ­a­tion in which we can ei­ther save a per­son from tor­ture or x num­ber of per­sons from a minor headache (or 1 per­son from x minor headaches), we would just save the per­son who would be tor­tured rather than give the other(s) even the slight­est chance of be­ing helped. And I think this ac­cords with our in­tu­ition well.

Ob­jec­tion 3:

One might re­ply that from “the per­spec­tive of the uni­verse” or “moral per­spec­tive” or “ob­jec­tive per­spec­tive”, ei­ther of their suffer­ing neu­tral­izes/​can­cels out Bob’s suffer­ing, leav­ing the other’s suffer­ing to carry the day in fa­vor of helping them over Bob.

My re­sponse:

As I un­der­stand it, the per­spec­tive of the uni­verse is the im­par­tial or un­bi­ased per­spec­tive where per­sonal bi­ases are ex­cluded from con­sid­er­a­tion. As a re­sult, such a per­spec­tive en­tails that we should give equal weight to equal suffer­ing. For ex­am­ple, whereas I would give more weight to my own suffer­ing than to the equal suffer­ing of oth­ers (due to the per­sonal bias in­volved in my ev­ery­day per­sonal per­spec­tive), if I took on the per­spec­tive of the uni­verse, I would have to at least in­tel­lec­tu­ally ad­mit that their equal suffer­ing mat­ters the same amount as mine. Of course, it doesn’t mat­ter the same amount as mine from my per­spec­tive. It mat­ters the same amount as mine from the per­spec­tive of the uni­verse that I have taken on. We might say it mat­ters the same amount as mine pe­riod. How­ever, none of this en­tails that, from the per­spec­tive of the uni­verse, which in­di­vi­d­ual suffers doesn’t mat­ter – that whether it is I who suffers X or some­one else who suffers X doesn’t mat­ter. Clearly it does mat­ter for the rea­son I gave ear­lier. Giv­ing equal weight to equal suffer­ing does not en­tail that who suffers said suffer­ing doesn’t mat­ter. It is pre­cisely be­cause it mat­ters that in a choice situ­a­tion in which we can ei­ther save per­son A from suffer­ing X or per­son B from suffer­ing X we think we should flip a coin to give each an equal chance of be­ing saved, rather than, say, choos­ing one of them to save on a whim. This is our way of ac­knowl­edg­ing that A suffer­ing is im­por­tantly differ­ent from B suffer­ing - that who suffers mat­ters.

Even if I’m tech­ni­cally wrong about what the per­spec­tive of the uni­verse—as un­der­stood by util­i­tar­i­ans—amounts to, all that shows is that the per­spec­tive of the uni­verse, so un­der­stood, is not the moral per­spec­tive. For who suffers mat­ters (as­sum­ing my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 2 is cor­rect), and so the moral per­spec­tive must be one from which this fact is ac­knowl­edged. Any per­spec­tive from which it isn’t there­fore can­not be the moral per­spec­tive.

D. Con­clu­sion:

I there­fore think that ac­cord­ing to rea­son and em­pa­thy, Bob should be ac­corded an equal chance to be helped (say via flip­ping a coin) as Amy and Susie. This con­clu­sion holds re­gard­less of the num­ber of peo­ple that are added to Amy and Susie’s group as long as the kind of suffer­ing re­mains the same. So for ex­am­ple, if with a $X dona­tion we can ei­ther help Bob avoid an ex­tremely painful dis­ease or a mil­lion other peo­ple from the same painful dis­ease, but not all, rea­son and em­pa­thy would say to flip a coin – a con­clu­sion that is surely against effec­tive al­tru­ism.

E. One fi­nal ob­jec­tion:

One might say that this con­clu­sion is too counter-in­tu­itive to be cor­rect, and that there­fore some­thing must have gone wrong in my rea­son­ing, even though it may not be clear what that some­thing is.

My re­sponse:

But is it re­ally all that counter-in­tu­itive when we bear in mind all that I have said? Im­por­tantly, let us bear in mind three facts:

1) Were we to save the mil­lion peo­ple in­stead of Bob, Bob would suffer in a way that is no less painful than any one of the mil­lion oth­ers oth­er­wise would. In­deed, he would suffer in a way that is just as painful as any one among the mil­lion. Con­versely, were we to save Bob, no one among the mil­lion suffer­ing would suffer in a way that is more painful than Bob would oth­er­wise suffer. In­deed, the most any one of them would suffer is the same as what Bob would oth­er­wise suffer.

2) The suffer­ing of the mil­lion would in­volve no more pain than the pain Bob would feel (as­sum­ing my re­sponse to Ob­jec­tion 1 is cor­rect). That is, a mil­lion in­stances of the given painful dis­ease, spread across a mil­lion peo­ple, would not be ex­pe­ri­en­tially worse—would not in­volve more pain or greater pain—than one in­stance of the same painful dis­ease had by Bob. (Again, keep in mind that more/​greater in­stances of a pain does not nec­es­sar­ily mean more/​greater pain.)

3) Were we to save the mil­lion and let Bob suffer, it is he – not you, not me, and cer­tainly not the mil­lion of oth­ers – who has to bear that pain. It is that par­tic­u­lar per­son, that unique sen­tient per­spec­tive on the world who has to bear it all.

In such a choice situ­a­tion, rea­son and em­pa­thy tells me to give him an equal chance to be saved. To just save the mil­lions seems to me to com­pletely ne­glect what Bob has to suffer, whereas my ap­proach seems to ne­glect no one.