Book Post: The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does: Critical Essays on Effective Altruism

Link post

A few notes to start:

  • This is my first Forum post.

  • I received an early copy of the book from a colleague. Though I agree with some of what is included in it, this post does not serve as a holistic endorsement of the book or the ideas therein.

  • This post is written in a personal capacity. The views expressed do not represent those of Effective Altruism DC (EA DC) or any other organization with which I am affiliated.

  • My thanks to Manuel Del Río Rodríguez for his post from 17th January 2023, before the book was released: “Book Critique of Effective Altruism”.

Why I Read The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does: Critical Essays on Effective Altruism:

  1. Criticism—such as this—is a gift. I care deeply about addressing the issues that are discussed in this volume, and I believe the contributors’ perspectives are valuable for me when I am reflecting on how I think about and work on them (especially relative to other communities), as well as how our work is perceived. When I can engage with thoughtful criticism with openness and deep reflection, I learn, grow as a person, and make better decisions. I appreciate the time that the contributors put into this book and that they also care about making the world as good a place as it can be.

  2. I have read and enjoyed past works by many of the authors included in the volume, not least Adams, Crary, Gruen, and Srinivasan.

  3. I have been engaging with [what later became] EA since 2011 (having first learned about it by reading The Life You Can Save in 2009), but I did not begin full-time community building until 2022. I began this work because I hold (and still do) that EA ideas, funding, and work have had positive impacts and will continue to have positive impacts across numerous axes. I also hold (and still do) that unnecessary harm has occurred along the way and that we need to do better, particularly in professionalizing affiliated organizations and making the community more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. I believe this book can help us do good better.

[Added at 19:00 on 8 February] Many of the critiques found in the book do not reflect how most engaged EAs interpret the ideas or the community; rather than inditing the author(s) for this, try to empathize with how they may have come to this conclusion and follow their arguments from there.

I encourage you to read the book and to share your perspectives (or a summary) with your local group, EA Anywhere, and/​or on this Forum post (or in a post of your own).

The remainder of this post includes the book summary, chapter titles, and reviews from the publisher, Oxford University Press.

Book Summary:

The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does is the first edited volume to critically engage with Effective Altruism (EA). It brings together writers from diverse activist and scholarly backgrounds to explore a variety of unique grassroots movements and community organizing efforts. By drawing attention to these responses and to particular cases of human and animal harms, this book represents a powerful call to attend to different voices and projects and to elevate activist traditions that EA lacks the resources to assess and threatens to squelch. The contributors reveal the weakness inherent within the ready-made, top-down solutions that EA offers in response to many global problems-and offers in their place substantial descriptions of more meaningful and just social engagement.

Table of Contents:

Foreword—Amia Srinivasan


About the Contributors

Introduction—Carol J. Adams, Alice Crary, and Lori Gruen

  1. “How Effective Altruism Fails Community-Based Activism”—Brenda Sanders

  2. “Effective Altruism’s Unsuspecting Twenty-First Century Colonialism”—Simone de Lima

  3. “Anti-Blackness and the Effective Altruist”—Christopher Sebastian

  4. “Animal Advocacy’s Stockholm Syndrome”—Andrew deCoriolis, Aaron S. Gross, Joseph Tuminello, Steve J. Gross, and Jennifer Channin

  5. “Who Counts? Effective Altruism and the Problem of Numbers in the History of American Wildlife Conservation”—Michael D. Wise

  6. “Diversifying Effective Altruism’s Long Shots in Animal Advocacy: An Invitation to Prioritize Black Vegans, Higher Education, and Religious Communities”—Matthew C. Halteman

  7. “A Christian Critique of the Effective Altruism Approach to Animal Philanthropy”—David L. Clough

  8. “Queer Eye on the EA Guys”—pattrice jones

  9. “A Feminist Ethics of Care Critique of Effective Altruism”—Carol J. Adams

  10. “The Empty Promises of Cultured Meat”—Elan Abrell

  11. “How “Alternative Proteins” Create a Private Solution to a Public Problem”—Michele Simon

  12. “The Power of Love to Transform Animal Lives: The Deciption of Animal Quantification”—Krista Hiddema

  13. “Our Partners, The Animals: Reflections from a Farmed Animal Sanctuary”—Kathy Stevens

  14. “The Wisdom Gained from Animals who Self-Liberate”—Rachel McCrystal

  15. “Effective Altruism and the Reified Mind—John Sanbonmatsu

  16. “Against “Effective Altruism”″ - Alice Crary

  17. “The Change We Need”—Lori Gruen

  18. Coda—”Future-Oriented Effective Altruism: What’s Wrong with Longtermism?”—Carol J. Adams, Alice Crary, and Lori Gruen



“The story of Effective Altruism is told here not by its proponents, but by those engaged in liberation struggles and justice movements that operate outside of Effective Altruism’s terms. There is every possibility that Effective Altruists will ignore what these voices have to say. That would be a deep shame, and what’s more, a betrayal of a real commitment to bring about a better world.”—Amia Srinivasan, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford

“Effective Altruism has made big moral promises that are often undermined by its unwillingness to listen attentively to the voices of its detractors, especially those from marginalized communities. In this vital, stimulating volume, we hear from some of the most important of these voices on some of the most important criticisms of Effective Altruism, including its racism, colonialism, and technocratic rationalism. This book is essential, inviting reading for both Effective Altruists and their critics.”—Kate Manne, Associate Professor at the Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell University

“What could possibly go wrong when a largely white and male alliance of academics, business and nonprofit arrivistes, and obscenely rich donors reduce complex situations to numbers and plug those numbers into equations that claim to offer moral and strategic clarity about how we should live in a suffering world? In this book, dissenting activists and academics speak passionately and plainly about what has gone wrong—and provide an armamentarium for those keen to free action and imagination from the alliance’s outsized grip on the work of liberation.”—Timothy Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight