Hilary Greaves: The collectivist critique of the EA movement

Link post

I discovered this recently and enjoyed the brevity and clarity of the presentation, so I’m sharing it on the Forum.

I couldn’t find a video or recording of the actual talk from the Conference on the Ethics of Giving. If you happen to know of one, please share it in the comments!


Written in haste. All inaccuracies are mine.

  • Conclusion: “The fact that one’s reasoning is simultaneously (i) individualist and (ii) outcome-based does not prevent one from capturing the case for collective action, in particular on various forms of ‘systemic change’.”

  • For some large-scale issues, it may seem wrong to even consider individual actors as “relevant”; only groups of people can meaningfully affect an outcome

  • Some thinkers see this as a reason to criticize effective altruism, which must be somewhat ignorant of potentially valuable collective actions because it focuses on “individuals’ outcome-based reasons for action”

    • “The moral significance of an individual agent’s contribution to a structural harm cannot be adequately grasped if we just focus on the impact of that agent’s behaviour, even across a lifetime.” (Dr. Elizabeth Ashford)

  • Greaves has a few different responses:

    • Even back in 2017, this was already a strawman argument against EA; the movement doesn’t only care about individual agents

    • We can only determine our own actions, not those of large collectives—and so, in a practical sense, focusing on individuals makes sense

    • The actual real-world cases that EA cares about don’t resemble the theoretical “individual actions don’t matter” cases brought up by critics of EA; our actions really do affect whether people survive, etc.

    • Even for climate change and revolutions (two examples others have used to illustrate the futility of thinking about individual actors), it seems likely that a given person can make some kind of difference by joining the cause. These both involve complex systems, which makes it hard for them to be “overdetermined” (that is, to have a guaranteed outcome regardless of your individual actions).

The presentation