Aid Scepticism and Effective Altruism

This is the first post in a short se­ries where I share some aca­demic ar­ti­cles on effec­tive al­tru­ism I’ve writ­ten over the last cou­ple of years. Hope­fully, this is also the first in a longer se­ries of posts over the sum­mer where I try to share some of my think­ing over the last year—for these, I’m aiming to lower my qual­ity thresh­old, in or­der to ease the trans­mis­sion of ideas and dis­cus­sion from the re­search side of EA to the broader com­mu­nity, and to get some feed­back.


In 2017, philoso­pher Larry Temkin gave the pres­ti­gious Ue­hiro Lec­tures at Oxford Univer­sity, where he was crit­i­cal of some as­pects of effec­tive al­tru­ism. I was in­vited to write a short crit­i­cal com­men­tary, which is now on-line here. (You might first want to read Larry’s syn­op­sis of his ar­gu­ment in the same vol­ume to un­der­stand what I’m re­spond­ing to; while you’re there, Matt Clark and Theron Pum­mer’s en­try on effec­tive al­tru­ism and each-we dilem­mas is also very good. )

Here’s my ab­stract: “In the ar­ti­cle, ‘Be­ing Good in a World of Need: Some Em­piri­cal Wor­ries and an Un­com­fortable Philo­soph­i­cal Pos­si­bil­ity,’ Larry Temkin pre­sents some con­cerns about the pos­si­ble im­pact of in­ter­na­tional aid on the poor­est peo­ple in the world, sug­gest­ing that the na­ture of the du­ties of benefi­cence of the global rich to the global poor are much more murky than some peo­ple have made out.

In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll re­spond to Temkin from the per­spec­tive of effec­tive al­tru­ism—one of the tar­gets he at­tacks. I’ll ar­gue that Temkin’s cri­tique has lit­tle em­piri­cal jus­tifi­ca­tion, given the con­clu­sions he wants to reach, and is there­fore im­po­tent.”


This ‘aid scep­tic’ ob­jec­tion to Singer’s ar­gu­ments has been com­monly re­peated in philoso­phers’ dis­cus­sion of that ar­gu­ment; I think it’s quite badly mis­guided and hope­fully this short ar­ti­cle helps put that ob­jec­tion to rest. The gen­eral rea­son why I think the ob­jec­tion is mis­guided is given at the end of the ar­ti­cle:

“Let me end with a com­ment about the na­ture of the broader di­alec­tic re­gard­ing Singer’s ar­gu­ment for the con­clu­sion that we in rich coun­tries have strong du­ties of benefi­cence. Often, crit­ics of Peter Singer fo­cus on whether or not aid is effec­tive. But that is fun­da­men­tally failing to en­gage with core of Singer’s ar­gu­ment. Cor­rectly un­der­stood, that ar­gu­ment is about the ethics of buy­ing lux­ury goods, not the ethics of global de­vel­op­ment. Even if it turned out that ev­ery sin­gle de­vel­op­ment pro­gram that we know of does more harm than good, that fact would not mean that we can buy a larger house, safe in the knowl­edge that we have no press­ing moral obli­ga­tions of benefi­cence upon us. There are thou­sands of press­ing prob­lems that call out for our at­ten­tion and that we could make sig­nifi­cant in­roads on with our re­sources [...]

In or­der to show that Singer’s ar­gu­ment is not suc­cess­ful, one would need to show that for none of these prob­lems can we make a sig­nifi­cant differ­ence at lit­tle moral cost to our­selves. This is a very high bar to meet. In a world of such suffer­ing, of such mul­ti­tudi­nous and variegated forms, of­ten caused by the ac­tions and poli­cies of us in rich coun­tries, it would be a shock­ing and highly sus­pi­cious con­clu­sion if there were sim­ply noth­ing that the rich­est 3% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion could do with their re­sources in or­der to sig­nifi­cantly make the world a bet­ter place.

The core of Singer’s ar­gu­ment is the prin­ci­ple that, if it is in our power to pre­vent some­thing very bad from hap­pen­ing, with­out thereby sac­ri­fic­ing any­thing morally sig­nifi­cant, we ought, morally, to do so. We can. So we should.”