A Dilemma for Effective Altruism
This post focuses on an underappreciated debate in normative ethics, viz. the actualism/possibilism (A/P) debate and a problem that I believe it poses for effective altruists (EAs). Roughly, EAs implicitly assume contradictory positions in this debate and, moreover, taking a consistent stance will force EAs to (i)take on commitments they don’t want to take on and (ii)that are seemingly antithetical to the movement. I’ll first provide a quick overview of the A/P debate and then pose my dilemma for EAs.≈
- The Actualism/Possibilism Debate:
Suppose that you have been invited to attend an ex-partner’s wedding and that the best thing you can do is accept the invitation and be pleasant at the wedding. But, suppose furthermore that if you do accept the invitation, you’ll freely decide to get inebriated at the wedding and ruin it for everyone, which would be the worst outcome. The second best thing to do would be to simply decline the invitation. In light of these facts, should you accept or decline the invitation? (Zimmerman 2006: 153).
Roughly, actualists hold that you’re obligated to decline the invitation because what would actually happen if you decline is better than what would actually happen if you accept. By contrast, possibilists hold you’re obligated to accept because doing so is part of the best series of possible acts that you can perform.
- The Problem for Effective Altruism
I’ll understand the term effective altruistto refer to someone who believes that they ought to be doing the most good they can either because they endorse effective altruism as a normative thesis or because they have adopted effective altruism as a non-normative project.
2.1 Effective altruists’ implicit actualist assumptions
EAs implicitly assume actualism most often when trying to assuage concerns about the demandingness of being an EA. For example, in The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer seems to endorse the strategy of affluent people keeping some “modest level of comfort and convenience” even if it’s possible for them to do more good by giving up those luxuries. He endorses this strategy since giving up more is likely to be “counterproductive” (p. 9). He raises similar considerations later in the text when discussing the demandingness of taking a high paying job one doesn’t find intrinsically valuable in order to earn to give. He recognizes that earning to give is “not for everyone” and cautions against it for people who won’t be enthusiastic about “making profits for their employer” even if doing so is necessary for one to do the most good they can over the course of their life (p. 47). Such considerations are echoed by Will MacAskill in Doing Good Better (p. 149). MacAskill also factors such considerations into the expected value of the choices one makes, which implicitly assumes actualism over possibilism. In the concluding chapter of his book, MacAskill even advises his readers to set-up recurring charitable donations for actualist reasons.
2.2 The problem with accepting actualism and being an effective altruist
Although appeals to actualism may help mitigate demandingness worries, actualism also seems to require actions seemingly antithetical to the commitments of effective altruism. To illustrate, consider Partying Pete.
Partying Pete: Pete is contemplating gambling away his millions of dollars over a weekend in Vegas. In doing so, he’ll bring some pleasure to himself and friends. Regardless of his intentions today, if Pete does not choose to spend his money in Vegas this weekend, he’ll later decide to spend it on blood diamonds for himself, although he could, at the later time, decide to donate any money he has to an effective charity.
Actualism entails that Pete is obligated to spend his millions partying in Vegas. But surely Pete doesn’t even come close to doing the most good he can by gambling away his millions. After all, actualists and possibilists agree that Pete can forgo a Vegas trip and then donate his money to an effective charity. Yet, actualists deny that Pete has an obligation to forgo gambling away his millions in Vegas since what he would otherwise do is worse. It seems to me that Partying Pete is a terrible EA, though actualist EAs have to say otherwise.
2.3 Effective altruists’ implicit possibilist assumptions
EAs implicitly assume possibilism in response to worries that effective altruism is too permissive. Ethical offsetting is one such example. Ethical offsetting is “the practice of undoing harms caused by one’s activities through donations or other acts of altruism”. Carbon offsetting is an instance of ethical offsetting. A more unconventional example would be eating meat and then donating to non-human animal charities to “cancel out” the number of non-human animal deaths one causes. EA discussion forums show that EAs typically oppose moral offsetting on the grounds that one can do more good by both <abstaining from eating meat and donating to animal charities> and by both <not traveling and purchasing carbon offsets>.
Most notably, effective altruists have repeatedly argued that people should not simply give to charities that are “close to their heart” because doing so is often radically ineffective (Singer (2009, ch. 4-7); Singer (2016, § 4); MacAskill (2016, ch. 3-5)). This too assumes possibilism.
2.4 The Problem with accepting possibilism and being an effective altruist
Although appeals to possibilism may prevent effective altruism from being too permissive in one sense, it also requires EAs for perform actions that are seemingly antithetical to the commitments of effective altruism. To illustrate, consider a variation of Parfit’s Russian Nobleman case.
Greedy Gaelis thinking about giving away her expendable income each week to the most effective charities at the time. However, she would do more good if she invested all of her money and donated it on her deathbed to the most effective charity at that time. However, what Gael would actually do if she invests all of her money is, on her deathbed, decide to burn it rather than let anyone else benefit from it.
Possibilism entails Gael is obligated to forgo donating any money now, instead investing it all, even though this would result in a suboptimal outcome. This seems antithetical to effective altruism because it requires people to act in ways they know will not only result in them acting wrongly, but also result in the least (not the most) amount of good.
To recap, EAs implicitly assume contradictory positions in the A/P debate. Each position in the debate forces EAs to take on commitments they don’t want to and that are seemingly antithetical to the movement. Actualism entails that Partying Pete is a good EA and undermines commons arguments effective altruists make against moral offsetting and giving to charities close to the heart. Possibilism entails that Greedy Gael ought to forgo donating her money in favor of investing it and undermines common responses effective altruists give to demandingness objections.