On Shallow Ponds and Effective Altruism

by Eric Schliesser on April 5, 2024

In the wake of the sentencing of SBF last week there were two mighty takedowns of effective altruism: one (here) “The Deaths of Effective Altruism Sam Bankman-Fried is finally facing punishment. Let’s also put his ruinous philosophy on trialby Leif Wenar (Stanford) at Wired; the other and better written, “Neo-Utilitarians Are Utter Philistines” by Justin Smith-Ruiu (Paris) at his (here) Substack (Hinternet). In response Richard Pettigrew (Bristol) wrote a rather sensible criticism, “Leif Wenar’s criticisms of effective altruism” at his blog (Richard’s Substack). On of our very own,  Chris Bertram, shared it it on social media with a note that Wenar’s piece was shared widely without “a sober assessment of the merits of his arguments.”

Now, I am an avid reader of Pettigrew’s blog because more than anyone today, he makes on-going debates in formal epistemology and decision-theory available to wide audiences in a relatively fair and relatively accessible fashion. And like the very best blogs, he also shows the salience of different debates within some specialist area to other areas of philosophy (and the sciences/life). I also find Pettigrew rather judicious generally.

Now, the effect of Pettigrew’s piece is to offer a kind of rehabilitation of effective altruism as an imperfect and wiser tool (more attentive to practical, local knowledge) that allows one to do at least something about mitigating awful suffering. I quote Pettigrew’s take-home message before I step back from the debate (and then join it):

But to do that would be to abandon some of the people suffering most. Most of the world’s wealth is geographically concentrated far from most of the world’s poverty. To encourage a sort of localism about altruism is to entrench inequality and abandon those with the greatest need.

Lurking here is our collective susceptibility to the pull of Singer’s shallow pond thought experiment (which Pettigrew also draws on in his piece). (Wenar even calls it “the most famous argument in modern philosophy.”) And because of this susceptibility we (professional philosophers) find it so difficult to abandon effective altruism, and we often find the takedowns of it so crappy.

Pettigrew reconstructs Wenar’s argument as having two parts: one is about the negative externalities of our actions; and second is about the uncertainty of the effect of our actions:

first, while the activities of the charities GiveWell recommends have good consequences, they also have bad ones; second, there is uncertainty about which they will have and indeed in the past this has led charity evaluators to stop endorsing certain charities.

Pettigrew nicely shows that neither is sufficient to undermine continued commitment to effective altruism. He then also criticizes (quite rightly) Wenar’s own hyper-individualist proposed alternative. In fact, Pettigrew then adds, “too often, criticisms of the movement have found fault without offering a workable alternative that recognises the extreme suffering and hardship that exists as well as the enormous relative wealth of many people in countries like the UK, the US, and Europe.” Crucially, absent a better alternative effective altruism is left standing as an imperfect tool that allows one to do at least something about mitigating awful suffering.

Now, I suspect Pettigrew would grant that were effective altruism to make the world worse (did more harm than good) then critics would not be required to articulate a better alternative. My own uncalculated opinion is to stipulate that GiveWell is a net benefit to the world, but this is not obviously true of effective altruism as a movement (with key commitments to ‘earning-to-give’ and ‘long-termism’) which went all in on SBF and also seems to have been captured intellectually by the economic interests of Billionaires (and those with a PhD who need a research intensive positions). It is not implausible to worry that given the status quo that the economic opportunities which one pursues in earning-to-give may itself generate net-harms to the world’s most suffering (either directly or as externalities).

In fact, I may be too charitable [ha!] to GiveWell. Pettigrew ignores an important element of Wenar’s argument. And this also points to an important further difference between saving a child in a shallow pond and what we might call ‘long distance altruism.’ Wenar suggests it is utterly predictable that while the impact on those that suffer most is unclear such long distance altruism is (i) a net beneficiary to those who work for NGOs and make careers in aid agencies and their infrastructure [let’s stipulate for the noblest of motives] and (ii) distorts local incentives/power structures that disadvantages those that suffer most. (This is just one reason why critics of modern development-aid often describe it as neo-colonialism.)

So, where are we? One may well think, as Pettigrew seems to imply, that the shallow pond thought experiment shows us that absent better alternatives effective altruism is the way forward, the only game in town as it were. Pettigrew can grant that the causal chain between donor and recipient is much longer; that intermediaries will capture some of the (ahh) rents; that it is predictable that there are unforeseeable (negative) effects and externalities of donations, and that long distance charity shifts incentives among recipients in ways that are undesirable. Such imperfections are part and parcel of ordinary agency. Indeed, I myself see no reason to criticize folks who give to or work at GiveWell.

But it’s not true that there are no workable alternatives at all to effective altruism to reducing the extreme suffering and hardship over the medium and aggregate term. For example, South Korea was really a very poor country half a century ago. Within a generation it has become a very wealthy place (even though it was run by a corrupt and cruel dictatorship for part of this history and spent quite a bit of GDP on defense). Whatever the multiple causes of its development are I am fairly confident charitable giving by outsiders is not to be listed among the most significant. One can repeat that claim for many of the billions that have left extreme poverty behind in the past half century.

What I am hinting at is that while the shallow pond may be a good model to help us think about our immediate duties, it is a bad model to help us think about the relationship between would be donors and the suffering poor in the context of development. I have four important features in mind. The first three are familiar from the scholarly literature.

First, Wenar and Pettigrew both focus on distance/length of the causal chain between would-be-donor and recipient(s) in their arguments. But what neither mentions explicitly in their posts is that the distance involves borders and dramatic institutional and political differences. While donor and recipient live in one global world, their wealth differences are, at least in part, an effect (and a cause) of international and domestic rules/institutions (etc.) that structure their interactions and also generate unequal opportunities. In the case of Wenar this omission is a bit odd (as even a modest glance at the chapter titles of his Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World reveals).

Second, to change rules and institutions is generally out of any individual hands, but involves collective and political action. As I noted in my series of pieces (The first here; second herethird herefourth herefifth heresixth here) on MacAskill’s What We Owe to the Future (and Population ethics more generally) what’s been so odd about effective altruism is that the need for collective action is fully internalized in its DNA; it presents and understands itself as a world-historical ‘movement.’ But the collective action among effective altruism has not been generally oriented toward institutional, political, or regime change. (One can’t help wonder whether this isn’t an effect of being geared toward recruitment of those that benefit most from the economic and educational status quo.)

Nineteenth century Benthamite-radicals saw this differently and promoted education, open borders, free trade, impartial justice systems, secure property rights, representative government, etc. Many of these are still worth pursuing globally. (One may well add to this list reducing the bargaining power of extractive industries, etc.) Given that even Pettigrew grants some of the harms of existing altruism, it is worth asking whether in many cases promoting better institutions and rules (and free trade/movement) may do better in the aggregate and over time than any direct charitable giving.

I don’t claim originality. Back in the day, in a famous article, Wenar himself noted that “citizens of affluent countries can abolish the disastrous “might makes right” rule by using their own institutions to enforce the basic principles of legal trade.” As Wenar notes many ordinary consumer transactions rely on the theft of property from the poorest people who are systematically denied the benefits from ‘their’ resources.

Third, the shallow pond doesn’t ask us to explore how the drowning child got in the situation in the first place. It would be unseemly to do so, after all. This is a feature and not a bug of any forward looking approach (like utilitarianism and the decision-theoretic approach focused on the expectation of good that Pettigrew himself promotes). Now, one might recoil from doing so from a noble desire to avoid victim blaming of the child or its care-givers. But the world’s most suffering may be suffering in virtue of not just bad existing rules/institutions, but also grave historical injustices and oppression (and subsequent lock-in). Effective altruism deliberately brackets history (for the cultural damage this does see also Justin Smith Rui), and, thereby, leaves, say, reparations off the table.

Let me put my own cards on the table, and get to the fourth and final point. The philosophies of the past and the philosophy developed today is often inevitably intertwined with the exercise of power. What makes Benthamite-radicalism, warts and all (and I tend to emphasize the warts), so admirable intellectually in its historical incarnation was its willingness to recognize its own theorizing as itself a kind of (discursive) power in shaping the ends of ‘philanthropy’ (by which it meant individuals and governments), and its inevitable reliance on power to actualize its ends. (On Bentham’s own political realism I warmly recommend this piece by James Vitali.) And yet today in professional philosophy when we model influentially (with thought experiments like the shallow pond and, say, the out of control trolley) how to think of our agency, we deliberately bracket the complexities of power and politics entirely. Until we learn to see this as a category error, it’s unlikely we can exercise our agency in wise ways.



Matt 04.05.24 at 12:03 pm

He then also criticizes (quite rightly) Wenar’s own hyper-individualist proposed alternative
I wasn’t a fan of Pettigrew’s piece, which I thought rather obviously mis-stated a lot of the arguments in Wernar’s piece, but this bit here strikes me as really odd. I assume you’re referring to Wernar’s discussion of Aaron James’s interaction with people in Bali. But (obviously!) Wernar wasn’t suggesting that we should each do that. This was just a really strange reading. His own view is very much “political” one. (You note that this would seem to follow from his writings, which makes it odd that you don’t read this into his article here. I thought it was pretty obvious, or at least would be to any philosopher.) So, he’s clearly not offering a “hyper-individualized alternative” (Key quote here: “Aaron is trying his best to shift his power to Damo and to the people on the island.”) There were several other points where I thought Pettigrew has just (obviously) missed what Wernar was saying, but this was a really clear one, and I’m sorry to see it here, too.


SusanC 04.05.24 at 12:26 pm

There is perhaps a distinction to be made between EA the idea and EA the actually existing movement.

(Although to make such a distinction sounds a bit like “Real socialism has never been tried” …)

I think there’s a good argument to be made that EA the movement has been captured by billionaires like Elon Musk and fraudsters like SBF. And, in addition, it has acquired an aspect of an apocalyptic religious cult centered on AI risk, which I dont think is strictly implied by EA-the-idea.

Onn the other hand ,,, i am slightly astonished at how slow governments are being to regulate AI. Like, governments are still talking about banning cryptography on think=of-the=children arguments (despite losing that argument decades ago) but governments have yet to wake up to the implications of generative models.


Eric Schliesser 04.05.24 at 12:52 pm

Hi Matt, perhaps Pettigrew and I miss what you take to be the key quote — “Aaron is trying his best to shift his power to Damo and to the people on the island. — because this is not about collective agency at all. It’s about an individual’s heroic efforts (let’s stipulate quite noble, indeed) in a place, far far away. It’s not a plausible alternative at all.


Alex SL 04.05.24 at 12:53 pm

Effective Altruism as a contemporary movement is just silly. The term or name is a motte and bailey:

Are we talking about the concept of being efficient, e.g., giving money to a charity that benefits its cause directly with 90% of the money donated as opposed to to a charity that uses 90% of donations for spam letters soliciting more donations and for administrative bloat? If so, that is a banal idea that virtually nobody on the planet would disagree with or have disagreed with even a hundred years ago.

Or are we talking about using tortured pseudo-logic to argue that ‘AI alignment “research”‘* is more important than saving starving children, and that the most virtuous person is somebody who becomes a billionaire by gambling with securities because they can give big donations to the leaders of the movement? If so, that is immoral, vile, and abhorrent, but that is the EA movement in practical terms.

On top of that comes cult-like behaviour; not merely wanting to do good, but by all accounts systematic attempts to inculcate young people into the movement, indoctrinate them in in-group jargon, and isolate them from outsiders by pushing them to derail their original career plans to work instead for and in the movement.

People aren’t criticising effective altruism. They are criticising Effective Altruism.

*) I would use five nested quotation marks here to indicate how misapplied all of these terms are if that wouldn’t look very ugly.


notGoodenough 04.05.24 at 1:05 pm

the collective action among effective altruism has not been generally oriented toward institutional, political, or regime change.

Indeed, and for me this is one of the bigger issues I have with Effective Altruism – while it claims to use evidence and reason to maximise positive impact, it seems to me to be largely limited to only doing so within self-imposed boundaries and so cannot address systemic issues.

While people donating their wealth/time/etc. in an effective way to redress the inequalities they benefit from is perhaps better than them not doing that, it would surely be far better instead to change the system that leads to inequalities in the first place?


Sashas 04.05.24 at 2:43 pm

Echoing @SusanC (2) and @Alex SL (4): Yes please let’s have a clear distinction between Effective Altruism the movement and effective altruism the starting concept.

I think Alex SL is 100% correct to describe the setup as a motte and bailey, and I think the EA movement is conducting themselves in such a way that we should not be giving any of them any benefit of doubt. There is little to no reason to conduct a philosophical analysis of the movement. It’s not a philosophical movement. It’s a moneyed scam dressed up in philosophical jargon, and we should put far more value on observing what they do than observing anything they say. As for the EA idea–independent of the movement–I don’t object to talking about it but I think we should in that event maintain a firewall to keep EA-The-Movement OUT of the discussion. And I might question what about it is important or controversial enough to merit discussion.


Kent 04.05.24 at 4:23 pm

Add me to the list of those who think Wenar’s article has been misunderstood and that Pettigrew’s piece completely misses the point. I read Wenar’s piece through the lens of this part:

<<“Say you had a million dollars,” I asked when they’d started eating. “Which charity would you give it to?” They looked at me.

“No, really,” I said, “which charity saves the most lives?”

“None of them,” said a young Australian woman to laughter. Out came story after story of the daily frustrations of their jobs. Corrupt local officials, clueless charity bosses, the daily grind of cajoling poor people to try something new without pissing them off. By the time we got to dessert, these good people, devoting their young lives to poverty relief, were talking about lying in bed forlorn some nights, hoping their projects were doing more good than harm.>>

HOPING their projects were doing more good than harm.

I took Wenar to be saying that the work of EA (and givewell) is completely misled and misleading and probably not a net positive to the world. But more than that, he’s challenging the idea that a morally good human being is one who donates to the “right” charity based on the sum of benefits and harms as calcualted from a safe armchair somewhere far away from the actual lives of the actual human beings.

As far as I can tell, Pettigrew ignores all of this and doesn’t really engage with what Wenar is saying.


Chris Armstrong 04.05.24 at 8:21 pm

Eric, you note that “Back in the day, in a famous article, Wenar himself noted that “citizens of affluent countries can abolish the disastrous “might makes right” rule by using their own institutions to enforce the basic principles of legal trade.”

But that piece, and the book Blood Oil, just seem to commit one of the key errors Wenar thinks EA is guilty of. There is a really extensive empirical literature on what often happens to the poor and marginalised when you stop your citizens trading with their country (ie the literature on economic sanctions). But Wenar simply refuses to engage with it. Since, when pushed, he suggests his argument is basically consequentialist, failing to engage with evidence about the likely (and likely very bad) consequences of his keystone reform for some of the worst off people in the world is really baffling. And it doesn’t sit comfortably alongside his criticisms of EA (which I have some sympathy with). I have a piece on this, if anyone is interested (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jopp.12206)


Eric Schliesser 04.05.24 at 9:10 pm

Yes, I actually agree, Chris, that on consequentialist grounds Wenar’s suggestion is not very helpful.


Matt 04.05.24 at 9:22 pm

I think you’re still missing the point, and engaging in an obviously unfair reading of a popular article, Eric. What Wernar says (at several points in the article, though not as clearly as he might) is that what’s needed is a political response, one that helps people develop institutions and solutions. In some cases individuals can help with that – when we support individuals in developing their own solutions. Aaron James, in the story, had an opportunity to do that, and did it. But nothing suggests that Wernar is saying everyone should or could do this – that’s just a projection, and an obvious mis-reading. I was very surprised to see Pettigrew suggest it (though less surprised after the other mis-readings of the argument) and surprised to see you endorse it.


Alex SL 04.05.24 at 10:32 pm


Yes indeed, and of course. But an important aspect of EA is the exact opposite: earn to give, which in practical terms means making a big profit by causing 1,000 units of unnecessary misery in the world through growing inequality and then donating some percentage of one’s profit to potentially ameliorate 50 units of misery. Potentially, but really not even that, because the donations have to pay for additional recruitment efforts, seminars presented by William MacAskill, and some other guys writing fantasising about how purely hypothetical simulated minds of the future have much greater EV than living contemporary humans.

That isn’t unique to EA, of course. Charity can be a beneficial stop-gap in the absence of any realistic ability of improving society for the better. But in the hands of the rich, charity is always an attempt to avoid social changes for the better.

“I am giving some of my money away, so I am really a good guy, right, no need to get out the pitchforks. (Please ignore the fact that my twenty billion dollars were in the first place expropriated from underpaid workers and from customers who overpaid because they are locked into a monopoly and from underpaid suppliers locked into a monopsy and also only possible thanks to public infrastructure and safety that you all funded with your taxes, which I am not paying either, by the way.)”


John Q 04.05.24 at 11:49 pm

My comment on Richard Pettigrew’s post was

“Wenar’s argument is reminiscent of the way advocates of continued reliance on coal, oil and gas suddenly start worrying about the environmental consequences of wind turbines and lithium mining.

I infer that Wenar (like several commenters above) doesn’t like EA for non-consequentialist reasons, but can’t articulate a broadly convincing argument along these lines. So, he throws a bunch of bad consequences against the wall, in the hope that something will stick.”

I was only responding to Richard, without having read Wenar, so I wasn’t aware of Wenar’s ad hominem introduction to the argument, which, I think, confirms my inference.


steven t johnson 04.06.24 at 12:17 am

Re private charity, EA or something else: If you are serious about getting it done, you get the government to do it. It won’t be pretty and the number of times loopholes are deliberately contrived so that the government isn’t even trying to do “it” is amazing. But the power of the government to get things done is why real armies are not private enterprises, why roads and streets aren’t tolls all the way and the large majority of societies where primary education is left to the family is low literacy.

And it’s why not wanting the government to provide services, you are against the majority of people. (If you are part of the minority that thinks “democracy” means rule by, for and of the majority, you can call this anti-democratic, though this may confuse the majority who think democracy is elections where “civil society” aka rich people are protected and have an effective veto.)


GG 04.06.24 at 12:40 am

Alex SL @ 4:

Are we talking about the concept of being efficient, e.g., giving money to a charity that benefits its cause directly with 90% of the money donated as opposed to to a charity that uses 90% of donations for spam letters soliciting more donations and for administrative bloat? If so, that is a banal idea that virtually nobody on the planet would disagree with or have disagreed with even a hundred years ago.

There’s more to it than just “Is the money being used for solicitation or actually going to charitable activities?”. AFAIK the innovation of EA (the philosophy, not the movement) as expressed by organizations such as GiveWell is the empirical characterization of social return. The reason they started by endorsing bednets (and still do) is that bednets are very effective in terms of QUALYs/$. Happy to see evidence to the contrary that people were evaluating charitable giving in such a fashion prior to the rise of GiveWell and friends.


engels 04.06.24 at 1:46 am

I haven’t read Pettigrew but Wenar’s piece is beyond patronising, and seems just as egomaniacal in its own way as the people he’s slamming.


J-D 04.06.24 at 2:43 am

Despite its title, Existential Comics sometimes features philosophers who are not existentialists, and William MacAskill has made one appearance. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are discussing how to maximise the utility to be derived from a birthday cake, and then William MacAskill enters with a–well, a different kind of answer:
(It’s also interesting to mouse over the comic and see the alt-text that appears.)


TF79 04.06.24 at 2:43 am

“So, he throws a bunch of bad consequences against the wall, in the hope that something will stick” – there was a whiff of a “well what if the child you saved grew up to be Hitler” dorm room, bong session vibe that I also found rather unconvincing.

While the lower case vs upper case distinction can sometimes be a bit No True Scotsman, in this case (ea vs EA) it is an absolutely critical distinction. When I first encountered the term ea, of course it made plenty of sense, but learning about EA was like entering a bizarro world (it reminded me of reading about religious cults, in particular).


Alex SL 04.06.24 at 8:15 am

GG @14,

I am aware that I was simplifying by casting it only in terms of choice between two charities, but the principle of what you are outlining is effectively the same. Again, this kind of consideration is logical and non-offensive, and if that is all EA was about, no problem. I don’t accept, however, that nobody has thought in those terms before the EA movement. At best EA have added mathematic decoration to an argument that would have intuitively made sense to any non-fraudulent charity in 1850.

But let’s say the mathematical decoration is a significant novelty. EA can run numbers and, for present purposes, prove beyond reasonable doubt that bed nets save more lives per dollar than, say, polio vaccines. (Furthermore, they insist that I should care exactly as much about a random person in Bangladesh who I will never meet as about my own daughter. This is nuts. Nobody who says argues that has the right to claim that communism can’t work because it is incompatible with human nature, but that just as an aside.) Let’s further say, I have a hundred million dollars to give. What am I to conclude? Presumably, that I should invest a hundred million dollars into bed nets but let people die of polio. Now I have, or somebody else has, another hundred million dollars. More nets, still nothing for polio? Another hundred million appear. More nets? Still no vaccines? And under no circumstances can we ever buy food for somebody how is undernourished until all deadly diseases are 100% eradicated?

I think you can see where this is going: being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

If the response to that is, don’t be silly, Alex SL, nobody in EA would argue that only the one best lives saved per dollar cause should get donations, look at how they fund both bed nets and AI ‘alignment’ nonsense, then the question arises again, what then is left of EA that Rando McAverage wouldn’t have done with his donations in 1929? Only a cult whose members who feel superior to everybody else because their pseudo-mathematics allowed them to reason themselves out of common sense.


engels 04.06.24 at 9:50 am

At best EA have added mathematic decoration to an argument that would have intuitively made sense to any non-fraudulent charity in 1850.

And yet the majority of people don’t think in anything close to an instrumentally rational way when they make donations to charities or otherwise try to help others, even (especially?) those who do very well at it when investing/acting for themselves.


Alex SL 04.06.24 at 1:10 pm


That is hardly the point. Most people aren’t very rational about voting decisions, but some political party today still can’t claim that they just invented party manifestos. People care more about issues that are close to them and that they feel they understand better, yes, but all else being equal, nobody would deliberately chose an inefficient approach over an efficient one, and charities have for decades advertised with the claim of being effective in their use of donations, achieving direct impact, etc.


Tm 04.06.24 at 1:14 pm

J-D: „Despite its title, Existential Comics sometimes features philosophers who are not existentialists“

Which, if you don’t mind the nitpick, is not a contradiction. Existentialists aren’t the only philosophers who think about existential questions.


bekabot 04.06.24 at 1:17 pm

Raddled Parent (to child): “But Johnny, you have to eat your dinner. There are little children in Gaza, children just like you, who are starving and who don’t have any dinner to eat. Your refusal to eat your dinner shows disrespect toward your own good fortune. It’s very unbecoming and it’s not a good look.”

Nosy Neighbor (to parent): “Actually, what’s happening in Gaza has nothing whatever to do with whether or not Johnny eats his dinner, Raddled Parent, which means you’re basically just saying that to yank him around.”

Still Nosier Onlooker From Another Tax Bracket (to everyone): “Ah! But there really and truly are children in Gaza, and they really and truly are starving. This invalidates your rebuttal, Nosy Neighbor, so I find you guilty of misprision and sentence you to a dunking in the Shallow Pond.”


Stephen 04.06.24 at 1:32 pm

Alex SL @18: [EA] “insist that I should care exactly as much about a random person in Bangladesh who I will never meet as about my own daughter. This is nuts. Nobody who says argues that has the right to claim that communism can’t work because it is incompatible with human nature, but that just as an aside.”

Sorry, but you’ve lost me there. I’m sure that inside the cloud of words in the last sentence there is an intelligent argument struggling to get out: please could you rephrase and amplify your comment?


bekabot 04.06.24 at 4:18 pm

“could you rephrase and amplify your comment”

“When it’s a matter of increasing their own financial or reputational capital, these people are as full of ways to separate me from what I want as any apparatchik would be; yet I notice that they object to and disapprove of bureaucrats and make a great parade of doing so. Maybe it’s because the flunkies and henchmen compete with them, but still the whole thing makes a bad impression on me and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Does that work?


Barry 04.06.24 at 9:50 pm

My opinion of ‘Effective Altruism’ is:

“It’s good for me to claw up several billion dollars, by any means necessary, because at an unspecified time in the unspecified far future, I will spend an unspecified amount in an unspecified manner on unspecified good things.

Trust me.”

And then people who are paid not to know better write than dowt and sell it.


Alex SL 04.07.24 at 1:23 am


Sorry, I realise I am not investing enough into my comments, as indicated by nearly every post I have recently made featuring an error in sentence construction.

What I was trying to refer to is the idea expressed by at least some in that movement (noting that they aren’t all completely homogeneous in their views*, and that those who express it may even potentially misunderstand Singer) that it is a moral imperative to care equally about every human. As an aside, note that even where somebody doesn’t argue that explicitly, it is an implicit requirement for the mathematical approach the futuristically-minded members take to neglect the suffering of hundreds of millions today in favour of the hypothetical existence of hundreds of trillions of simulated minds millions of years from now when humanity will have built Dyson-sphere powered metaverses populated by AIs across several galaxies in defiance of everything we know about physics and astronomy.

My response was that a philosophy that requires humans to care equally about every other human (and maybe even sufficiently intelligent animals) is unrealistic; it requires humans not to be human, because it is human nature to care about one’s family more than about somebody on the other side of the world, and to care about a fellow human more than about a sheep, and to care about somebody we see suffering today more than about somebody who is it is claimed will exist millions of years in the future.

I could have probably done without the analogy to those who claim that communism isn’t realistic because it is human nature to be selfish, but my side-note there was that incompatibility with human nature applies with orders of magnitude more force to being expected to care equally about everybody than it does to everybody having approximately the same wealth, partly because the latter arrangement is much less intimate and personal than the former expectation.

*) To slightly expand on this, the conversation isn’t helped by the fact that people who consider themselves effective altruists aren’t homogeneous, but that isn’t a new problem, cf. discussing Christianity or Libertarianism. The movement in its broader sense includes people inspired by Singer who want us to respect the suffering of mammals like that of humans but also transhumanists who think that humanity should go extinct within the century because much greater expected value will reside in the trillions of superior artificial minds that they believe will replace us.


Jonathan Goldberg 04.07.24 at 4:43 am

“Nobody who says argues that has the right to claim that communism can’t work because it is incompatible with human nature, but that just as an aside.””

sound odd because “says” and “argues” are, as a pair, redundant. I conjecture that the author started with one of them, switched to the other, and forgot to delete the first one.


engels 04.07.24 at 10:46 am

nobody would deliberately chose an inefficient approach over an efficient one

Wenar seems to be doing exactly this with his praise of the intercontinental surfing philosopher and part-time pro bono sewage engineer at the end of the article.ui


Fergus 04.08.24 at 3:03 am

(Updated comment with hopefully fixed html.) Wenar’s piece is very strange. When I was doing my masters I wrote a blog post that I think was called “the smugness of effective altruism”, which basically argued that EAs had a lot of good points and were improving the world, but should tone down how much they believe their own hype. I feel like that is really all Wenar is saying – “no hype, no heroes”, he says at the end – but without the clarity to say that he doesn’t have a big critique of the substance.

The oddest thing is that it just reads like there is some real animus there. For example, I was in a graduate seminar taught by Will MacAskill, and he has some very strange views – and some profoundly off the rails ones, like the long-termism stuff – but he is clearly not an ‘incompetent philosopher’. It’s kind of bizarre to pick a couple of imprecise sentences out of popular audience books, subject them to thought-experimenting and then conclude that the author can’t do philosophy. It’s also odd to read the repeated denigration of philosophy academics applying themselves to research about aid and development, as having no relevant experience, given that so closely mirrors Wenar’s own career history.

Apart from that, the main thing that I disliked about Wenar’s article is that it seems to imply total fatalism about evaluating whether things work or are good. There is definitely a lot of envelope-scribbling that happens on EA forums, and EA people are probably too impressed with their ability to do this kind of assessment on the fly without domain expertise. But Wenar is relentlessly negative about it in a way that doesn’t seem justifiable. For example:

Friends, here’s where those numbers come from. MacAskill cites one of Ord’s research assistants—a recent PhD with no obvious experience in climate, energy, or policy—who wrote a report on climate charities. The assistant chose the controversial “carbon capture and storage” technology as his top climate intervention and found that CATF had lobbied for it. The research assistant asked folks at CATF, some of their funders, and some unnamed sources how successful they thought CATF’s best lobbying campaigns had been. He combined these interviews with lots of “best guesses” and “back of the envelope” calculations, using a method he was “not completely confident” in, to come up with dollar figures for emissions reductions. That’s it.

Surprisingly if you just read that paragraph, the assessment it describes is a 174 page research report. It is trying to assess the track record of advocacy in climate change policy. About a decade ago the big criticism of EA was that it neglected the importance of things (like climate change policy) which are not susceptible to individual interventions but could make a huge difference with appropriate political advocacy. Well, here is an effort to assess that, which is very difficult and imprecise, and it is forthright about the limitations of that task. By contrast, the paragraph describes carbon capture as controversial with a link that is just an NYT opinion piece claiming that every dollar spent on carbon capture is a waste, without qualification or nuance. Similarly, it is easy to read all Wenar’s gripes about GiveWell changing its evaluations much more charitably – as evidence that they are taking seriously and honestly a task which is just very difficult.

What is supposed to be the alternative here? Not even on the first-order question of “how should people in the rich world do philanthropy?” – where I pretty much agree with everything Pettigrew says about Wenar having no meaningful alternative. But what is the alternative suggestion for how to decide what to do? The ‘dearest test’ and ‘mirror test’ in Wenar’s article give absolutely no guidance on how to decide what causes are important, or what organisations to support.

Clearly EAs are sometimes overconfident in their evaluations, and all the AI stuff strikes me as mad, but I don’t think that warrants the degree of going nuclear on all the core ideas of effective altruism that Wenar has gone for.

As an aside, I couldn’t stand the Justin Smith-Ruiu article – over-written and kind of sneering, and I couldn’t detect any serious argument in it.


notGoodenough 04.08.24 at 8:49 am

(I haven’t had the opportunity to read the thread carefully or to compose my thoughts clearly, so apologies in advance for the muddle).

Alex SL makes some very good points (particularly regarding the “return on misery” regarding the generation and subsequent distribution of wealth).

To be very simplistic, it seems that even at its best a lot of “Effective Altruism” is predicated on the basis of “how should wealthy philanthropists best distribute their resources”, and my objection is not to the “best distribute resources” bit but rather the existence of the “wealthy” to start with.

If we must live in a world where the wellbeing of people is to be determined by whether a billionaire donates to mosquito netting or cancer research (for example), then yes I would prefer that the donation is made in the most effective way possible based on a rational assessment of all available data. But, ultimately, private philanthropy seems to me to be an incredibly poor substitute for simply having a functioning global society in the first place.

(I will emphasise that I don’t wish to criticise people for trying to make the best of a situation – perfection is the enemy of good and all that – but from what I’ve seen of EA, there is very little time given to the notion that the best way to redress the ills caused by global inequality would be to, you know, eliminate the system that leads to global inequality…)


SusanC 04.08.24 at 4:29 pm

And also, there’s this debate with Robin Hanson, where, among other things, we calls out the cult aspect of the Yudkowsky-style rationalist scene.


Stephen 04.08.24 at 4:59 pm

Alex SL @26

Thank you for a very lucid amplification of your previous over-condensed post. I would agree with you, with the caveat that human nature has previously been thought to require, or at least be compatible with, slavery and the subjection of women. Obviously, the existence of cultures that reject these would count as evidence against that view of human nature. Equally obviously, some people will argue that slavery and oppressive patriarchy are still rampant, slightly disguised.

I’m not sure where this argument will lead to. Still, the attempt to create New Soviet Man, free of the inheritance of capitalist oppression, didn’t work out well.


Stephen 04.08.24 at 8:03 pm

notGoodenough@30: “the best way to redress the ills caused by global inequality would be to, you know, eliminate the system that leads to global inequality”.

Sounds fine. But what is the system that leads to global inequality? It seems to me that there has been a good deal of it for rather a long time. See Tacitus, Germania, on the Fenni (probably Finns):

“The Fenni are strangely beast-like and squalidly poor; neither arms nor homes have they; their food is herbs, their clothing skins, their bed the earth. They trust wholly to their arrows, which, for want of iron, are pointed with bone. The men and the women are alike supplied by the chase; for the latter are always present, and demand a share of the prey. The little children have no shelter from wild beasts and storms but a covering of interlaced boughs. Such are the homes of the young, such the resting place of the old.”

Admittedly, that’s only what a Roman thought, or at least wrote, about people he had never met. And he went on to declare that they were happy in their poverty, wanting nothing more than what they already had. But I doubt that is true of the modern global South.


Tm 04.09.24 at 7:29 am

I would be careful describing them as poor. They probably were no worse off (in material terms) than the vast majority of the imperial subjects, maybe better.


SusanC 04.09.24 at 9:40 am

I suppose one possible argument is that the EAs, being mostly high functioning autistic and poor at understanding human motives, have fundamentally misunderstood charity.

Like, sure, if anyone actually wanted an efficient charity you probably could do that.

But what if charity is basically fraud all the way down? Like rich guys trying to launder their bad reputations, and caring very much about the boost to their own status and very very little about the people the charity is ostensibly supposed to be helping.


Richard Melvin 04.10.24 at 11:29 am

Whatever the multiple causes of its development are I am fairly confident charitable giving by outsiders is not to be listed among the most significant.

That confidence seems entirely misplaced, given that Christianity is the most common religion in South Korea (marginally ahead of Buddhism, albeit well below ‘don’t know’). And that situation would not be the case had outsiders not considered achieving exactly that goal their priority when making charitable donations.

Note I am by no means claiming that missionary work was a primary cause of anything, merely that failing to even consider it looks like an obvious omission.



John Q 04.10.24 at 6:51 pm

The piece by Justin Smith-Ruiu is well written, as you say, but when I got to the end of it I had no idea what he was actually saying, beyond what was obvious from the headline.


rogergathmann 04.10.24 at 9:26 pm

“Pettigrew reconstructs Wenar’s argument as having two parts: one is about the negative externalities of our actions; and second is about the uncertainty of the effect of our actions.” This seems a grossly reductive and seriously missing the point of Wenar’s argument. The second point is the entering wedge for making a critique much like James Scott’s of centralized projects: top down “charity” misses entirely the tacit knowlege and quotidien living patterns of the “helped”. The class division of ea is written in the very assumptons about who is the helper and who is the helped – the “helpers” being the makers of the big bucks, which, as Wenar points out, is also a community activity which entails cultural committments and ways of creating self-identity that are the antithesis of successful development programs. There’s somethingt provincial, typical of philosophers making judgments about practices, that is totally missed in this summary. It isn’t surprising – it comes from the same weird, rightwing culture within which most Oxbriege philosopjy seems to be done.


SusanC 04.10.24 at 10:49 pm

“But are they into weird sex stuff? Like, every apocalyptic religious cult is into weird sex stuff. I refuse to believe they’re a cult unless there’s some weird sex going on.”

“Let me tell you about Aella’s Birthday Gangbang,”


notGoodenough 04.11.24 at 12:33 pm

Sounds fine. But what is the system that leads to global inequality?

I’m not entirely sure how to answer this, because I’m not entirely sure I understand what it is you are asking.

If you would agree that, generally speaking, people in the world are operating within a system (i.e. there are people working together as part of interconnected mechanisms to form a more complex whole), and you think there is global inequality (i.e. unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, and power which impacts their well-being), then it would seem that you have identified the system which needs to be dealt with – so I’m not entirely sure why this is a point of confusion?

Perhaps what you are asking is more along the lines of “what is the root cause of all inequality – the one thing we need to abolish so that there will never be inequality again – and how can we eliminate it, ideally without negative consequences”? That would be rather a different point of focus (and perhaps a little off-topic), but if that were the question (and again, I don’t know if it was), I could probably provide one of two responses – either an incredibly reductive short one (as this is a rather quick blog comment by a layperson as opposed to a thesis outlining the culmination of the life’s work of an expert), or I could point you towards relevant sources that I think I would broadly agree with (written by far more people far better suited to such a task, with the knowledge, time, and inclination to compose more nuanced and well-considered responses than I would be able to).

Perhaps you are asking something else which might not be reasonable characterised by either of those possibilities – in which case you certainly have my apologies for the misunderstanding. If you drop a comment, and if I read it, then I will endeavour to give it such consideration as circumstances permit.

It seems to me that there has been a good deal of it for rather a long time.

This may be true (or may not: I certainly wouldn’t wish to express an opinion for fear of accidentally straying into presentism – an act which, I have been given to understand, would then prevent me from criticising the current status quo), but I fear the relevance escapes me. However, it is enjoyable to read excerpts of (translations of) past writings, so thank you for its inclusion.


Alex SL 04.11.24 at 10:58 pm

I am also unsure if I understand the relevant responses correctly, but:

First, even if it may be a matter of debate how best to address structural issues that cause ever-growing inequality*, it is nonetheless easy to say that trying to address the structural issues is a better approach than leaving the inequality in place but being charitable. When an apartment is flooded, we repair the burst pipe instead of only asking nicely if somebody could remove a cupful of water today and maybe another cupful tomorrow while the pipe still spews water all over the place.

Second, people 2,000 years ago having fewer material goods than other people 2,000 years ago who barely knew the former people even existed has no relevance whatsoever to the unequal distribution of material goods in a heavily inter-dependent, globalised economy or to the unequal distribution of material goods inside a single nation.

*) In reality, and although the details are complex enough for several academic disciplines to work away on, the main factors are pretty obvious and easy to understand. Inequality grows naturally because the more money you have, the easier it is to make more money, and the more insulated you are against the consequences of disasters and your own mistakes.

(To cite a popular analogy, entrepreneurship is like a game where the poor get no shots, the middle class get one shot each, and the rich get tens of shots each. Sometimes somebody with a middle class background hits bullseye with their one shot, and we pat ourselves on the back for how meritocratic our system is. Whenever a rich kid hits bullseye with their fifth shot, they get lauded as an investment genius. And the poor who never got a shot must be bad at money, otherwise they would also have become rich, right?)

The solution to growing inequality isn’t a mystery either: strongly regulated mixed economy, strict enforcement of anti-trust laws, generous welfare state and free public education, at least 70% top marginal tax rate, and a hefty inheritance tax. This stuff isn’t rocket surgery; it worked demonstrably in the 1940s-1970s. But an army of think tanks and journalists is paid to say it didn’t work and that raising the top marginal tax rate to 40% or raising minimum wage would utterly destroy the economy.


roger gathmann 04.12.24 at 10:03 am

41 – I can’t think of anthing that is more exactly exactly exactly than your comment. The 1940s – 1970s were the golden era of wages for third word workers. And then came the Washington Consensus, that junked all that “awful” state led development and substituted credit from various giant banks and financial institutions. If we look at the “shots” of the wealthy for very long, we will see, in this substitution of the credit economy for welfare economics, something Marx thought was long gone: a second worldwide mercantile system of exploitation! And it would not be too difficult to trace the way that money wanders into the pockets of the leading EA backers, like the egregious Dustin Moskovitz. aka Asana Inc. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1477720/000120919120054781/xslF345X03/doc4.xml. He is most efficient in finding ways to hide his money from the tax man, that must be said for him. Meanwhile Asana brags about things like its work graph – designed to exploit your workers even more! Effective altruism would be most effective if it poured its hundreds of millions in tax free funding into, say, unionizing workforces worldwide and across national boundaries – imagine the effective altruistic effect of coordinate stikes in China, the United States and the EU!


engels 04.17.24 at 9:11 pm

“Let me tell you about Aella’s Birthday Gangbang,”

I googled this and now I wish I hadn’t.

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