The Misrepresentation of Effective Altruism

To any of my subscribers, this will be the last article I write on Effective Altruism (EA) for a while, but I felt compelled to write another one in light of recent events. A few months ago, I wrote a defence of EA, mainly aimed at Kathleen Stock’s article on the UnHerd website. Since then, there have been many more critical articles aimed at the EA movement, mainly in the wake of the scandal involving FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried. All of the articles I have read, and there are quite a few at the moment, make the same errors. They conflate Longtermism with EA and misrepresent what the movement is about.

Simply put, EA aims to use reason and evidence to do the most good. That is the goal, and if EA goes wrong at any point, using that goal as a guiding star, it will course correct and try to be even more effective. That, to my mind, is what we should be doing with charity – trying to do the most good we can. And it is demonstrably provable that some charities are far, far more effective than others. Sadly, we live in a world with a vast amount of easily preventable suffering, despite the recent progress we have made. There are causes such as malaria and diarrhoea that kill vast numbers of people daily. And we can stop this. They often don't have champions for their causes, they don’t have people constantly raising money for them on social media, and they don't even occupy a space in most of our thoughts. Yet real mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters are robbed of children daily from these easily preventable diseases.

We're not talking about abstract philosophical concepts. We are talking about real people and actual malicious, preventable deaths. This is what EA’s largest fund, the Global Health and Development Fund, is committed to alleviating. Crucially donors, through EA Funds, choose what area to give their money to. Contrary to what many critics would have you believe, donors in vast numbers prioritise the needless suffering of those today.

This isn’t to say that the movement is beyond criticism at all. It welcomes it and even pays people to be critical. But the criticism needs to do better at distinguishing whether it is critiquing the whole of the EA movement or a specific area within it. The vast majority of the objections are in the wake of the FTX scandal and focus on two areas. The first is that they all conflate EA with Longtermism – I have dealt with that in my previous article. And second, they take aim at EA’s association with Sam Bankman-Fried. He was a prominent figure associated with the movement and has recently been involved in a fraudulent cryptocurrency scheme. Like countless other prominent politicians and public figures, the EA movement was duped by Bankman-Fried and certainly has some things to learn here, and I am confident it will.

But this does not discredit the foundational beliefs and practices of EA. With the scandal upon scandal that the current UK Government has embroiled itself in over the past 18 months, is the solution to scrap democracy and the government completely? No – it is to have better politicians and a better government. When Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos made fraudulent claims about new blood-testing technology, should we have abandoned science due to its association with the scandal? No. The solution is to be more rigorous and do science better. Likewise, should we now abandon EA’s aim to use reason and evidence to do the most good because of the movement’s association with Sam Bankman-Fried? No, the solution is to learn and continue to try and use reason and evidence to do the most good.

There is also a disproportionate focus on the billionaires involved in the movement rather than on the thousands of ordinary people who have taken the pledge to do good in the world. I have met and spoken to these people. Contrary to the image these articles portray, all those I have talked to at the meet-ups are ordinary people with regular everyday jobs who want to do good. We don’t own huge tech conglomerates, and we don’t have billions in the bank. We are just motivated to do the most good with our giving and to use our considerable privileges, if we are in the wealthiest 5% in the world, to give a significant portion of that to those who aren’t as fortunate.  

Disappointingly, many critics are philosophers, with several articles appearing to make obvious errors and poor arguments. I can’t help but feel people are gleefully waiting to pile into EA and discredit it. There certainly seems to be an impossibly high bar for EA, which aims to use the tools of rationality to do the most good, than say for most charities which can be incredibly wasteful but have glossy marketing campaigns, making givers feel warm and fuzzy inside. According to a recent report, charity fraud losses are up 44% in 2022, and recent scandals around the mismanagement of the Captain Tom Foundation, for example, seem to get comparatively little coverage. Comic Relief, one of the most well-known charity telethons, used to invest large sums of its money in arms, tobacco and alcohol, contrary to its core aims, and this had no impact on its public perception (they have since cancelled this). There is no doubt that we need to do charity better, so why do we spend so much time discrediting a movement that does just that? Why must we make the perfect the enemy of the good?  

I write these responses for that reason – because I feel that this is a critical movement. I believe it will make a massive difference to so many people and has the potential to create a much fairer, kinder and better world. But there is a real danger that these lazy misrepresentations will have a tangible effect on the EA movement and, therefore, a real impact on those who would benefit from it. Every ten pounds that might have gone to a malaria net to save a child in sub-Saharan Africa may now go to a poorly managed or scandal-ridden charity. That is not something I want to happen. I hope you don’t either. It is true that the EA movement has some learning to do, but that is a core part of what it does, and I am confident it will be far better for it.

Newsletter: I will be writing an article every few months. If you are interested and would like to subscribe to my newsletter, you can here.