Effective Altruism and Extreme Poverty

Dissertation, University of Warwick (2020)
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Effective altruism is a movement which aims to maximise good. Effective altruists are concerned with extreme poverty and many of them think that individuals have an obligation to donate to effective charities to alleviate extreme poverty. Their reasoning, which I will scrutinise, is as follows: Premise 1. Extreme poverty is very bad. Premise 2. If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. Premise 3. Individuals ought to choose the effective option in preventing very bad things. Premise 4. Donating to effective charities is one of the best ways to alleviate extreme poverty. Conclusion. Individuals ought to donate to effective charities working towards extreme poverty alleviation where doing so does not require them to give up anything of moral significance. I will scrutinise each of these premises in turn. For Premise 1, I focus on hedonistic utilitarianism and criticise its outlook on extreme poverty. I claim that hedonistic utilitarianism might be problematic for effective altruism. Premise 2 is Peter Singer's Weaker Principle of Sacrifice. I introduce several possible interpretations of it, and press several objections to it by stressing overpermissiveness, luck, and rights. I defend strengthening the Weaker Principle of Sacrifice without making it overdemanding. I claim that Premise 3 can be attractive to both consequentialists and non-consequentialists. Nevertheless, by showing that effectiveness sometimes violates fairness, I propose a method which avoids always helping the greater number and always giving everyone equal chances of being helped, which is compatible with effective altruism. Against Premise 4, I assess the systemic change objection, which states that effective altruism unjustifiably distracts individuals from systemic change. By considering risk and the moral standing of the future extremely poor, I claim that the systemic change objection is partially successful, but cannot undermine effective altruism. After analysing all of these, I argue that individuals have an obligation to donate to effective charities to alleviate extreme poverty where doing so does not require them to give up anything of moral significance.

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Fırat Akova
University of Warwick (PhD)

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