Dissertation, Oxford University (2019)
Suppose you want to do as much good as possible. What should you do? According
to members of the effective altruism movement—which has produced much of the
thinking on this issue and counts several moral philosophers as its key
protagonists—we should prioritise among the world’s problems by assessing their
scale, solvability, and neglectedness. Once we’ve done this, the three top priorities,
not necessarily in this order, are (1) aiding the world’s poorest people by providing
life-saving medical treatments or alleviating poverty itself, (2) preventing global
catastrophic risks, such as those posed by nuclear war or rogue artificial intelligence,
and (3) ending factory farming.
These claims are both plausible and striking. If correct, they should prompt a stark
revision of how we approach our altruistic activities. However, the project of
determining how to do the most good—as opposed to say, whether we should do the
most good—has only recently, within the last ten years, become the subject of
serious academic attention. Many key claims have not yet been carefully scrutinised.
This is a cause for concern: are effective altruists doing good badly?
In this thesis, I critique and develop some of the latest claims about how individuals
can do the most good. I do this in three areas: the value of saving lives (preventing
premature deaths), how best to improve lives (making people happier during their
lives), and cause prioritisation methodology (frameworks for determining which
problems are the highest priorities). In each case, I raise novel theoretical
considerations that, when incorporated, change the analysis.
Roughly speaking, my main conclusions are (1) saving lives is not as
straightforwardly good we tend to suppose, may not be good at all, and is not clearly
a priority; (2) happiness can be measured through self-reports and, based on the
self-reported evidence, treating mental health stands out as an overlooked problem
that may be an even more cost-effective way to improve lives than alleviating
poverty; (3) the cause prioritisation methodology proposed by effective altruists
needs to be moderately reconceptualised and, when it is, it turns out it is not as
illuminating a tool as we might have thought and hoped.