Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22 (1):93-120 (2019)

Timothy Syme
IE University
Effective Altruism encourages affluent people to make significant donations to improve the wellbeing of the world’s poor, using quantified and observational methods to identify the most efficient charities. Critics argue that EA is inattentive to the systemic causes of poverty and underestimates the effectiveness of individual contributions to systemic change. EA claims to be open to systemic change but suggests that systemic critiques, such as the socialist critique of capitalism, are unhelpfully vague and serve primarily as hypocritical rationalizations of continued affluence. I reformulate the systemic change objection, rebut the charges of vagueness and bad faith and argue that charity may not be worth doing at all from a purely altruistic perspective. In order to take systemic change seriously, EA must repudiate its narrowly empiricist approach, embrace holistic, interpretive social analysis and make inevitably controversial judgments about the complex dynamics of collective action. These kinds of evidence and judgment cannot be empirically verified but are essential to taking systemic change seriously. EA is thereby forced to sacrifice its a-political approach to altruism. I also highlight the importance of quotidian, extra-political contributions to perpetuating or changing harmful social practices. Radical efforts to resist, subvert and reconstruct harmful social practices, such as those involved in economic decision-making, could be just as effective and demanding as charity. But such efforts may be incompatible with extensive philanthropy, because they can require people to retain some level of affluence for strategic reasons but to repudiate both the acquisition of significant wealth and charity as is currently organized. The wealth and status of some critics of charity may indeed be incompatible with effectively contributing to social change, but the altruistic merits of charity are neither as obvious nor as easily demonstrated as EA believes.
Keywords Charity  Revolution  Socialism  Affluence  Direct action  Singer  Effective Altruism
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1007/s10677-019-09979-5
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 71,464
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

Famine, Affluence, and Morality.Peter Singer - 1972 - Oxford University Press USA.
What is a (Social) Structural Explanation?Sally Haslanger - 2016 - Philosophical Studies 173 (1):113-130.
Do I Make a Difference?Shelly Kagan - 2011 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 39 (2):105-141.
Whether and Where to Give.Theron Pummer - 2016 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 44 (1):77-95.

View all 21 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Effective Altruism and its Critics.Iason Gabriel - 2016 - Journal of Applied Philosophy 33 (3).
Effective Altruism and its Critics.Iason Gabriel - 2017 - Journal of Applied Philosophy 34 (4):457-473.
The Economics of Morality.Dillon Bowen - 2016 - Journal of Practical Ethics 4 (1).
Charity Law and the Liberal State.Matthew Harding - 2014 - Cambridge University Press.


Added to PP index

Total views
87 ( #135,569 of 2,520,426 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
7 ( #100,785 of 2,520,426 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes