Effective Altruism’s Underspecification Problem

In Hilary Greaves & Theron Pummer (eds.), Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 166-183 (2019)
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Effective altruists either believe they ought to be, or strive to be, doing the most good they can. Since they’re human, however, effective altruists are invariably fallible. In numerous situations, even the most committed EAs would fail to live up to the ideal they set for themselves. This fact raises a central question about how to understand effective altruism. How should one’s future prospective failures at doing the most good possible affect the current choices one makes as an effective altruist? This question is important to answer not only because every effective altruist will face this question due to typical human akrasia, but also because how the question is answered will determine just how demanding effective altruism can be. I argue that no matter how effective altruists answer this question, they will have to take on some commitments seemingly antithetical to their movement. More precisely, I argue that effective altruism is subject to a dilemma. Effective altruists’, at times, implicit actualist assumptions (i) commit them to conclusions seemingly antithetical to what typical effective altruists actually believe, as well as the spirit of the movement and (ii) undermine effective altruists’ arguments against moral offsetting and giving to charities close to the heart. Yet, effective altruists’, at times, implicit possibilist assumptions (iii) also commit them to conclusions seemingly antithetical to what typical effective altruists actually believe, as well as the spirit of the movement and (iv) undermine typical responses to demandingness worries for the normative conception of effective altruism. I argue that the best way out of the dilemma is to accept hybridism, though even hybridism won’t preserve every commitment of effective altruism.



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Travis Timmerman
Seton Hall University

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