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Effective Altruism Isn't the Answer to Everything

Effective Altruism is best when confined to certain contexts. Beyond that, practitioners of Effective Altruism should never neglect other tools at their disposal in effecting change.

Effective altruism, or EA, is a fairly recent social and philosophical movement working to revolutionize our relationship with each other and, in particular, with the less fortunate. Its core principle is efficaciously simple: one should seek to do good in the most effective way possible. This translates into an approach that employs rigorous social research and reason to guide effective altruists in their quest to do good, better. However, to best practice EA, one should be careful not to mistake it for the panacea. Indeed, for EA to be truly effective, effective altruists should forever be aware of its limits: among them, the pitfalls of quantification and its tenuous rapport with systemic change.
The first shortcoming of effective altruism lies in its reliance on quantification. The EA method consists of studying the outcomes of different interventions to determine the most effective ones and subsequently channel resources toward them. There are two problems with this: first, this creates a bias toward quantifiable causes which excludes the goods that are nigh on, if not outright, unmeasurable — empowerment or democracy for instance. Second, such a method leaves us unprepared to evaluate trade-offs between different goods. The distinction between good and bad is often easy enough to see, but can EA’s methods help us choose between two different goods? Indeed, due to the nonlinear relationships between economic, social and natural factors, reality in its infinite complexity will often present us with thorny dilemmas that transcend quantitative reasoning.
Full effects of some interventions will not be truly understood and realized for years or decades to come, and no quasi-scientific method will be capable of capturing and quantifying the full picture. There are plenty of examples which show that separated attempts aimed at the betterment of the world may initially reap little fruit, but their long-term, combined efforts lead to much needed change. The civil rights movement in the U.S. is one such example. We need to be careful not to dismiss individuals or organizations advocating for the right cause just because of the apparent ineffectiveness of their efforts. Otherwise, we would run the risk of missing out on opportunities to drastically propel our society forward.
The second, and perhaps most glaring blind spot of EA, is that it falls prey to the defects of all movements that purport to work within the system. Mounting inequality, the climate crisis and the many other global challenges we face do not stem from a lack of resources or ineffective transfer of goods and capital from the rich to the poor, but because of structural arrangements that maintain and accentuate class division around the world. With its focus on the accumulation of wealth and self-interest, our capitalist global economic system is at the root of the obstacles preventing vulnerable communities from achieving a higher quality of life.
Such a blind spot is most apparent and concerning in the case of environment-oriented effective altruism. At this stage of biodiversity destruction and global heating, it is clear that no matter how much charity will go into planting trees, saving the Amazon forest or building solar panels in developing countries, we will not prevent the climate breakdown without restructuring and reorienting the incentives of the current economic system so that planetary boundaries become integral components. We need significant systemic change if we are to address the existential risk facing our planet.
As youth and as potential change makers, we must be careful not to forget about the political, social and scientific tools at our disposal. Activism, advocacy and political organizing can help us bring to light the structures that perpetuate inequality, like racism, colorism, sexism, neocolonialism and dozens of other forms of discrimination, exploitation and disregard for the ecological limits of our planet. None of these structures will be overcome through donations. Many of the efforts challenging these structures will not yield results for years until a tipping point is reached. And yet, the ultimate good assuredly lies in the realization of these efforts, allowing millions of people to achieve their full potential. For this, there is no other way but to engage politically, socially and culturally.
EA is at its best when confined to certain contexts. Applied to the context of charity for instance EA can do wonders in making sure donations are channeled into the right projects and that scarce funds are managed in the most efficient way. Beyond that, however, practitioners of EA should never neglect the other tools at their disposal in effecting change lest they fall prey to Maslow’s law of the instrument: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Beniamin Strzelecki and Karim Mohamed Boudlal are columnists. Email them at
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