Thursday, 14 November 2013

Singer's Argument for Effective Altruism

In Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Peter Singer laid out the argument for the conclusion that [what is essentially] effective altruism is morally obligated, rather than supererogatory. Although not a formal argument, I’ll refer to Singer’s two points as “premises.” It’s easy enough to infer how to formalize his premises into a compelling argument whose conclusion follows deductively from the premises.
  1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
  2. If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
  3. By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
  4. Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.
The first premise is dependent on our definition of “bad.” A lot of people would take issue with Singer’s belief in an objective definition of the term “bad,” but few that believe in an objective definition of "bad" exclude “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care” from their definition.

We must be careful not to confuse the difference between “morally bad” and “non-morally bad,” however. It’s possible to believe that suffering and death are bad for some non-moral reason, while simultaneously believing that that reason has nothing to do with moral standards. For instance, one could hold that “X is non-morally bad if it is not desirable,” while simultaneously believing that desirability is irrelevant to debates about moral goodness. (Perhaps this person is a deontologist.)

So Singer’s first premise is uncontroversial but not unassailable.

I suspect that Singer’s second premise leaves a lot of people struggling with cognitive dissonance. On one hand, it seems intuitively right that a nice person should help out a suffering person if she doesn’t have to go too far out of her way to do it. On the other hand, Singer asks us to do more than we’re immediately comfortable doing and that makes us feel guilty for not complying.

I think the trouble with this premise is that asks us to make a cost-benefit analysis - a utilitarian sort of decision. But our brains have competing moral subsystems and utilitarian intuitions do not reign supreme. Innate deontological intuitions suggest that we have a "right" to spend our own money however we like to, and that we do not have a "duty" toward those who suffer by no fault of our own.

The easiest argument to make against this premise is that it depends on a certain kind of ethical framework. According to many ethical theories, we have no obligation to go out of our way to help out other people. In common sense Western morality, the prevailing idea is that people earn the right to do whatever they like with their money. It might be great to give away your money to others, but nobody can tell you it’s morally required to do so because you had to work for it.

Even among consequentialists, this premise might be rejected. If we take ethics as a practical system rather than as an a priori logical system, then the ethical principles we set should be ones that we’re capable of complying with. There’s not much point in an ethical code if people aren’t capable of following it.

But does effective altruism demand too much of us? Clearly, some people are capable of donating substantial portions of their income on a yearly basis. But that doesn’t tell us whether it’s reasonable to expect everybody to be so generous. Even if it were doable, why should it be mandatory? This forces us to examine what it even means for something to be "morally obligatory." The term is often thrown around but, if we take a non-realist stance about moral truths, then nothing out there in the world actually changes when something crosses the line from "non-obligatory" to "obligatory."

My personal stance is that the maximization of utility is morally obligated – but in a very weak sense. Nothing happens when you don’t spend your money optimally. You don’t automatically enter the stable category of “bad people.” All that happens when you don’t maximize utility is that you didn’t maximize utility. I see no reason to draw a line between “good things people need to do” and “great things people need not do.” All acts fall on a continuum of utility. Ethics shouldn't be seen as a rubric for grading people’s performances. Rather, it should be a rubric for narrowing decision-making space. If utilitarianism is accepted, we should all try to do as much good as we can. But if we fail to, well, there will be less utilons in the world. The degree to which less utilons in the world bothers you just - is what it is.

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