Effective altruism: an elucidation and a defence

Stefan Schubert

March 22, 2017

By John Halstead,1 Stefan Schubert,2 Joseph Millum,3 Mark Engelbert,4 Hayden Wilkinson,5 and James Snowden6 


In this paper, we discuss Iason Gabriel’s recent piece on criticisms of effective altruism. Many of the criticisms rest on the notion that effective altruism can roughly be equated with utilitarianism applied to global poverty and health interventions which are supported by randomised control trials and disability-adjusted life year estimates. We reject this characterisation and argue that effective altruism is much broader from the point of view of ethics, cause areas, and methodology. We then enter into a detailed discussion of the specific criticisms Gabriel discusses. Our argumentation mirrors Gabriel’s, dealing with the objections that the effective altruist community neglects considerations of justice, uses a flawed methodology, and is less effective than its proponents suggest. Several of the criticisms do not succeed, but we also concede that others involve issues which require significant further study. Our conclusion is thus twofold: the critique is weaker than suggested, but it is useful insofar as it initiates a philosophical discussion about effective altruism and highlights the importance of more research on how to do the most good.

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  1.  Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
  2.  Centre for Effective Altruism.
  3.  National Institutes of Health.
  4.  University of Maryland.
  5.  Australian National University.
  6.  GiveWell.
  7.  We are especially to grateful to Per-Erik Milam for his contribution to an earlier draft of this paper. For very helpful contributions and comments, we would like to thank Brian McElwee, Theron Pummer, Hauke Hillebrandt, Richard Yetter Chappell, William MacAskill, Pablo Stafforini, Owen Cotton-Barratt, Michael Page, and Nick Beckstead. We would also like to thank Rebecca Raible of GiveWell for her helpful responses to our queries. Finally, we are very grateful to Iason Gabriel for comments, criticisms and suggestions. The views expressed here are only those of the authors, and any mistakes are our own.