Can Effective Altruism Reduce Suffering?

abortion, charities, effective altruism, malaria, philosophy, environment

Effective altruism teaches us how we can viably handle the world’s most challenging problems by making maximal usage of our skills and resources.

At its core, effective altruism is a method employed to optimise the effects of charitable giving. Key to the method is the use of rational and empirical information utilised during said optimisation, in order to increase the impact of finite resources (e.g. money and time) deployed. Traditionally, this has meant increasing the reach of these resources in order to benefit the maximum number of people possible.

It sounds simple enough, but it can become quite complicated due to the number of potential variables at play in addition to applying some level of quantitative analysis and comparison. To give an example, in his 2013 TED talk Prof. Peter Singer says:

It costs about 40,000 dollars to train a guide dog and train the recipient so that the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person. It costs somewhere between 20 and 50 dollars to cure a blind person in a developing country if they have trachoma.

There are some minor arguments over the exact details, such as the costs (see the Giving Well forum here), but you should get the point being made: for the same price it costs to train a guide dog to help a single blind person, you could help many more blind people suffering from trachoma. This also has the additional benefit of catalysing upward social mobility for a greater number of people because, if they can see again, they can do work for which sight is obligatory. Of course, this means we must force ourselves to recognise our emotional drives and actively try to counter them in order to make altruistic decisions based on logic and reason rather than pure emotion.

It is easy to see an advertisement for guide dogs and be taken aback by both how adorable the animals are and actually seeing them around you in day to day life. It is less easy, however, to make a connection with the many more people who would be helped in a developing nation since you are not actively seeing them, and thus getting less neural feedback. It is therefore not surprising that we are not affected by millions of people who face starvation and famine in developing countries.

Now, of course, I am not saying ‘Let us all stop funding guide dog charities’. I am merely highlighting an example of the logical reasoning behind an effective altruistic approach. The purpose here is to enhance our reasoning in order to maximise the impact of a finite resource.

One can also utilise effective altruism for career guidance. In fact, this is what I have done in my life. When I started university, it was with an eye to become a physician, but during my studies of infectious diseases I realised I could theoretically help more people if I could develop a vaccine or drug against certain diseases (such as malaria, still one of the greatest scourges of humanity).

abortion, charities, effective altruism, environment, malaria, philosophy
Peter Singer speaking at the TED Conference 2013. Source:

Now, whilst this is true, as I explored the medical research path I eventually realised I do not have quite the levels of skills compared to other scientists to carry out this goal. Additionally, given the fierce competition for postdoctoral research positions and tenure (where, according to the Royal Society, only 0.5% of doctoral graduates will ever have a permanent university position), I realised I would be essentially taking up space that could go to someone better than I was.

Furthermore, I also had developed a very novel set of skills that most scientific researchers lack (in finance, investment, venture capital, intellectual property analysis, and business development). I realised I could hedge having an advanced STEM education coupled with business training to go into a role that would allow me to do more good (e.g. help develop new scientific innovations via funding and having a larger disposable income for increased charitable giving).

Now obviously, if I had greener fingers in the lab, it would have made sense for me to continue a research career. What this highlights is that we have to be able to identify our unique skills, where they are best suited, and also be honest with ourselves about our weaknesses. A simple weakness in a relatively non-competitive field might be fine to deal with, but in a highly competitive area, you may want to think if you are in a position to really do the most good possible.

In saying this, it is of course very important to take into account what makes us happy. Remember: a happy worker is a good worker. I found myself very unhappy in an academic research environment, but immensely happy in a commercial environment.

Long-term solutions

Another important factor central to effective altruism is looking for solutions to long-term problems. For example, through your efforts as a wealthy individual in the USA, you might have been able to contribute several billion dollars to the coal industry to keep it afloat and keep those workers in jobs for the near future. But coal is a dying industry and will eventually be replaced by renewable energy alternatives.

Therefore, it is arguable that your billions of dollars would have been better spent in the renewable sector which will benefit more people by right of both providing cheaper power, and fewer deaths due to coal emissions (there are over 7 million premature deaths per year based on the World Health Organisation figures), and for longer.

In fact, some of your resources could have gone into re-training those in the coal industry, so that when they inevitably do lose their jobs in the longer term, they have something to go into, thus providing a longer-term benefit.

abortion, charities, effective altruism, environment, malaria, philosophy
Coal is a dying industry and will eventually be replaced by renewable energy alternatives. Source: Huffington Post

You might be asking if these philosophical commitments are indeed tenable. Well, think of it this way: effective altruism can be seen somewhat analogous to the ethical and economic considerations of how a modern government is supposed to act when formulating a budget.

They must take into account finite resources and how best to distribute them for the most good for the longest term possible, with obvious utilisation of said resources for short-term but acute emergencies. It should be rather simple to parallel the applied reasoning between the two. The validity of effective altruism’s philosophical commitments are, prima facie, tenable.

“Effective altruism can be seen somewhat analogous to the ethical and economic considerations of how a modern government is supposed to act when formulating a budget”

The impersonality argument against effect altruism

Arguments presented against effective altruism focus on the so-called pathos of the impersonality of the distribution of limited resource in question and a potential lack of sympathy between donor and recipient.

The argument typically goes on the claim that impersonality is negative due to the fact that it does not direct sympathy towards the target recipient. This argument is deeply flawed for a variety of reasons, not least being that one can indeed have a level of sympathy towards a recipient they have never met (for example, people express deep feelings towards the starving African children on the UNICEF advertisements even if they never meet them). But deeper than this, the flaw in the aforementioned reasoning is ultimately an appeal to emotion, and seems to have a level of preference towards kind feelings more than the actual level of help delivered.

Indeed, there may be times when a proponent of effective altruism does not even fund an individual or individuals directly, but rather works on amending a flawed or broken social structure. This may absolutely have no level of immediate sympathy, but addresses something that will ultimately benefit a greater proportion of people in a society. Surely this is far better than an immediate handout to a happy individual. An example of this would be when governments introduced an old-age pension. It did not benefit many immediately, but ultimately helped everyone.

Sometimes, of course, an analogy to government is not accurate when speaking about certain aspects or actions of effective altruism. One example is when looking at a charity. Charities typically have far fewer resources than governments, and sometimes less than individual wealthy philanthropists. In this case, there is an even greater imperative to be accurate and careful as to where these highly scarce resources are placed. The philosophy of effective altruism can provide the optimal solution.

abortion, charities, effective altruism, environment, malaria, philosophy
Charities typically have far fewer resources than governments, and sometimes less than individual wealthy philanthropists. Source: BBC

Areas where effective altruism is best implemented

Given that effective altruism is ultimately aimed at the alleviation of suffering, allow me to now consider some specific areas I favour with respect to giving money, time, and skills. These areas include birth control and medical research.

Suffering is ubiquitous in the human experience, and all people who are brought into existence are brought so without consent and with the guarantee of pain but not pleasure. The consent issue should be self-evident as you obviously cannot engage with a non-existing being and ask them if they would like to exist or not (this also formulates a central argument against breeding used within anti-natalist philosophy). Perhaps this point is less evident considering the second statement I made, that we are all guaranteed harm but not pleasure.

abortion, charities, effective altruism, malaria, philosophy, environment
Street children in the Philippines [Thomas Tham]
You might like to formulate the argument that even the worst lives will still encounter a moment of pleasure. Well, I would counter that this is firstly difficult to prove, but secondly you forget the pain of one being born. In natural birth, the baby experiences pain whilst being propelled through the birth canal, During a Caesarean section, pain is also experienced in the form of a bright light painfully hitting the eye, as just an example.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable to contend that there have been plenty of children born who have died shortly after birth. This directly highlights what I mean when I claim that while suffering is guaranteed, pleasure is not (I could delve into further detail, but so as to not go off topic or re-invent the wheel, I would recommend curious readers to Prof. David Benatar’s seminal book, Better to Have Never Been).

You might be asking, what does this have to do with effective altruism and birth control? Well, if you accept the arguments put forth above and want to reduce suffering, then one would likely be interested in promoting birth control and access to abortion services. See, when a parent brings a child into the world (even if they never planned to)–a purely selfish choice–they are morally responsible for that child’s well-being. The child would never suffer if it never existed, and so if there were overall fewer children, there would be less suffering. Convincing most people of this is difficult and even Benatar thinks it is a losing battle.

“[A] child would never suffer if it never existed, and so if there were overall less children, there would be less suffering”

Many people, however, would agree that there are people in society who would best remain childless, such as severe drug addicts. Allowing these individuals access to birth control and abortion services would clearly provide a decrease in the number of children being born to them and born into a world of even greater suffering than those born into non drug-addicted families.

This is where the charity, Project Prevention, comes in. Project Prevention pays drug addicts to undergo long-term birth control, including sterilisation. This is a classic example of effective altruism in action, especially for those with an interest in reducing harm.

It can be deemed ethically viable for not only preventing the harm of bringing into existence children to drug-addicts, but it confers a choice and is not forced upon anyone. This is the obvious counter-argument to those making overly-dramatic claims of Nazi-style sterilisation programs.

abortion, charities, effective altruism, malaria, philosophy, environment
Project Prevention pays drug addicts to undergo long-term birth control, a classic example of effective altruism in action. Source: BioEdge

I would also argue that there is a need to expand such programs like Project Prevention to offer cash for sterilisation to those from low-income or criminal backgrounds. Again, this would be a free choice and could also involve a reversible sterilisation technique (e.g. vasectomy) so that when one’s situation improved, they could indeed choose to have a child.

This would reduce suffering of potentially existing individuals, reduce suffering to the parent(s) who would have to expend more limited resources in order to properly care for the child, and reduce the limited resources of the state and charities via welfare use and charitable care, respectively.

One should, of course, still keep in mind that even if the parents could materially and emotionally provide for their prospective child, they would still be betraying them to the harm of a declining global environment due to global warming (to which the child would naturally be contributing) and its associated detrimental effects on health. Barring trying to convince people to adopt anti-natalism, however, most people can see the benefits of preventing the creation of a child into a suboptimal home environment.

Another area that is ripe for the direction of limited financial resources via an effective altruistic approach is of course medical research. This is an area that greatly benefits not only individuals, but economies as a whole. This comes about via products such as novel drugs and vaccines, with classic examples being the eradication of smallpox, new cancer diagnostics and therapies, and antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial infections. The impact of these discoveries and their associated benefits to human health and the alleviation of suffering is uncontroversial. Those who directly benefit from medical research can live healthy and productive lives, contributing to the betterment of others and the economy as a whole.

There are numerous indirect benefits to investing in medical research as well. Economic growth is one of them. Conservative estimates put the annual return on investment in medical research to be an additional ~$3 trillion in the USA alone. Increased exposure to other cultures is another indirect benefit. Most research is internationally collaborative. This alleviation of non-consensual harm should be regarded as a categorical imperative, something we should all look to contribute to in one form or another. For example, even without putting your financial resources into medical research, you could take the time to lobby your politicians to increase funding.

For more information on effective altruism, check out the 80 000 hours campaign and For a look at the top charities globally, see Give Well (as a malaria scientist I am happy to see the Against Malaria Foundation as the best).

Acknowledgements: I wanted to firstly thank William Godfrey of the University of Queensland for providing me with his submitted manuscript to the Philosophical Quarterly titled ‘Non-Mutually Exclusive Consequentialist and Non-Consequentialist Justifications of Effective Altruism’. This served as a foundational basis of this article. Secondly, I wanted to thank my wife and author, Stephanie Haggarty-Weir, for her editing of a draft of this piece.

About Christopher Haggarty-Weir 2 Articles
Christopher is a doctoral researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the University of Melbourne and the University of Edinburgh. Christopher’s research field is in molecular parasitology/structural vaccinology, with a focus on malaria vaccine research. Christopher works part-time in biotech consultancy and green energy tech venture capitalist projects and writes candidly on topics such as bioethics, philosophy, religion, and politics.

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