Tag Archives: effective altruism

The BBC investigates Effective Altruism

A friend sent me a link to a BBC radio episode about Effective Altruism (28 min).

Interesting, though frustrating. There are valid critiques of EA, but the program didn’t present them well at all.

It’s Holly at the end (26:40) who best represents EA, I think, with balance and an acceptance that both heartfelt personal decisions and rational decision-making play a part in her actions. Holly’s EA is nothing like the monstrosity that the presenter has conjured up. Peter Singer too, of course, though he gives more attention to edgy philosophical dilemmas and is more easily misrepresented by presenter Giles Fraser and the philosopher John Gray (neither of whom showed much understanding of the movement as it actually is).

To address a few points, from the episode description:

“Giles discovers that, if you’re going to be an Effective Altruist, you have to toughen up and not allow sentiment to get in the way – you can’t prioritise causes close to your family or communities and your heart.”

Aaagh, this is annoying and I have no idea where he “discovers” this, which is in fact untrue. I reject the dichotomy, and was glad that Holly had the chance at the end to do the same.

John Gray: “If you’re a real effective altruist you should feel guilty about loving your children…”

Aaaagh, philosopher who hates effective altruism tells EAs what they “should” do (but don’t), then berates that strawman version of EA as monstrous. It’s appalling that the presenter let him get away with that garbage. Makes good radio, though, I guess, and that kind of sums up most of the episode.

And what’s with the guilt stuff as something that effective altruists are somehow supposed to feel? Guilt helps no one. Yes, it’s something that individuals have experienced, as in many other movements, and the responses that I’ve seen within the community (emphasizing balance, self-care, acceptance, seeing the big picture and trying to let go of personal guilt) have been healthy.

The presenter continues with this nonsense, implying that he is superior to EA because his straw version of EA “denies love”. I wanted to slap him. But I wouldn’t actually slap him because that wouldn’t be loving.

Natalie Quinn, the development economist, is more reasonable, pointing to the real challenge of hard-to-measure impacts which are nonetheless important. The short snippet included in the program overlooks the fact that the movement is well aware of this, gives attention to it, and certainly doesn’t demand that we ignore such impacts. That misrepresentation is on the programmers’ heads rather than Quinn’s.

(I gather that there are some in the movement who don’t think we should care about anything we can’t measure accurately – or at least give that impression – just like there are people elsewhere who, like Mr Spock, think that emotion is bad and leave it out of their calculations. I haven’t personally come across this view in the wild, though.)

The concept presented here, of some kind of imperative to be coldly calculating, doesn’t match my experience.  What I have experienced within EA is closer to its tagline of “head and heart”.