Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism



In recent years, the effective altruism movement has generated much discussion about the ways in which we can most effectively improve the lives of the global poor, and pursue other morally important goals. One of the most common criticisms of the movement is that it has unjustifiably neglected issues related to institutional change that could address the root causes of poverty, and instead focused its attention on encouraging individuals to direct resources to organizations that directly aid people living in poverty. In this article, I discuss and assess this ‘institutional critique’. I argue that if we understand the core commitments of effective altruism in a way that is suggested by much of the work of its proponents, and also independently plausible, there is no way to understand the institutional critique such that it represents a view that is both independently plausible and inconsistent with the core commitments of effective altruism.



Hide All

1 On criminal justice reform, see MacAskill, William, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference (New York, 2015), pp. 185–7. For information on GiveWell's work in this area, see <>.

2 Singer, Peter, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically (New Haven, 2015); MacAskill, Doing Good Better.

3 Important exceptions are Pummer, Theron, ‘Whether and Where to Give’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 44 (2016), pp. 7795, and Iason Gabriel, ‘Effective Altruism and its Critics’, Journal of Applied Philosophy (forthcoming). In addition, the Journal of Global Ethics recently published a symposium on Singer's The Most Good You Can Do (vol. 12, no. 2), and a recent special issue of Essays in Philosophy was dedicated to Effective Altruism (vol. 18, no. 1). Another valuable contribution is Rubenstein, Jennifer, ‘The Lessons of Effective Altruism’, Ethics & International Affairs 30 (2016), pp. 511–26, which is an extended review of Singer and MacAskill's books.

4 See GiveWell's recommendation of the Against Malaria Foundation: <>.

5 See GiveWell's recommendation of the Deworm the World Initiative: <>.

6 See GiveWell's recommendation of GiveDirectly: <>.

7 See, for example, the contributions to the Boston Review's July 2015 forum on ‘The Logic of Effective Altruism’ by Daron Acemoglu (<>), Angus Deaton (<>), Iason Gabriel (<>) and Catherine Tumber (<>); Emily Clough, ‘Effective Altruism's Political Blind Spot’, Boston Review (July 2015), <<>; Pete Mills's contribution to the Oxford Left Review's forum on ‘The Ethical Careers Debate’ (no. 7, May 2012): <>; Srinivasan, Amia, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’, London Review of Books 37 (2015), pp. 36 (<>); Judith Lichtenberg, ‘Peter Singer's Extremely Altruistic Heirs’, New Republic (November 2015): <>; Robert Mark Simpson, ‘Moral Renegades’, The New Rambler (July 2016): <>; Lisa Herzog, ‘Can ‘Effective Altruism’ Really Change the World?’, (February 2016): <> and ‘(One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s), or: Why Moral Theory Needs Institutional Theory’, Justice Everywhere Blog (October 2015): <>; Grace Boey, ‘Effective Altruism and its Blind Spots’, 3 Quarks Daily (August 2015): <>; Sam Earle and Rupert Read, ‘Why Effective Altruism is Ineffective: The Case of Refugees’, (April 2016): <>; Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, ‘Can Effective Altruism Really Change the World’, The Week (March 2015): <>; Harriet Lamb, Effective Altruism is Good – Changing the System is Better’, Huffington Post (May 2015): <>; for a response from a proponent of effective altruism, see Robert Wiblin, ‘Effective Altruists Love Systemic Change’, 80,000 Hours Blog (July 2015): <>; for general discussion, see Gabriel, ‘Effective Altruism and its Critics’. An early version of the institutional critique, which focuses on efforts to alleviate hunger, and is aimed at arguments made by Singer (‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972), pp. 229–43); Unger, Peter (Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (New York, 1996)); and Cullity, Garrett (‘International Aid and the Scope of Kindness’, Ethics 105 (1994), pp. 99127), can be found in Gomberg, Paul, ‘The Fallacy of Philanthropy’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32 (2002), pp. 2966.

8 Despite rejecting what I call the ‘institutional critique’, I do not claim that effective altruists should not focus their efforts primarily on institutional reform. Indeed, it is consistent with my argument that the core commitments of effective altruism support such a focus. My argument does not, then, commit me to denying that the Open Philanthropy Project's work on various US policy issues (see <>) counts as effective altruism, or that it might be justified by the core commitments of effective altruism.

9 As I noted above, effective altruists work to address a range of morally important issues in addition to global poverty. I focus my analysis on global poverty primarily because it is the issue most commonly discussed by those who advance versions of the institutional critique, but also for ease of exposition.

10 MacAskill, Doing Good Better, p. 11.

11 Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, pp. 4–7.

12 Robert Wiblin, ‘Disagreeing about What's Effective Isn't Disagreeing With Effective Altruism’, 80,000 Hours Blog (July 2015): <>.

13 See Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, pp. 8–9.

14 MacAskill, Doing Good Better, pp. 53, 81–2; GiveWell recommendation of Against Malaria Foundation (<>).

15 GiveWell recommdation of GiveDirectly (<>).

16 MacAskill claims that the overall balance of the available evidence suggests that there are more efficient ways of improving the lives of impoverished people than donating to GiveDirectly, but acknowledges that this conclusion can be reasonably disputed (Doing Good Better, p. 120). Unlike GiveWell, the effective altruist organization Giving What We Can (<>) does not list GiveDirectly among its top charities (<>). Their concerns are expressed on their website in a piece by MacAskill (<>), and more recently in another by Andreas Mogensen (<>).

17 Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, pp. 10–11.

18 Singer, ‘The Why and How of Effective Altruism’, TED Talk (March 2013): <>.

19 Lichtenberg, ‘Peter Singer's Extremely Altruistic Heirs’.

20 Herzog, (One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s).

21 Herzog, (One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s).

22 Herzog, (One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s).

23 Herzog, (One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s).

24 Herzog, (One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s).

25 Herzog, (One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s).

27 Mills, ‘The Ethical Careers Debate’, p. 5.

28 Mills, ‘The Ethical Careers Debate’, p. 5.

29 Mills, ‘The Ethical Careers Debate’, p. 8.

30 She notes that some effective altruists have taken up immigration reform and the reform of laws governing factory farming practices as areas of focus in their efforts to improve the world (‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’). As I noted above, criminal justice reform in the United States is another issue on which some effective altruists have focused their attention.

31 Srinivasan, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’.

32 Srinivasan, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’.

33 Srinivasan, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’.

34 Srinivasan, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’.

35 Srinivasan, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’.

36 Srinivasan, ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’.

37 A closely related claim that at least some of the critics might have in mind is that even if the core commitments of effective altruism do not necessarily preclude supporting individuals devoting resources to efforts to promote institutional reform that there are good moral reasons to support (so that effective altruists might, in principle, be able to support them for reasons that are internal to their moral outlook), those core commitments do preclude endorsing, or giving sufficient weight to, certain important moral values that are among the appropriate grounds for supporting the relevant efforts to promote institutional reform.

38 Herzog, ‘(One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s)’.

39 As Srinivasan herself notes (‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’), MacAskill discusses this possibility at some length (Doing Good Better, pp. 89–95).

40 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I discuss this objection.

41 I assume that collectives can have obligations in their own right. This question has generated much recent discussion; see, for example, Wringe, Bill, ‘Collective Obligations: Their Existence, Their Explanatory Power, and their Supervenience on the Obligations of Individuals’, European Journal of Philosophy 21 (2014), pp. 472–97, and Collins, Stephanie and Lawford-Smith, Holly, ‘Collectives’ and Individuals’ Obligations: A Parity Argument’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 46 (2016), pp. 3858.

42 It might be objected that in appealing to this kind of case, I am doing one of the things that some proponents of the institutional critique argue against, namely treating our obligations to the global poor as analogous to our obligations to drowning children. But my argument here does not rely on the assumption that the cases are analogous in all morally relevant respects. The case functions only as a counterexample to the claim that individuals generally have stronger reasons to do their part towards the satisfaction of a collective obligation than to benefit people in need in other ways, regardless of what other members of the obligated collective can be expected to do.

43 For example, a collective effort to enact a fully just policy might lead to the enactment of a policy that is an improvement on the status quo, though not fully just.

44 Assume that for each switch that is turned on, D suffers a perceptible increase in pain.

45 I have discussed anti-capitalist revolution as an example of institutional change, primarily because several proponents of the institutional critique discuss it, and individual efforts in support of it, favourably. But of course there are far less radical institutional changes that proponents of the institutional critique might advocate supporting, and to the extent that these reforms are more likely to be achievable, would involve fewer transition costs, come with fewer risks of unintended and unforeseen negative effects, and have other features that, at least in themselves, make the expected value of pursuing them greater, effective altruists will be more likely to support individuals dedicating time and resources to efforts to bring them about. Nothing in my argument, and nothing in the core commitments of effective altruism as I have presented them, rules out the possibility that effective altruists should all in fact be dedicating most of their time and resources to efforts to promote institutional reform. My claim is merely that effective altruists are correct that whether this is what individuals have most reason to do depends on what the available evidence suggests will best promote the values that ought to guide our response to global poverty and other morally important issues.

46 McMahan, Jeff, ‘Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism’, The Philosophers’ Magazine 73 (2016), pp. 9299, at 97.

47 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I discuss this response.

48 Though, again, much public outreach on behalf of effective altruism has a tendency to suggest otherwise.

51 The case of effective altruist support for efforts to think about how we might effectively mitigate existential risk is particularly interesting to consider in relation to the institutional critique. Their support for such efforts shows that effective altruists clearly think that there can be reasons to pursue efforts that have a low probability of doing good, but would do a very large amount of good if they turn out to be successful (and, in the case of mitigating existential risks, necessary), even in preference to efforts that are virtually certain to do a fair bit of good. At least certain efforts to bring about institutional reform seem to share these features. This suggests that effective altruists should be open to the possibility that these efforts, too, should be prioritized over higher probability, lower payoff efforts. I have suggested that, despite the fact that their public outreach efforts can have a tendency to suggest otherwise, effective altruists are, at least for the most part, consistent on this point. I suspect that many proponents of the institutional critique, on the other hand, will find effective altruist support for efforts to mitigate existential risk to be quite misguided. It's unclear, however, what principled basis there might be for holding that the institutional reform efforts that they favour should necessarily be prioritized both over efforts like those of organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation or GiveDirectly, and over efforts to mitigate existential risks.

52 See, for example, Clough, ‘Effective Altruism's Political Blind Spot’.

53 See, for example, MacAskill's discussion of the PlayPump (Doing Good Better, pp. 1–10).

54 Concerns about paternalism may give us some reason to prefer directing resources to, for example, GiveDirectly, as opposed to other organizations that efficiently promote the welfare of the global poor (see Emma Saunders-Hastings's contribution to the Boston Review forum on ‘The Logic of Effective Altruism’: <>).

55 A further issue that proponents of the institutional critique have not discussed is that even if they are successful, the efforts to promote institutional reform that they advocate would not improve the lives of many of the people whose lives would be improved by directing resources towards organizations recommended by effective altruists. Achieving institutional reforms that make the world more just takes a great deal of time, in particular at the global level, and this is especially so in cases in which the reforms sought will be vigorously opposed by many who benefit from the injustices entrenched within the status quo. Proponents of the institutional critique surely recognize this. But an important consequence of this fact is that advocates of the institutional critique are not merely advocating that we attempt to improve the lives of some single group of people by pursuing a lower probability, higher reward option, rather than by pursuing an alternative, high probability, lower reward option. They are instead advocating that we refrain from taking high probability steps to alleviate the suffering of today's global poor, in order to pursue low probability, potentially high reward efforts to improve global institutions, so that different people, sometime in the future, are able to live under more just institutions than might otherwise exist. Whether or not we might be justified in prioritizing efforts to make global institutions more just for future people over improving welfare or quality of life for the current global poor, it seems clear that we cannot be required to do so as a matter of respect for the current global poor.

56 ‘(One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s)’.

57 See, for example, Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. edn (Cambridge, MA, 1999), pp. 610.

58 For the latter interpretation, see Cohen, G. A., Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA, 2008), pp. 126–7.

59 See Berkey, Brian, ‘Against Rawlsian Institutionalism about Justice’, Social Theory and Practice 42 (2016), pp. 706–32; ‘Double Counting, Moral Rigorism, and Cohen's Critique of Rawls: A Response to Alan Thomas’, Mind 124 (2015), pp. 849–74; ‘Obligations of Productive Justice: Individual or Institutional?’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (forthcoming).

60 An alternative for the proponent of the institutional critique would be to hold that welfare or quality of life improvements do provide strong reasons, but that whatever other kinds of reasons support promoting institutional reform are extremely weighty, even in cases in which the prospects for success are minimal, so that they continue to outweigh the strong reasons provided by clearly achievable welfare or quality of life improvements. This view is not, strictly speaking, inconsistent with EA2. It does not, however, seem any more plausible, since it requires denying that the strength of the reasons that we have to contribute to an effort diminish as the prospects for success decrease.

61 Unger, Peter, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (New York, 1996), p. 75.

62 Unger, Living High and Letting Die, pp. 75–6.

63 See, for example, Robert Simpson's claim that ‘even where our giving can alleviate some people's hardships in the short term, there's little reason to be confident – without systematic change – that our giving will have any real effect on suffering in the grander scheme of things’ (‘Moral Renegades’), and Tracy Isaacs's claim that ‘[i]n the face of pressing issues of enormous scale and scope, such as child poverty, animal suffering, and climate change, individual effort will rarely make a marked difference except for the likes of Ted Turner and others who have a billion dollars to give’ (Isaacs, Tracy, ‘The Most Good We Can Do: Comments on Peter Singer's The Most Good You Can Do’, Journal of Global Ethics 12 (2016), pp. 154–60, at 155–6). Notice that Simpson's explicit suggestion is that, for some reason, alleviating some people's hardships (by, for example, donating enough money to cure ten people of trachoma-caused blindness) might not count as a real effect on suffering in the grander scheme of things. But, if taken literally, this cannot be what he intends to say, since surely the reductions in suffering that we can bring about by donating to organizations recommended by effective altruists are no less real than similar reductions that could be brought about via institutional change. What Simpson must mean here is that successful institutional change would reduce suffering much more than a single individual's donations to effective altruist-recommended organizations could. And this is clearly true, though it is not clear why we might think that it is relevant to what any particular individual should do with her resources. After all, no individual can bring about institutional change on her own.

64 Unger, Living High and Letting Die, pp. 80–2.

65 For a similar point, see McMahan, ‘Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism’, p. 97.

66 See, for example, both Lichtenberg’s (‘Peter Singer's Extremely Altruistic Heirs’) and Srinivasan's (‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’) criticisms of MacAskill's discussion of his decision not to donate to the Fistula Foundation, despite the fact that he had met women suffering from fistulas.

67 This criticism of effective altruism derives from Bernard Williams's well-known critique of utilitarianism; see A Critique of Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism: For and Against, ed. Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, Bernard (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 75–150. For articulations of this criticism directed against effective altruism, see John Gray, ‘How and How Not to Be Good’, New York Review of Books (May 2015): <>; Nakul Krishna, ‘Add Your Own Egg’, The Point Magazine (2016): <>.

68 Of the proponents of the institutional critique, only Herzog explicitly recognizes this (‘Can Effective Altruism Really Change the World?’; ‘(One of) Effective Altruism's Blind Spot(s)’).

69 Srinivasan appears to endorse the view that it's permissible for a person to give to a seeing-eye dog charity if one feels especially connected to its cause (‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse’).

70 The effective altruist organization Giving What We Can (<>) asks people to pledge to give 10 per cent of their income each year to organizations that they recommend as especially effective providers of aid to the global poor.

71 Jennifer Rubenstein has a helpful discussion of some of the questions that those sympathetic to aspects of the institutional critique should, in her view, consider if they are aiming to create an alternative to effective altruist organizations such as GiveWell; see Rubenstein, ‘The Lessons of Effective Altruism’, pp. 524–5.

72 I am grateful to audiences at the 2017 Stanford Junior Scholars Forum on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the Humanitarian Ethics and Action Conference at the University of Birmingham, the Ohio State University Department of Philosophy, the 2016 International Society for Utilitarian Studies Conference, and the 2016 Workshop on Philosophy and Poverty at the University of Salzburg. Paul Brest and Ted Lechterman provided valuable comments at the Stanford forum. I owe special thanks to Eilidh Beaton for very helpful written comments and extensive discussion, and to Lee-Ann Chae for much very helpful discussion. Sarah Light and Amy Sepinwall also provided very helpful written comments and discussion. I have also benefited from discussions with Eamon Aloyo, Ilari Aula, Justin Bernstein, Vikram Bhargava, Constanze Binder, Joseph Bowen, Don Brown, Vince Buccola, Matt Caulfield, Peter Conti-Brown, Chiara Cordelli, Nico Cornell, Monique Deveaux, Linda Eggert, Brad Fulton, Gwen Gordon, Gunter Graf, Elizabeth Harmon, Javier Hidalgo, Joshua Hobbs, Rob Hughes, Corey Katz, Joshua Kissel, Emma Larking, Wesley Longhofer, Amanda Maher, Johanna Mair, Derek Matravers, Tristram McPherson, Kathryn Muyskens, Jonathan Parry, Katarina Pitasse Fragoso, Tony Reeves, Rob Reich, Matthew Rendell, Emma Saunders-Hastings, Gottfried Schweiger, Amy Schiller, Amy Shuster, Peter Singer, Leah Stokes, Alan Strudler, Attila Tanyi, Isaac Taylor, Miles Unterreiner, Makoto Usami, Sara Van Goozen, Ashley Whillans, Richard Yetter Chappell, Carson Young, and Robin Zheng.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed