Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism (1): What is it?

The Stag Hunt of the Elector Frederick the Wise

In his 1754 work Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau introduced a short hypothetical scenario that has since become a famous game theory puzzle. He described two people who were hunting for food. If they each cooperated with one another, then they could successfully hunt and kill a deer. This would provide them with an abundance of food. If they went off by themselves, they could successfully kill a hare. This would provide them with some food but not as much as the deer. If one of them tried to cooperate to hunt the deer and the other went off and hunted the hare, then the cooperator would get nothing while the defector would at least get a hare:

If it was a matter of hunting deer everyone realised that he must remain faithful to his post; but if a hare happened to pass within reach of one of them, we cannot doubt that he would have gone off in search of it without scruple… 
(Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality)

This has become known as the Stag Hunt game. The payoff matrix for the game is illustrated below. The numbers in the boxes are an ordinal ranking of the possible outcomes in the game. The idea is that hunting and killing the deer is the best outcome for both players (2), hunting and killing a hare is the second best outcome (1), and getting nothing is the worst outcome (0).

Superficially, the Stag Hunt seems to be similar to the more famous Prisoners’ Dilemma. In both games, players can choose to cooperate or defect. In both games, cooperating yields the best outcome for both players if they both do it, but if one cooperates while the other defects then the cooperator will be a ‘loser’ in the game. There is, however, one big difference. In the Prisoners’ Dilemma, it’s always more rational to defect (in game theoretical parlance: defecting strictly dominates cooperating). That’s not true in the Stag Hunt. In the Stag Hunt, if you could be sure that the other player was going to cooperate, it would be more rational for you to do the same. Because of this difference, some people argue that the Stag Hunt better captures some of the collective action problems that humanity faces. Should we work together to achieve some ideal/optimal outcome? Or, since we can’t always rely on others, should we work independently to secure the next best outcome?

This is one of the main disputes that arises between proponents of effective altruism and their critics. Effective altruism is a movement, founded by moral philosophers such as Peter Singer, William MacAskill and Toby Ord, that argues (broadly speaking) that we should try to do the most good we can with our time, money and other resources. Most famously, proponents of effective altruism argue that wealthy people in developed countries should be giving far more of their money to saving lives in the developing world than they currently do, whether that be by paying for bednets for malaria prevention or direct cash transfers to the poor. The critics argue that this is completely wrong. Individuals shouldn’t work to transfer resources to other individuals in the developed world. That’s too limited and piecemeal. The real problem is a structural or institutional one. People in the developed world should be working to reform the institutions of global capitalism that will address the root causes of global poverty.

I wrote a long series of posts about effective altruism about two years ago. That series looked at several different criticisms of the idea. At the time, I noted that the ‘institutional critique’ seemed to be the emerging favourite amongst the critics. In the intervening years, that’s where most of the action has been in the philosophical literature. In this series of posts I want to examine this institutional critique in some detail. I start today by outlining in more detail what that critique is and how it is supposed to undermine effective altruism. I’ll be using Brian Berkey’s article ‘The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism’ as my main source for this. It’s the best thing written on the topic, by far. I will, however, also be dipping into articles written by Joshua Kissel and Alexander Dietz, which discuss more specific issues relating to the institutional critique.

1. A Brief Refresher on Effective Altruism
It will help if we have a clear conception of what effective altruism is at the outset. As Iason Gabriel points out in his work on EA, there are ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ definitions of EA. I gave a thin definition in the introduction. According to this, EA is simply the view that you ought to do the most good you can do (whatever that turns out to be), given the time and resources available to you. As proponents of EA put it themselves:

[Effective altruism] is about dedicating a significant part of one’s life to improving the world and rigorously asking the question, “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?” 
(Stanford Effective Altruists)*

This thin definition is certainly true to the aspirations of the EA, but it is probably too vague to be useful. Who could disagree with the idea that we ought to do the most good we can?

This is where the ‘thick’ definitions come in. They try to provide more guidance on what doing the most good really entails. Joshua Kissel argues that proponents of EA use three heuristics when it comes to deciding how to do the most good. First, they ask themselves how important a particular action is, in the grand scheme of things. The more important it is, the more likely it is to garner their support. Second, they limit their efforts to problems that are tractable/measurable. In other words, they will want some metric that helps to confirm whether they are, in fact, doing the most good. Finally, they will focus on neglected problems, as opposed to ones that already attract a lot of attention and support. This is because they are concerned with the marginal contribution of their efforts.

These three heuristics do seem to feature heavily in EA literature, but they are still vague in one critical respect. They need some prior agreement on what is useful/important to make sense.

Brian Berkey offers a more useful and detailed ‘thick’ characterisation of EA in his article. He argues that proponents of EA are, usually though not necessarily, committed to the following four propositions. He gives them numbers but I’m going to give them descriptive names:

Moralism: “There are very strong moral reasons, grounded in fundamental values, for the well off to direct significant resources to efforts to address important moral issues”.
Welfarism: “These fundamental values include (but are not necessarily limited to) impartially promoting increases in welfare, or quality of life, for individuals, and the reasons provided by this value are at least fairly weighty.”
Efficiency: “There are strong reasons to prefer giving to efforts that will promote the relevant values most efficiently.”
Evidentialism: “We should employ the best empirical research methods available in order to determine, as best we can, which methods promote the relevant values most efficiently.”

These four propositions combine together to give a reasonably coherent moral outlook. They also help to explain many of the positions staked out among defenders of EA. This is why proponents of EA favour the idea that wealthy people in the developed world should give to certain charities in the developing world, specifically those that have a clearly measurable impact on QALYs and DALYs (sidenote: I appreciate that the binary distinction between developed and developing worlds is problematic). It also explains why they are so keen to ‘rate’ different charities in order to figure out which are the most effective.

It may also help to explain why they seem to be so opposed to institutional reform.

2. The Institutional Critique Explained

All of which brings us to the institutional critique itself. Variations of this critique have been presented by several authors. Berkey focuses on the work of Judith Lichtenberg, Lisa Herzog, Amia Srinivasan and Pete Mills in his paper, all of whose essays on the topic are readily available online. Although there are some differences between what they say, there is a common core to them all. Berkey discusses each at some length in his paper. I’m just going to pick two quotes from two of these authors that I think are representative of the kinds of concerns they raise. The first comes from Judith Lichtenberg:

[T]he maximum effectiveness strategy [endorsed by effective altruists] means neglecting programs that support advocacy for political and structural change, which are essential for addressing the deeper roots of poverty… people across the political spectrum should agree that structural changes that allow all workers to earn a decent living are preferable to welfare programs and private charity.

The second comes from Pete Mills:

[w]ithout any concept of society as a collective endeavour, we cannot address problems at their root but only those symptoms which are tractable on an atomized, individual level…poverty is presented to us as an immediate ethical demand which obscures the need for systemic change.

Both quotes speak to the idea that EA misses the point. In trying to do the most good at the margin, and in focusing on how an individual as opposed to a collective can do the most good, EA ignores the root causes of poverty (and other moral problems), and overlooks the possibility of truly revolutionary moral change.

But why is that? The suggestion from both authors seems to be that the most effective way to do good is to favour systemic change, not piecemeal change at the margins. But if that’s truly the case, why wouldn’t an effective altruist — committed as they are to doing the most good — favour that over, say, giving to a malaria charity? That’s where the four commitments identified by Berkey come into play. Two of them, in particular, seem antithetical to institutional reform: welfarism and evidentialism. The former leads effective altruists to overlook or discount non-welfare related goods; the latter leads them to overlook methods of doing good that aren’t easily measurable and quantifiable. This means that even though they might profess an ‘in principle’ openness to institutional change, they’re not really open to it because their core commitments don’t allow them to go there.

This then gives us the backbone of the institutional critique of EA, which according to Berkey consists of the following two propositions (again the names are mine but the specific content is directly lifted from Berkey):

Reformism: “There are strong moral reasons for individuals to direct resources and time to efforts to promote institutional reform, rather than directing the same resources and time to providing aid to those living in poverty.”

Incompatibilism: “Effective altruists, given their core commitments, cannot support individuals directing resources and/or time to at least some of the efforts to promote institutional change”.

But do we actually have good reason to accept these propositions? Berkey offers a trenchant critique of them in his article, arguing that there is no way to understand reformism that is both plausible and incompatible with the core commitments of EA. He also argues that proponents of the critique are indulging in a kind of hypocrisy: they are professing concern for global poverty while embracing a worldview that commits them to doing very little to address the situation. I’ll look at the details of this trenchant critique in the next post.

* This used to be the description of EA that one found on the website This now appears to have been updated to the slightly different: " a research field which uses high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible. It is also a community of people taking these answers seriously, by focusing their efforts on the most promising solutions to the world's most pressing problems."

1 comment:

  1. In the diagram above, the crucial word "cannot" is missing from the definition of incompatibilism. Also, would it not be clearer just to say that reformism is incompatible with the core commitments of EA?