Effective Altruism

For me, one of the joys of organising the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group is the discovery of new ideas and different ways of approaching problems. Even with a background in philosophy I’m constantly being introduced to a new way of thinking, something which I think vital to human development. The October meeting of the group discussed ‘Effective Altruism’ – an approach which I only heard of for the first time when one of the members of the group suggested it as a topic. This is how we try and run the group. Ideas are suggested by group members, and a consensus agreed at the end of each meeting for discussion at the next.

‘Effective Altruism’ is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. It encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions in order to act in a way that brings about the greatest positive impact based upon the values they already hold. A person committed to supporting disaster relief, for example, would not necessarily respond to an emotionally charged television appeal, preferring to rationally research how their money could be used to help prevent disasters in the first place.

This movement, which has almost developed into a cult status amongst certain of its advocates, has close affinities with utilitarianism, the approach to ethics that aims to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” and for which the end is more important than the means. And it shares with utilitarianism a number of problems concerning the calculus of ‘the greatest good’. Just how you quantify any good such that it can be compared to other goods is very difficult, and needs to make a lot of assumptions regarding values held. And this calculus becomes next to impossible when you start taking future generations, non-human animals, non-animals, and any number of unintended consequences into account.

But perhaps more importantly, Effective Altruism’s emphasis on the application of reason rather than emotion has led Giles Fraser to argue that its cold hearted efficiency leads it to deny love as the base of morality, and for the philosopher John Gray to suggest that its appeal to treat strangers more favourably than your own family creates feelings of guilt amongst those who succumb to their emotions and with it “a rationalist version of original sin”. For my part, whilst I think a degree of rationality needs to be applied to any ethical decision (I certainly would not advocate simply responding emotionally to all situations) I do not think that we either should or could eradicate emotion from such decisions. This would be to deny emotion, and particularly empathy, as the foundation from which ethics grows and develops.

But what do you think? How important is your use of reason when making an ethical decision? To what extent should that decision be informed or motivated by emotion? Please reply if you feel the desire to discuss, and if you want more details about the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group simply visit the Philosophy in Pubs website (philosophyinpubs.co.uk) and find ‘The George, Bridport’ under ‘venues’.

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