The question that it is is something along the lines of “how can I do the most good with the resources that are available to me?” Of course, that’s not precisely accurate, because that question elides certain assumptions that effective altruism makes about how you define ‘the most good’. Effective altruism does not permit religious arguments about what the Good is; effective altruism judges the goodness of an action by whether our actions reduce bad things or increase good things; effective altruism does not care about people in one’s home country or that one is related to more than the global poor.
And, of course, defining effective altruism as a question does not mean that all effective altruists approach effective altruism with a spirit of curiosity and non-attachment, ready to go where the winds of evidence blow them. Most humans are quite ideological. Effective altruism being a question is something that can only be approached as an ideal, not something that we can assume we’ve embodied.
But nevertheless effective altruism is, at its core, a question.
I see no reason that only utilitarians should be interested in the answer to this question.
I expect most effective altruists actually agree with me here. After all, according to the latest EA survey, 56% of EAs are utilitarians, which implies that 44% of EAs are not utilitarians. (I could probably just post that and this post would be done, but eh. I like hearing myself talk.) In my personal experience, it’s hard to spend much time as an effective altruist without noticing the many valuable contributions from people who aren’t utilitarians, some of whom may wish to out themselves in the comments. This post is primarily directed at people who are interested in effective altruism but feel reluctant to join in because they don’t agree with utilitarianism, as well as tiresome people who think that the demandingness objection to utilitarianism somehow means effective altruism is bad and terrible.
Of course, there’s a very obvious reason that effective altruists and utilitarians are conflated. The two groups are closely related. After all, most people who could be considered ‘founders’ of effective altruism are utilitarians, and the earliest person who said proto-effective-altruist ideas was Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher who wrote a famous paper arguing that it is morally required to devote all of one’s resources to helping the poor.
However, there is actually no requirement that effective altruists agree with Peter Singer about everything. Effective altruists may disagree with Peter Singer about many questions, such as “is it morally permitted to murder babies?”, “how many severely disabled people have lives worth living?”, “should we care about animals?” and “is AI a serious concern that may wipe out humanity within the next few hundred years?” I see no reason that we can’t include normative ethics on the list of things that effective altruists may be permitted to disagree with Peter Singer about.
It’s true that a lot of effective altruists argue for effective altruism from a utilitarian viewpoint. This is quite natural. A lot of effective altruists are utilitarians. And an intellectually honest utilitarian in the modern world pretty much has to be an effective altruist. But there is a distinction between “utilitarianism is commonly used to argue in favor of effective altruism” and “all effective altruists are utilitarians and effective altruism is an inherently utilitarian endeavor.” Christianity is commonly used to argue in favor of giving to charity, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who donates to charity is a Christian.
I have a personal interest in this topic. I myself can’t do universalizing morality. I don’t like it when beings suffer and I want them to suffer less, in much the same sense that I don’t like it when I wind up waiting in long lines at the Social Security Administration and I want to do that less. While I am close enough to being a utilitarian that I tend to round myself off to one, I tend to part from utilitarians when they start going on about moral obligations and drowning children and so on; I consider “I want to spend this much of my resources on altruism and no more” to be a perfectly good reason to spend that amount of resources on altruism. So I have a natural interest in the subject of being an effective altruist without fully buying into utilitarianism.
And I don’t think I’m the only one. Off the top of my head, here are some people who are not utilitarians and who might be interested in the question of effective altruism: A virtue ethicist cultivating the virtue of compassion. A deontologist doing supererogatory good deeds. An ethical egoist who knows that the warmfuzzies of truly helping someone is the best way to improve her own personal happiness. A Christian who knows that what we do unto the least of these we do unto him. A Jewish person who is performing tikkun olam. A Buddhist practicing loving-kindness. Someone who cares about fairness and doesn’t think it’s fair that they have so much when others have so little. A basically normal person who feels sad about how much suffering there is in the world and wants to help.
Even more people might be interested in bits and pieces of the effective altruist project, even if they aren’t interested in the whole thing. A purely self-interested person has an obvious reason to be concerned about existential risk; someone who cares primarily about freedom might be interested in the best ways to help animals in factory farms.
Now, some of the people I named might choke on some of the effective altruist assumptions I listed: a religious person might object to the secularism, while a virtue ethicist might feel she has a particular duty to those closest to her. Certainly, the particular assumptions that effective altruism has are probably related to it being founded by a bunch of utilitarians. It would have different assumptions if it were founded by a bunch of deontologists.
I agree that we should be wary of effective altruism changing its assumptions. If deontologists wish to have a movement about being the best deontologist you can be, they must start their own movement and not piggyback on ours. I would be concerned if more than, say, ten percent of the effective altruist movement was self-interested people who are concerned about existential risk, freedom-lovers who are worried about factory farms, people who feel they have a special duty to those close to them but who don’t care literally zero percent about Africans, and other people who are not on board with the effective altruist project as a whole. It’s important to balance the contributions from talented allies with the risk of values drift.
But I don’t think everyone who isn’t a utilitarian poses a risk of values drift. Lots of religious people are, in fact, fully capable of compartmentalizing and using secular reasoning in secular contexts. Most non-consequentialists agree that good things are better than bad things and their non-consequentialism mostly comes up in contexts unrelated to effective altruism: after all, Give Directly very rarely involves either lying to Nazis or making decisions about whether a trolley should run over one person or five people.
To be clear: an effective altruist must be on board with the effective altruist project. I do not suggest outreach to people who think proximity is a morally important trait, the consequences of one’s actions are completely irrelevant, or we can find the optimal charity through clever use of the Bible Code. I just suggest that people who aren’t utilitarians can also be on board with the effective altruist project.