By Mathew Snow
Aug 26, 2015
Angelina Jolie visits refugees in 2012. UNHCR / Flickr
Imagine you came across a child drowning in a small pond and you were the only one around to help. You could easily save the child by wading in, although doing so would ruin your clothing and shoes. But if you don’t, the child will die.
It’s a no-brainer — you should save the child. Would the answer be any different if there were others around who could also help? No. Should it make any difference if the desperate child wasn’t directly in front of you? No.
The question, then, is are you any less obligated to intervene if the child isn’t drowning but is instead in mortal danger due to lack of food, water, or medical treatment and the only means you have to help is donating money to charity?
Peter Singer doesn’t think so.
In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” and his 2009 book The Life You Can Save, the noted philosopher argues that you are equally compelled to help those living in extreme poverty through philanthropy as you are to help the drowning child.
The moral principle in both cases is the same: we ought to reduce the suffering of others so long as doing so does not require “sacrificing anything nearly as important.” In the drowning child case, your clothing and shoes aren’t nearly as important as a child’s life, and in the case of philanthropy, the monetary equivalent of that clothing and shoes isn’t nearly as important as saving a child’s life if you have the financial means.
It is this basic argument that has inspired a growing social movement, which brands itself Effective Altruism. Effective Altruists calculate where expendable income is best spent and encourage the relatively affluent to channel their capital accordingly. Among their most highly favored causes are the Against Malaria Foundation (which distributes insecticide-treated bed nets), the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (which works to establish school-based deworming programs), and GiveDirectly (which gives unconditional cash transfers to people in extreme poverty).
Over 17,000 people have pledged to give at least 1 percent of their income annually to such endorsed causes, and over 1,000 have pledged to give at least 10 percent. It is particularly popular among millennials, leading some to laud it as “the new social movement of our generation.”
Although the argument is over forty years old, most of the movement’s growth has taken place in the past half decade, and this year saw the publication of numerous books on the subject — How to Be Great at Doing Good, Doing Good Better, Strangers Drowning, and Singer’s latest, The Most Good You Can Do — along with extensive,positive coverage in popular media.
Not everyone is convinced. Critics of the movement typically point out things like the undemocratic nature of philanthropy, the danger of undermining essential public sector services, and the longer-term need for economic development after picking low-hanging fruit through philanthropy.
Leftist critiques of the movement go further. Paul Gomberg, for example, charges that the analytical framework promoted by Singer’s argument “promotes political quietism” by “[shifting] our focus from political, social, and economic issues to abstract philosophical arguments.”
Moreover, Gomberg argues that the resources required to successfully relieve poverty through philanthropy or achieve radical systemic change are so huge that “in doing more of one we do less of the other.” So, they must be construed as “competing ways of using our time, energy, and other resources.”
Singer and Effective Altruists claim to “love systemic change,” pointing to their support for research and advocacy for (moderate) policy reform concerning things like criminal justice, immigration, and international trade. More thorough critiques of capitalism like the one Gomberg has in mind, of course, are strikingly absent.
Singer’s rejoinder? “If there is little chance of achieving the kind of revolution you are seeking, then you need to look around for a strategy with better prospects of actually helping some poor people.”
But while we can speculate about the prospects for a socialist revolution, the problem with Effective Altruism goes even deeper than disagreement about the best way to improve the lives of the global poor.
The core problem is the bourgeois moral philosophy that the movement rests upon. Effective Altruists abstract from — and thereby exonerate — the social dynamics constitutive of capitalism. The result is a simultaneously flawed moral and structural analysis that aspires to fix the world’s most pressing problems on capital’s terms.
Effective Altruists treat charities as black boxes — money goes in, good consequences come out. The desire to achieve salutary results becomes an imperative to give money to charities.
The only aspect of charity worthy of analysis is how much bang donators can expect to get for their buck — cost per life saved orquality-adjusted life-years. In the process Effective Altruists gloss over important social relations, obscuring the morality (and efficacy) of giving to charity, or commanding others to do so, in the first place.
The black-box presentation of charity displays only the relation between the potential philanthropist and the potential victim of a preventable evil. Indeed, even this part of the analogy is deceptive, posing the exchange as between one person with the capacity to save and one person in need of saving.
In reality, the potential philanthropist only has the power to pay others to save the potential victim. Donating money becomes the primary means by which the philanthropist can rescue a person in need — without the monetary transfer no one gets saved.
The irony of Effective Altruism is that it implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place.
If we look at the institutions that make and allocate the resources others so desperately need, we must ask whether it is wrong to withhold those resources from others for the sake of payment and profit. Doing so not only seems morally reprehensible, it is morally reprehensible for precisely the same reason Effective Altruists argue it is wrong not to donate money to charities: it’s immoral to value some small sum of money (or what it might buy) over a human life or minimum standard of living.
In this way, Effective Altruism’s argument trades off an obvious moral truth without any mention of its direct tension with capitalist accumulation: as men and women with money and moral consciences, we can’t put a price on life, but as men and women participating in a system governed by the logic of capital, we must.
The absurd result is that Effective Altruism implores individuals to pay whatever price the market demands for basic necessities on moral grounds that cut against subjecting those necessities to capitalist market logic at all.
This is the primary disanalogy between saving Singer’s hypothetical drowning stranger and giving to charity. In the former, the cost to us is merely private opportunity cost, knowingly soiling our clothing and shoes by jumping into the water. In the latter, the cost to us is what capitalist institutions demand as a condition of granting what is needed for the rescue.
The flawed analytical framework informing this oversight goes beyond the black box conception of charity; it belies the bourgeois moral philosophy animating Effective Altruism. It doesn’t just abstract from capital, it transforms its terms for doing business into constraints imposed by nature.
The drowning stranger analogy thus takes on a very different cast: the desperate child needs some life-preserving necessity (food, clean water, medical treatment, etc.) that capital undemocratically produces or possesses, and dictates the terms on which it’s distributed. Through those who personify it, capital fails any drowning stranger in at least three ways.
First, capital actually has what the imperiled stranger needs. Whereas most individuals generally only possess necessities for themselves and their families, institutions bound by the logic of capital accumulation collectively own virtually all the necessities that individuals must purchase in order to survive.
That such an arrangement results in objectionable consequences should hardly be surprising. Here we see just one of them: capital will let the drowning stranger die unless it receives adequate payment. Regardless of what we do, capital’s position remains the same: the drowning stranger’s life isn’t worth the cost of the life-preserving necessity. Moreover, capital’s participation in the rescue is contingent on the ability to profit from it.
For capital, this is just another transaction — and why shouldn’t it be? This principle is implicit in every exchange for life-sustaining necessities, even if it only becomes explicit when someone can’t afford them.
Second, capital creates “drowning strangers.” The inability of companies to profit from those with little or no purchasing power is the reason why so many poor people need altruists to save them.
Yet their purchasing power is itself mostly determined by capital’s need for their labor. Despite the fact that people living in poverty have the capacity to contribute to society in important ways, it’s often just not profitable for businesses or neoliberal states to pay them enough to do so.
Moreover, capital’s commodification of necessities directly undermines the self-sufficiency of entire populations by determining how resources are allocated.
As charities and Effective Altruists publicize how badly the global poor need food, for example, capital acquires and controls their fertile land, using it to grow crops that can be sold for higher returns to populations with deeper pockets. The farming practices it bringsrequire already-scarce water supplies and are slated to overdraw the sources of those supplies — to say nothing of ecological havoc likemass extinction and global climate change.
In the meantime, capital extracts around $2 trillion annually from “developing countries” through things like illicit financial flows, tax evasion, debt service, and trade policies advantageous to the global capitalist class.
The loss of these revenues and resources for developing countries and their people is capital’s gain. Individuals’ ability to do rudimentary things like feed themselves becomes contingent on their ability to outbid others in a global marketplace where the winner determines how their local resources are used.
Governments’ lost revenues, and the structural adjustment programsthese conditions precipitate, are then used to justify cuts to essential services like malaria eradication programs — one of Effective Altruists’ favorite philanthropic causes — predictably resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.
These dynamics, which spring from capital’s insistence on the commodification of necessities, are what turn billions of people into drowning strangers and generate a need for ever-multiplying charitable organizations in the first place.
Finally, everything mentioned above constrains a concerned non-capitalist’s ability to intervene. Aside from challenging the rule of capital, a non-capitalist’s only readily available option is donating to charity — thus subsidizing its profiting from basic necessities — or else ignoring those in need.
That subsidizing capital accumulation has become the only readily available way for most to act on compassion for others is perverse. Even if charity were extremely efficacious, which it is not, choosing between a modest sum of money and another human life is no choice at all. But it is one we are faced with because capitalists have already made their choice and shaped the world to suit it.
Effective Altruists like Singer begin and end their analysis at how to deal with moral dilemmas downstream from these dynamics. This is what makes Effective Altruism particularly pernicious.
Through its stunted social vocabulary and myopic focus on after-the-fact moral dilemmas, it advances a deeply flawed conception of our most pressing problems, shifting what ought to be an indictment of capital onto anyone with a modicum of expendable income.
The problem, apparently, isn’t that capitalism’s institutionalization of immoral maxims ends up leaving billions in poverty and hundreds of millions in existential need of food, water, shelter, and basic medical care.
Instead, the problem becomes that relatively affluent individuals haven’t bought those necessities from the capitalist class for the hundreds of millions that need them; the comparatively wealthy have been “living high and letting die” either out of ignorance of what their money could buy or out of weakness of will in the face of a consumerist society.
The solution, then, is to raise awareness of what money can buy and create a “culture of giving.” But this misdirects the impetus to address these issues into little more than a critique of personal spending habits.
That this critique of consumer purchases is theoretically compatible with a corollary critique of capital makes no practical difference. The target market of Effective Altruism, i.e. the relatively affluent, generally won’t move from the former to the latter without an argument. This ought to inform what prescriptions we issue and how we issue them.
Giving business a free pass yields absurd and regrettable results. For example, Singer’s latest book encourages well-intentioned, bright young adults to choose a career based on what they can accomplish through philanthropy and lobbying.
Their choices are, effectively, (a) “Join Wall Street [to] Save the World” or pursue a lucrative career with the intention of “earning to give,” (b) create or work for high-impact philanthropic organizations – including Effective Altruist groups, or (c) work in a narrow range of research, policy, or advocacy jobs congenial to capital.
Meanwhile, the capitalist class is transformed into our most potent possible savior, and the moral philosophers behind it all turn into accountants and marketers for charities with pretensions of “acting now to end world poverty” and figuring out “the most good you can do.”
This insidious state of affairs could be avoided if we just consistently applied the uncontroversial moral principle underlying Effective Altruism: we ought to help others when we can do so without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
In arguing for their prescriptions, Effective Altruists often cite influential philosophers and religious figures expounding this principle. One of these is Mencius, the foremost interpreter of the Confucian tradition, who is said to have confronted King Hui of Liang and said: “there are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, ‘It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year.’ In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying ‘It was not I; it was the weapon?’”
The principle implicit in this passage doesn’t just apply to those with a little expendable income — if it does at all. It applies more immediately to members of the capitalist class who, just like the king, make it their business to control what others need for life and a minimum standard of living. When people die from lack of food, clean water, and medical care, members of the capitalist class say, “it is not owing to me; it is owing to the market.”
Rather than asking how individual consumers can guarantee the basic sustenance of millions of people, we should be questioning an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable. Rather than solely creating an individualized “culture of giving,” we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.
We don’t have to accept capital’s terms for addressing its own problems or purported moral imperatives that presuppose them. We can overturn those terms completely.