by Dominic Roser
Effective altruism is often accused of being too demanding. Critics say that effective altruism requires us to give up all kinds of expenses, such as fancy meals out, unnecessary-but-nice pairs of shoes or even expensive birthday presents. Furthermore, effective altruism makes demands on our time and relationships: hobbies like gardening and important decisions like starting a family may not be the most effective use of our lives.
Critics say that this is asking too much of people. They argue that no serious ethical theory could have such radical implications for our spending, time or relationships – and therefore we should reject effective altruism. This ‘demandingness objection’ comes in many forms, and I will discuss some Christian responses to two of these which aim to rescue effective altruism from this attack.
Effective altruism is too demanding and so must be false
Criticism: This view sees effective altruism’s demandingness as a reason to reject it outright. Supporters of this view would say something like; “If a moral theory places much heavier demands on us than we are typically willing to bear, this makes the theory implausible to start with.” Here is one rationale for such a view: We typically think of ourselves as essentially decent people. We are not Hitlers or Stalins. Sure, we occasionally make mistakes, we sometimes betray friends and we could donate a bit more money, but on the whole we are doing OK. Sometimes, we even go beyond the call of duty. But if effective altruism is true, we all fall horrifically short of what is morally required of us. Since we know we are in fact not radical failures, effective altruism must be mistaken.
Response: From a Christian perspective, the idea that humans have fallen radically short of morality’s requirements is anything but implausible. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” The prophet Jeremiah says: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Jesus does not praise the Pharisee who assumes that he is essentially a decent person, but instead praises the tax collector who beat his breast and said: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Thus, from a Biblical perspective, the fact that effective altruism seems ‘demanding’ is not in itself a reason to reject it outright – rather it’s quite to the contrary.
Effective altruism is too demanding – it would never work in practice
Criticism: In response to the above, other critics of effective altruism might say “Sure, effective altruism is technically correct in being immensely demanding, but trying to put it into practice would crush our spirits.” In other words, instead of inspiring us to do more good, effective altruism could make us depressed. This makes effective altruism practically useless, and therefore a bad moral theory.
Response: In many ways, this challenge to effective altruism is spot on: there is something depressing about our moral failures. However, isn’t this tension – between moral demands and our failure to live up to them – precisely one of the core existential challenges to which Christianity provides an answer? As Christians, our souls can be completely guilty and completely well at the same time. Because of Jesus we can face our utter failure and still be happy, liberated, and full of energy to change the world for the better. Grace cuts the link between the acknowledgement of our radical insufficiency on the one hand and a crushed spirit on the other.
Most secular moral thinking does not engage much with the topic of personally coming to terms with failure. This would be particularly important for EA-type moral theories. Thus, in this respect, I think Christianity really has something to offer to effective altruism.
Furthermore, effective altruism wants people to be effective, not depressed. This means that good effective altruists recognise their limitations and the human need for rest, motivation, relationships, rewards and realistic targets. Rather than being overwhelmed by the scale of the moral challenges we face, effective altruism encourages us to recognise our limitations as humans and nonetheless do the best we can.
From a Christian perspective it is neither implausible nor regrettable that effective altruism is very demanding. Interestingly, some people have dismissed the problem of demandingness by stating that their commitment is really to “excited altruism” rather than effective altruism. Excited altruism is not driven by a sense of duty but rather by the joy, meaning, and excitement which comes with altruism.
Is it possible to be excited and enthusiastic while remaining committed to the scale of effective altruism’s moral demands? In practice it might be difficult to sustain these competing motivations simultaneously. From a Christian perspective, however, it’s not an either-or. One motivation mustn’t crowd out the other. Knowing that our duties are extremely demanding (and plausibly so!) doesn’t crush our lightness and joy in striving to fulfil them. Luther describes the vision perfectly: “Thus from faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbour voluntarily”. That’s grace. It makes all the difference.