• Effective altruism states that privileged people should donate excess money to charities that have the biggest impact.
  • Effective altruisms strong focus on charitable donations has been criticised for ignoring, and in some cases possibly contributing to, social and political injustices that cause inequities.
  • Effective altruists should include selective ascetic activism to their toolkit to balance out their focus on donations.

Take Home Message

Effective altruism has pros and cons, but if we intend to create a better world we will need to do more than just donate to the most effective charities.

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Animal Status

No animals were harmed for this research.

What does effective altruism have to do with veganism? Well, it’s where the effective animal activist movement stems from. It’s a movement that’s growing in popularity and has a lot to offer non-human animals, so it’s certainly worth keeping up with the literature in this space. I think the essay discussed here has some topics that will be of interest not only to effective altruists but also effective animal activists.

In a recent essay Kathryn Muyskens from Nanyang Technological University suggests an expansion of the effective altruists toolkit through the use of what they term, selective ascetic activism.

A brief summary of the essay.

Metal box with donations written on the sideEffective altruism is a growing global movement that’s focussed on creating a better world by providing charitable donations to activities where the money will ‘do the most good’. The fundamental premise is that people with more money than they need should donate the excess money to charities that have the biggest impact. Which certainly sounds like a good and reasonable thing to do.

The idea that wealthy people should be morally compelled to share that wealth with people in need seems like a very reasonable idea. Effective altruism builds on this premise and suggests that if we are going to give our money to those in need then it  should go to where it will have the largest impact possible.

In support of this idea organisations like GiveWell have been set up to help people identify what the most effective forms of charity are. They conduct research into determining which charities are most cost-effective and therefore the ones that should receive our charitable donations.

The critics of effective altruisms point out that such evaluations of the very complex nature of poverty are too simplistic. At best it ignores the political and structural issues that underlie poverty and at worst it could actually cause more harm than good. Another issue is that their evaluation methods bias them towards charities whose work is easy to measure. Which means important areas of development, like education, are purposefully dismissed.

The author suggests that the giving promoted by effective altruism could be complemented by alternative opportunity for creating change, i.e. selective ascetic activism. Selective ascetic activism describes the active choice of refraining from consuming products that contribute significantly to the world’s problems. For instance, choosing to be vegan and end the use of animals products. It’s a purposeful abstinence from rampant consumerism as a form of activism against problematic systems that profit from the exploitation of the planet and others.

Effective altruism has also lead to the idea of earning to give where some people purposefully seek high paying jobs so that they can give more. The earning to give approach is criticised for ignoring the contribution to systemic inequality and structural violence that it contributes too. The symptoms of which the movement ultimately ends up attempting to treat.

The author also suggests that the premise of working a high paying job and giving the majority of the earnings to effective charities is not inherently a good thing. The context of the job must also be considered, particularly if the job has significant negative impacts on others or reinforces social injustices. However, a conscious decision to advocate for structural reform within a problematic workplace would lessen these issues.

Finally, the essay suggests that effective altruisms focus on donations and earning to give may be limiting its potential. While donations are an important aspect for creating change in the world it’s also necessary to complement giving by actively rejecting consumerism which negatively impacts the world.

My thoughts, take them or leave them.

While the message of this essay was simple and as the author states was ‘not an entirely novel thing to say’, it was an enjoyable read. It clearly described several criticisms of effective altruism and offered selective ascetic activism as a way of balancing the movements heavy focus on donation. 

With that said, I personally don’t see how the addition of selective ascetic activism deals with the lack of consideration for political and structural complexities in effective altruism. While consumer choice can certainly have market impacts it doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in the social, political and structural injustices that perpetuate inequality. But, I am probably just missing something about the essay.

While we should certainly give to those in need and actively avoid contributing to problematic systems, we should also be actively working on social and political change in relation to the wicked problems we face. I believe this will require more than market based approaches of giving and avoiding.

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Adam with his beautiful cat Fabi

Dr Adam Cardilini

I’m a scientist, teacher and activist. My training is in ecological and environmental science, but I love all science and enjoy sharing it with others.

Title: The Other Half of Effective Altruism: Selective Asceticism

Authors: Kathryn Muyskens

Journal: Essays in Philosophy

Date PublishedJanuary 31, 2017


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Research Type

Peer-reviewed research