Wharton's Brian Berkey discusses his recent research on effective altruism.

To help the least advantaged, is it enough to vote against public policies that seem unjust, or should individuals also give from their own pockets to charities even if they can only help a few people at a time? Brian Berkey, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, believes giving from one’s funds to help others is a moral obligation — and folks should channel their money toward the most effective charities.

Berkey says critics of this approach would rather attack an unjust institution or system to fix the root cause of the social malaise. But he says they are misguided, in part because it is difficult for their efforts to succeed. Shouldn’t a doctor still treat a wounded soldier on a battlefield instead of just protesting against the war? Berkey spoke to Knowledge at Wharton to discuss his reasoning in the paper, “The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism.”

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us what effective altruism is and why that’s important?

Brian Berkey: Effective altruism is a relatively recent social movement that is structured around some core philosophical commitments. Effective altruists believe, for example, that we should direct our charitable resources in ways that will do the most good, that will be most effective at achieving goals like helping the global poor or mitigating existential risk, addressing climate change and whatever we might think are the most morally important goals that we should be focused on.

Knowledge at Wharton: How is this different from how people generally give, for example? Aren’t they all effective and helpful?

Berkey: Well, not all ways of giving are particularly effective and helpful. Even among charitable organizations that do valuable work, some do much more good than others. Effective altruists are interested in developing knowledge about which organizations actually do the most good. So, if you’re going to direct resources to charities, you should think carefully and look at the empirical evidence that’s available about what’s actually accomplished by different charitable organizations so that, if you’re going to donate with the aim of, for example, helping the world’s worst-off people, it’s much better to give to an organization that, for every $5,000 will save three people’s lives than to an organization that, for example, requires $20,000 to save one person’s life.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was the goal of your paper? What did you set out to achieve?

Berkey: The basic idea that proponents of the institutional critique have is that effective altruism focuses too much on efforts to provide direct aid to people who are in need, and that this results in the neglect of efforts to address what they sometimes call the “root causes” of problems like global poverty. In particular, what they think we should be focusing more attention on are efforts to change global institutional structures that they think tend to entrench poverty, global inequality, and some of the other forms of global injustice — [issues] that both they and effective altruists want to address. There’s an extent to which I share the concern about global institutional injustice. But it’s important, as individuals who are deciding what to do with our time and resources, to think about the kinds of effects that our own efforts can actually have in the real world.

“Effective altruists are interested in developing knowledge about which organizations actually do the most good.”

If there were millions and millions of people all over the world committed to working together to reform unjust global economic institutions, then it would be much more likely that any particular individual would do more good by contributing to those efforts than by, for example, directing their time and money to more small-scale efforts to improve the lives of people who are suffering. But in a world in which that kind of political activity seems like it might be pretty unlikely to succeed, I think we have to think carefully about the likelihood that our efforts in that direction will actually succeed in accomplishing anything that really benefits people who are suffering, given that there are organizations that we can direct our time and resources to, that have proven records of doing a lot to help people in need.

For example, one of the organizations that effective altruists tend to recommend that people donate to is the Against Malaria Foundation that provides bed nets to prevent people from contracting malaria [from mosquitoes]. This is a very effective organization that clearly reduces the rate at which people are struck with malaria in parts of the world in which malaria is common. This is clearly a very good thing to do. And given that we have the opportunity to direct resources to an effort like that with a proven record of success in making life better for people who are badly off, we at least need to weigh the likelihood that other efforts will accomplish anything significant against the fact that there are ways that we can clearly do a fair amount of good.

So, one of the main aims of the paper is to defend some kind of principle that requires that we take probability of success into account when we’re deciding how we’re going to use our charitable resources and time and so on. And this is consistent with the principles that effective altruists tend to accept. And it’s not clear to me that proponents of the institutional critique can accept what seems like this pretty plausible principle that requires taking into account probability of success.

Knowledge at Wharton: One of the analogies you have in your paper was that of a doctor tending to a wounded soldier and being criticized for not addressing the root cause of war in the first place. But everyone knows that that’s kind of ridiculous. A doctor’s there to save lives. And even if he or she can only save a few lives on the field, they’re morally obligated to do so.

But you’re saying that the institutional critique would take aim at this very same doctor for not addressing the root causes of war, and then that’s kind of the basis for your paper.

Berkey: Right. This analogy is not one that I came up with myself. This comes from the philosopher Jeff McMahan, who makes an argument that’s at least somewhat similar to mine, in a piece in The Philosophers’ Magazine. He says that the claim that all of our efforts should always go toward addressing the root causes of some problem, which seems to be what many of the proponents of the institutional critique want to be suggesting, would imply that there’s something problematic about a doctor tending to wounded soldiers, rather than working to eliminate the root causes of war. And this seems deeply counterintuitive.

So, to the extent that the cases really are analogous, that provides, I think, a fair bit of support for effective altruism against the institutional critique. One of the things I’m trying to do in my paper is expand on this point that McMahan makes and address, somewhat more directly, the arguments that proponents of the institutional critique have offered.

Knowledge at Wharton: What led you to this exercise of looking into the institutional critique of effective altruism in the first place? Was it part of a bigger project, or you were just interested in the topic?

Berkey: It’s related to some previous work that I’ve done. I’ve written about ‘moral demandingness’ more generally. This is the issue of how much of, for example, our disposable income we’re obligated to direct to efforts to alleviate suffering around the world. I’ve argued that we should accept at least a fairly demanding view — a view that’s much more demanding than most people tend to accept, and certainly much more demanding than people’s behavior tends to reflect.

I’ve also done some work in political philosophy that aims to defend the view that principles of justice apply not only to matters of institutional policy and individuals’ strictly political activities like voting and similar things, but also to individuals’ behavior in day-to-day contexts. I think that individual efforts to directly improve the lives of badly off people can be required by principles of justice and can improve a society in terms of justice. It can make a society less unjust if people voluntarily, for example, give up some of their disposable income to help people who are among the worst off in society.

“It can make a society less unjust if people voluntarily … give up some of their disposable income to help people.”

That’s true even if nothing changes at the level of government policy. And that’s a view that’s relatively unpopular in contemporary political philosophy. I take the institutional critique of effective altruism to be at least part of the family of views endorsed by people who think that justice is, in some sense, fundamentally about institutions and not about how individuals behave within institutional structures. So, the paper responding to ‘The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism’ is, in some sense, part of my larger project of arguing that individual behavior within institutional structures is relevant to justice.

Knowledge at Wharton: In your paper, you also mention an inconsistency in the beliefs in the institutional critique of effective altruism. Can you explain that a little bit more?

Berkey: Toward the end of the paper, I suggest that there is something like an inconsistency in the way that the institutional critics aim to combine a demanding account of how the world needs to change in order to be just, and the kind of moderate account of individuals’ obligations that I think many of them also want to endorse. So, the basic thought is something like this: If the world requires radical changes in order to become just, it seems unclear how those changes could be brought about, unless individuals make pretty radical changes in the way that they live their lives, the values that drive their behavior, and so on.

Now, what the institutional critics seem to want is changes in individual behavior with respect to explicitly political conduct. They want individuals to start voting differently, to go out and protest more, to work together on campaigns to try to change institutional policy. But at least many of them don’t think that individuals are obligated to do things like give up a substantial portion of their income, regardless of whether the institutional structures change or not.

I don’t get to discuss this in a lot of detail in the paper. But there’s a worry about the motivational structure that would be necessary in order for people to be motivated to work toward the political changes that the institutional critics want to see while, at the same time, not being motivated to make sacrifices to directly help people in need. You might think that there’s something puzzling about a person who’s willing to vote to have their taxes increased dramatically, but not willing to just give up the money that they think the government should be taking when giving up the money voluntarily would do just as much good to help the people who we all agree are unjustly disadvantaged.

Knowledge at Wharton: Realistically speaking, many people actually do a little bit of both. They give directly, and they also vote according to what they believe in. So, what are some practical takeaways you can give to our listeners in how they can use the argument set forth in your paper to become a better person, or a better giver, to, let’s say, the global poor, the disadvantaged.

Berkey: It’s great that many people are engaged in the kind of political activity that the institutional critics support. I should be clear that the aim of my paper is certainly not to discourage people from getting involved in politics and working for the kinds of institutional changes that would make the world more just. I think that’s an important thing for people to be doing. I just think it’s also important that people take seriously the good that can be done by directing some of their disposable income to organizations that more directly help people who are in need.

One of the takeaways of the paper is that both of these things are valuable and both might even be morally required. I encourage people to look at the websites of effective altruist organizations like GiveWell and Giving What We Can for recommendations on places to direct charitable donations that the evidence suggests are especially effective at helping people in need.

“This is the issue of how much of … our disposable income we’re obligated to direct to efforts to alleviate suffering.”

Knowledge at Wharton: How will you follow up this research?

Berkey: I’ve got another paper that I’ve been working on that defends the view that, as a social movement, effective altruism can be at least relatively ecumenical with respect to philosophical commitments, in particular, commitments in moral and political philosophy. One of the other criticisms of effective altruism that has been raised by some critics is that it’s a project of people committed to a very specific theory in moral philosophy, namely, utilitarianism, the view that what we should aim to do is maximize total happiness in the world. And it’s true that many of the people who’ve been involved prominently in the effective altruism movement are utilitarians.

But effective altruism is concerned primarily with beneficence, with the reasons that we have to help people in need. And you don’t have to be a utilitarian to think that we have strong reasons to help people who are suffering or victims of injustice or disadvantaged in some other way. In fact, I think believing that we have demanding requirements of beneficence is consistent with a wide range of commitments in ethical theory.

And so in this second paper on effective altruism, I aim to defend that view and to suggest that effective altruists themselves should highlight the fact more than they’ve made the effort to do to this point — that their core philosophical commitments are consistent with a broad range of views in ethics, and the core is really just a certain view about the strength of our reasons for helping people in need and the view that our decision-making should be guided by the best empirical evidence available about what will most effectively help people.