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Week 6: What Might We be Missing? 


“It is one of the unfortunate truisms of the human condition that there is hardly a good idea, noble impulse, or sound suggestion that can't be (and isn't eventually) adopted and bastardized by zealots… One iteration of this tendency is in the idea of “effective altruism.” We believe a more accurate phrase for this concept is “defective altruism” and will therefore use that term for the remainder of this article.”

- K. Berger & R. M. Penna

This week, we’ll read and discuss critiques of effective altruism, and criticisms of how some people try to implement EA. We are dedicating a week to this because, to whatever extent we are wrong, it would be good to know. Honestly reckoning with strong counter arguments (from both within and outside of the EA community) can help us avoid confirmation bias and groupthink, and get us a little closer to identifying the most effective ways to do good. Such critiques have led to important changes in what many EAs do: for example, many EAs now prioritize longtermism because strong arguments against short-termism were made, and GiveWell polled a sample of its recipients on how they would make moral tradeoffs in response to criticisms that it shouldn’t make moral tradeoffs on behalf of the people its recommended charities benefit.

(The article which produced the above quote is not included in this week’s readings, because we consider it one of the weaker criticisms of effective altruism.)

Core Materials


Organisation spotlight: Global Priorities Institute

The Global Priorities Institute (GPI) is a multidisciplinary research institute. It conducts foundational research to inform the decision-making of those seeking to do as much good as possible. The institute seeks to ensure that the ideas of EA and their applications can withstand intellectual criticism.

GPI’s research areas include:

  • Assessing the idea of longtermism and its applications

  • Investigating value questions of how people should act when they are uncertain about what will happen and what is right

  • Examining the relationships between economic growth and well-being


Over the last few weeks we’ve covered a lot of material. Ethical and moral philosophy foundations of effective altruism, ways of thinking and frameworks for comparing between causes and determining the best way to direct our resources and actions, and some top priority causes using the EA framework. 


What are your biggest questions, concerns, and criticisms based on what we’ve discussed so far? These can be about the EA framework/community, specific ideas or causes, anything you’d like!


Please bring these with you to discuss in your next meeting!

Recommended reading 


And then by week (these match up with the “criticisms” readings you may have seen each week, pick whichever are most interesting or relevant to you):


Week 1 - The Effectiveness Mindset

  • Growth and the case against randomista development - An argument against RCT-based charities. Claims that research on and advocacy for economic growth in low- and middle-income countries is more cost-effective than the things funded by proponents of randomised controlled trials development. (60 mins - if you’re short on time, read Sections 1-3)


Week 2 - Differences in Impact


Week 3 - Expanding Our Compassion

  • The Narrowing Circle (see here for summary and discussion) - A critique of the moral expansion thesis, which argues that the “expanding circle” historical thesis ignores all instances in which modern ethics narrowed the set of beings to be morally regarded, often backing its exclusion by asserting their non-existence, and thus assumes its conclusion. (30 mins.)


Week 4 - What We Owe the Future


Week 5 - Existential Risk

More to explore

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