Pragmatism and Effective Altruism: An Essay on Epistemology and Practical Ethics

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Odera, John Aggrey

This paper hopes to provide an American Pragmatist reading of the Effective Altruism philosophy and movement. The criticism levied against Effective Altruism here begins from one of its founding principles, and extends to practical aspects of the movement. The utilitarian leaders of Effective Altruism consider Sidgwick’s ‘point of view of the universe’ an objective starting point of determining ethics. Using Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs), a popular measure in contemporary welfare economics, they provide a “universal currency for misery” for evaluating decisions. Through this method, one can calculate exactly the value of each moral decision by identifying which one yields more QALYs, and, apparently, objectively come to a conclusion about the moral worth of seemingly unrelated situations, for example, whether it is more moral to donate money so as to help women suffering from painful childbirth-induced fistulas, or to donate to starving children in famine-ridden areas. What’s more, not making the choice that yields more QALYs is “unfair” to those one could have helped more, thus immoral. This paper provides, first a pragmatist conception of epistemology (or lack of it), in contrast to the Sidgwickian one held by the utilitarian effective altruists, and then explores how holding either epistemological position affects our ethical viewpoints and actions. It argues that the utilitarian conception is the wrong place, and way, from which to view all ethical action. It contends that Effective Altruism, in seeking to reorder society to meet its abstractly conceived teleological utilitarian moral ideal (as measured by QALYs- a measure settled upon by the movement’s leaders), is undemocratic, and ultimately misses much of the complexity and messiness provided by contingencies, personal and cultural, that is present in, and important to, human life. Altruism done this way is atomizing and thoughtless; and it depicts to a high degree what William James referred to as a “certain blindness in human beings” - the lack of recognition that different things matter to different people, and that it is impossible to aggregate these claims relative to a moral standard that exists outside their particular individual and societal experiences. The paper then provides a pragmatist reading of meliorism, as found in the works of John Dewey, William James, Richard Rorty and Jane Addams; a view of meliorism that hearkens towards solidarity and not objectivity; one that is not only democratic, cognizant of contingencies and focused on habit, but also, by its insistence on viewing ourselves as members of communities and societies, saves us from the moral atomization of Effective Altruism and its insistence on individual moral responsibility and action in line with “objective truths”, as opposed to collective and political action to address contingent issues.

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This paper was part of the 2018-2019 Penn Humanities Forum on Stuff. Find out more at
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