Libertarians, Altruism, and Peter Singer

What does Singer's movement offer to libertarianism?

Australian philosopher Peter Singer is often considered to be a left-wing utilitarian. But I attended one of his lectures this month at Durham University, and it made me think twice. His presentation was aimed at promoting his latest book, The Most Good You Can Do, and its central theme: effective altruism. Libertarians should be interested in effective altruism for a number of reasons.

Effective altruism (EA) focuses on rationally evaluating the effectiveness of ways we can improve the world. Once the best methods are determined, effective altruists will devote significant amounts of their time and money to these causes.

The idea has manifested in various ways: EA organisations are assessing the impact of charities that claim to alleviate human and animal suffering, as well as providing career advice for those who want to make the greatest possible difference in their working lives.

But how well does effective altruism cohere with the principles of a free society?

The Case for EA: Voluntary, Universalist, Pro-Wealth Creation

In terms of political advocacy and dispositional attitudes, EA actually has a lot to offer libertarian thought. Evaluating the efficiency and impact of charity strengthens competition in the voluntary sector. Quantifying the results of charitable donations helps the altruistic “consumer” select the superior charitable “product.”

The increased availability of information puts competitive pressure on charities to maximise their return on investment. This translates into more lives saved and less suffering for the poorest people in the world. It also further highlights the capacity for non-coercive institutions to effectively and efficiently alleviate suffering.

Another shared component of EA and libertarianism is their avowedly universal outlook.

While governments inevitably place higher moral worth upon their citizens than the rest of the world, effective altruists and libertarians do not let arbitrary national borders determine whose well-being they should concern themselves with.

To this end, many EAs have strong links with the open borders movement: a cause that the newest generation of libertarians take especially seriously. Millennials, in addition to being Generation Libertarian, are also the primary demographic of the effective altruist movement.

Effective altruists’ career advice also yields some surprisingly libertarian conclusions.

During a TED talk, Peter Singer discussed the possibility of high-impact banking and financial careers. Leftists would not usually label banking as a particularly ethical career, but effective altruists understand that earning more allows you to give more.

Singer’s presentation at Durham used the example of an employee in the financial sector donating enough money to create a new position for a full-time aid worker, and compared this to the smaller marginal contribution of becoming an aid worker yourself.

Effective altruists and libertarians both recognize the importance of wealth creation, opportunity cost, and comparative advantage.

The Case against EA: Charity-centric, Consequentialist

Despite the noble intentions of effective altruists, both libertarians and non-libertarians have criticized the movement.

Chief among the objections is that EA’s emphasis on evaluation of charities neglects the importance of other factors in contributing to the alleviation of suffering in developing countries.

For example, some libertarians argue that mainstream development economics recommends institutional change rather than aid as the most effective means of combating poverty. If this is true, effective altruists will ironically have failed their professed rationality in determining even the correct focus of their work.

There is a kernel of truth to this objection, and effective altruists have responded by broadening their efforts to include policy advocacy (an example of which can be found in the Open Philanthropy project). One hopes that EA research will highlight the importance of traditionally libertarian policy goals in the developing world, such as promoting the rule of law and strong property rights, as the means to long-term wealth creation for the poor.

Even if charities were a particularly poor means of alleviating suffering when compared to institutional reforms, the very fact that effective altruism does place such importance on judging the value of such practices is reason enough to adopt its framework.

Of course, there are also very strong arguments as to why particular charities are extremely effective at reducing poverty. GiveDirectly has won praise from libertarians for not only improving the lives of the extremely poor, but also doing so in an non-paternalistic and empowering way. (It's also worth noting on the question of comparative effectiveness that aiding the poor directly will always be far easier to accomplish than changing the institutions of entire countries.)

A second objection to effective altruism involves a critique of the consequentialist moral philosophy that is sometimes used to justify it. Consequentialists judge the morality of actions by their consequences, as opposed to using universal rules or examining the character of the actor.

While it is worth noting that non-consequentialists can be (and are) effective altruists, the majority of EAs subscribe to a consequentialist ethical position.

A famous polemic against effective altruism was penned by Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator. In the piece, he argued that the cold, impersonal nature of consequentialism was the polar opposite of the altruistic disposition, and the EA attitude could “kill the very altruistic spirit it claims to foster.”

His argument ignores the fact that it is perfectly possible to maintain an altruistic spirit and still adhere to rational evaluation. And consequentialists could point out that their philosophy — properly understood — in fact requires a compassionate personality in order to motivate ethical action.

Empirically, the success of EA speaks for itself, and if you sympathize with its aims, I would encourage you to join me in taking the “Giving What We Can” pledge to donate 10% of all future income to effective charities. Even researching effective altruism and sharing the ideas of the movement with others will encourage rational evaluation of the methods by which we change the world. And that is something that libertarians can and should embrace.

Further Reading

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