Effective Altruism (EA), one of the latest movements in the aid efficacy debate, is in reality not much more than a 21st Century version of 19th Century utilitarianism. And while utilitarianism has some value as an ethical theory, it should not be used to dictate all ethical decisions. In the same way, EA has some value, but is not the metanarrative for aid efficacy that its advocates would like us to think.

The fundamental tenet of EA is that we should make decisions regarding our charitable giving based on the effectiveness of the charities we support. Such effectiveness is measured numerically by means of the outcomes achieved per dollar of support that is provided. EA is therefore a form of consequentialism and beneficial outcomes might include measures such as Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs). Health outcomes are not the only ones that EA advocates champion, but they are one of the most prevalent as they have a good pedigree in the medical literature. EA especially likes the use of randomized controlled trials in evaluating the outcomes of development interventions.

While this approach seems perfectly reasonable, it falls foul of precisely the same critiques that have been leveled at 19th Century utilitarianism — namely that humans are notoriously bad at predicting and assessing all the relevant outcomes of their activities. So these are the reasons I reject EA:

  1. Not everything that is beneficial is measurable
  2. EA ignores the wider impacts of our activity
  3. EA does nothing to address the root causes of poverty

Read the full article about the downsides of Effective Altruism by Justin Thacker at DrJustinThacker.com.