Better Altruism through Effective Ethics

It is tremendously difficult to get people to care about suffering that exists beyond their reach; out of sight, out of mind – even when it comes to global suffering. As a society, we are aware that much of the world is starving but may not feel as guilty for not giving to charities that aid distant strangers as we would for not giving to a friend in need.

Drs Pummer and Ashford from the School of Philosophy challenge these instincts, defending the equal moral worth of distant individuals, and the importance of providing help where it is needed most. It’s hard to deny that starving strangers are far more in need of our help and money, even if our ambivalence tells us otherwise.

Effective altruism

Dr Ashford argues that there is no reason why we should view individuals who are physically distant from us as having less moral worth. In fact, we should give priority to enhancing the quality of life and wellbeing of those who are severely impoverished. Ashford tells us that the way society is currently structured fails to uphold human rights and that the affluent have a moral obligation to attempt to reform these social structures. Dr Pummer further claims that because mass reform can take a very long time, affluent individuals are currently under a duty to aid distant needy individuals by giving to NGOs. This moral responsibility is not only to give more, but to give to more cost-effective charities. We may be tempted to give a large sum to saving an individual’s life, but the reality is that the same amount of money can save dozens of lives if given to an effective life-saving charity, perhaps focused on provision of food or medicine. Pummer suggests it is wrong to ineffectively use the money we choose to donate, even in cases where it would not be wrong to not donate at all.

Justification for effective altruism: The arm donor

Pummer’s argument that it can be wrong to give money ineffectively even when it is okay not give at all relies on an appeal to a case he calls the Arm Donor:

There is one innocent stranger stuck on track A, and a runaway train headed straight towards her. There are one hundred innocent strangers stuck on track B, and another runaway train headed straight toward them. If you do nothing, all 101 people will die. However, your arm happens to be powerful enough to be able to stop runaway trains! You have no other way to save these people… but your arm, which you depend on for your livelihood (say you’re a professional violinist or a painter), will suffer severe, irrecoverable injuries if used to stop either train. You can only use your arm to stop the train on either track A or track B.

Pummer tells us that it is not morally wrong to do nothing – as we depend on our arm for our livelihood and view the loss of It as a tremendous loss. However, he suggests it is wrong to choose to stop the train on track A. All other things being equal, it is wrong to save one life when there was the chance to save one hundred. Stopping the train on track A in this case is a moral failure. This idea can be summarised as the following principle:

It is wrong to perform an act that is much worse than another, if it is no costlier to you to perform the better act, and if all other things are equal.

Pummer argues that this principle also applies to charitable giving; in a range of cases, it is wrong to give a sum of money to a charity that saves fewer lives when we can give the same amount of money to a charity that saves many more.

Ashford and Pummer’s work has influenced the research and outreach strategies of two NGOs focused on effective altruism. Through a series of public events and workshops, Pummer forged connections with the Centre for Effective Altruism, helping them grow their network of researchers focused on helping others the most through giving, volunteering, as well as through one’s career choice. The Centre has encouraged the movement of approximately 1 billion US dollars to effective charities. Additionally, Ashford and Pummer have helped to produce an online database to facilitate outreach and lesson planning on effective altruism. Their work gives the world a guide to charitable giving: providing clear, justified guidelines as to where we should give our money and time. This has had an effect on thousands of lives: an impact whose worth is undeniably invaluable.

Read Theron’s article in The Conversation, “Effective giving: how the world’s wealthy could help millions more people for free”.

This work contributed to the University of St Andrews’ REF 2021 submission.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a system which assesses research at UK Higher Education Institutions by discipline, based on three elements: outputs, impact and environment. This blogpost is based upon an impact case study that contributed to St Andrews’ outstanding results this REF cycle. Visit REF to view the submitted case study in the UKRI’s impact case study database.

Follow us on Twitter!

Our Research Impact Twitter page posts regular updates on new blog posts, so you can stay up to date on the University’s groundbreaking research.