Effective Altruism: The Good, Bad, & Ugly
As a framework for action, effective altruism has both many benefits and drawbacks. According to the philosophy, it is important to prioritize issues that cause a significant impact on many peoples’ lives, are not addressed to the degree that they warrant, and are highly solvable. Moreover, effective altruism stresses that time, money, and energy are highly expendable resources, and we should be mindful of how to use the least amount of them while still making the largest impact.
As for critiques of this line of thinking, the framework proposed for choosing which causes to focus on inevitably leaves out many other topics that require action. For example, climate change likely does not fit perfectly into this framework, seeing that it is not easily solvable in many ways. First of all, it is a highly complex issue with many actors and stakeholders, and thus will require “clumsy solutions” in order to find compromise. Second of all, even if we stopped emitting all fossil fuels today global temperatures would continue to increase. Therefore, seeing that there is no easy fix and even the most radical action would still lead to warming, climate change does not qualify as an easily solvable problem.
Additionally, we found it strange that the framework left out “urgency” as a key decision influencer. Again looking at the example of climate change, taking action as soon as possible is required, as every minute that goes by that we don’t act it becomes less and less manageable. Moreover, seeing how many people and non-human actors are bound to be impacted by climate change, we feel that the urgency of the situation should override the fact that it is not an easily solvable problem.
It is also important to note that effective altruism encourages people to donate as much money as they can to causes that follow the framework they set up. Seeing that many people cannot afford to donate money to charities due to various reasons, this reasoning thus excludes many lower-income individuals, and makes them feel as though they cannot make an impact. Moreover, this emphasis on individual action ultimately misdirects the blame of the world’s issues on to the individual, while in reality large corporations and members of the 1% should be the ones being held accountable.
Finally, we found effective altruism’s emphasis on working to support causes based on how much impact you can make with minimal resources, instead of choosing to support causes you are passionate about, to be highly problematic. Although the Effective Altruism website listed mental health as an important problem to be acted on, this philosophy would in fact directly contribute to increased mental health problems, thus leading to an increased strain on mental health resources. In short, telling people not to pursue what they are passionate about on a purely utilitarian basis will likely lead to heightened stress and depression for many, therefore making people less effective.
The Role of Effective Altruism in Conversation Projects
The Oregon Humanities Conversation Project employs tools of engagement and discussion to determine what would be effective action, in terms of what issues are most important to a certain community and what issues are felt by community members to be neglected. Taking these aspects into account allows us to determine the solvability of an issue, as issues that are felt to be most important to a community will receive greater support from highly-motivated community members and other concerned parties. Therefore, the Conversation Project could be understood as a preliminary community survey about opinions/concerns about the issues that are impacting them.
A current Conversation Project, “The Meaning of Climate Change” with David Osborn, is a perfect example of interaction with effective action. The goal of Osborn’s project is to lead a discussion “exploring different meanings of climate change and how our understandings of meaning relates to action”(Osborn 2018). He describes the meanings we construct about climate change as affecting, “how we think about it, our feelings about it and our willingness to take action” (Osborn 2018).
Even with information that Oregon Humanities clearly states about their Conversation Project, there are questions that we want to raise about how they measure their effectiveness. How many participants have taken part in the project annually or since the it started? Have there been instinctive of aggravation in a conversation project before? If so, how does the host or the facilitator handle the situation? On the contrary, have there been any great experiences where people with different perspectives were able to come to an agreement? These are some of concepts that we are wondering about the organization which we hope we are able to answer once we contact and begin to work with them.
Moreover, the role we will play in engaging with Oregon Humanities will likely be influenced by how we can make the greatest impact for their organization. It would be fun to design a Conversation Project or series, perhaps what the organization needs most right now is funding or advertising in order to further their reach. Therefore, after discussing how we can be of greatest assistance to them, we will then plan a course of action.