Money, Justice, and Effective Altruism

“In all ages of speculation, one of the strongest obstacles to the reception of the doctrine that Utility or Happiness is the criterion of right and wrong, has been drawn from the idea of Justice.” This is from John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, in 1861, perhaps the most renowned exposition of the ethical theory that stands behind the contemporary movement that calls itself “effective altruism,” known widely as EA. Mill’s point is powerful and repercussive. I will return to the challenge that justice poses to utilitarianism presently. But first, what is effective altruism?  The two hubs of the movement are Oxford and Princeton. Oxford is home to the Centre for Effective Altruism, founded in 2012 by Toby Ord and William MacAskill, and Princeton is where Peter Singer, who provides the philosophical inspiration for EA, has taught for many years. Singer is EA’s most direct philosophical source, but it has deeper if less direct sources in the thought of the Victorian moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick and the contemporary moral philosopher Derek Parfit, who died a few years ago. Sidgwick gave utilitarianism a rigorous formulation as well as a philosophically sophisticated grounding. He showed that utilitarianism need not depend, as it did in Bentham and Mill, on an implausible naturalism that seeks to reduce ethics to an empirical science.  Parfit was strongly influenced by Sidgwick, as indeed is Singer.  Parfit’s Reasons and Persons was important for several reasons. When it was published in 1984, moral and political philosophy was under the influence of John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice had appeared in 1971 in the wake of the civil rights and other social justice movements. Rawls’ notion of “justice as fairness” provided the first systematic alternative to utilitarianism and a seemingly persuasive critique of it.  Utilitarianism, Rawls argued, did not take sufficiently seriously

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