Altruism’s blind spot

Lisa Herzog’s “(One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s)” won the 2015 third place prize awarded by 3 Quarks Daily for a philosophy blog post.

John Collins, the final judge for the contest, wrote of this post: “Moral theories that prescribe extreme versions of utilitarianism are sometimes criticized for being too demanding. Herzog’s focus is on a respect in which effective altruism appears to be not demanding enough. By taking existing social institutions and practices as simply given the effective altruist finds herself choosing from a ‘restaurant menu’ of given options, ignoring the possibility of deeper structural change. When the problem is construed as one of individual choice rather than collective action, such approaches will remain invisible.”

The winning blog posts were selected from these nine finalists.

Extreme altruism

The world is full of suffering. How far should you go to prevent the suffering of others, especially the suffering of strangers? Ought you spend way too much to enjoy a fancy coffee drink while children are dying of starvation? Larissa MacFarquhar discusses extreme altruism, illustrating her points with a fascinating example. “In wartime – or in a crisis so devastating that it resembles war, such as an earthquake or a hurricane – duty expands far beyond its peacetime boundaries. In wartime, it is thought dutiful rather than unnatural to leave your family for the sake of a cause. In ordinary times, to ask a person to sacrifice his life for a stranger seems outrageous, but in war it is commonplace. Acts that seem appallingly bad or appallingly good in normal circumstances become part of daily life. This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers; they know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.”