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Effective Altruism and the Altruistic Repugnant Conclusion

31 January 2017


Effective altruism is committed to Altruistic Maximization – the claim that any impact of giving to charities ought to be maximized at the margins and counterfactually. This may lead to counterintuitive or contradictory conclusions in certain cases. For instance, when we can bring about a substantial benefit to few or a tiny benefit to a larger number at the same cost, spreading of benefits across a great number of recipients can compensate substantial loss for fewer people. However, sometimes the perspective of widely spreading tiny benefits instead than giving substantial benefits to small groups is counterintuitive, and repugnantly wrong. Call this the ‘Altruistic Repugnant Conclusion.’ Standard solutions to the Repugnant Conclusion do not work if applied to the Altruistic Repugnant Conclusion. The Altruistic Repugnant Conclusion can be rebutted by giving up on the idea that judgements on such cases should be precise. But imprecision undermines Altruistic Maximization. Hence a dilemma for effective altruists follows: either they accept some strongly counterintuitive judgments—weakening the attractiveness of their position—or they give up on the maximizing requirement, thus admitting sub-optimal contributions.


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