The MWS Podcast 37: Marek Duda from the Centre for Effective Altruism

Today’s guest is Marek Duda from the Centre for Effective Altruism. He talks about what Effective Altruism is, it’s five main principles, counters some of the more common objections against giving to aid organisations and how this all might be related to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 37: Marek Duda as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_37_Marek_Duda

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

One thought on “The MWS Podcast 37: Marek Duda from the Centre for Effective Altruism

  1. I’m glad that we’re entering into discussion of these important moral issues here. This interview makes clear, to anyone who may doubt it, some of the ways in which moral philosophy may have a direct practical effect on our lives. At the same time I have a lot of reservations about Marek’s approach, which is basically utilitarian. Although he said something like “you don’t have to be a utilitarian to practise effective altruism”, many of the assumptions he was making in practice do require you to be a utilitarian. One thing I often feel about utilitarians is that my path runs alongside theirs for many miles, and that they’re good people to have a helpful dialogue with. But there’s also a point where my path diverges from theirs.

    The central divergence is that utilitarians do not generally start with embodied experience. Instead they will start with a God’s eye view, attempting to leap to an absolutely objective position from which to make judgements, rather than fully taking into account the limitations of our judgement. This is illustrated here by Marek’s use of terms like ‘impartiality’ and ’cause neutrality’. These principles may sound fine in theory, but we cannot actually act in this way given that we have bodies and (along with that) extremely limited sympathies and perspectives. To expect us to adopt these principles is a recipe for alienation. He also said that the distance away of the targets of our giving is not morally relevant. This is pie in the sky: of course it’s morally relevant, because we are situated. To try to do ethics in this rationalised, calculative way is to fail to face up to important shaping conditions in the very way we make moral judgements. In important ways charity does ‘begin at home’: though that doesn’t mean it should stop there.

    To go back even further to the roots of the issue, Marek says nothing about what altruism actually is, whether the term makes any sense at all, and what might motivate us in practice to be altruistic. For me the very idea of altruism seems based on a false dichotomy with self-interest. To help myself is not necessarily to cease to help others, and may indeed be doing so in the most ‘effective’ way given the specific conditions I’m working with. For example, someone who chooses to be a hermit relying on others’ charity and having very limited contact with them may be helping others most effectively as well as themselves. It is only if we have a very restricted view of ourselves as having unintegrated desires and interests that ‘altruism’, as a contrasting policy, makes any sense at all, and rejecting that limited view of myself is central to my understanding of the Middle Way.

    On the whole, then, I find Marek’s approach very idealised and narrowly rationalised. I’m not sure that it will actually result in more people being helped more effectively, because to help more people more effectively you need more people who are integrated. Just giving them idealised principles about how to do that will not necessarily do much to even improve their judgements about charitable giving, because they need to want to give in the first place, and their actual judgements about how to give are not made in rational abstraction. Utilitarians will often give a brief nod to psychology, as Marek does here, but only to fit it into the rationalised moral system they have already created. To understand and work with ethical action in a useful way you need to start with a perspective into which psychological understanding about how we make judgements is integrated, not just bolt that understanding onto a moral theory based on naive eighteenth-century assumptions about the independence of rationality.

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