Charity vs. Revolution: Effective Altruism and the Systemic Change Objection

  • Timothy SymeEmail author


Effective Altruism (EA) encourages affluent people to make significant donations to improve the wellbeing of the world’s poor, using quantified and observational methods to identify the most efficient charities. Critics argue that EA is inattentive to the systemic causes of poverty and underestimates the effectiveness of individual contributions to systemic change. EA claims to be open to systemic change but suggests that systemic critiques, such as the socialist critique of capitalism, are unhelpfully vague and serve primarily as hypocritical rationalizations of continued affluence. I reformulate the systemic change objection, rebut the charges of vagueness and bad faith and argue that charity may not be worth doing at all from a purely altruistic perspective. In order to take systemic change seriously, EA must repudiate its narrowly empiricist approach, embrace holistic, interpretive social analysis and make inevitably controversial judgments about the complex dynamics of collective action. These kinds of evidence and judgment cannot be empirically verified but are essential to taking systemic change seriously. EA is thereby forced to sacrifice its a-political approach to altruism. I also highlight the importance of quotidian, extra-political contributions to perpetuating or changing harmful social practices. Radical efforts to resist, subvert and reconstruct harmful social practices, such as those involved in economic decision-making, could be just as effective and demanding as charity. But such efforts may be incompatible with extensive philanthropy, because they can require people to retain some level of affluence for strategic reasons but to repudiate both the acquisition of significant wealth and charity as is currently organized. The wealth and status of some critics of charity may indeed be incompatible with effectively contributing to social change, but the altruistic merits of charity are neither as obvious nor as easily demonstrated as EA believes.


Effective altruism Structural injustice Peter Singer Capitalism Socialism Resistance Charity Philanthropy 



  1. Alexander, Scott, 2015, ‘Beware Systemic Change’ Slatestarcodex. Accessed 5/11/2018
  2. Ashford E (2000) Utilitarianism, integrity and partiality. J Philos 97(8):421–439Google Scholar
  3. Ashford, E, 2018, ‘Severe poverty as an unjust emergency’, woodruff (ed.) The Ethics of Giving: Philosophers' Perspectives on Philanthropy. Oxford, OUPGoogle Scholar
  4. Berkey B (2017) The institutional critique of effective altruism. Utilitas:1–29Google Scholar
  5. Burlingame, D. F. (ed.), 1992. The Responsibilities of Wealth. Bloomington, IA: Indiana University PressGoogle Scholar
  6. Carey R (ed) (2015) The effective altruism handbook. The Centre for Effective Altruism, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  7. Chappell R (2016) Effective altruism, radical politics and radical philanthropy. In: Philosophyetc Accessed 5 Nov 2018
  8. della Porta D, Diani M (2015) The Oxford handbook of social movements. OUP, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Diani M (1992) The concept of social movement. Sociol Rev 40(1):1–25Google Scholar
  10. Gabriel I (2017) Effective altruism and its critics. J Appl Philos 34(4):457–473Google Scholar
  11. Gilabert, P., 2011, ‘Debate: feasibility and socialism. J Polit Philos, 19 (2011): pp. 52–63Google Scholar
  12. Gilabert P, Lawford-Smith H (2012) Political feasibility: a conceptual exploration. Political Studies 60:809–825Google Scholar
  13. Gomberg P (2013) The fallacy of philanthropy. Can J Philos 32(1):29–65Google Scholar
  14. Haslanger S (2016) What is a (social) structural explanation? Philos Stud 173:113–130Google Scholar
  15. Hilliard, David, (ed.), 2008, The Black Panther Party Service to the People Programs. Oakland, CA: The Dr. Huey P. Newton FoundationGoogle Scholar
  16. Hunt T (2009) Marx’s general: the revolutionary life of Friedrich Engels. Metropolitan Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Jost JT, Banaji MR (1994) The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. Br J Soc Psychol 33(1):1–27Google Scholar
  18. Kagan S (2011) Do I make a difference? Philos Public Aff 39(2):105–141Google Scholar
  19. Karnofsky, Holden 2013. Flow through effects. The GiveWell Blog. Accessed 5/11/2018
  20. Kissel J (2017) Effective altruism and anti-capitalism: an attempt at reconciliation. Essays in Philosophy 18(1)Google Scholar
  21. Klandermans, B. and Roggeband, C. (eds.), 2010, Handbook of social movements across disciplines. New York: SpringerGoogle Scholar
  22. Kuper A (2002) More than charity: cosmopolitan alternatives to the “Singer solution”. Ethics Int Aff 16(1):107–120Google Scholar
  23. Levy R (1991) Structure-blindness: a non-ideological component of false consciousness. Int J Sociol Soc Policy 11:61–74Google Scholar
  24. MacAskill, William. (2013) ‘What Warren Buffet’s son doesn’t understand about the world.’ Accessed 5/11/2018
  25. MacAskill W (2014) Replaceability, career choice, and making a difference. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 17(2):269–283Google Scholar
  26. MacAskill, William (2015) Doing good better: Effective altruism and how you can make a difference. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2015Google Scholar
  27. MacAskill, William and Singer, Peter, 2015, ‘Introduction’ in Carey, Ryan (ed.), The effective altruism handbook. Oxford: The Centre for Effective Altruism, 2015Google Scholar
  28. Mason P (2015) Postcapitalism: a guide to our future. Penguin Random House, LondonGoogle Scholar
  29. McMahan J (2016) Philosophical critiques of effective altruism. The Philosophers’ Magazine 72(2):92–99Google Scholar
  30. Nair, Yasmin, 2017, The dangerous academic is an extinct species. Current Affairs. Accessed 5 Nov 2018
  31. Pogge T (2014) Are we violating the human rights of the World’s poor? Yale Human Rights and Development Journal 14(2):1–33Google Scholar
  32. Pummer T (2016) Whether and where to give. Philos Public Aff 44(1):77–95Google Scholar
  33. Radzik L (2012) On the virtue of minding our own business. J Value Inq 46:173–182Google Scholar
  34. Rubenstein, Jennifer. C. ‘The lessons of effective altruism. Ethics Int Aff, 30, 4 (2016): pp511–526, 511Google Scholar
  35. Schervish PG (ed) (1994) Wealth in Western thought: the case for and against riches. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CTGoogle Scholar
  36. Singer P (1972) Famine, affluence, and morality. Philos Public Aff 1(3):229–243Google Scholar
  37. Singer P (2010) The life you can save: how to do your part to end world poverty. Random House, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Singer, Peter, 2015, The most good you can do: how effective altruism is changing ideas about living ethically. New Haven, CT: Yale University PressGoogle Scholar
  39. Snow, Matthew, 2015. ‘Against charity. Jacobin. Accessed 5/11/2018
  40. Srinivasan, Amia. (2015) ‘Stop the Robot Apocalypse. London Review of Books 37, 2015, pp. 3–6 Accessed 5/11/2018
  41. Syme T (2017) The pervasive structure of society. Philosophy & Social Criticism 44(8):888–924Google Scholar
  42. Teles, Steven and Schmitt, Mark. (2011) The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy. Stanf Soc Innov Rev, Summer, 2011Google Scholar
  43. Wiblin, Robert. (2015) ‘Effective altruists love systemic change’ in 80,000 Hours Blog, 2015. Accessed 5/11/2018

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IE UniversityMadridSpain

Personalised recommendations