Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, by David Edmonds, was published a few days ago (Amazon | Audible | Goodreads | Oxford).

Parfit | Princeton University PressThe book is worth reading in full, but here are some passages that focus specifically on Parfit's involvement with effective altruism:[1]

In his retirement, an organization with which he felt a natural affinity approached him for support. The Oxford-based charity Giving What We Can (GWWC) was set up by Toby Ord, an Australian-born philosopher, and another young philosopher, Will MacAskill. The charity's direct inspiration came from Peter Singer. Singer had devised a thought experiment that was simple but devastatingly effective in making people reflect on their behavior and their attitude to those in need. [...]

This thought experiment has generated a significant secondary literature. Certainly, the GWWC initiators found it compelling. Their mission was to persuade people to give more of their income away and to donate to effective organizations that could make a real difference. [...]

There were spinoff organizations from GWWC such as 80,000 Hours. The number refers to the rough number of hours we might have in our career, and 80,000 Hours was set up to research how people can most effectively devote their time rather than their money to tackling the world's most pressing problems. In 2012, the Centre for Effective Altruism was established to incorporate both GWWC and 80,000 Hours.

Since its launch, the effective altruism movement has grown slowly but steadily. Most of the early backers were idealistic young postgraduates, many of them philosophers. If Singer was the intellectual father of the movement, Parfit was its grandfather. It became an in-joke among some members that anyone who came to work for GWWC had to possess a copy of Reasons and Persons. Some owned two copies: one for home, one for the office. But it took Parfit until 2014 to sign the GWWC pledge. And he agreed to do so only after wrangling over the wording.

Initially, those who joined the GWWC campaign were required to make a public pledge to donate at least 10% of their income to charities that worked to relieve poverty. Parfit had several issues with this. For reasons the organizers never understood, he said that the participants had to make a promise rather than a pledge. He may have believed that a promise entailed a deeper level of commitment. Nor was he keen on the name "Giving What We Can". 10% of a person's income is certainly a generous sum, and in line with what adherents to some world religions are expected to give away. Nevertheless, Parfit pointed out, it was obvious that people could donate more. [...]

Parfit also caviled at the word 'giving'. He believed this implied we are morally entitled to what we hand over, and morally entitled to our wealth and high incomes. This he rejected. Well-off people in the developed world were merely lucky that they were born into rich societies: they did not deserve their fortune.

Linguistic quibbles aside, the issue that Parfit felt most strongly about was the movement's sole focus, initially, on poverty and development. While it was indeed pressing to relieve the suffering of people living today, Parfit argued, there should be an option that at least some of the money donated be earmarked for the problems of tomorrow. The human population has risen to a billion, and faces existential risks such as meteors, nuclear war, bioterrorism, pandemics, and climate change. Parfit claimed that between (A) peace, (B) a war which kills 7.5 billion people and (C) a war which killed everyone, the difference between (B) and (C) was much greater than the difference between (A) and (B). [...]

Given how grim human existence has been during much of its history, Parfit believed that it was not at all obvious that, on balance, human life up to this point had been a good thing. But as long as we did not mess things up, he said, there was every prospect that lives would be much better in the future. This was the prize to fight for. There were all sorts of exciting possibilities for intelligent life, who knows, perhaps lasting for billions of years and populating other galaxies. In any case, Parfit wanted the effective altruist movement to swivel its orientation to the long-term and not dedicate itself solely to the here-and-now. Others came to agree. The Pledge was rewritten. [...]

In 2016, the movement sought Parfit's explicit endorsement. He responded to the first email immediately and with enthusiasm: "Would be happy to be involved as an advisor. With best wishes and gladness for your activities, Derek."

Now, it would be natural to assume that campaigning for more charitable donations would be beyond criticism and would receive universal support. Who could possibly object? In fact, effective altruism has been at the receiving end of a surprising degree of hostility and contempt. This is in part because its instinctive consequentialism produces some counterintuitive recommendations. If one wants to help the poor in the developing world, then rather than work in the charity sector (a job that perhaps someone else might be able to do just as well) it could be more effective to become a bond trader on Wall Street and earn enough to donate millions to good causes. The problem here is that [...] consequentialism, the critique runs, treats people as mere inputs into a giant do-gooding algorithm, and cannot carve out adequate space for the role of integrity and personal projects. But the more fundamental criticism is that the effective altruism movement is too individualistic, too ahistorical, and is in some ways too apolitical, that is, it does not interrogate how structural inequalities and injustices have contributed to suffering. It does not ask whether we should focus on systematic and radical transformation in how society functions rather than on the short-term impact of charitable giving.

Proponents of effective altruism have pushed back against these attacks. They acknowledge that sometimes the most effective ways of doing good is not in direct charitable work but in advocacy or political activism. But they also defend the legitimacy of an individual reflecting on the current state of affairs and then asking: "What difference can I personally make, in the world as it exists today, to improve the lives of others?" Privately, some supporters of the movement make a more cynical point: they speculate that the motivation of some of their critics is to be released from any sense of obligation to engage in the type of personal sacrifices that the movement demands.

As for Parfit, once he helped shift the movement towards longtermism, he expressed no fundamental doubts about its raison-d'être. During the 7th and 9th of July, 2014, he took part in a conference on effective altruism at All Souls called Good Done Right. The following year, in April 2015, he spoke on effective altruism at Harvard. And in June 2015 he delivered a well-attended talk at the student-run Oxford Union…. What is striking about the talk is how his priorities in his seventies mirror those of his twenties. Recall the editorial line he took as a student at Isis magazine: "The aim of all action should be to reduce suffering. Two kinds of suffering stand out above all others. The hypothetical suffering of the nuclear furnace (fuel: one third of the world, 1000 million bodies), and the actual suffering, now, of the other two thirds." Half a century on, he was making the same case.


  1. ^

    Note that the passages are transcribed from the audiobook rather than copied from the ebook, because I have an audio, but not an electronic, copy of the biography.





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Thank you so much for sharing this (I also saw a lot of familiar names in the Acknowledgements, yourself included ❤️). I love posts on here that remember key contributors to the movement and I feel like there's a growing interest in the history of EA.

Thanks for sharing this, I just finished the audiobook and really enjoyed it. I recommend it: it’s engagingly written and gives an interesting insight into Parfit’s powers and peculiarities. I enjoyed getting some context about the beginnings of EA as well.

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