Dissertation, Oxford University (2019)

Michael Plant
Oxford University
Suppose you want to do as much good as possible. What should you do? According to members of the effective altruism movement—which has produced much of the thinking on this issue and counts several moral philosophers as its key protagonists—we should prioritise among the world’s problems by assessing their scale, solvability, and neglectedness. Once we’ve done this, the three top priorities, not necessarily in this order, are (1) aiding the world’s poorest people by providing life-saving medical treatments or alleviating poverty itself, (2) preventing global catastrophic risks, such as those posed by nuclear war or rogue artificial intelligence, and (3) ending factory farming. These claims are both plausible and striking. If correct, they should prompt a stark revision of how we approach our altruistic activities. However, the project of determining how to do the most good—as opposed to say, whether we should do the most good—has only recently, within the last ten years, become the subject of serious academic attention. Many key claims have not yet been carefully scrutinised. This is a cause for concern: are effective altruists doing good badly? In this thesis, I critique and develop some of the latest claims about how individuals can do the most good. I do this in three areas: the value of saving lives (preventing premature deaths), how best to improve lives (making people happier during their lives), and cause prioritisation methodology (frameworks for determining which problems are the highest priorities). In each case, I raise novel theoretical considerations that, when incorporated, change the analysis. Roughly speaking, my main conclusions are (1) saving lives is not as straightforwardly good we tend to suppose, may not be good at all, and is not clearly a priority; (2) happiness can be measured through self-reports and, based on the self-reported evidence, treating mental health stands out as an overlooked problem that may be an even more cost-effective way to improve lives than alleviating poverty; (3) the cause prioritisation methodology proposed by effective altruists needs to be moderately reconceptualised and, when it is, it turns out it is not as illuminating a tool as we might have thought and hoped.
Keywords Effective altruism  Peter Singer  William MacAskill  Saving lives  Cause prioritisation methodology  Measuring subjective well-being  Happiness
Categories (categorize this paper)
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

 PhilArchive page | Other versions
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

Thinking, Fast and Slow.Daniel Kahneman - 2011 - New York: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford University Press.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Robert Nozick - 1974 - New York: Basic Books.
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.Nick Bostrom (ed.) - 2014 - Oxford University Press.
Utilitarianism.J. S. Mill - 1861 - Oxford University Press UK.

View all 51 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Effective Altruism’s Underspecification Problem.Travis Timmerman - 2019 - In Hilary Greaves & Theron Pummer (eds.), Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 166-183.
The Ethical Principles of Effective Altruism.Anthony Skelton - 2016 - Journal of Global Ethics 12 (2):137-146.
Effective Altruism for the Poor.Jakub Synowiec - 2019 - Ethics and Bioethics (in Central Europe) 9 (1-2):27-35.
Introduction to the Symposium on The Most Good You Can Do.Anthony Skelton - 2016 - Journal of Global Ethics 12 (2):127-131.
Aid Scepticism and Effective Altruism.William MacAskill - 2019 - Journal of Practical Ethics 7 (1):49-60.
Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues.Hilary Greaves & Theron Pummer (eds.) - 2019 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Economics of Morality.Dillon Bowen - 2016 - Journal of Practical Ethics 4 (1).
Effective Altruism.Theron Pummer & William MacAskill - 2020 - International Encyclopedia of Ethics.
Understanding Effective Altruism and Its Challenges.William MacAskill - 2018 - In David Boonin, Katrina L. Sifferd, Tyler K. Fagan, Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Michael Huemer, Daniel Wodak, Derk Pereboom, Stephen J. Morse, Sarah Tyson, Mark Zelcer, Garrett VanPelt, Devin Casey, Philip E. Devine, David K. Chan, Maarten Boudry, Christopher Freiman, Hrishikesh Joshi, Shelley Wilcox, Jason Brennan, Eric Wiland, Ryan Muldoon, Mark Alfano, Philip Robichaud, Kevin Timpe, David Livingstone Smith, Francis J. Beckwith, Dan Hooley, Russell Blackford, John Corvino, Corey McCall, Dan Demetriou, Ajume Wingo, Michael Shermer, Ole Martin Moen, Aksel Braanen Sterri, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Jeppe von Platz, John Thrasher, Mary Hawkesworth, William MacAskill, Daniel Halliday, Janine O’Flynn, Yoaav Isaacs, Jason Iuliano, Claire Pickard, Arvin M. Gouw, Tina Rulli, Justin Caouette, Allen Habib, Brian D. Earp, Andrew Vierra, Subrena E. Smith, Danielle M. Wenner, Lisa Diependaele, Sigrid Sterckx, G. Owen Schaefer, Markus K. Labude, Harisan Unais Nasir, Udo Schuklenk, Benjamin Zolf & Woolwine (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy. Springer Verlag. pp. 441-453.
Moral Renegades. [REVIEW]Robert Mark Simpson - 2016 - The New Rambler Review 2016.


Added to PP index

Total views
261 ( #41,009 of 2,499,547 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
64 ( #12,442 of 2,499,547 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes