↑ comment by Jeffhe ·
2018-03-12T06:06:04.664Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
You write, "Agree with others that overusing the word 'utilitarianism' seems unnecessary and not strictly accurate (any moral view that included an idea of aggregation is probably sufficient, which is probably all of them to some degree)."
One thing I am sure about effective altruism is that it endorses helping the greater number, all other things being equal (by which I am here only concerned with the quality of pain being equal, for simplicity’s sake). So, for example, if $10 can be used to either save persons A and B each from some pain or C from a qualitatively identical pain, EA would say that it is morally better to save the two over the one.
Now, this in itself does not mean that effective altruism believes that it makes sense to
sum together certain people’s pain and to compare said sum to the sum of other people’s pain in such a way as to be able to say that one sum of pain is in some sense greater/equal to/lesser than the other, and
say that the morally best action is the one that results in the least sum of pain and the greatest sum of pleasure (which is more-or-less utilitarianism)
(Note that 2. assumes the intelligibility of 1.; see below)
The reason is because there are also non-aggregative ways to justify why it is better to save the greater number, at least when all other things are equal. For a survey of such ways, see "Saving Lives, Moral Theory, and the Claims of Individual" (Otsuka, 2006) However, I'm not aware that effective altruism why it's better to save the greater number, all else equal, via these non-aggregative ways. Likely, it is purposely silent on this issue. Ben Todd (in private correspondence) informed me that "effective altruism starts from the position that it's better to help the greater number, all else equal. Justifying that premise in the first place is in the realm of moral philosophy." If that’s indeed the case, we might say that all effective altruism says is that the morally better course of action is the one that helps more people, everything else being equal (e.g. when the suffering to each person involved in the choice situation is qualitative the same), and (presumably) also sometimes even when everything isnt equal (e.g. when the suffering to each person in the bigger group might be somewhat less painful than the suffering to each person in the smaller group).
Insofar as effective altruism isn’t in the business of justification, then perhaps moral theories shouldn’t be mentioned at all in a presentation about effective altruism. But inevitably people considering joining the movement are going to ask why is it better to save the greater number, all else equal (e.g. A and B instead of C), or even sometimes when all else aren’t equal (e.g. one million people each from a relatively minor pain instead of one other person from a relatively greater pain)? And I think effective altruists ask themselves that question too. The OP might have and thought utilitarianism offers the natural justification: it is better to save A and B instead of C (and the million instead of the one) because doing so results in the least sum of pain. So, utilitarianism clearly offers a justification (though one might question if it is an adequate justification). On the other hand, it is not clear to me at all how other moral theories propose to justify saving the greater number in these two kinds of choice situations. So it is not surprising that OP has associated utilitarianism with effective altruism. I am sympathetic.
A bit more on utilitarianism:
Roughly speaking, according to utilitarianism (or the principle of utility), among all the actions we can undertake at any given moment, the right action (ie the action we ought to take) is the one that results in the least sum of pain and the greatest sum of pleasure.
To figure out which action is the right action among a range of possible actions, we are to, for each possible action, add up all its resulting pleasures and pains. We are then to compare the resulting state of affairs corresponding to each action to see which resulting state of affairs contains the least sum of pain and greatest sum of pleasure. For example, suppose you can either save one million people each from a relatively minor pain or one other person from a relatively greater pain, but not both. Then you are to add up all the minor pains that would result from saving the single person, and then add up all the major pains (in this case, just 1) that would result from saving the million people, and then compare the two states of affairs to see which contains the least sum of pain.
From this we can clearly see that utilitarianism assumes that it makes sense to aggregate distinct people's pains and to compare these sums in such a way as to be able to say, for example, that the sum of pain involved in a million people's minor pains is greater (in some sense) than one other person’s major pain. Of course, many philosophers have seriously questioned the intelligibility of that.