Volume 21

When We Don’t Know What We Owe

by Joshua Stein

Uncertainty complicates analysis of practical and moral decision making. This paper argues that these problems are acute and underdeveloped in Effective Altruism. The paper argues that some parts of Effective Altruism, as a theory, can be salvaged by improving application of tools in practical reasoning and rational choice (along with some minor shifts in background commitments), but some widely accepted parts of Effective Altruist thought may be beyond sav-ing. The first half of the paper (Sections I–III) argues for applying theories of practical reasons and rational choice to Effective Altruism to address both perennial problems of uncertainty and particular layers of uncertainty unique to its theory. Those sections are ultimately optimistic that the problems can be addressed using established tools in the field. The second half of the paper (Sections IV–VI) argues that unique problems are created by other commitments of Effective Altruism which cannot be addressed without changes of substantive commitments, underlying attitudes towards uncertainty held by proponents, or both.


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