Effective Altruism, Normative Ethics, and the Environment

Fall 2019, University of Vermont

Tuesdays and Thursdays 2:50pm-4:05pm

Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 4:05pm-5:00pm in Room 209, 70 S. Williams St., and by appointment


Course Description

This course examines leading debates in normative ethics, especially related to effective altruism and evaluations of pro-social investments and policies, including investments and policies intended to promote ecosystems and animal welfare. Special focus will be on philosophy articles published in the last several years, although classic debates will be covered as well. Topics of special emphasis include utilitarianism and other consequentialist views, deontological alternative views, and what these views imply about the demandingness of morality and how much you are required to sacrifice to help strangers. We will also discuss: the importance of negative unintended consequences of interventions by individuals, government, and aid organizations; the use and misuse of randomized controlled trials in so-called ‘evidence-based policy analysis’; quantifying animal wellbeing and putting it on the same scale as human wellbeing; the importance of the far future and population ethics; and how to understand 'conditional obligations'. Optional additional readings provide a guide for deeper dives, and resources for final paper projects. 


Blue readings indicate what you should read if your aim is advanced understanding of normative ethics - start by reading the Bykvist book.


This course has two related educational aims (goals, objectives). The first is to prepare you to begin developing and defending your own answers to questions in ethics. The second is to equip you with a certain set of skills, including solid foundational knowledge of contemporary normative ethical theory, and a feel for cutting-edge research in ethics. More generally, in preparing for class, in your writing, and through class discussion and group work, you will develop your ability to (1) communicate clearly and concisely, (2) reconstruct arguments for a position or view from a piece of text, (3) critically evaluate arguments, (3) construct persuasive arguments of your own in defense of a position or view, and (4) anticipate and address potential objections to arguments that you find persuasive. Although deploying these skills will be crucial in your effort to advance your own thinking about the questions in ethics that we will discuss in this class, developing these skills has independent value as they can also be usefully applied in a variety of different domains outside of philosophy.


Evaluation: 40% Short quizzes (numerous) and writing assignments; 15% Midterm exam; 25% Final exam; 20% Final paper (~10 pages, can build on previous writing assignments).


Device ban: No use of phones or computers (or AppleWatches or…) without explicit permission.



Optional Background Reading


All course materials will be freely available online via the links further below. You should print them all out on paper and read them before classIn addition, you may optionally decide to purchase one or more of the following (some of these contain multiple readings below):


Optional: Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, Random House (2009)


Optional: Krister Bykvist, Utilitarianism: A Guide, Continuum (2010)


Optional: Hans Rosling, FactfulnessFlatiron (2018)


Optional: Paul Woodruff (ed.), The Ethics of Giving, Oxford UP (2018)




Readings: Course Materials (Numbered readings are required)

August 27 and 29: Duties of Beneficence; Effective Altruism

1. Peter Singer, pp. xi-41 and 129-150 of The Life You Can Save, Random House (2009) (note: only xi-41 and 129-150 are required)

2. A definition of 'effective altruism', effectivealtruism.org (not required to read beyond the landing page)

3. Giving 101GiveWell.org (not required to read beyond the landing page, but doing so is recommended)

4. About GiveWell, GiveWell.org (not required to read beyond the landing page)

Optional: Give $100 to GiveDirectly.org. How much good did you do?

Optional: Peter Singer, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality"Philosophy & Public Affairs 1(3): 229-243 (1972)

Optional: Toby Ord, "The Moral Imperative Toward Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health", in Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer (eds.), Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

Optional: Hilary Greaves and Frank Arntzenius, handout on effective altruism and Singer's argument

Optional: Dan Brock and Daniel Wikler, “Ethical Issues in Resource Allocation, Research, and New Product Development”, in Dean T Jamison et al. eds. Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, 2nd edition, Oxford UP, 259-70 (2016)

Optional: Christian Barry and Gerhard Øverland, "How Much for the Child?", Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16(1): 189-204 (2013)

Optional: Travis Timmerman, "Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with letting a child drown", Analysis 75(2): 204-212 (2015)

Optional: Amy Berg, "Effective Altruism: How Big Should the Tent Be?", Public Affairs Quarterly 32(4):269-287 (2018)

Optional: Judith Lichtenberg, "Effective Altruism: A Consequentialist Case Study"in Doug Portmore ed. Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism, Oxford UP (forthcoming)



September 3: Distance, Unfairness, and other Factors: Limits to Duties of Beneficence?

1. Frances Kamm, "Does Distance Matter Morally to the Duty to Rescue?"Law and Philosophy 19, 655–681 (2000)

Recommended Optional: David Lewis, "Illusory Innocence?", in Papers in Ethics and Social Philosophy, Cambridge UP (1999)

Optional: Jeff McMahan, "Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism"The Philosophers' Magazine 73: 92-99 (2016)


Optional: Thomas Nagel, "Ways to Help", Times Literary Supplement, 18 November (2015)

Optional: Amia Srinivasan, "Stop the Robot Apocalypse"London Review of Books 37(18): 3-6 (2015)

Optional: Martha Nussbaum, “If Oxfam Ran the World. Review of Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence by Peter Unger”London Review of Books 19(17): 18-19 (1997)

Optional: Susan Wolf, "Moral Saints", The Journal of Philosophy 79(8): 419-439 (1982)


September 5Utilitarianism and the Unfairness and Too Demanding Objections

1. Krister Bykvist, "What is Utilitarianism?", chapter 3 of Utilitarianism: A Guide, Continuum (2010)

2. Krister Bykvist, "Is Utilitarianism too Demanding?", chapter 7 of Utilitarianism: A Guide, Continuum (2010)

Optional Reread: Peter Singer, pp. 129-150 of The Life You Can Save (responding to the Unfairness and Too Demanding Objections)

Optional: Judith Jarvis Thomson, What Motivates Utilitarianism, and Methodology for Normative Ethics, in Rights, Restitution, and Risk, Harvard UP, pp. 255-257 (1986)

Optional: Ben Sachs, "Demanding the Demanding"in Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer eds., Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

Optional: Barbara Herman, “The Scope of Moral Requirement”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 30: 227-256 (2001)

Optional: Liam Murphy, “The Demands of Beneficence”Philosophy & Public Affairs 22: 267–92 (1993)

Optional: Liam Murphy, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory, Oxford UP (2003)

Optional: Liam Murphy, "Rescue", in Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory, Oxford UP, pp. 87 and 127-134 (2003)


September 10: Utilitarianism and the Too Permissive and Ignores Means Objections

1. Krister Bykvist, "Is Utilitarianism too Permissive?"chapter 8 of Utilitarianism: A Guide, Continuum (2010)

2. Krister Bykvist, "The Way Outcomes are Brought About", chapter 9 of Utilitarianism: A Guide, Continuum (2010)

Optional: Judith Jarvis Thomson, "The Trolley Problem"The Yale Law Journal 94(6): 1395-1415 (1985)

Optional: Andreas Mogensen, "The Callousness Objection", in Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer eds., Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

Optional: Daniel Hausman, Michael McPherson, and Debra Satz, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy, 3rd edition, Cambridge UP (2016)

Advanced Optional: Doug Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, Oxford UP (2011)

Advanced Optional: Shelly Kagan, Normative Ethics, Westview (1997)


September 12: What is the Point at Which One Has Sacrificed Enough for Others? Limits to Duties of Beneficence? 

1. Christian Barry and Holly Lawford-Smith, "On Satisfying Duties to Assist", in Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer eds., Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

Optional: Elizabeth Ashford, "Utilitarianism, Integrity, and Partiality"The Journal of Philosophy 97 (8): 421-439 (2000)

Optional: Elizabeth Ashford, "The Demandingness of Scanlon's contractualism"Ethics 113(2): 273-302 (2003)


September 17: Agent-Relative Reasons, Requirements, Prerogatives: Limits to Duties of Beneficence?

1. David Schmidtz, pp. 622-624 of "Review of Scheffler The Rejection of Consequentialism", Noûs 24: 622-627 (1990) (note: not all pages are required)

2. Niko Kolodny, pp 37-51 of "Which Relationships Justify Partiality? The Case of Parents and Children", Philosophy & Public Affairs 38(1): 37-75 (2010) (note: not all pages are required)


September 19 and 24: Doing vs. Allowing: Limits to Duties of Beneficence?

1. Fiona Woollard, chapters 7 and 8 of Doing and Allowing Harm, Oxford UP (2015)

2. Theron Pummer and Roger Crisp, "Rescue and Personal Involvement", Analysis (forthcoming)

Optional: Peter Unger, "Combinations of Factors"in Living High and Letting Die, Oxford UP (1996)

Optional: David Schmidtz, "Islands in a Sea of Obligations", Law and Philosophy 19(6): 683-705 (2000) (revised version)

Optional: Fiona Woollard, Doing and Allowing Harm, Oxford UP (2015)



Background: Updating Our Beliefs about Human Development

Optional: Hans Rosling, "Population Facts (or: Why Saving Poor Children Does Not Lead to Overpopulation)", in Factfulness, Flatiron (2018)

Optional: Photos of families in the world by incomehttps://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/

Optional: Hans Rosling, "Development Facts (or: Why it No Longer Makes Sense to Frame Development in Terms of a Gap Between Developed and Developing Nations)", in Factfulness, Flatiron (2018)

Optional: Hans Rosling, "Cost-Effectiveness and Saving Lives (or: How to Think About Opportunity Cost Given Urgent Needs Across an Entire Population)", in Factfulness, Flatiron (2018)

Optional: Hans Rosling, "Unintended Side Effects (or: How Urgency and a Desire to Help Sometimes Leads us to Make Things Worse)", in Factfulness, Flatiron (2018)

Praise for the book: "Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases." - Former U.S. President Barack Obama; “One of the most important books I’ve ever read―an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” – Bill Gates; “Hans Rosling tells the story of ‘the secret silent miracle of human progress’ as only he can. But Factfulness does much more than that. It also explains why progress is so often secret and silent and teaches readers how to see it clearly.” ―Melinda Gates


October 1 to 3: Effective Altruism in Practice

1. William MacAskill, Doing Good Better, pp. 29-99, Avery (2016)  (Read chapters 2,3, and 4 for Oct. 1st, and chapters 5 and 6 for October 3rd)

Recommended Optional: Process for Identifying Top Charities, GiveWell.org

Optional: Giving 101GiveWell.org

Optional: Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt, “The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy”, Stanford Social Innovation Review Summer: 39–43 (2011)

Optional: Esther Duflo, Social Experiments to Fight Poverty, TED talk (2010)

Optional: Binyavanga Wainaina, “How to Write about Africa”, Granta 92: The View from Africa 19 January (2006)

Optional: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”, TEDGlobal (2009)

Optional: Applying behavioural insights to charitable giving. UK Cabinet Office and Behavioural Insights, 28 May (2013)

October 8 and 10: Consequentialism, Difference-Making, Collective Action; Randomized Controlled Trials in Effective Altruism Evaluations

1. Mark Budolfson and Dean Spears, "The Hidden Zero Problem: Effective Altruism and Barriers to Marginal Impact"in Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer eds., Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, Oxford UP (forthcoming)


October 15 and 17: Consequentialism, Unintended Negative Side Effects, and Collective Action

Optional: Angus Deaton, "Response to Effective Altruism", Boston Review (2015)

Optional: Angus Deaton, "How to Help Those Left Behind", chapter 7 of The Great Escape, Princeton UP (2013)

Optional: Derek Parfit, Part I of Reasons and Persons, Oxford UP (1984)


October 22 and 24: Group Obligations, Individual Obligations, and Collective Action



3. Stephanie Collins, "Beyond Individualism", in Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer eds., Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

Optional: Give $100 to GiveDirectly.org. How much good did it do? What all determines this?

Optional: Alexander Dietz, "What we together ought to do"Ethics 126: 955–982 (2016)



Short writing assignment two


October 29 and 31Duties of Justice

1. Elizabeth Ashford, "Severe Poverty as an Unjust Emergency"in Paul Woodruff ed. The Ethics of Giving, Oxford UP (2018)

2. Paul Woodruff, "Justice and Charitable Giving"in Paul Woodruff ed. The Ethics of Giving, Oxford UP (2018)

Optional: Arntzenius and Greaves, handout on "Pogge's Argument"

Optional: Global Hunger, pp 46-50

Optional: Elizabeth Ashford, (VIDEO), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzBN8iCcZsE

Optional: Elizabeth Ashford, The infliction of subsistence deprivations as a perfect crime, 2018, In : Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 118, 1, p. 83-106

Optional: Elizabeth Ashford, The Nature of Violations of the Human Right to Subsistence, 2018, Human Rights: Moral or Political. Etinson, A. (ed.). Oxford University Press

Optional: Federico Zuolo, Beyond Moral Efficiency: Effective Altruism and Theorizing about Effectiveness, Utilitas

Optional: Leif Wenar, Poverty is No Pond: Challenges for the Affluent, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55abfeaae4b0ba2b92833a23/t/55b54eb5e4b043b826887867/1437945525291/WenarPovertyNoPond8-09.pdf

Optional: Theron Pummer, Risky Giving


Midterm October 31


November 5 and 7: Conditional Obligations

1. Theron Pummer, "Whether and Where to Give", Philosophy & Public Affairs 44(1): 77-95 (2016)

2. Jeff McMahan, "Doing Good and Doing the Best", in Paul Woodruff ed. The Ethics of Giving, Oxford UP (2018)

3. Theron Pummer, "All or Nothing, but If Not All, Next Best or Nothing"The Journal of Philosophy 116(5): 278-291 (2019)

Optional: Greaves and Arntzenius, "Conditional Obligations (6)


Optional: Joe Horton, All of nothing problem

Optional: THOMAS SINCLAIR Are We Conditionally Obligated to be Effective Altruists?

Optional: Joe Horton, other papers


November 12 and 14: Animals and the Environment

1. Animal Welfare Fund, effectivealtruism.org/funds

2. Mark Budolfson and Dean Spears, "Public Policy, Consequentialism, the Environment, and Non-Human Animals", in Doug Portmore ed. Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

Recommended Optional: 80k and Lewis Bollard: Ending Factory Farming Podcast (3 hrs--2x speed available, transcript provided)

Optional: Mark Budolfson, Food Footprints, www.budolfson.com/footprints


Optional: Recommended Animal Welfare Charities, animalcharityevaluators.org


Optional: Peter Singer, “Equality for Animals?” in his Practical Ethics, 3rd edition, Cambridge UP (2011)

Optional: Shelly Kagan article and Peter Singer reply

Optional: Krister Bykvist, "Wellbeing", chapter 4 of Utilitarianism: A Guide, Continuum (2010)


November 19 and 21: Long Termism, Survival of Humanity, the Far Future

1. Nick Beckstead, "A Brief Argument for the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future", in Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer eds., Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

2. Hilary Greaves and Frank Arntzenius, handout on "Population ethics and existential risk" (7)


Optional: Toby Ord, “Overpopulation or Underpopulation?“, in Is the planet full?, Oxford UP, pp. 46–60 (2014)



November 26 and 28: No class, thanksgiving

Optional: Hans Rosling, FactfulnessFlatiron (2018) (empirical)

Advanced Optional: Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Realm of Rights, Harvard UP (1990)


December 3 and 5: Aggregation, Population Ethics

1. population ethics cartoonwww.smbc-comics.com

2. Krister Bykvist, "Utilitarian Aggregation"chapter 5 of Utilitarianism: A Guide, Continuum (2010)

3. Derek Parfit, pp. 351-396 of Reasons and Persons, Oxford UP (1984) (note: only pp. 351-396 are required)

Advanced Optional: Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford UP (1984)

Advanced Optional: Gustaf Arrhenius, Population Ethics: The Challenge of Future Generations, Oxford UP (forthcoming)

Optional: Theron Pummer, "Adding Happy People", in David Edmonds ed., Philosophers Take on the World, Oxford UP (2016) 


Optional: Joe Horton, Always Aggregate

Optional: Caspar Hare, "Obligations to Merely Statistical People", The Journal of Philosophy 109(5/6): 378-390 (2012)

Optional: Hilary Greaves, “Population Axiology.” Philosophy Compass 12(11) (2017). doi: 10.1111/phc3.12442

Optional: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Repugnant Conclusion” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/ ”

Optional: Melinda Roberts, oxford handbook



FINAL EXAM and FINAL PAPER: due via email at the end of the university-assigned final exam time:
        95381  PHIL 295 B             Effective Altruism & Environment    12-DEC-2019   1330   1615 70S WL 109



Other Topics

Epistemology of EA
Should We Give to More Than One Charity?, James Snowden
Evidence Neutrality and the Moral Value of Information, Amanda Askell
Effective Altruism and Transformative Experience, Jeff Sebo and Laurie Paul


Actualism vs Possibilism and EA
Effective Altruism's Underspecification Problem, Travis Timmerman
Greaves handout on syllabus for topics in ethics
Ross, Jacob. “Actualism, possibilism, and beyond” in ed. Mark Timmons. Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 2. Oxford, OUP, 2012.
Timmerman, Travis, and Yishai Cohen. "Moral Obligations: Actualist, Possibilist, or Hybridist?" Australasian Journal of Philosophy (2016): 1-15. Link.
Frank Jackson

Preference-Based Utilitarianism
Robert Frank, Microeconomics and Behavior, especially the section General Equilibrium and Welfare
Daniel Hausman, Michael McPherson, and Debra Satz, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy, 3rd edition, Cambridge UP (2016)

The Numbers: Should They Count?
John Taurek, “Should the Numbers Count?”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 6(4): 293-316 (1977)
Derek Parfit, “Innumerate Ethics”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 7(4): 285-301 (1978)
Tyler Doggett, "Saving the Few", Nous 47: 302-315 (2013)

Social and Political Philosophy, Legitimacy, and EA
Emma Saunders-Hastings, Benevolent Giving and the Problem of Paternalism
Emily Clough, Effective Altruism's Political Blind Spot
Effective Altruism, Global Poverty, and Systemic Change, Iason Gabriel and Brian McElwee
Gara Lamarche, “Is Philanthropy Bad for Democracy?” The Atlantic, 30 October 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/is-philanthropy-good-for-democracy/381996/
Optional: “Plutocratic Philanthropy,” 2018) Journal of Politics
Optional: Ted Lechterman, The Effective Altruist's Political Problem
Optional: Rob Reich, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better, Princeton UP (2018)
Will Kymlicka, “Altruism in Philosophical and Ethical Traditions: Two Views,” in Between State and Market: Essays on Charities Law and Policy in Canada, ed. Jim Phillips, Bruce Chapman, and David Stevens (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001), 87–126
Leif Wenar, “Justice and Charity: Roles, Rawls, and Rights” (unpublished ms.)