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Famine, Affluence, and Democracy: The Politics of Effective Altruism

University Room: Judith Hermanson Ogilvie Grand Salon (C-102)
Judith Hermanson Ogilvie Grand Salon (C-102) | 6, rue du Colonel Combes 75007
Monday, February 25, 2019 - 18:30

Philanthropy, Power, and Democracy

Philanthropy is often hailed as a civic response to excessive inequalities. Private aid flows play a major role in North-South relations, and with the “Giving Pledge”, billionaires promise to give back to society. Can there be genuine and effective altruism? Critics warn that philanthropy is an exercise of power that may undermine democracy, as public policy is being replaced by private initiatives.

This spring, the Center for Critical Democracy Studies is inviting two leading scholars to discuss the relationship between philanthropy, power, and democracy:

  • Theodore Lechterman from the Justitia Amplificata Centre for Advanced Studies at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, whose Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton had focused on “Donors’ Democracy: Private Philanthropy and Political Morality”, will talk about “Famine, Affluence, and Democracy: The Politics of Effective Altruism” on 25 February 2019, 18h30 in C-102
  • Rob Reich, director of the Center for Ethics in Society and faculty co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, whose new book is fresh off the press, will discuss it with us “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better” 3 April 2019, 17h30 in C-104 (co-sponsored by the Civic Media Lab). Find out more.

The events are open to the public - external guests must notify their attendance at least 24h before via email to


“Famine, Affluence, and Democracy: The Politics of Effective Altruism”

Peter Singer’s seminal 1972 “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is widely credited with inspiring effective altruism, a powerful new paradigm in the ethics of philanthropy. Effective altruism presses the relatively affluent not only to give generously, but also to subject their practical deliberations to rigorous evaluations of impartiality and cost-effectiveness. The most common objection to this approach is that it operates with an excessively demanding view of morality: taking the advice of effective altruism seriously would impose unreasonable limitations on agents’ own life plans and personal relationships. I argue, however, that a more serious problem lies in how effective altruism understands politics. Foreign assistance projects that score highly on measures of cost-effectiveness may nevertheless prove counterproductive in the long run, as they undermine the institutional reforms necessary for lifting societies out of poverty. And because of the structural inequalities between donors and recipients, these projects also risk subjecting their intended beneficiaries to objectionable exercises of power. Though I offer some alternative suggestions for assisting the global poor that partially overcome these challenges, I caution against the impulse to reduce the complexities of our duties to distant strangers into simple formulas.  

About the speaker

Dr. Theodore Lechterman ( is a postdoctoral fellow at Justitia Amplificata, a Centre for Advanced Studies in political theory at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. His research principally concerns how democratic ideals apply to economic practices, and his work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Polity, the Journal of Practical Ethics, and Raisons Politiques, as well as in numerous popular outlets. From 2016 to 2018, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s McCoy Center for Ethics in Society. He holds a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton and an A.B. in Government from Harvard.