Professors and students at the Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt.

Center for Critical Democracy Studies

CCDS Event Series Begins with Discussion of Effective Altruism

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On Monday, February 25, the Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS) hosted a discussion on the topic “Famine, affluence and democracy: the politics of effective altruism.” Speaking on the occasion was Ted Lechterman, a political theorist known for his work on how democratic ideals apply to economic practices, such as philanthropy. The discussion was moderated by Julian Culp, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at AUP. With over 60 people in the room, it was clear that the topic struck a chord with both the AUP community and guests attending from other institutions.

In a highly unequal world, "giving" raises important moral questions, which is why CCDS decided to focus its Spring 2019 events on the relationship between philanthropy, power and democracy. As the first guest speaker in the series, Lechterman took on one of the most influential texts in contemporary moral philosophy, Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality, which continues to inspire the effective altruism movement.

Much of this thinking, Lechterman argued, is geared toward finding solutions that improve material well-being in developing countries, such as the provision of mosquito nets and vaccines. He pointed to several problems with this approach: it risks being paternalistic, it may neglect sustainability and, most importantly, it neglects other values that people care about, notably freedom and justice. The speaker suggested that, in order to be truly effective in the long run, philanthropy should become more political, empowering local actors in developing countries to build political institutions that foster effective self-determination.

These proposals generated a lively debate. Some audience members suspected that Lechterman's "political" measures would be even more interventionist than the material-aid efforts he had criticized. Others wondered whether political progress can only be a second step once existential survival needs have been addressed. Lechterman conceded that there may exist a "chicken and egg" problem in the relationship between material capabilities and political action. Since "giving" involves inequality, questions of power and domination are always looming. How this can be addressed in a democratic way will be discussed further at the next event on April 3, when Rob Reich will present his latest book, Just Giving: How Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better.