Effective Altruists in praise of Sweatshops

An emerging new way of doing good is the one proposed by the advocates of Effective Altruism, the philosophical and social movement founded by Peter Singer and William MacAskill. As the name Effective Altruism suggests it is constituted of “two parts”[1]: altruism, by which is simply meant “improving the lives of others”[2] and effective by which is meant that the good that should be done it is not just “some good” or whatever amount of good, but “the most good with whatever resources you have”[3]. Typically, an effective altruist (or “aspiring effective altruist”)[4] is a person who donates to charity organisations in the most effective possible way in order to achieve the highest possible amount of good. Needless to say, whether and how it is possible to measure the effectiveness of a course of action or the success and effectiveness of a charity organisation is a matter of debate. Because of its consequence-based approach, EA is particularly compatible with a consequentialist ethical framework[5]. The movement sprung out of philosophy and relies on philosophical research in order, for example, to assess which causes and interventions should be prioritised and being able to effectively address pressing social issues of our time such as global poverty, famine, climate change, animal welfare and existential risk.

I will make an example to prove that Effective Altruism is not neutral, but it usually embraces liberalistic views on certain matters (such as sweatshops); I will also clarify that liberalistic views are usually unable to see the role played by different forms of social action (such as unionisations), but also institutions emanating social legislation and collective engagement in general; showing that EA, in a similar vein, is unable to see the contribution non-private actors and other political or social forces might give in doing good.

In Chapter 8 of his book Doing Good Better MacAskill examines the possibilities of individuals as private consumers in relation to sweatshops, Fairtrade, low-carbon living and vegetarianism[6]. What MacAskill believes every individual can actually do is:

– using her purchasing power to buy (or to boycott) products manufactured in sweatshops;

– donating (or not donating) to a charity recommended by EA;

– adopting a more environmental-friendly life-style which might include stopping buying animal products;

I will leave aside his discussion about vegetarianism and animal rights as well as his criticism against Fairtrade and I will focus on MacAskill’s argument in favour of sweatshops, which I think is the most relevant topic in Chapter 8 for showing what is wrong with Effective Altruism:


Sweatshops are factories in poor countries, typically in Asia or South America, that produce goods like textiles, toys, or electronics for rich countries under pretty horrific working conditions. Workers often face sixteen-hour-days, six or seven days a week. Sometimes they’re prohibited from taking meal or toilet breaks. Air conditioning is rare, so factories can be very hot. Health and safety considerations are commonly neglected and employers sometimes abuse their workers. Because conditions in sweatshops are so bad, many people have pledged to boycott goods produced in them […]. This movement has noble intentions: the people who campaign against sweatshops are justifiably horrified that people work in such awful conditions. However, those who attempt to combat sweatshops by refusing to buy goods produced in them are making the mistake of ignoring the key question […]: What would have happened otherwise? […] In developing countries, sweatshop jobs are the good jobs, the alternative are typically worse.[7]


It follows that boycotting products from sweatshops would actually harm those people whom we are supposed to help.

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About Intellectualism and Voluntarism

The thomist ethics shares with ancient philosophy the conviction that if someone knows what is good she cannot choose what is bad. Such a view, in fact, brings us back to the Socratic account of virtue according to which human beings are incapable to do harm as long as they have (intellectual) knowledge of what is virtuous (Protagoras, 357c–358d). The view that is the intellect the driving force behind human action was largely prevalent until the 14th century. Such a view in the middle age relied on the reception of the Aristotle´s theory of cognition[1] and implied, among other things, a certain passivity of the human mind and the idea that humans have a fixed nature: are necessarily designed to make the “good choice”. All the other choices are seen as “deviations” from the sanity and integrity of the “illuminated” intellect. This is not tenable from a psychological and practical point of view. Indeed, at that time some Franciscans scholars such as Olivi and Ockham already suggested another account of the relation between virtue and knowledge: the idea that “people can will to do what they recognize as evil”[2]. Interestingly, their emphasis on the freedom of human’s will can be related to the emphasis they put on the freedom of God’s will (the Ockhamian distinction between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta was considered by some thinkers almost heretical as it was equated with the destruction of all certainties[3]). But perhaps even more importantly, in this way the central role of Aristotelian “unmoved mover” (God) is, at least at some extent, undermined: the will, according to Olivi, is in fact moved by itself: God ceases to be the only self-mover. And the will is undetermined. In conjunction with this, Olivi´s understanding of modalities contemplates the logical possibilities of different options at the same time.[4] Some considerations about the ethical consequences of the intellectualist view and the voluntarist reaction are needed. With the intellectualist view all sins could be traced back to a “cognitive error”. It followed that moral responsibility were undermined. On the contrary, with the voluntarist view human beings gain the freedom of choosing the “evil” and, with this, the possibility of paying the consequences of their own actions not on the ground that they are (once and for all) sinners who did not receive or find the God’s grace and “illumination”[5], but on the ground that they might have made a “wrong” (contingent) choice in a given circumstance whereas the distinction between “right” and “wrong” is blurred. This view, especially from a modern point of view, seems to be more tenable and more psychologically plausible: leaving aside the problem of what is the good and the evil, what is certain is that the “voluntarist” account opens up a wider range of possibilities for the individual as much as for her ethical and political dimension. Needless to say, the idea that the present divine order is not the only possible one (nor necessarily the best possible one) could represent a theoretical treat not only against the traditional way of conceiving divine order, but potentially against any political terrestrial order too. The voluntarist view sounds more realistic because today most of us take for granted that when it comes to political orders many possibilities at the same time do always exist. What is more, voluntarist ethics seems to suggest that “evil” is not to be considered an end, but rather a mean that can be chosen by free will[6] to achieve a concrete end. Paradoxically, the separation between virtue and knowledge that the voluntarist account implies instead of understanding the person in terms of a more irrational impulse (the will, for example), does “rationalize” the person: does start to consider the individual as a being with different desires and (often contradictory) volitions, but at the same time does also consider the same individual as a being capable of doing any possible choice.


Thus, the shift was not only from “ascetic” illumination to individual free will and responsibility, but also from blessedness of an inner condition (where virtue, knowledge and self-knowledge were equivalent) to the effect that an action can produce externally. Voluntarism was the first step toward the idea that the individual can act for her own perceived self-interests against the “natural” order and in many different ways.

[1] John, Marenbon. Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction, Abingdon: Routledge, 2007. p. 279.

[2] Ibid., p. 304.

[3] Ibid., p. 303.

[4] Ibid., p. 280.

[5] One of the problems with the intellectualist account and idea of illumination is the tendency to reduce the sinner to her sin and, consequently, to think that there are good persons rather than good actions.

[6] However, it is not clear to me at what extent can the voluntarist “free will” be related to the modern ideal of rational free will ‘s decision making individual.

Matteo Iammarrone.

Socrates and the Second Sailing


Phaedo, perhaps more than any other platonic dialogue, deals with philosophy as a preparation for the afterlife. The dramatization of Socrates’ death is used as narrative device to discuss the immortality of soul and to set out the theory of Forms (as Adamson rightly noted, this is the first dialogue to set out the well-known doctrine)[1]. Without the theory of Forms, in fact, most of arguments in favor of the immortality of soul would be undermined (“reminiscence argument” and “affinity argument”)[2] and the soul would lose his “external” cause.

Socrates against Pre-Socratic materialism

The passages between 96a and 100b are crucial to understand why the theory of Forms is introduced, its relations to the soul and the “second sailing” as a sort of new “method” in reaction to the Pre-Socratic “materialism”.

First of all, Socrates claim that when he was young he was “eager of investigating the nature” (Phædo 96a). Here “φύσις” must be understood as “physical world” of natural phenomena. And the kind of investigations Socrates is referring to as typical of what we call “Pre-Socratic” natural philosophers. This passage is pretty significant from the point of view of the different biographical accounts we have of Socrates: the way Plato is representing Socrates here, in fact, sounds almost as a confession of Socrates himself who admits to have (paradoxically) been a “pre-Socratic” philosopher in his youth, probably a meteorologist with “the head in the clouds”, as Aristophanes depicted him in Clouds.


However, after a couple of lines, Socrates does express repentance for what he was and he believed in. He also expresses his disappointment for the pre-Socratic’s “method” of direct observation of nature and for Anaxagoras’ belief that our νοῦς (mind) arrange and cause all things:

My glorious hope was quickly snatched away from me. [Anaxagoras, in fact] did not assign any real causes for the ordering of things but mentioned as causes air and either and water (Phædo 98c)


To consider “air” and “either” and “water” as real causes is for the Platonic Socrates as to say that the cause of Socrates sitting somewhere is his “bones and sinews” (Phædo 98c). This view, according to Socrates, does not allow “the power which causes things to be placed as it is best for them to be placed” (Phædo 99c). In other words, it does not allow us to really grasp reality, but just “shadows” of it: “[the pre-Socratics] give no thought to the good, which must embrace and hold together all things” (Phædo 99c). Therefore, in order to avoid such a big mistake, the “first sailing” must be abandoned and a new way must be taken: Socrates’ second sailing (or “voyage”) is presented as the only alternative to access the truth that is to say that the truth consists of the knowledge of the Forms and that only the Forms (immaterial, external and eternal) can “cause” things in physical world.


The second sailing

Socrates is aware that approaching the truth through senses, as those who believe air and water to be the real causes of things seem to do, is misleading: in return we will get only “shadows” of reality and this is because our senses are unable to face reality as well as our soul would be blind if we tried to look at the sun directly with our eyes (Phædo 99d-99e). The explanatory purpose of this metaphor is not only to reject empiricism and to strike the inadequacy of our senses for knowledge, but also, perhaps more importantly, to stress the fact that rejecting “sensitive knowledge” is not enough as it is suggested that the soul itself needs to undergo different stages to might be able one day to face the sun (which in Plato usually stands for the Form of Good). Therefore, Socrates seems to come to a startling conclusion: there is no “shortcut” to knowledge. Philosophy (“authentic” philosophy as opposed to “superficial” observation of the physical world) is not an easy task, but rather a voyage that must begin with the study of reality by means of λόγοις (100a). Since the real philosopher is aware of the impossibility of facing truth directly, she does “take refuge” in the λόγοις (“words”). How did Socrates come to this conclusion? Through a hypothetical method consisting of a) assuming something and b) deducing consequences. What is assumed by Socrates is the reality of Forms:


  1. a) “My point of departure [is] that there are such things as absolute beauty and good and greatness and the like” (100b).


It follows that:


  1. b) “if anything is beautiful besides absolute beauty is beautiful because it partakes of absolute beauty” (100b).


Because of the introduction of Forms not only knowledge can be explained, but also causation. In this respect the theory of Forms is both an epistemological and a metaphysical theory: the immortality of soul is granted as a necessary consequence of the immortality and eternity of the “Form of soul” which “causes” our soul to be what it is.

It should be noted, however, that Socrates does not assure Cebes that the “second sailing” is necessarily more successful than the method of those who look at the facts of daily life and this is probably a typical Socratic touch: he does not want to reduce the second sailing to a dogmatic doctrine.

[1] Adamson, Peter (2014). Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 137.

[2] Ibid., p. 138.

Matteo Iammarrone.