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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