Should Solidarity Replace Charity?: Critiquing Effective Altruism and Considering Mutual Aid as an Alternative



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The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced mutual aid to mainstream society; whether giving to GoFundMe campaigns or helping neighbors get groceries and PPE, it became a more common practice to many who previously had little experience with mutual aid. However, mutual aid is by no means a new practice and has been a crucial tool for survival among marginalized groups when the state or aid programs fail to meet their needs. Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, wrote a paper in 1972 called “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” that had a lasting impact on the way that we think about giving to charities and NGO aid projects. His writings helped to create a branch of practical ethics called effective altruism. The goal of effective altruists is to save the most lives per dollar amount possible. Using a maximum efficiency model, effective altruists select causes based on how successfully they can yield results. However, this means that some causes are ignored because they are too expensive or hard to show a return on investment. Singer also encourages people to get higher-income jobs so that they can be paid more and donate more money to ‘effective’ organizations. Singer cites Bill and Melinda Gates as some of the best effective altruists in the world. However, these organizations cause systemic harm within their own structures, in the communities they engage with, and in their general approach to the problem of material need. I argue that the actual and potential harm these organizations and the effective altruist mindset pose are more harmful than can be reliably outweighed by their benefits. I show how we should be cautious to endorse these kinds of organizations and be open to considering alternative methods of meeting immediate needs. I discuss mutual aid as an alternative to effective altruist organizations because it, by nature, does not pose the same potential harms that effective altruism does. Beyond that, it creates more support networks for the future and builds solidarity among communities, organizing and mobilizing individuals to change or disengage with the structures that often create the material need that mutual aid addresses and amplify the challenges that marginalized groups face. The non-hierarchical structure at the heart of mutual aid emphasizes every individual’s importance in decision making and their potential to contribute to their community. I argue that, morally, we ought to devote more resources to mutual aid.


Author uses they/them pronouns


ethics, mutual aid, charity, care politics, solidarity