Jeff McMahan (Oxford) kindly gave me permission to share his articulate and compelling defense of EA against its philosophical critics, which will appear in The Philosopher's Magazine: Download McMahan Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism 4-18-16 FINAL
McMahan makes a number of good points, and I am sympathetic to most of what he says in reply to John Gray and Martha Nussbaum; I'm friendlier than he is to Amia Srinivasan's complaints about EA. It seems to me the issue boils down to the issue aptly framed by McMahan as follows:
I am neither a community nor a state. I can determine only what I will do, not what my community or state will do. I can, of course, decide to concentrate my individual efforts on changing my state’s institutions, or indeed on trying to change global economic institutions, though the probability of my making a difference to the lives of badly off individuals may be substantially lower if I adopt this course than if I undertake more direct action, unmediated by the state.
The crucial word here is "may"; and what's missing, also, is that a genuine calculation has to factor in the magnitude of the possible effects. We may be highly confident that a charitable donation will affect the well-being of 1,000 people along some relevant dimension (though see below re: the economists), and be much less confident about our political activism or donations aimed at changing institutions and systems. But if there is an 80% chance of helping 1,000 slightly, and a 1% chance of helping one billion substantially, why should we think the former is the better course of action--and especially when the former itself may make systemic change less likely? As I've written elsewhere:
If harm to human well-being is primarily a product of systemic problems, as Marxists (correctly) believe, then focus on individual decision against a fixed systemic background will have pernicious consequences in both the long-term and even the medium short-term. Insofar as bourgeois moral philosophers like Singer are concerned with consequences (whether short- or long-term) they would have to acknowledge these possibilities. First, individual acts of charity encourage moral complacency about systemic harms to well-being among charitable givers, in large part because it obscures from serious consideration systemic causes of human misery. Second, those pernicious consequences are only enhanced when the capitalist media seize, as they predictably do, on instances of bourgeois morality as ideals to which others should aspire—for example, in the celebration of a young man who works in the “financial” industry and, influenced by Singer, gives half his income (US $100,000) to charities helping people in impoverished nations (Kristof 2015). Yet we know with certainty that a Wall Street youngster giving US $100,000 per year to various charities will not actually eliminate (or even significantly reduce) poverty, human misery, or suffering--in either the third world or in the first world. The actual effects on well-being of charitable giving are hotly contested by economists; but even when they make small short-term contributions to alleviating particular diseases or disabilities, we have little or no evidence that they actually contribute to flourishing human lives--primarily because those to whom aid is so often directed for discreet problems live under systemic conditions that thwart human flourishing along many other dimensions, to which charity is never responsive.
What if instead of picking worthy charities in accordance with Singer’s bourgeois moral philosophy, those with resources committed all of it to supporting radical political and economic reforms in powerful capitalist democracies like the U.S.; perhaps even committing their time and resources to helping other well-intentioned individuals with resources organize themselves collectively to do the same? Is it implausible that if all those in the thrall of Peter Singer gave all their money, and time, and effort, to challenging, through political activism or otherwise, the idea that human well-being should be hostage to acts of charity, then the well-being of human beings would be more likely to be maximized even from a utilitarian point of view? Do Singerites deny that systemic changes to the global capitalist system, including massive forced redistribution of resources from the idle rich to those in need, would not dwarf all the modest improvements in human well-being achieved by the kind of charitable acts Singer’s bourgeois moral philosophy commends? The question is not even seriously considered in the bourgeois moral philosophy of Singer. Although purporting to be concerned with consequences, like most utilitarians they set the evidential bar so high, and the temporal horizon so short, that the actual consequences of particular courses of action, including the valorization of charity over systemic change, are never really considered.
 For an intelligent expression of this point, by an ‘insider’, see Buffett (2013):
Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left…
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life… People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?
See, e.g., the contributions by the economists Acemoglu and Deaton (2015) on Singer’s so-called “effective altruism.” Acemoglu observes:
[W]e cannot measure accurately which organizations use resources most effectively. More evidence is
always preferred, but precise measurement of the social value of a donated dollar may be impossible. What
is the social value of a dollar given to Amnesty International as opposed to Oxfam or an NGO providing
vaccines or textbooks? Every measurement involves value judgments. How much more valuable is it to
save the life of a one-year-old than to send a six-year-old to school?
And Deaton, even more damningly, writes:
It is an illusion that lives can be bought like cars. For a start, the evidence is nearly always in dispute. The alleged effectiveness of the Deworm the World Initiative—which, at the time of this writing, ranked fourth in GiveWell’s list of top charities—runs contrary to the latest extensive review of the evidence by the Cochrane Collaboration, an organization that compiles medical research data. Maybe Cochrane is wrong, but it is more likely that the effectiveness of deworming varies from place to place depending, among many other things, on climate and on local arrangements for disposing of human waste….
[T]he evidence for development effectiveness, for “what works,” mostly comes from the recent wave of randomized experiments, usually done by rich people from the rich world on poor people in the poor world, from which the price lists for children’s lives are constructed. How can those experiments be wrong? Because they consider only the immediate effects of the interventions, not the contexts in which they are set. Nor, most importantly, can they say anything about the wide-ranging unintended consequences.
However counterintuitive it may seem, children are not dying for the lack of a few thousand dollars to keep them alive. If it were so simple, the world would already be a much better place. Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse….
 I am even bracketing here the costs to human well-being of someone working in a socially parasitic industry like finance, costs which are borne both by the worker and others.
In fact, in conversing with Singerties, it seems many would deny this for classic rational choice reasons: namely, the marginal contribution of any individual to the transformation of unjust systems is negligible, by comparison to the “clear” impact of buying mosquito nets for people in Africa. This way of “calculating” what is worth doing of course guarantees that the existing socio-economic system will remain untouched. The irony is that the “calculations” of Singerites, while purporting to be evidence-based and rational, are neither. See the critical discussion of the use of “evidence” in Clough (2015).
As the preceding suggests, I do agree with McMahan that the real reasons for doubt about effective altruism come from the economists, precisely because they raise decisive questions about whether it is really effective at all.
I don't share, obviously, McMahan's sense that there isn't reason to worry about what effective altruism says about philosophy or about whether ridicule isn't sometimes the right response to a philosophical position. But I do commend Prof. McMahan's essay for its lucid articulation of the best replies to the philosophical critics, and I thank him for giving me permission to post his essay. (And thanks to several readers who sent to me the earlier academia.edu version, which called the piece to my attention.)