Effective altruism despite the second-best challenge: should indirect effects Be taken into account for policies for a better future?

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As there are many areas of inadequate optimization (departures), and resource limitation and information costs prevent the rectification of all these departures, the pursuit of a more desirable future through either private effective altruism or governmental policies is subject to the challenge of the second-best theory (where the presence of uncorrectable distortions complicates the pursuit of desirable policies elsewhere through interdependence). This is related to the indirect effects of altruistic acts. The distinction between real and pecuniary external effects and the second and third-best theories provide insights on how to evaluate these indirect effects. Indirect effects on areas of inadequate optimization should be taken into account where possible. Despite the nihilistic implication of the second-best theory on the impossibility of piecemeal welfare policies (unless all departures from optimality are eliminated, which are almost always impossible, we cannot be certain of an overall improvement by making improvements in some specific areas), the third-best theory shows that the government or effective altruists may increase at least the expected welfare by focusing on areas of serious inadequate optimization, taking into account the indirect effects if information allows.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102568
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


  • Effective altruism
  • Futures research
  • Indirect effects
  • Priority
  • Second best
  • Third best

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