Effective Altruism Is Not Bad Compared to the Other Kind of Altruism
Don't let a good system of ethics be owned by a bunch of dickheads.
One of the more annoying strains of public dialogue in the past year has been all the griping around “effective altruism.” To recap extremely briefly—please feel free to Google this all at your leisure—crypto wonder boy/ billionaire grifter extraordinaire Sam Bankman-Fried was a loud adherent of (HIS INTERPRETATION) of this philosophy, effective altruism (EA), and then a year ago he got nailed for being like the biggest damn fraud since Bernie Madoff, and therefore the (SUPPOSED) creed of EA was swept up in the backlash against Bankman-Fried and FTX and the entire bullshit crypto scam decade we’ve all suffered through. The lines of all of those things have been sort of blurred together to the point that EA is seen as just another characteristic of zillionaire tech utopian wunderkinds, like driving Teslas or engaging in remarkably unfun orgies with nerds.
I have zero interest in plumbing the depths of the tech zillionaire mind, except to say “fuck them,” and I have believed from the very beginning that crypto is a big scam that will end badly. But I must say, for the record, that the idea of effective altruism itself has been unfairly maligned as a result of being wrapped up with all these fuckos, in much the same way that the idea of Jesus have been unfairly maligned as a result of being associated with actual Christians. “Love your neighbor and feed the poor,” Jesus said. “God wants you to buy me a private jet,” Creflo Dollar said. You can’t blame Jesus for that. I bet he’s just as pissed off as anyone about that stuff.
How Things Work is a reader-supported publication. If you like it, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Likewise, I had heard of the idea of effective altruism long before I heard of crypto. I learned about it by reading the work of the ethical philosopher Peter Singer—particularly his foundational essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in which he argues that it would be more ethical for us to spend our money saving the lives of needy people than spending it on, you know, new clothes and all the other bullshit we buy. Good essay. Check it out. Flowing from that basic insight came many conclusions—among them, that if we have a limited amount of money to spend to do good things, we should do some evaluation to find the things that would do the most good per dollar, and then spend the money in that way, because then you would get the most good done for the amount of money you spend. So if you are going to give a million bucks to charity and your choices are “build part of the new opera house” or “save twenty thousand people from blindness,” you should do the latter. If we are being honest with ourselves here… pretty fucking simple choice, yeah.
That’s really all that “effective altruism” is!!! Spend the money in the most effective way to do the most good. Duh. After I read a lot of Peter Singer’s writing on these topics, a few things became clear about these ideas:
They are extremely straightforward and easy to understand.
You have to twist yourself up in a lot of rhetorical knots to argue against them. And,
If we took these ideas seriously, we would have to reorganize our entire society and probably scrap capitalism itself.
I interviewed Peter Singer a couple of times myself, and often incorporated the basic insights of his into my own writing. Interestingly, writing about this topic tended to make readers very mad. (Not as mad as when I wrote that people who love watches are assholes, but close.) The reason, I think, is that Singer’s insights strike at the very heart of our own conception of ourselves as good people. You work hard, you take care of your family, you donate to the Salvation Army, and then this guy comes along to say “It is immoral that you took a vacation to Disney Land rather than staying in your perfectly good home and donating the cost of that vacation to victims of famine.” Fuck off man! People really hated that stuff. But it is important to identify the fact that the negative reaction is an understandable emotional one, rather than a true refutation of the underlying ethical judgment.
Rather than getting pissed off at the clearly true idea that saving a human life is more important than all of the consumer crap that we spend our money on, it is better to accept that the tenets of this philosophy are true, and that it is an ideal that we should aspire to, even if we do not live up to it. Even Peter Singer admitted to me that he doesn’t live up to it! He donated what most people would consider to be a large portion of his income to effective lifesaving charities, but he did not actually donate as much as he could by depriving himself of every last luxury that is less important than saving a human life. It is an ideal. It is an aspiration. It is an organizing principle for our lives, a direction to point ourselves in. Honest Christians recognize that they do not live up to the fullest standard of Jesus’s teachings, and honest adherents of Singer’s philosophy recognize that even if they do not reduce themselves to a standard of living just one notch above an impoverished Kenyan subsistence farmer, they can continually strive to evolve in the direction that this solid moral guidance leads.
Now, past this basic ethical insight, there are of course many subsequent questions about how to make this stuff come true in the real world. And that is where the substantive arguments are. EA, after accepting the general premise above, concerns itself more with downstream questions like: How do you evaluate what “the most good” means? How do you weigh competing “good” things against one another? How do you weigh potential problems of the future against the existing problems of today? This stuff is where the Sam Bankman-Frieds of the world got EA into trouble. Because what started as “Couldn’t you buy cheaper peanut butter and donate the savings to a reputable lifesaving charity?” became, in the hands of the Silicon Valley self-proclaimed geniuses, a catch-all justification for all them to pursue all of their speculative, grandiose, and often self-serving theories. “The earth is gonna end so ethics demands that I start this space rocket company and also it should be private and profitable and make me a billionaire because that is the most effective way of accelerating its work, and also I should get a spot on the only rocket lifting off from the planet in the event of a deadly emergency, because I understand ethics the best.” Uh, okay, maybe. Bankman-Fried was the type of person who would just not show up for a meeting because he had made the evaluation that his valuable time could be more effectively spent elsewhere and therefore that was the ethical choice, which should give you an idea how easily EA can be pulled off track. Central to any honest attempt to judge present vs. future harms must be a profound humility about our own very limited ability to predict the future. In the hands of people with no humility, the entire project can be poisoned.
What I’m saying here is: The problem is not “effective altruism.” The problem is that these guys are dickheads! As Christianity began proving the instant that Jesus left the scene, even the most kindhearted philosophy can be corrupted by dickheads. Mass murder? Racism? Oppression and exploitation of every variety on a global scale? That wasn’t Jesus, folks—that was dickheads. Baby, bathwater. “We should save lives with money rather than spend it on less important stuff,” and “We should spend charity money in the most effective way, rather than in less effective ways” are both ethical ideas so obvious that I do not think it is really necessary to write some extensive justification for them. You know that these things are true. If they make you feel guilty because you do not live up to them, or if they make you feel angry because a bunch of dickheads latched onto them and used them to amplify their own dickishness—those are separate issues. That’s all I’m saying.
We can disagree about the downstream, tactical conclusions about how best to implement this brand of morality, as long as we don’t pretend to disagree on the simple “Let’s do the most good” source from which they flow. I once wrote an entire feature story where I went to San Francisco and attended a ritzy fundraiser for Peter Singer’s charity, complete with a Paul Simon concert in the backyard of a mansion, and then interviewed Singer about the political implications of his philosophy—what his beliefs should imply for the way that we interact with capitalism. To be honest I was disappointed! I was looking for him to say something like “Yes, clearly my ethical teachings imply that capitalism itself is fatally flawed and therefore revolution against capitalist rule should be understood as an implicit necessity.” What was, perhaps, a little too hopeful. Instead, I found that he was not all that interested in engaging with these questions of systemic political change, because they struck him as unrealistic, and he was more concerned with answering the pragmatic question of “How do we get more money funneled to the poor right now?” Although I was not satisfied by what struck me as a lack of bigger picture thinking by a professional thinker, I will note that Singer’s aversion to my questions was motivated by the very sort of intellectual humility that Bankman-Fried and his fellow acolytes conspicuously lacked.
Anyhow. The alternative to effective altruism is the sort of altruism that David Geffen practices when he donates hundreds of millions of dollars to build lavish concert halls named after David Geffen. Not a hard choice!
The Life You Can Save is an organization that Peter Singer helped to set up that evaluates charities and funnels money to those that are most effective at saving lives and easing human suffering. A good place to visit when you have some money to donate, always.
Some would say that publishing this random post on a Sunday when everyone is focused on End of The Year content and The Big Bowl Games demonstrates a poor understanding of the news cycle. But I say: Fuck the news cycle! How Things Work will live free! Even more outside of the news cycle, I wrote a book called “The Hammer” about the labor movement. It will be released in February, and you can preorder it here. In the coming weeks I will share info about my book tour. I hope to see yall there. That would be great.
How does money spent to support a free and independent media comport with the idea of effective altruism? Well, I’ll tell you [THROWS A SMOKE BOMB]—it comports great, because without the writers, nobody will know about how to do the altruism. That sounds plausible enough, eh? The point is that this site, How Things Work, depends upon the support of those of you who choose to become paid subscribers. There is no better way to begin 2024 than by joining the proud ranks of paid subscribers yourself. Just my opinion. I thank you all for reading.