35 Comments
Dec 31, 2023·edited Dec 31, 2023

While this is all correct philosophically - Singer's point is a good one, even if he overdid it himself and got just a bit heavily into eugenics as well - I think you're not reckoning enough with the fact that these assholes *are the EA movement in practice*. (I'm speaking here as someone who's closely followed these assholes for over a decade now.)

EA as it is is what happens if a neoreactionary gets a dictionary and looks up "altruism" - often literally. There was a front-paged post on the EA Forum just recently putting forward race science (and citing Richard Lynn) as effective altruism. It got heavily upvoted.

The answer to the observably terrible reality is not to proffer the brochures harder and say that's not *real* EA. Because it is, in the same way Creflo Dollar really is Christianity in observable real-world practice.

You can shout at people that they're looking at the clear facts on the ground wrong, but the bad Christians are not the observers' problem to fix, and the bad EAs aren't the observers' problem to fix.

edit: my own writeup on EA for centrist finance readers: https://davidgerard.co.uk/blockchain/2023/02/06/ineffective-altruism-ftx-and-the-future-robot-apocalypse/

Expand full comment

Good article, though a bit belabored. Re the final question about changing the system vs. charity, the applicable quotation is “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist." Of course they meant that in a bad way; and it doesn't mean you shouldn't feed the poor. The quote is from Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, a liberation theologian.

Expand full comment

EA appears to be rife with contradictions. It conflates or confuses altruism with charity. Charity, in the practice of the real world, is a sideline activity. Altruism, in contrast, is a characteristic daily behavior of any good human community. It is not a charitable giving distinct from routine “business”, rather it is a fundamental aspect of community behavior.

The “effective” part of EA reflects an effort to reduce altruism to narrow measurement (ala Bill Gates’ metrics) which removes all the complexity (including) politics of the community. Reminiscent of how the Supreme court has narrowed the legally acceptable goals of public corporations to profit measured in money.

EA is simply another face of neoliberalism. And not a persuasive one.

Not convinced? Think the difference between mollifying the effects of poverty and removing the structural supports for the reproduction of poverty.

Expand full comment

Your statement about the need for humility is spot on, and most of what you say is correct. However, my introduction to Singer being a Pinker book left me wondering how good the philosophy could actually be. That economists will argue for days that marginal gains in capitalism are the most effective way of helping the most people and will hold up reams of studies claiming to prove it says to me that the measurement part is too easy to derail and allows people to ignore values-based giving and make bad decisions based on bad data. We should always strive to be better, but the nonprofit world is so rife with poor metrics and data analysis that effective altruism may just be a cover for those who don't wish to have values.

Expand full comment

I used to attend a Quaker meeting where we met with local Mennonites and discussed their philosophy of "Live simply that others may simply live." Living simply meant simple clothes, because caring about clothes and spending money on it was vanity and not what God wanted. God would prefer that money, time, and energy be spent in helping others and seeking better connection to and sensitivity to guidance from Him. There were Quakers who lived so cheaply that they didn't owe any taxes, because they objected to their taxes being used for war. I had an evangelical Christian friend who also dressed simply and lived in a poor neighborhood to have more money to help her neighbors.

I admire these people and find them appealing and humane. The EA people scare me. A devotion to "efficiency" and the intellectual constructs and arguments involved in deciding what is most "efficient" always seems to lead to technocratic callousness. Theoretically, it should be possible to be efficiently altruistic, but, in practice, as soon as some maximization metric comes into play, much that is human and humble and compassionate seems to leak out.

What if your next door neighbor is in need, but is not the most needy? Your heart (which Quakers might say is God's leading) might say to help him. EA seems to say the opposite. I don't think I'll ever be able to get past that.

Expand full comment

We need to support grassroots groups in communities of color and youth to change the world. I leave charity to others. I support the Movement Voter Project which has been doing that since 2016 with good success. I do that not out of a sense if altruism, but because I want to live in a different world that us based on justice not charity.

Expand full comment

I think I agree with you but feel this is insufficient at the same time. The very basic principles of EA are sound but I don't feel like you can just ignore the rotten edifices that have been built on top of it.

MacAskill may well be a well meaning guy who practices what he preaches but he still double thought his way into buying a £12m mansion for the movement.

So yes look for the charities that will use your money most effectively. But never let that search for efficiency be more important than the humanity that drives it. Because that's where so many of the arseholes went wrong.

Expand full comment

I hope you'll take some time to read the critics of Singer's advocacy for eugenics - literally saying the world would be a better place if parents aborted all disabled fetuses, though he always follows it by saying nice things about actual disabled people. And then consider how Singer's EA contains concealed eugenic principles - of course a world without disability would be better. While always saying nice things about actual disabled people.

He's learned to cloak his earlier eugenics first in animal rights and now in EA, and it seems like his efforts to wash his reputation has worked. It certainly hasn't been a dealbreaker for most.

Here's the piece I tend to share first, a bit out of date now, but the essential place to start: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/16/magazine/unspeakable-conversations.html

I've enjoyed your work this year. Thanks for any seconds of time you're willing to give to this.

Expand full comment

Or, if readers would like to not be gross and eugenics-y, they can give money to organizations that help disabled folks, seeing as Peter Singer advocated that disabled lives are worth less and parents of disabled infants should be free to murder them, and they can read about Harrier McBryde's Johnson's interactions with Singer instead. Just a *real* EA kind of suggestion.

Expand full comment

I would say that Singer not entertaining abandonment of capitalism while hosting a ritzy party to promote EA is exactly the problem with EA. Without the non-profit tax incentives, I doubt he would care at all. Since we know that non-profits are by and large ineffective in executing "the most good" or even any good, then that's a secondary indictment here.

Additionally, I don't see EA ever reducing the cost of housing, providing public healthcare, fixing infrastructure, etc. because the premise of EA is ultimately a tax break for large shareholders. If you fix all of the problems, then what would you ever donate to? Nevermind the political muck of trying to fight against the more fascistic elements of capitalism within the bourgeoisie controlled State.

I just don't find EA to have a feasible materialist backing right now. If it did have one, we wouldn't be debating on the individual, neoliberal contributions, we'd be recognizing these things as collective problems that require collective solutions, not nickle and diming the general public while sipping cocktails at a fancy soiree.

Expand full comment

Taxes, progressive taxation, annihilation of tax havens and conduit countries, modernization of legal infrastructure and framework to make tax avoidance impossible. Anything else is fluff and fancy PR.

Expand full comment

Off point here but just want to say, thank you for existing even *more* outside of the news/calendar cycle. I can't stand the lazy end-of-year takes!

Expand full comment

We need actions not words. Res non verba.

Thanks Hamilton. Wish you all a reasonable good year. Just 0.001% happier will be great.

Expand full comment

That's the trouble with anecdotal examples of so many things that happen because of SBF or Kanye or some other usually famous rich dude...i.e. what the media loves to report. What would make this article rock would be if there was a sprinkle of actual data or research. Something like "947 of 1000 EA acts resulted in the positive outcomes intended, 33 were a wash or questionable, and 20ish were blatant rip-offs and/or virtue signaling marketing exercises". Maybe I'm over-optimistic.

Otherwise...SPOT ON! Babies good. Bathwater not so much.

Expand full comment

The dickheads are such a problem.

Expand full comment

I have always associated Peter Singer with animal welfare, yet he now seems to focus purely on human welfare, which is also good, yet seems part of a general shift away from recognizing our moral responsibilities to non-humans. I get the impressions that when people get to the big time, like Singer, they need to frame their consciences around the human to maintain their influence. It's a trend I've seen deepening for at least two decades.

Expand full comment