Effective Altruism: Cringe Alarm!
The Effective Altruism movement somehow manages to get everything wrong about the human condition. A critique.
Looking into the Effective Altruism movement feels a bit like the intellectual equivalent of witnessing a giant car accident: the only reasonable reaction is to avert your eyes, slowly shaking your head, mumbling something like “oh dear, oh dear.”
That being said, it seems like this movement has gained some traction, and is somewhat supported by the likes of Peter Thiel and even Bill Gates. So let’s have a look.
The idea of Effective Altruism is very simple: if you want to do good, spend your resources on the most effective cause: the one that leads to the greatest increase of well-being and the greatest decrease of suffering. Don’t trust your instincts or your interests, but dispassionately look at graphs, calculate which cause (or program) is objectively the best bang for the buck, then execute. If it means you need to invest time and money into helping an African tribe fight deadly pandemics, so be it—even if your neighbor might desperately need some money to buy her child new shoes.
Oh dear, oh dear.
Naturally, the EA movement is obsessed with “saving lives.” They think, no doubt, that all the philosophical conundrums about ethics, truth, values, and so on can be avoided by starting with something uncontroversial: who could possibly object that “saving lives” is always a good idea, and maximizing the number of “saved” people is an obvious goal, and that saving lives is among the top payoff-providers in the utilitarian game?
Well, except that this is ridiculous. It might hold true on the super-local level, like when I witness an accident and somebody is about to die: in that situation, we certainly need to forget about everything else and just pour all our resources into saving that life. It is a limit case. But in no way can this obvious observation be generalized and scaled up, not to the broader local level, much less to the global level.
To see this, we don’t even need to point to the atrocities that have been committed historically and recently in the name of maximizing the “saving” of lives. It is enough to argue, as Kant did, that what makes a life worth saving in the first place is a person’s status as an autonomous moral agent: someone capable of moral growth. Without such a grounding in the dignity of the soul, we might just as well, in good utilitarian fashion, kill off a bunch of people to save a bunch more.
But if moral development is life’s prime goal and value, the very thing that gives it dignity and unalienable rights, then we can clearly see how this value can come into conflict with the maximization of well-being and the reduction of suffering: moral growth involves both suffering and the conscious abandonment of well-being. If you take that away from people, and are out to “save” them, you are eradicating what gives them, and all life, purpose. You will lock them into a Brave New World of eternal bliss and hostility towards death and destiny. This will lead to capital-S Suffering: spiritual agony and hell on earth.
You might have your difficulties with this idea, based on your intuition about the limit case of witnessing a car accident. You might say that there can be no doubt that saving a life, for example, is better than not doing so. But this argument derives all its power from a fictional abstraction: no variable can ever be isolated in real life. There is always an infinite contextual horizon involved in everything we do. No amount of analysis and research can change that, because these can only ever look at a limited number of dimensions. Worse, people who conduct such research inevitably rely on a huge number of assumptions and presuppositions, many of which are entirely unconscious or simply taken for granted without any reflection whatsoever. These presuppositions determine their choice of which facts to look at, which areas to focus on, their ideas about values and ethics, how they interpret their data, how they conduct their research, and so on. “Saving lives” can never happen in a vacuum: moral decisions about such things must be, and are, grounded in the totality of reality.
Moral decisions, therefore, can only be a matter of deep intuition, which must be connected with rich, direct experience and relationships: encounters between souls. Such decisions are basically acts of faith, informed by the nexus of conscience, emotion, body, and intellect. This nexus, if it is to be useful, requires growth and development: a process of tuning into an informative landscape where objective morality originates—not in the sense of a set of rules, but in the sense of a deeper intelligence, a sphere of all-encompassing information that we can learn to access by a process of personal growth on all fronts. Such development can only happen directly, in real life, on the local level: in our relationships with family, our immediate community, our spouse, our work colleagues, friends, neighbors, and so on.
The example of witnessing an accident I gave above, aside from being a limit case where reality exceptionally collapses into a single dimension, as it were, and which cannot be generalized, also shows something else: opportunities to help announce themselves in one’s life, in a personal and individual way; they are not actively sought out. To put it differently, someone or something must ask for our help before we can give it: the iron law of Free Will. A car accident that we witness which requires immediate intervention is a form of asking as well, albeit, again, it represents a limit case that cannot be generalized.
When nobody is asking for help, more often than not, we shouldn’t give it. If someone does ask, it is our responsibility to decide whether our “help” actually would lead to growth or stifle it. This includes the help for countries and projects, even when it concerns the so-called saving of lives: maybe there are people in that country, or among those groups that we supposedly want to help, who strongly oppose certain interventions for very good reasons—even if these interventions might, in theory, save lives. Someone suffering or dying somewhere does not automatically oblige us to intervene. If we thought that, we would immediately set out to build an imperialist, technocratic Brave New World nightmare on earth.
Decisions about helping, even when directly asked, are anything but trivial. We cannot simply assume that reducing people’s immediate suffering, or even saving lives, is always the right thing to do. In fact, such questions are so non-trivial that I would argue no general statements can ever be made about them: it all comes down to the embodied interactions between specific individuals in their specific circumstances. Imagined scenarios and thought experiments, beloved by certain philosophers, that turn real life experiences into one-dimensional mind games, are not only entirely useless, but positively deceptive. They are a form of make-believe based on intuitions that only make sense in real-life situations, not in imagined scenarios stripped of all context, depth, and connectedness to Reality.
Before going on, perhaps it’s best to say a few words about what real charity, real altruism looks like. This will make the stark contrast to the abstract fantasy world of the EA crowd apparent.
Charity begins with moral transformation. The best work has always been done by people who suffered personally, won the age-old spiritual battle against their inner demons, and came out transformed. They then feel the urge and obligation to share what they have learned, to help those who suffer just like them. Countless self-help groups, medical charities, AAA programs etc. have been founded that way.
There is even a word for it: post-traumatic growth.
Needless to say, it would be the height of absurdity to advise those wonderful people to abandon their cause, their very destiny, because of some sterile utilitarian arguments. The same is true for donors, volunteers, etc.
Second, a charity needs to be based on a relatively small community that is deeply connected. True, in some cases, it is possible to “scale” a charitable organization up to a certain point (although there is always great danger in that). But you always start small: you get a group of people together to help them, and help them help each other. People you know and are involved with. People whose character you can judge. People you feel close to because you share certain experiences, such as certain hardships, traumata, and problems.
This is true for donations as well. Nobody who has any sense should donate to any cause that he or she cannot judge based on the people involved, their characters, and their moral development. You give to people you know, because you have followed them for a while, know how they think and act, whether their words match their actions, and so on. And, again, you give to causes that are dear to your heart, because they relate to your own experience, your own suffering. It is part of your unique journey, your calling.
In this day and age, such closeness doesn’t always have to be local. There are many online groups, and even if you follow someone on YouTube for a while, just to give an example, you might develop a connection that is close enough to form the basis for a decision to donate some money, or even to become a volunteer in one of his projects.
Keep these things in mind next time someone wants to convince you to spend your resources on a cause based exclusively on hyper-abstract arguments and statistical make-believe!
The Effective Altruism movement is rooted in the roughest sort of utilitarianism, which can only produce monstrous results. Have a look at this:
Most people would agree that, all else being equal, it's good to reduce suffering and increase well-being. There might be other things of value as well – promoting art, or preserving the natural environment – but effective altruism only considers these things to the extent that they improve lives.
Oh dear. Oh dear.
First, “all else being equal” translates “my argument belongs to the fantasy world,” because all things can never be equal: all things is an infinite number of things, so you can never consider them all, or even a tiny fraction; but if you miss just one thing of this infinite number of things, this could be the crucial one—the one that renders your whole reasoning utterly pointless, and your premises utterly false. Hence the argument is an exercise in futility.
Second, the line about art and nature: it is positively barbaric. Sacrifice beauty and the wonders of nature for some technocratic cause somewhere far away? Oh dear indeed. I urge these people to read Roger Scruton’s book Beauty for a passionate defense of the crucial importance of beauty and nature. It takes a fine and perceptive soul like him to muster that defense. Then again, it also takes a fine soul to understand it, which means some of the EA people might have difficulties. So, in the spirit of bluntness: you want to make the world a better place? No better way than developing some taste and making it more beautiful—as always in small ways, in your own surrounding. Beauty lifts up everyone who comes in contact with it; even one single contact with beauty by one single person might have far-reaching ripple effects that change the whole world. Give me beauty any day over number-crunching do-gooders colonizing foreign cultures with their primitive, sterile, technocratic worldview. It is nothing but tragic that they don’t even know how primitive their presuppositions are even while they make statements that relegate art and nature to some unimportant side show that can only be valued for its direct practical utility.
The EA people (seriously!) write things like this:
It’s common to say that charity begins at home, but in effective altruism, charity begins where we can help the most.
Should I spend months on end sitting beside my dying grandmother, when it is clear that it won’t save her life, which will be over soon anyway? Shouldn’t I rather work hard during that time to earn extra money, which I can then donate to a cause that could save 100 lives in Africa with my donation?
What if I believe (like I most certainly do) that even the smallest moral action can change the entire cosmos—butterfly effect and all that? And that I therefore think the most “effective” way of helping the world is spiritual guidance and development? This would make donating to the local priest that you deeply trust, just to give an example, by far the best “investment.” An no puny little graph can show otherwise.
And what does “help the most” or “maximize well-being” even mean?
It is telling that utilitarians use the abstract word “well-being” to describe the goal of their pursuits: a word which has no meaning in the human imagination. Fulfilment, contentment, personal growth, reaching one’s potential, fulfilling one’s destiny, overcoming personal crisis and learning from it, a balanced life, the joy of non-useful pursuits, bonding as a community, meaningful friendships… These are richer expressions to describe what humans aspire to, and what we should focus on. Even John Stuart Mill recognized that there are higher and lower forms of pleasure. Given this state of affairs, how could any utilitarian calculus make any sense ever? It is by no means obvious, for example, that saving lives should take precedence over preserving a beautiful cathedral. And “maximizing” meaningful friendships, deep beauty, or the fulfilment of people’s destinies sounds as ridiculous as it is.
Bottom line is: you cannot use hyper-rational, detached arguments to get your moral compass straight. What you need to do, instead, is what life has always been about: grow your moral being by trying your best to embody your morality in real, immediate life, unbelievably hard and prone to error that it is, and learn from your experience. Don’t try to maximize “happiness” and instead practice moral restraint, and use your inevitable suffering as a springboard towards embodied understanding and learning rooted in real life—and to find your calling.
Utilitarianism is a form of madness, practiced by people who are disconnected from the embodied world of rich, immediate experience, who prefer living in an unreal abstract land where concepts, calculations, and disconnected “facts,” unconsciously chosen because of personal presuppositions, rule supreme.
That some modern thinkers, starting with the madman Jeremy Bentham, lived in this fantasy land as well, and that others, like John Rawls with his “veil of ignorance,” literally elevated ignorance and disconnectedness from reality to a virtue, cannot be an excuse for not seeing the monstrosity that is much of abstract, utilitarian thought.
To be fair, it is possible to believe in utilitarianism or generally engage in hyper-abstract ethical thought and still be a morally upright person. But this only works because such people have a soul and a heart, which find expression in their decisions in spite of their utilitarian ideology, which is only used to justify and rationalize after the fact what their soul had told them before their number crunching.
There are so many more errors and misconceptions in the Effective Altruism texts, there is so much more hyper-rationalistic blindness—remember the image of a car accident where you don’t know where to look, and the most sensible option is to simply avert your eyes. So we’ll just do that for now.
On a final note, if you feel attracted to Effective Altruism but have your suspicions, what will help you, I think, is to read works that the rationalistic mindset can grasp, and which can help you recognize the limits of precisely this mindset to gain new, deeper insights: using the rational ladder to climb over that wall, so to speak, to then kick it away, Wittgenstein-style. Start with R.G. Collingwood’s An Autobiography (short) or McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things (long but worth it).
And if your impulse is to do good and help the world, when in doubt about such grand projects (which should be pretty much always), opt for working on yourself to become a beacon of sincere morality in the small things, in your immediate environment. I not only believe, I know that this can change the universe, in ways which the hyper-rationalist mindset will never be able to comprehend.
Oh dear, oh dear.
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As a reviewer on Amazon for the movement’s foundational book Doing Good Better points out, there seems to be a lot of confusion between causes and programs: causes are the thing you want to achieve and the value this achievement has in your estimation; programs are the bureaucratic ways of realizing these values.
For a variety of examples, see: Jim Rendon, Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, Touchstone 2016
Of course, you could play definition games and proclaim that “usefulness” also means gaining fulfilment from non-useful things such as art etc.. But such moves are not only confusing, they are most often deliberately so: proponents of utilitarianism can then live in the illusion that their hardcore utilitarianism is on the right track, while simultaneously appeasing those who level obvious objections at them, even while their expansions of definitions destroy the entire enterprise and whatever appeal it had in the first place.
EA people might try to weasel out of this criticism by proclaiming that local decency and donating to countries far away are not mutually exclusive. Sorry, this won’t fly: having limited resources makes prioritization crucial. Heck, helping us make these choices is the whole point of Effective Altruism! It is a standard move by those who espouse philosophies that fly in the face of common sense to pretend that we can somehow still preserve it while following their ideas: they present a Janus face to the world—when you confront them with common sense, they redefine their theory to conform to it but render it pointless; when you ask what the advantage of their theory is, they lay their theory out in pure form, which initially seems attractive to the rationalistic mindset, but which collapses entirely the second you switch on common sense. No folks, you cannot have it both ways.
Oh man, it’s been years since I thought about these guys. The first time I heard about Roko’s basilisk I almost had an aneurysm.
Their hubristic belief in their ability to determine human needs on a global scale bears some resemblance to our beloved public health bureaucracy.
I have not heard of this movement before, but from your description, it is par for the course for the ultra-reductionism which has overtaken the world, and hence dangerous. ps cool to find a reference to McGilchrist on substack!