Staff at The Centre for Effective Altruism

The morality of altruism

People have a limitless capacity to convince themselves that what’s right coincides with what’s best for them

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If you give away money, why do you do it? Why those specific causes, and those specific charities? The premise of “effective altruism”, a decade-old trend promoted by neo-utilitarian philosophers and seized on by graduates in tech and finance, is that the rest of us are probably getting it wrong. Whether because we give too little or whether because we chose the wrong recipient, our donations aren’t doing enough good.

But effective altruism is now losing its shine. In November one of its best-known devotees, Sam Bankman-Fried, was found guilty of diverting client funds from FTX, the cryptocurrency trading platform he founded in 2019. Once he was worth $26 billion, most of which he pledged to give away over his lifetime. But in March he is likely to be sentenced to decades in jail.

The scandal doesn’t merely tarnish effective altruism by association. It reveals the dark side of an approach that goes beyond shaking up complacent charity bosses and focusing donors’ minds on outcomes, but also offers rich people the opportunity to rationalise self-serving decisions as virtuous. It sells the false promise that all problems have technocratic solutions, and that all good things can be weighed against each other.

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It’s hardly a new idea that public authorities should seek to get bang for their buck. But it’s one that’s frequently honoured in the breach. Domestic spending is often captured by producer lobbies or voters in swing constituencies. Foreign aid is repeatedly stolen or spent on things corrupt governments care about but their citizens don’t.

Seeing suffering and fortitude up close is how we learn the generosity that inspires philanthropic impulses

Nor is it new that morality can involve calculation. The doctrine of utilitarianism, in Jeremy Bentham’s famous formulation, is that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. Utilitarianism is hard to square with thinking that personal ties may impose obligations, or that people have rights over their property or selves. But it is undeniable that some fruit is lower-hanging and should be plucked first, and that money spent in one place is not available for spending elsewhere.

What is novel about effective altruism is its focus on individual donors, its use of cost-benefit analysis — and, above all, a rigid anti-parochialism that sees lives everywhere as equally valuable.

The moniker was coined by philosophers at Oxford University in 2011. They drew on the work of Australian philosopher Peter Singer, especially that in his famous essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, published a half-century ago. If you saw a child drowning in a shallow pool, Singer wrote, you would surely wade to the rescue, even if it meant ruining your suit.

Why, then, not sacrifice something equally trivial to save the lives of foreign famine victims? “It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.”

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In 2012 those Oxford philosophers founded the Centre for Effective Altruism. It houses two main divisions: 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can. The first encourages people to think about the good their career can do in the round — including by choosing a lucrative field rather than a do-gooding one, and donating generously (the name refers to the length of the typical career).

The second is, in effect, a ratings agency for charities that focuses on lives improved or saved per amount spent, not on aspirations or overheads. Those that distribute antimalarial bednets and micronutrient supplements in poor countries do well.

All this is a bracing call to ensure that having a soft heart doesn’t mean having a soft head. But it also has worrying implications that find echoes in Bankman-Fried’s wrongdoing.

One is that if you have highly marketable skills you should aim to earn as much as you can. Better to be someone who pays for a million bednets, the logic goes, than someone who hands out a small share of the smaller number that could be bought without your whopping donation. In his book Doing Good Better, William MacAskill, one of the Oxford centre’s founders, suggests that he made a poor choice when he took a job as a care assistant as a youth. That job, he now thinks, would otherwise have gone to someone who needed it more and done it better.

But such thinking sets at naught what we learn from such work. Seeing need, suffering and fortitude up close is how we learn the generosity and gratitude that inspires philanthropic impulses. Conversely, if you work in a very lucrative job it is hard to avoid being infected by your peers’ arrogance, entitlement and “greed is good” mentality.

I don’t know why Bankman-Fried cut the corners he did. But it’s not difficult to see downsides to telling young men with degrees in quantitative sciences from prestigious universities — the core demographic of effective altruists — that earning a lot is morally praiseworthy, and that time spent gaining insight into the lives of the less privileged is not just wasted, but morally reprehensible.

That you should earn as much as possible is also an enormously convenient conclusion for those able to earn a lot. Even if they give away lots, they will still gain power and status. And they may fall into the trap behavioural economists call “moral licensing”: justifying infractions because they are balanced by good works — rather like dieters rewarding themselves for ordering a low-calorie drink by adding a burger and fries.

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But the biggest problem with effective altruism goes right to its heart. If you take anti-parochialism to the next level by discounting distance in time as well as space, your moral calculus will be hijacked by the power of compounding. “The eighth wonder of the world” is the description of this phenomenon, attributed to Albert Einstein — over long periods compounding makes even the tiniest value into something inconceivably vast.

People alive now would barely matter, because those still to be born outnumber them

Or, to put it in the language of effective altruism, people alive now barely matter, because those still to be born could outnumber them by pretty much any factor you care to imagine.

Take these calculations by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher keen on such “long-termism” before effective altruism made it fashionable. In a talk in 2005 he claimed that reducing the probability of an event that wiped out humanity within the next generation by just one per cent was equivalent to saving 60 million lives. Further in the future, when humanity might have colonised our galaxy and others, that one per cent risk reduction would be equivalent to saving 10 to the power of 32 lives.

If you accept the premise that future lives are as important as current ones, preventing extinction then becomes the only meaningful goal. Never mind that real, existing children are dying of easily preventable diseases. Never mind that long-termist calculations are based on assumptions that seem better fitted to science fiction, or that we don’t really have any idea what might wipe us out.

This thinking is rapidly overtaking effective altruism. In 2015 it nearly all went to global development; last year, nearly two-fifths went to minimising existential risk. That included spending intended to make a future pandemic less likely, but also a lot on trying to ensure that a rogue artificial intelligence doesn’t kill us all.

That this is the go-to bogeyman of donors with advanced degrees in mathematics and computing — the very people you would hire to work on such a problem — is a fine example of people’s limitless capacity to convince themselves that what’s right coincides with what’s best for them.

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It would be a shame to lose the useful insights of effective altruism: that people in poor countries matter; that if you earn a lot you should give a lot; and that there’s no point in throwing your money away on charities that do little good. But we can learn compassion and humility only from the people around us, and are unlikely to maintain the generosity and empathy it takes to make the world better if we spend our days on work that deadens our soul.

Morality cannot be reduced to a single formula, and ethical responsibility cannot be outsourced. As with everything difficult and valuable, there’s no one simple trick.

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