Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some thoughts on Effective Altruism

I discovered Effective Altruism through Give Well, a web site which embodies at least the essential part of what effective altruism means: giving charitably in such a way as to maximize the benefit to society. (And I discovered Give Well through Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, which gives you an idea of some of the information I peruse on the Internet.)

Here's Give Well on effective altruism, and why it is not detached from emotion. If I had read only this much, I probably would have unreservedly endorsed the idea. (I do, in fact, give to charity in part through Give Well's recommendations.) But a few google searches led to some more food for thought.

David Brooks had an important response to effective altruism, particularly to this piece by Dylan Matthews about how bright young people are taking high paying jobs in order to donate their salaries (the bulk of it) to ending third world poverty. Brooks makes a couple of arguments, here. One is that taking such a job may transform who you are. You start out an idealist, then slowly the culture of the career you've chosen changes you. That may or may not be true. The more crucial and convincing part to me was Brooks's claim that human beings are ends in themselves. That includes you, the would be altruist. You are not just a machine for turning your capacities into world betterment. You are a person of infinite worth.

Now we're starting to get at the problem with effective altruism. If it is just an approach to philanthropy in which we try to focus on those causes which make the most difference, then that's something everyone can learn from. If, on the other hand, it is embedded in a strictly utilitarian system of ethics, then that calls the whole thing into question.

From a Christian perspective, I think both the universalist and radical nature of effective altruism are praiseworthy. Jesus asked his followers to give up all of their riches, taught that what would count on the last day was what we had done to the "least of these," and showed that our neighbor includes those outside our tribe. He blessed those who were poor and called woe on those who are rich. Christian mission has always pursued the poor in other parts of the world, seeking to alleviate suffering and seeing no difference between human beings.

Yet there is a dearth of Christian response to the effective altruism movement. That is either because the movement was founded by people who have little time for Christianity, or because Christians have little time for new ways to think about charitable giving, or both. This blog post challenges Christians in particular to prioritize global poverty using the approach of effective altruism, and makes a point to remind us how much of our Christian "charitable" giving goes to institutions which largely serve ourselves (paying to maintain and run churches, in large part). And if you look at even the parts of the country with the highest per capita giving, we Americans (one of the most generous nations in the world) still only give away up to 7% of our income. Given how many people around the world still live in extreme poverty, can't we do more? And shouldn't we want to do it effectively?

One blog post I found criticizes effective altruism from a Christian perspective. I found it surprising that a Christian could be critical of a universalist ethic, yet there is a compelling point to be made about the embodied mission of Jesus on earth. Jesus himself was critical of those who gave charitably but neglected the true spirit of the law. In one episode he explicitly rebukes a pure utilitarian calculus concerning the poor. And I suppose one shouldn't forget what the Apostle Paul wrote, "If I give all I possess to the poor...but do not have love, I gain nothing."

Another criticism I found was in the form of a lengthy article defending "philanthrolocalism." This criticism was more directly political. It appealed to Alexis de Tocqueville's theory of the thick institutional structure of American democracy in order to claim that localized philanthropy is not only more natural to human beings (and this is a postive, not a negative) but also necessary to the thriving of a free people. There's something to this, but I'm far from convinced. After all, shouldn't an aspiration to altruism be radical rather than conservative? Humans strive to be altruistic precisely because they wish to reach some transcendent ideal rather than be content to follow an established social order.

Actually the most crushing blow I found was not from a theological or philosophical perspective, but from an artist. Art for art's sake has no place in the minds of most "effective altruists." Unless you know you are on your way to writing the best screenplay ever, there is no reason wasting your time.

I find this view intolerable. There is such a thing as life not worth living, and life without art--not only some art, but a plethora of diverse attempts at art--is just that. We humans have always had the inescapable desire to create and enjoy, not merely to witness but participate in the beauty of the world. From a Christian perspective, we are made to worship. If we all suddenly decided to calculate our every move so as to eradicate poverty, would the poor wake up to a middle class lifestyle in which nothing had any meaning? Would that be any sort of liberation?

I will conclude this little run through of effective altruism with an ironic dictum: use effective altruism only insofar as it is useful. I absolutely agree that we should all be far more concerned than we are with eradicating global poverty, and one of the simplest yet effective ways we can do that is to give money to well-chosen charitable organizations. So go to Give Well and see where you can put your donations to best use. But for all that, I still won't buy into utilitarianism, and you probably shouldn't, either.

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