The role of effective altruism

The role of effective altruism
Photo by Joel Muniz / Unsplash

Effective altruism is a growing movement, but its basis in utilitarianism can lead to some seemingly outlandish results. This is not an indictment of utilitarianism but how the effective altruism movement uses it. In the long term, effective altruism will likely do more harm than good if it's the only way we measure our impact on society. But let's see if we can find a way to use the effective altruism movement without causing more harm.

We can look at how some people support effective altruism: working in a high-paying career and maximizing the amount of money they can donate to charity. This is also known as "earning to give." Other forms of effective altruism have similar personal impacts, so we aren't losing sight of the big picture by focusing on this approach.

Organizing our lives to take advantage of one group to help another group misses the point of society. People are people, and harming some to help others is not a good approach. Don't take this to mean that progressive taxes cause harm. They don't cause harm because they take more from those who can afford more.

Maybe helping some people helps us feel better about the people we harm, like a religious group giving non-adherents food and a bed on the one hand and denying their right to marry on the other. But it's not a ledger. They don't cancel out for net good.

Effective altruism is a great way for rich people to feel like they care without having to do anything other than write a check. It reduces empathy and compassion to a monetary transaction, removing the human element from the picture.

We can avoid these results by looking at why we do charitable work. It's not always about solving the biggest problem in the world. Sometimes, it's about helping others see the problems we see. It's about helping our community develop a proper sense of empathy and compassion for others.

Effective altruism applies a STEM approach to doing good. But we can't live by STEM alone. We also need the arts and humanities. As social animals, we need human connections.

Beckstead's dissertation On the overwhelming importance of shaping the far future is a hot mess of a dissertation. Part of this is because he makes assertions about fact without any evidence. This wouldn't be a problem except that the effective altruism movement uses his work to justify itself.

For example, Beckstead discusses blindness as economically debilitating and disadvantageous (p. 3) but doesn't offer any research to show how that is true. Even if we believe it is true because we've talked with some in the community, those conversations are anecdotes. Without a statistically useful survey, we won't know enough about the impact of blindness on a person in general to understand where the disadvantage enters, who's impacted, or the magnitude of the costs. Without that information, how can we quantitatively compare blindness with losing another sense?

We might not need the numbers for a similar qualitative argument to hold. But Beckstead argues for quantitative comparisons in his thesis rather than qualitative ones. So, it's not enough to know that blindness is worse than something else. We have to know how much it's worse if it is worse.

Beckstead also assumes exponential growth into the future, but current models have population plateauing and starting to fall in the next century. We don't know how the population will grow in the far future. Perhaps humanity will make its way off Earth and colonize the Moon or Mars, but we don't know. And even if it does, those colonies will depend on the Earth for quite some time.

Beckstead argues that we should abandon animal anesthetics and human hospice care in favor of developing computers because computers will have a more significant impact on the future (again, p. 3). However, anesthetics and hospice care demonstrate empathy and compassion. We can't abandon them and still be human.

We have to abandon Beckstead if we want to remain human.

Proper charity begins in ourselves: ensuring we are strong enough to help others. Do we have food and shelter? Can we thrive? Can we spend mental and physical energy assisting others without burning out?

Then, we need to look to our community. Where do people need help? These are opportunities to move the needle a little locally and get others involved in seeing the same opportunities. Working in our community helps us build more empathy and compassion for people. This can't be produced by sending money to someone else.

Finally, once we and our community are strong enough, we can look outside our community to see where we can have an impact. This is where effective altruism is most helpful. We can't rely on empathy to guide our response because we don't have day-to-day connections with anyone we might be helping (and we don't want to make decisions based on marketing that manipulates us). Nor do we need to understand human nature. That's the responsibility of the charities doing the work. Instead, we need to know how effective the charities are that we might support. This is similar to doing due diligence on companies before investing in them.

So don't throw away all of the emails, videos, and other material you come across that advocates for effective altruism. Set it aside for when you have done everything possible for those around you and still want to help a broad community.