“Earnestness is stupidity sent to college,” quoth the wise and well-traveled wit P.J. O’Rourke. The line would seem to fit many adherents of the Effective Altruism movement, a trendy subset of the philanthropy world which recently suffered a withering critique from Bill Schambra here at Philanthropy Daily.
Schambra’s in-depth analysis set me to reading more in the “EA” world, which offers an odd commixture of the naïf and the nasty. The naïf part is composed of earnest young folks agonizing over their effectiveness (they take their altruism for granted). The nasty part is the movement’s intellectual guru, Peter Singer. Indeed, strong evidence of the youngsters’ naïveté is their obliviousness to the danger of taking Singer as their guru—a man best known for his support of infanticide, bestiality (and other forms of “animal liberation”), and necrophilia (as long as it’s consensual).
Radicalizing the Social Science Approach
Effective Altruism (EA), Schambra observes, is a radicalization of an older movement in philanthropy that stresses the need to use social science to guide your giving. The most recent iteration of that older crusade for effectiveness is “strategic philanthropy,” whose sharpest advocate is Paul Brest, the longtime head, now retired, of the Hewlett Foundation. But whereas strategic philanthropy aims to apply social science in order to judge the means a donor should employ, Effective Altruism demands that donors turn the weapon of social science on themselves and scrutinize their own ends.
You, generous benefactor, must not choose what causes to fund according to your own lights. You’ve gone wrong unless you’ve used the latest and greatest social science research to ensure your every penny goes only where it is most desperately needed.
No more giving to your local church or Goodwill or Girl Scout troop, and certainly no more contributing to that school whose good will may result in the admission of your offspring. Unless you’ve found, say, the hungriest tribe in sub-Saharan Africa or the poorest village on the Bangladeshi flood plain, you’ve failed as a donor and a human being.
Oh, and because those people need a lot of help, the EA brigade wants you to work as hard at becoming rich as you do at mastering the social science data on Somalia. Just be sure you promise to give away a big percentage of your upper-strata, developed-world income. For more details, don’t miss Prof. Singer’s TED talk, “The How and Why of Effective Altruism,” which has been viewed by over a million souls.
Before we consider the thoughtful critique of EA that Schambra makes on Tocquevillean grounds, or the gruesomeness of Peter Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, let’s consider a few aspects of this movement that fit P.J. O’Rourke’s observation that earnestness, college, and foolishness frequently overlap.
College is represented by such things as Prof. Singer’s teaching post at Princeton and the hosting of the Effective Altruism blog at Oxford, which is also home to William MacAskill, who plays the Apostle Paul to Peter Singer’s Christ. MacAskill is the author of a forthcoming manifesto on Effective Altruism, as well as a research associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford and cofounder of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours and the Centre for Effective Altruism.
For earnestness and foolishness, examples abound. For instance, consider an especially earnest essay by Bernadette Young on the anguished topic of “Parenthood and Effective Altruism.” The aptly named Ms. Young is less cold-blooded than many of her peers; she actually finds parenthood attractive, and she’s even so sane as to be embarrassed that many EAs sneer at the very idea of parenthood, even though having children is one of the most normal things in human life as lived by rich and poor alike.
“I am not a parent myself,” Young concedes, but she does “think the EA movement should be open to the idea of parenthood as part of an EA life.” Of course, something as outré as parenthood must pass before the bar of EA ideology to see if it is worthy to be fitted into the lifestyle of EA’s demigods of wealth and altruism. That means Young must immediately try to crunch the numbers: “I have to make my estimation of the costs and some of the benefits from the data I can gather.”
There follows much earnest – and amusing – handwringing over how much money a child will cost to raise and how childrearing can harm one’s grandly remunerative career. I don’t think earnestness gets any richer than passages like these:
You will probably be sleep-deprived for a large part of the first year or more of your child’s life, and this may impact on your work performance.
* * *
… costly added extras (music lessons, coaching and tutoring, private school fees) are probably not going to change your child’s life in the long term. (However, data on the antenatal environment suggests benefit to taking iodine, but avoiding ice storms and licorice during pregnancy.)
I’ll spare you her footnote on antenatal licorice, but I do urge you to dive into the equally earnest Comments on this blog post, where EAers fret and argue about the hard data on the harms little Johnny can inflict on your life-project of fierce careerism combined with ascetical giving to persons you’ll never meet.
In those Comments Ms. Young admits to a Commenter that she’s never heard of a “present value” calculation. Now I’m no world-class social scientist and don’t think such expertise is a prerequisite to intelligent discussions of giving, but I do know that the calculation of present value (i.e., the value in the present moment of monies that will accrue to you later) is a critical part of any social science analysis like the one Young is attempting; I learned it in Econ 101.
Thus we have a glowing example of one of Effective Altruism’s signal weaknesses: Precious few people are able to gain enough knowledge of social science even to attempt the number-crunching the EA creed demands, and in the case of Ms. Young and others, they are ignorant of their ignorance.
A second weakness of EA follows: Are lives, and suffering, and the relief of suffering, actually measureable with the precision necessary for the number-crunching Effective Altruism requires? Just to take an example from Ms. Young’s musings, how shall we measure the lost income that will result from the loss of sleep caused by a newborn? To say nothing of measuring the value-added of that newborn himself: Will he be a Steve Jobs? Will she be a Marie Curie? A brilliant mathematician? An infanticide-justifying Ivy League philosophe?
Ms. Young admits this difficulty in a classic EA passage of earnestness mixed with arrogance about one’s own genius and goodness:
We may ask whether parenthood – and the resulting person created – will benefit the wider world? This is a harder good to calculate or rely upon … it would appear foolish to have the expectation that they will be altruistic in the same way you are…. [But] by adulthood, the heritability of IQ is between 0.7 and 0.8, and there is evidence from twin studies of significant heritability of complex traits like empathy.
Then there’s the little difficulty that EAers haven’t figured out how to define important terms like the good. MacAskill himself points to this critical design flaw. In one essay he explains that the EA movement is “embodied through organizations such as GiveWell, which provides charity recommendations,” but in another article MacAskill asks, “What does GiveWell mean by ‘good,’” and he concludes that these allies of his
claim that they want to maximize good done per dollar invested, but they haven’t explained what they think ‘good’ consists in and why. Do future people count? If so, how much, and how far into the future? Do they have a discount rate?
If the EA crowd were a bit more penetrating, they might notice that social science is by its own terms not capable of defining such things, because doing so requires moral principles, which are not deducible from statistics.
To the extent EAers have moral principles, they come from the tradition of utilitarianism that spawned Peter Singer. But this is a shallow and bitter source for ethical wisdom. Take two obvious issues raised by Effective Altruism: First, does the utilitarian presumption that suffering is almost always bad, and its relief almost always good, make sense?
True, many ways of relieving others’ suffering can be an unmitigated good. A beautiful example, if it won’t offend the EA crowd, would be the image of a mother nursing a hungry babe. But at other times relief of suffering is not so good, as when a mother prevents a child from suffering the consequence of an unwise choice.
The same complications arise at the macro level of public policy: A decent country, for example, does not want single mothers and their children to starve, but it also does not want a welfare system whose relief of suffering ends up strongly discouraging single mothers from marrying their children’s fathers or working to support their children.
Similar examples could be drawn from the history of aid to less developed countries. Yes, it is good to relieve a nation suffering from famine, but efforts to do so often go awry in numerous ways, from propping up dictators whose cruelty is the real cause of hunger, to destroying the market for locally produced food and thereby causing farmers to produce even less food.
The second obvious problem with utilitarianism’s crude approach to suffering is that it tends to measure only material suffering, neglecting the no-less-real spiritual suffering that is common, even among the Oxford educated. Our Ms. Young, for instance, intuits that you can have a life without material deprivation, yet suffer considerably.
The example she gives (irony alert) is the spiritual suffering that many affluent people experience when they encounter difficulty having children. She warns her more cold-blooded EA peers that the anti-child philosophy they advocate may cause serious non-material suffering:
the rationalist suggestion I have encountered – that one guard against a desire to become a parent by pre-emptively being sterilised before the desire has arisen – seems a recipe for psychological disaster.
In other words, the manipulation of matter – in this case, sterilizing a human body – to further a utilitarian goal may yield spiritual deprivation, which suggests that materialistic social science cannot comprehend the human condition. Nor is this spiritual suffering limited to the affluent. It can happen to potential mothers and fathers in poor countries – for example, to those who have been dragooned into China’s ruthless “one-child policy,” or had long-acting contraceptive devices implanted in their bodies, to name two practices heavily promoted by fashionable philanthropists from the developed world.
"Shut Up," He Explained
Of course, utilitarianism through the ages has had an easy answer to issues like the spiritual suffering of the childless: Shut up! The detached demigods of this philosophy don’t waste too much time over the actual desires of their distant beneficiaries. The founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1842), displayed ruthless indifference to his inferiors, as one learns from historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s studies of his thought. Or you can look at Peter Singer’s Postscript to his seminal 1971 essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” He takes for granted as a “fact” that era’s faddish fear of a population explosion and then concludes, “it may be more humane in the long run to aid those countries that are prepared to take strong measures to reduce population growth,” whereas countries that aren’t unwilling to coerce their citizens’ decisions on childbirth should be refused aid.
This is a “horrible choice to have to make,” Singer says, but if we – who in his scenario are not members of the families involved or even their fellow countrymen – conclude to our own satisfaction, after “dispassionate analysis of all the available information,” that these wogs are breeding too many more wogs, then we should do what “may be more humane in the long run” and let them starve.
Plenty of other utilitarians, including large philanthropies, carried out this amoral crusade in the twentieth century, with ugly consequences in China, India, and elsewhere. The shameful stories are documented in studies like Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, Steven Mosher’s Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits, and Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair.
The most notorious “philanthropy” on this score involved the widespread support for eugenics. Because so many people today don’t know about – or don’t want to discuss – the role that utilitarian American philanthropists played in supporting eugenics before and even after the rise of the Nazis, Schambra has documented the subject at length. In his critique of EA, he observes that
Although Singer is frequently denounced by conservative critics as a eugenicist, it would be more accurate to say that many of the original eugenicists were effective altruists. Both movements converge on the importance of the question: why waste scarce resources on the disabled and their likely progeny, when the same dollars could do so much more good among the healthy?
At least one EA leader has refused to engage Schambra’s arguments publicly, even though he acknowledges they have substance, because Schambra makes the obvious linkage between Singer’s utilitarianism and proto-Nazi eugenics. That’s unfair to Schambra, given that he’s hardly the first to point out this linkage. It was made as early as 1949 by Dr. Leo Alexander, whom Singer himself quotes in Practical Ethics before dismissing Alexander’s views.
Dr. Alexander interviewed German physicians as part of his work for the Chief Counsel for War Crimes in Nuremburg. After this service he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the Holocaust’s “beginnings were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians” in Germany, who came to accept the claim “that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived.” (Note that Dr. Alexander is describing non-Nazi physicians whose attitudes changed well before the Nazis came to power.)
Another, more recent example of this linkage comes in a brief essay by Wesley J. Smith, who shows the near-perfect parallel between (1) a passage in Singer’s Practical Ethics that justifies killing a disabled infant in hopes of someday having another child “with better prospects of a happy life,” and (2) a historical account of the first known German government-approved infanticide in 1939, justified for exactly the same reason. The parents of the German infant explained how things looked to them when they discussed the killing of their child with Hitler’s personal physician:
we wouldn’t have to suffer from this terrible misfortune because the Führer had granted us the mercy killing of our son. Later, we could have other children, handsome and healthy, of whom the Reich could be proud.
Arguably, the Germans in this instance were less extreme than Singer. The German child suffered blindness and the lack of an arm and a leg; Singer’s hypothetical victim only suffers from hemophilia. In both cases, the ethical principle is all too simple. As Singer concludes in his textbook:
When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.
Apparently happiness can be measured as easily as, say, pounds of sugar, and persons are as interchangeable as grains of sand.
Anyone who observes the parallels between Singer and the Nazis isn’t necessarily calling Singer – himself a descendant of Jewish victims of the Holocaust – and his followers Nazis. But the similarities in the two ideologies surely require Singer’s allies to address the questions raised. Yet as far as I can tell after searches of major Effective Altruism sites, no one even mentions Singer’s notorious views on, say, infanticide and bestiality, either to justify those views or to distance his own views from Singer’s. As usual in the philanthropy world, silence camouflages ideology and prevents honest debate.
For what it’s worth, I’ll note Singer’s own response to critics in his book’s section on “The Slippery Slope: From Euthanasia to Genocide?” There Singer claims the problem with the Nazis is not their “attitude that some lives are not worth living,” but rather their secretive methods and their failure to be “motivated by concern for the suffering of those killed.” Later he ignores the evidence of Weimar Germany when he concludes there is “little historical evidence to suggest that a permissive attitude towards the killing of one category of human beings leads to a breakdown of restrictions against killing other humans.”
Other Flaws in Effective Altruism
Even if we ignore the eugenical elephant in EA’s living room, a moment’s reflection reveals still other flaws in the Effective Altruism formula of joining fierce careerism, elaborately parsed social science, and donating to persons one never meets. For example, will the careerism that Effective Altruism fosters tend to increase a person’s compassion for others? Does the study of social science usually produce greater concern for others than, say, volunteering at local soup kitchens and houses of worship? Does a passion for amassing a lot of money usually deepen a person’s willingness to help others, or expand one’s wisdom of how best to do so?
In other words, have EA’s enthusiasts considered how their life and thought will be shaped by the relentless pursuit of prestigious schooling, social science knowledge, and elite jobs? Ms. Young, as we saw, worries about the hostility of many EA’ers to parenthood. No doubt she recognizes the obvious fact that parenthood is one of life’s greatest spurs to less selfishness and a deeper concern for others. (That’s especially true for men who are overly fond of abstract argument, as I well know.)
Yet the movement in general seems blind to such obvious truths, and it is likely to end up like previous “reform” movements, such as the similar effort led by Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The latter reformer was recently sketched by England’s former education minister George Walden:
A well-born believer in eugenics, Webb was, like all social systematizers, not given to self-doubt: “The cleverest member of one of the cleverest families of the cleverest class of the cleverest nation in the world” was her self-description. She worked tirelessly on systems of poor relief, but her statist enthusiasms – she was a Stalin apologist at the height of the Moscow trials – proved a poisonous legacy.
In sum, powerful reasons exist to recoil from the elitism and inhumanity of utilitarianism and all its works, including Effective Altruism. A far better source for learning how to be a good human being and a wise donor is precisely the school of local giving that Schambra recommends. He quotes his fellow “philanthrolocalist” Jeremy Beer, who calls for a
philosophy of giving that prioritizes the use of resources to help one’s own place, including one’s neighbors, community members, churches, businesses, cultural institutions, civic associations, and ecology.
This road, Schambra and Beer observe, leads to a stronger and better local community and nation, with citizens of all incomes spurred to greater generosity and deeper concern for their neighbors. Mother Teresa would be an especially heroic example of this kind of person-to-person giving, and her legacy shows how a person who begins with local giving, as she did in Calcutta’s slums, can end up aiding persons on another continent, as her thousands of followers now do as Missionaries of Charity serving around the world.
If you want a philosophic justification for this approach, consider the German thinker Max Scheler, one of the Nazis’ earliest critics. He tackled our topic in his 1912 work Ressentiment, and his reasoning in that essay was recently summarized by Anthony Esolen:
“The widow’s mites,” Scheler says, “are more to God than the gifts of the rich – not because they are only ‘mites’ or because the giver is only a ‘poor widow,’ but because her action reveals more love.” ... Love is not valuable because it is useful, as “just one of the countless forces which further human or social welfare.” It is itself the thing we want more of.
Similarly, observes Esolen, Mother Teresa
has been vilified by atheists of both the left and the right, for not having led the correct political revolution in India. Thus people who have never lifted a sore-riddled man from a ditch, or tended the dying with gentleness so that their last day upon earth would be suffused with kindness and light – people who have never done anything so splendidly beautiful for Jesus or for anyone, even those whom they say they love – can comfort themselves with the assurance that they believe the right thing about social welfare, or a free economy, or what have you.
Scheler died before Effective Altruism was born, and I’d wager that Esolen has never heard of it, but both men grasp the origins and limitations of the mentality.
Let Esolen have the last word:
“Nothing can be further removed from this genuine concept of Christian love,” says Scheler, “than all kinds of ‘socialism,’ ‘social feeling,’ ‘altruism,’ and other subaltern modern things.” … Consider a politician who has failed in those things that should have concerned him most. His marriage is a dreadful mockery. His children have fled. He despises the place where he was born…. He turns to others, not from an expansiveness of soul, not in love, but from a desire to escape his smallness. The altruisitic urge, says Scheler, “is really a form of hatred, of self-hatred, posing as its opposite (“Love”) in the false perspective of consciousness.” Such a person lives only by opposition. He wants people whom he can patronize or cultivate as marginalized – to use the ugly and inhuman word – just so that he can continue his enmity.
Such a person assuages the nagging awareness of his impotence and failure by declaring the “right” thing, by voting for the “right” thing, by believing the “right” thing, even perhaps by sending money to the “right” thing.
FOOTNOTE: For more insight on Peter Singer, read this New Yorker profile. Even its fawning author is chilled by Singer’s indifference to a beggar in front of him. The author also notes that Singer can’t bring himself to be so cold-blooded in his treatment of his mother, afflicted with Alzheimer’s and thus presumably unworthy of life. I applaud this brief victory for humaneness over calculating sophistry in Singer; he is unable to follow his principles and blind himself to his mother’s intrinsic dignity. His inability to blind himself is explained in an excellent book on moral reasoning entitled, What We Can’t Not Know.
For more on Jeremy Bentham, see Gertrude Himmelfarb’s essay “The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham,” which describes Bentham’s proposal for a “panopticon” to warehouse Britain’s poor. Just as for Singer a handicapped infant has no right to life, so for Bentham
there was no question of the “rights” of paupers, for there was no such thing as rights at all. There were only interests, and the interests of the majority had to prevail. The greatest happiness of the greatest number might thus require the greatest misery of the few.
See, too, Himmelfarb’s contrast of the Webbs’ ideas on helping the poor with Churchill’s views.
On the issue of “strategic philanthropy” and the role of social science in philanthropy, see the series of exchanges among Schambra, Paul Brest, Larry Kramer, and myself:
♦ Schambra’s critique of strategic philanthropy
♦ Paul Brest’s response
♦ Larry Kramer’s response
♦ my comments on Brest and Kramer
♦ Brest’s response
♦ my rejoinder
♦ Brest’s response