Effective altruism is one of the most influential philosophical movements of our time, including in its ranks celebrity philosophers like Peter Singer and Nick Bostrom, and funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. But Effective Altruism is in serious trouble, argues Jonathan Anomaly. It has fallen prey to group think, corruption, and now reflects a perverse reality that Nietzsche warned about in his Genealogy of Morals. The effective altruists have become the high priests, powerful gatekeepers of the truth and manipulators of society.
The effective altruism (EA) movement arose from an innocuous idea: if we are going to give to charity, we should invest in causes that pass a cost-benefit test. We could allow ourselves to be pulled by our heart strings when we see a starving child in Ethiopia and donate to a charity that wastes most of its money on advertising and virtue signaling. Or we could think about how Ethiopians might reduce future famines by helping them change their institutions or investing in better technology, for example.
Of course, it’s extremely difficult to change a country’s institutions from the outside – as shown by American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s unclear whether our views of what good institutions look like are universally shared, and therefore whether it’s any of our business to try to change the institutions of other countries. But setting these issues aside, we can see the rationale behind EA: if you’re going to give to charity, at least try to make your gift effective.
One of the main problems with EA arises from the fact that it was always run by academics who consider themselves more educated, and therefore more rational and less biased than the average person.
And they’re not always wrong, since EAs try to consciously confront the issue of cognitive biases, whereas many people casually succumb to them. However, when you view yourself in this way, and you are surrounded with academics who unconsciously share an increasingly rigid worldview, it’s a short step to thinking that it’s ok to lie to your patrons, your investors, or even yourself, if doing so has a big enough payoff.
Enter Will MacAskill, the young founder of the EA movement, and Sam Bankman-Fried, leader of a now defunct cryptocurrency exchange. Bankman-Fried used his crypto exchange to bilk investors and funnel tens of millions of dollars to EA, and to himself and his friends.
Armed with youth, intelligence, and a sincere conviction in the progressive ideology that permeates elite institutions in the US and UK, all it took was the promise of treasure from Bankman-Fried to transform a pimply professor, MacAskill, into the kind of self-appointed priest Nietzsche warned us about:
“So long as the priest, that denier, calumniator and poisoner of life by profession, still counts as a higher kind of human being, there can be no answer to the question: what is truth?”
Modern academics and medieval priests
The trouble is that professors in Anglo-American universities tend to be self-confident conformists with a pervasive faith in the latest progressive dogmas. Consider how willing many faculty are to sign onto petitions that result in the termination of prominent scholars or the fact that it’s now common to vet faculty and graduate students for their commitment to progressive politics before examining their academic accomplishments. The few free-thinking faculty that remain on campus – at least in the humanities and social sciences – are increasingly sanctioned for dissenting from orthodoxy. And the trends are only accelerating.
As the political psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have argued, when politics and morality are at stake, smarter, more educated people are often better adept at giving reasons for their emotionally driven judgments. In other words, they are better than the average person at rationalizing their convictions, even if the things they believe are at odds with reality. And this is exacerbated when they are confirmed members of what Curtis Yarvin calls “the Cathedral” – the consensus-making institutions in modern universities.
Wearing a priestly robe has consequences, including for how one privately thinks and what one publicly says.
It is not surprising that Bankman-Fried first met the future leader of EA while he was a student at MIT and MacAskill was writing his doctoral dissertation at Oxford. The more prestigious the academic institution is – especially Oxbridge in the UK, and Ivy League Universities in the USA – the more gravity we tend to give to the words of its inhabitants, which gives them even more confidence in their own authority. There is evidence, however, that as the cracks in the ivory tower are exposed, fewer people trust the secular clergy who occupy these institutions.
But a bigger sin, one that applies to many in the modern academy, including the leaders of EA, is to narrow your focus to trendy problems and politically correct solutions.
Will MacAskill was given plenty of warning about Bankman-Fried’s shady character – his general dishonesty, and the way he treated his employees. But instead of listening to those who warned him, MacAskill defended Bankman-Fried, who was already bringing millions of dollars to the EA cause. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, the easiest person to fool is yourself, especially when doing so is to your own benefit.
Perhaps this could happen to anyone, and I have no doubt MacAskill would have refused Bankman-Fried’s money if he knew he was stealing it from ordinary people.
But a bigger sin, one that applies to many in the modern academy, including the leaders of EA, is to narrow your focus to trendy problems and politically correct solutions. You want to reduce malaria in Africa? Effective Altruists tell you to donate your money to bed nets so that people won’t get bitten by mosquitos at night.
I’m not arguing that bed nets are bad, though I suspect there are more ambitious but controversial ways of spending money that might do more good – for example, genetically modifying mosquitoes so they don’t transmit malaria, or genetically modifying people so they don’t get sick from the parasite that causes malaria. Again, I’m not endorsing either of these solutions to the problem, only pointing out that some of them are off the table for effective altruists because they would get EAs canceled on campus, and in the press.
Effective Altruism is a movement born of the conviction that the high priests in our modern cathedrals will use their wisdom to improve the lives of all sentient creatures.
Effective Altruism is a movement born of the conviction that the high priests in our modern cathedrals will use their wisdom to improve the lives of all sentient creatures. And in some cases they are right: the EA campaign to expose the cruelty and public health costs imposed by modern factory farming has surely done some good.
But in other cases, EA is destined to fail. This is not because cost-benefit tests are useless, or because we shouldn’t reflect on how best to best spend our charitable donations. It is because Effective Altruism is a monkish movement led by the same humanities professors who use their power to push a parochial worldview that large numbers of ordinary people in the US and UK reject.
On one hand, Effective Altruists are a band of powerful nerds who are disconnected from ordinary opinion. This isn’t bad since ordinary people are often wrong (we all are, about many things). But on the other hand, because they work in modern universities and are animated by ideas that flow from the universities, they are at least as likely as ordinary people to be wrong about the things they care more about. When it comes to politics, after all, more passionate partisans are often less rational, not more.
Assumptions can be wrong even if they’re motivated by the desire to get the answer right. This is especially likely to happen when those assumptions emerge from a profession that rewards conformity. When your stated mission is to use human reason to find more effective solutions to the world’s problems, you’d better employ generals who are not afraid to face uncomfortable facts.