Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Effective altruism: earning to give

Until recently, I was only marginally aware of the Effective Altruism Movement, but after reading a somewhat odd blog post from one of its proponents, Chris Hallquist, I decided to at least look up the Wikipedia article. It summarises the principles of the movement as follows (accessed 13 August 2014):
  • Cost-effectiveness: Effective Altruists (EAs) aim to make donations where they will work the greatest good per unit of currency spent. Although I found Wikipedia's remark that "many effective altruists have backgrounds in philosophy, economics, or mathematics, fields that involve rational and quantitative thinking" rather puzzling because I don't think that economists are necessarily rational (or good at empiricism for that matter), working out where the greatest difference can be made is surely something that everybody should be able to get behind.
  • Cause prioritisation: This is similar to the first point, in that EAs think hard about what charitable causes are the worthiest. Again, in principle this should make sense to anybody, but the obvious problem is that opinions about what should be prioritised differ. Wikipedia tells us, "most effective altruists think that the most important causes to focus on are currently poverty in the developing world, the suffering of animals on factory farms, and humanity's long term future." In my eyes, the second one should be a couple dozen levels of priority behind the first one, and if it is indeed seen as a serious problem then it could quite simply be addressed by making a law that forbids factory farms. The third cause needs clarification: what is meant here? For example, Hallquist appears to be one of those who believe that the greatest risk humanity faces is that we develop an artificial superintelligence that will kill us all; I, on the other hand, consider the people who collect donations to "work on that problem" to be charlatans, and the money donated to them to be wasted. If, on the other hand, the money were put towards solving a real problem such as how to develop cheaper solar cells, then we'd be talking... But maybe that's just me.
  • Impartiality: all human lives have equal value, no matter how distant they are from us. That is a noble sentiment and should, of course, be a fundamental rule of every civilised society. But applied as an ethical guideline to individuals, as it would have to be in a decentralised charitable movement, it is unrealistic to the degree of being inhumane. Nobody can expect me to care as much about somebody I will never meet as about my own daughter, nor would I expect, say, a Norwegian teacher to care as much about me as she cares about her own sister. An ethical system that is utterly incompatible with human nature is a dubious proposition.
  • Donating to charity is morally required as opposed to merely laudable. Hm. I would rather prefer to construct society in such a way that everybody is cared for by the state, and thus not in need of charity in the first place. You can tell people that charity is a duty all you want but if times get tough they will still look after their own, and then a system that relies on charity will fail to help the weak.
  • Counterfactual reasoning: This is a bit of an odd name for what is going on here, and more importantly this is the kind of argument that got me hooked in the first place, so more below.
See, reading between the lines here EAs reject the idea that the best way to do charity is direct action, such as doing something charitable yourself. They argue that it is usually more efficient to (1) go into a high-paying job or lucrative business and earn loads of money, (2) give a part of that money to charity and (3) have the charity hire somebody else to do the charitable things for you. (In this point at least the influence of the aforementioned economists on the movement is plainly visible.)

That logic leads then to considerations such as this one where Hallquist weighs the hypothetical benefits of working in a high-paying job at Google against contributing to a technological start-up company and frames it as a question of charity.

This is where it occurred to me that the EA movement might actually not be that new a concept. Basically, it is like any rich comfortable people throughout history trying to soothe their conscience, with the only difference that EAs start working on that before they even got rich.

The question is, of course, whether trying to get rich does not contribute to precisely the things that they will afterwards have to put right with their donations. Of course they will not necessarily do anything as crass as investing in a company that is very profitable because it exploits its workers to the point where they commit suicide and then donating money to the widows and orphans, or working for a company that poisons a lake and then donating to the clean-up efforts. But even if their efforts at generating the greatest possible profit for charity are not as directly destructive as that, there is possibly some truth to the following poem from Bertold Brecht:
Reicher Mann und armer Mann
Standen da und sahn sich an.
Und der Arme sagte bleich:
Wär ich nicht arm, wärst Du nicht reich.
(Rich man and poor man stood and looked at each other. And the poor one said, if I wasn't poor you wouldn't be rich.)

After all, if the amount of money in an economy is kept constant, then for somebody to become richer somebody else must become poorer. If the amount is increased by money printing, as it must be if the economy is supposed to grow without experiencing destructive price deflation, then relative wealth still works as a zero sum game. For everybody who manages to become part of the 1% top earners somebody else has to drop out of that percentile.

I guess an Effective Altruist could tell themselves that if they get rich, and the person who gets less wealthy was somebody who did not give to charity, then the net effect is positive. But as this post will have shown, so far the logic of the movement does not entirely convince me. Its principles seem to be an odd combination of no-brainers, noble but misguided ethics, and thin justifications for careerism and profiteering.

All this, obviously, assuming that Wikipedia does a good job of summarising these principles. That is not a given, but one would hope that EAs have contributed to the article.

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