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It almost sounds like the plot of an absurdist comedy written by the team that brought us Revenge of the Nerds: Computer scientists gather to combat global poverty, only to become increasingly obsessed with interstellar travel and potential artificial intelligence-driven doomsday scenarios. Yet that’s what Dylan Matthews of Vox found at the Effective Altruism Global conference at the Google Quad campus in Mountain View, Calif., a couple of weeks ago — a convention of (mostly) white males more worried about a Terminator-like Götterdämmerung in a speculative future than about the homeless in present-day Los Angeles.
Effective altruism (or EA, as proponents refer to it) is more than a belief .... It’s a movement, and like any movement, it has begun to develop a culture, and a set of powerful stakeholders, and a certain range of worrying pathologies. At the moment, EA is very white, very male, and dominated by tech industry workers. And it is increasingly obsessed with ideas and data that reflect the class position and interests of the movement’s members rather than a desire to help actual people.In the beginning, EA was mostly about fighting global poverty. Now it’s becoming more and more about funding computer science research to forestall an artificial intelligence-provoked apocalypse. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the computer science majors have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research. Compared to that, multiple attendees said, global poverty is a “rounding error.”
In a review of Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, philanthropist Fred Smith muses, “I often wonder if philanthropy is one of those words that has either lost its traditional definition (love of mankind) or never should have been used to describe giving in the first place.” Certainly, a preference for saving 1052 estimated future lives rather than improving the lives of 3 billion existing people who live on less than $2.50 a day (2013) speaks more of a love of numbers than a love of mankind.
The mathematics by which the EA Global nerds justify this preoccupation with existential risk is a kind of “Pascal’s Mugging”, creating a false risk-reward analysis by slapping high probability values on events which are too hypothetical to give honestly estimable odds. Even within the often-repugnant calculations of utilitarianism, a life five generations from being conceived has no claim on us equal to that of a life currently being lived.
The Divorce of Altruism From Charity
This absurd fixation on future generations at the expense of the ones currently living is only the logical end to which philanthropy has been tending since at least the Enlightenment. Prior to that point, Christians never considered poverty “solve-able” — but not because Jesus predicted it so (Matthew 26:11; cf. Mark 14:7, John 12:8), which would have taken his words out of context. According to Beers,
No matter how important its acts of charity may have been in winning adherents, the early Christian church did not view these acts first through a utilitarian lens. Charity was not a means, at least not primarily, of solving a social problem, redistributing wealth, or even growing the church. To practice charity was to make a statement about the world and the God who had created and redeemed it.
“Charity,” Smith emphasizes, “like mercy, recognizes that all of life is a gift and that, like God, we give in turn to others. It is not a means to an end. The poor and the suffering are not a problem to be solved. Rather, charity is an expression of sheer gratitude and human compassion toward another person.”
However, during the Reformation, Protestant Christianity began to lose the concept of corporal works of mercy, largely because reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin misunderstood St. Paul’s use of the term works. Protestants still saw almsgiving as a good thing, but not as the necessary expression of faith St. James wrote of (cf. James 2:14-17). This divorce from charity as a work of mercy was further magnified by Enlightenment writers like Benjamin Franklin and Auguste Comte, who began to see the work of philanthropy as bringing an end to the conditions which created suffering rather than merely ameliorating it. Comte levered it further away by calling it altruism, rooted in a French legal phrase (le droit d’autrui, “the right of the other”), making selfless concern an act of disinterested justice rather than one of loving compassion.
The result? Man, in the abstract, is worth saving; individual people … meh, not so much. It’s worthwhile to spend billions to end poverty, but not to give a sawbuck to poor Joe Schmuckatelli standing on the street corner.
From Altruism to Atrocity
Even further: both Beers and Smith see the worst outrages of the twentieth century as rooted in this divorce of philanthropy from charity. They quote an early critic of philanthropy, Orestes Brownson, who “feared that radical humanitarians would ‘make war on the people in order to perfect mankind. Their vaunted altruism was the opposite of genuine love and charity — for it often veiled pride and the will to power.’”
[Smith:] He had reason to fear the worst. Experimentation, eugenics, mass sterilization, and, ultimately, ethnic cleansing all have their roots in the early (and often forced) optimism of philanthropy detached from both merit and favor alike. The poor became a problem to be solved by institutions with little interest in the individuals they were trying to reform. As Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to man but leads to the ways of death” [Proverbs 14:12, version uncertain].
It’s not surprising, then, that writer Timothy Askew finds modern altruistic entrepreneurs curiously detached from other people: “Even in their publicly bruited avowals of pro bono concern for the future of mankind, there seems somehow an unattached sense of being personally outside humanity — above humanity more than part of it.” Smith was reminded of Jay Gatsby; I, however, am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ Conditioners in The Abolition of Man: “men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean” (p. 63).
Rediscovering Corporal Works of Mercy
George Orwell once wrote, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” I hate to sound utterly banal about this, but the only solution to world hunger is to feed starving people. A new, more intense focus on empirical measures is ineffective if, in the end, they don’t measure real help received by real people.
“Effective altruism”, in the end, is the attempt to make philanthropy scientific. However, the attempt to reduce human problems to numbers has generally come at the cost of reducing humans themselves to numbers, to unlovable abstractions to which the analyst feels no partiality, no loyalty, and no kinship. Such altruism isn’t selfless so much as it is “chest-less”,[*] devoid of the magnanimity that enables true greatness of mind, able to sacrifice thousands of faceless others for the Greater Good but completely incapable of meaningful self-sacrifice.
Philanthropy, then, to be truly “the love of mankind”, must rediscover its roots in the corporal works of mercy. Altruism should no longer be considered merely as an abstract question of justice but as a concrete expression of a true affection for others. Perhaps conferences such as EA Global should require that participants serve a certified minimum number of hours worked at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other such practical outreach efforts before they’re allowed to bloviate on effective solutions to human problems.
At any rate, anyone who “loves mankind but can’t stand people” should never be placed in a position where they can decide how mankind is to be best served.
[*] Alain de Lille, aka Alanus ab Insulis, called the chest the seat of magnanimity. See Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pp. 40-41.