two criticisms of Effective Altruism

In the week after Sam Bankman-Fried (known as “SBF”) lost his whole $16 billion fortune, I’m sure that everyone who was already skeptical about crypto, Silicon Valley, boy geniuses, billionaires of all ages, political donors, and Effective Altruists is now piling on. Schadenfreude flows palpably through the world’s social networks–flawed as they may be.

I don’t know whether personal attacks are merited. SBF had explicitly committed to making high-risk bets with relatively low odds of success, because he thought that was his moral duty. Even if he deserves to be denounced, I’m not interested in celebrating anyone’s failure or reinforcing my prior assumptions.

But Adam Fisher’s beautifully written pre-collapse profile of SBF supplies quotations that illustrate why I have always resisted Effective Altruism, as a matter of principle.

I believe:

  1. The world gets better when people have the capacity to define, analyze, and address their own problems.
  2. Being happy, in a worthy sense of that word (“eudaimonic,” if you prefer), is hard and rare. Most of us live lives of quiet desperation. Material conditions help but are insufficient. We must accomplish worthwhile happiness ourselves. To the extent that we can help others to flourish, it’s by sharing insights and developing relationships.

These two points are distinct, but they intersect because working with others to shape our world is a path to inner happiness. It is not the only path, and it’s often a fraught one, but it must be kept open. By exchanging proposals and then acting together with people whom we view as equals, we can broaden our thinking and enrich our inner lives.

In contrast, utilitarianism “in its purest—Benthamite—form” (Fisher’s description of SBF’s philosophy) presumes that we can and must make other people happy by acting on or for them at a distance. We can calculate the best decision privately and then just do it.

SBF asks Fisher to imagine a world in which many people resemble his description of himself. They take risks to make money that they then give away to assist the world’s poorest. Some succeed and some fail, but whether you are one of the successful shouldn’t matter much to you, because you are just one person among billions. “The starving child doesn’t give a shit about which person it is who does that good. So why are you concerned about this little term in the equation?”

“This little term” is a way of expressing altruism: each of us counts for almost nothing. But note that SBF’s mind goes to a child who is starving. Children only gradually develop agency. Babies cannot analyze or affect the larger social world. They cannot do better than receiving benevolence, although they need loving relationships as well as nutrients.

To treat adults like needy infants is paternalism, in the root sense of that word. If you recognize adults as fellow human beings, then you must not affect them without asking them what they think, making yourself accountable to them, and allowing them to affect you back.

Unless they are at death’s door, adults typically do care about who is claiming to help them, and why. That is because we want to choose and shape our relationships. We do not want someone else to have a purely discretionary choice about whether and how to affect us, even if that person happens to be benign. Discretionary power is domination, and domination is a basic evil.

Frank Lovett summarizes the classical republican argument (which is as old as Cicero): “to have a master with an exceptionally benevolent disposition is to be reasonably secure in one’s expectation that one will not often be adversely interfered with—but it is to have a master nonetheless. The republican idea of freedom specifically instructs us not to make our master a better person (the goal of the old ‘mirror for princes’ literature), but to render him less of a master.”

Can a financial donor dominate people? I would say absolutely, if the money affects people and the choice of whether and how to give is the donor’s alone. Effective Altruism seeks to make rich people better, much like renaissance books with titles like A Mirror for Princes that aimed to improve monarchs. The point, however, should be to do without masters.

My second concern involves the difficulty of achieving happiness. SBF devotes no evident attention to his inner life. Fisher reports, “SBF spends nothing, it would seem, pursuing his own pleasure. It’s not just that great books aren’t worthwhile. The great movies aren’t worth watching. Food gets the same treatment. … SBF’s rejection of pleasure is so profound it got me wondering if that absence of pleasure—as opposed to his philosophy—was the key to understanding him. Is he so deep in his head that he’s incapable of feeling pleasure?”

SBF says, “I would never read a book. … I’m very skeptical of books.” Although he is entitled to his preference in media, there’s one book that he should definitely read now that he has some time on his hands: The Autobiography of John Stewart Mill.

SBF would recognize the author’s situation. Mill was a famous young prodigy raised by utilitarians. His father arranged a powerful position for him as an administrator of British India. Thus Mill had “what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” Likewise, SBF was raised by utilitarian law professors and accumulated billions with which to affect countries like India.

I don’t know SBF’s current mental state, but in the India Office, Mill fell into a deep depression. He asked himself :

“Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

SBF presents himself, like the young Mill, as someone who ignored his personal well-being to enhance others’. That verdict may be complicated by SBF’s 1,500 square-foot condo in the Bahamas, “with six bedrooms and spectacular views out every window,” and the possibility that he diverted his investors’ money. But even if SBF was sincere, he was making a fundamental mistake if happiness depends on wisdom, because then we must each learn to be wise. Mill wrote:

the important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances. …

Mill became a great proponent of the arts, of liberty as a personal accomplishment as well as a lack of censorship, and of representative government. He continued to make utilitarian arguments, but now refracted through an understanding that people must have power over their own lives, individually and collectively.

See also Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?; qualms about Effective Altruism; how we use Kant today; wicked problems, and excuses; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; introducing republicanism; citizens against domination; etc.

This entry was posted in philosophy, Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.