“Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?” – The first sentence at https://www.effectivealtruism.org
Altruism isn’t generosity. Altruism is about acting specifically for others at some cost to yourself. There is sacrifice involved. Many people think sacrifice is good. If you give a lot to a poor person – that’s great. But if you give a lot to the poor until it starts to hurt you so you cannot afford the latest iPhone, that’s even better. If you’re forced to go without “frivolous things” you are virtuous, on this moral take. And the more you go without in your quest to help others – the better. There’s a religious asymptote we are admonished to pursue here. As Jesus Christ is said to have done himself by sacrificing his whole life and as he implored the rest of his followers in Luke 18:24 “ Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” So that’s the very best you can do: be as altruistic – selfless – as possible. Give it away and the more it hurts, the more moral you are. But most of us can only manage a little altruism. So we're a little better than those who are not. Right?
Altruism goes beyond mere generosity. As the effectivealtruism.org starting sentence implores us: how can we use our resources to help others the most? Others. To help yourself isn’t really a part of the picture. That’s selfish. So long as you have just enough – well, that’s optimal. Indeed to help others the most means, logically, helping yourself the least. Well - so long as you’re physically able to keep helping others, everything else can go by the wayside. It’s Jesus at his best.
There was a complaint made by Christopher Hitchens one time about Mother Theresa. He said it wasn’t that she loved the poor so much as she loved poverty. There’s a sense in which the new "Effective Altruism" (EA) movement too suffers from this. The "take action" section of their website is about giving money to their designated charities. To give to organisations less well off - typically ones that address poverty. So the focus is on poverty. But we shouldn’t love poverty. We should hate it and want to eradicate it not merely try to alleviate some of it. How can we do this? Should we give away money to the poor? Redistribute? Or should we create wealth as fast as possible by making progress? By all of us doing what we are, in our own ways, best at?
Let’s consider the case of the great Bill Gates. A very wealthy man - the founder of Microsoft - who made a lot of progress and who also is very generous. His charity is now his primary focus in life and so he does great work in helping those less fortunate improve their position. And he is solving problems. So he invests in actual cures – solutions – for things like malaria. (As an aside: I happen to agree with the sentiments of Yaron Brook: it might’ve been even better for the world had Gates stuck to making even more money through producing even more widgets and software rather than giving the money away. Maybe in an alternate universe where Gates didn’t focus all his time and wealth on charity, and instead took that time and wealth to direct the production of an even better next generation Microsoft Windows that provided just the right boost needed to the computer at a medical institute that found the cheap cure to malaria). But Gates can give away much without hurting himself much. No doubt he’s having fun and that’s the main thing. But what about the rest of us?
If you’ve $3000 and want to help fix, say malaria what can you do? Here’s one thing: donate that money to a charity and buy a bunch of mosquito bed nets. Very well. Good. A focus on helping the individual. On other people you do not know and will never meet. Or: what about this: donate the money to a pharmaceutical company working on treatments for malaria? I’d say: better. Most people would say: dubious. Those “evil” companies would treat your paultry $3000 as a joke and it’d barely cover the bar tab and their next company picnic. Cynicism never much helped anyone. What about this: invest the money in yourself and whatever you are good at and work on solving your very own problems – whatever they are. Perhaps you’re a software developer. Perhaps you’re working on data base software which is interesting enough but not your primary passion. But that $3000 – maybe you just invest it in giving yourself a few weeks away from the office, on sabbatical, where you can focus solely on figuring out how to improve the accuracy of 3D modelling in a computer game you’re working on in your spare time. You solve the problem. Now the thing is: the growth of knowledge is unpredictable. Your improved 3D modelling technique just might be the kind of thing pharmaceutical companies need. Maybe they buy your little bit of code for $300,000 and you can quit your other job and focus solely on computer games for a while. Oh and that code the pharmaceutical company bought? It was used to model drugs and a cure for malaria was found 5 years sooner than it otherwise would have been. And you were instrumental in this in a way you wouldn’t have been had you donated it to nets.
I am not saying: “stop the nets!” I am saying sacrificing yourself, your money, your time is not inherently the highest moral good. We’ve been blinded by the supposed moral good of altruism. John 8:12 “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." Sometimes that light is so bright as to be blinding. Even to avowed atheists. The idea that sacrifice is good – that selflessness is good rather than a rational interest in your own self is pervasive. And false. And ultimately – an evil. It is a cause of many problems and a solution to very few. And any solution that creates more worse problems than it solves is no solution.
What is actually effective is solving problems and there are many ways problems are solved. Mostly the path to a solution cannot be predicted beforehand.
So what is moral here? Let us compare altruism to generosity and compassion.
Firstly compassion (as others have observed “empathy” is morally misleading also). Compassion lets you understand the suffering of others and think about how to help. (Empathy on the other hand asks you to feel something of their suffering). Compassion, properly construed, can be seen as dispassionate. It’s appreciating that the suffering of someone else really exists and includes something of a desire to help find a solution. We’d want our surgeons to be compassionate – but not empathetic. The latter would be distracting. Empathy is moreover misleading because objective morality cannot be primarily about feelings. But nevertheless compassion can be useful in order to be motivated to act to help others especially in those situations where those others seem not to be directly connected to us and so we cannot immediately expect some kind of reciprocity. (But perhaps we live in a community and so compassion of this kind does indeed help us in the long run).
Now generosity. Consider that people are often praised for being “generous” with their time. But no one is expected to be “altruistic” with their time. Indeed in that context you can see altruism as the morally dubious principle it is. We’ve only a finite amount of time each day and if anything is our own – it’s our time. So people who are generous with their time act out of compassion and love for their friends and family or others they care for in order to help. “How generous you’ve been!” people say if we spend some hours with them helping them on some project or to reach some goal. In those cases of generosity we – the giver – really are getting something in return. Good conversation with another person. Other people are great – the most valuable things in the world. Spending time with them is one of the most amazing gifts of life.
But altruistic? That would be something like: well now I’ve given you all the time I want to – but now I’ll give you some more because that’d be the noble thing to do. I need to sacrifice. This needs to hurt a little (or a lot). I’m not getting as much from you as I really want, but I’ll continue to give because, well, that’s altruism! Expecting nothing whatever in return but a warm glow of self satisfaction later. If you were a believer it’d be because God was watching and will reward you “with treasure in heaven” as Jesus said. Altruists like Peter Singer argue for us giving away some percentage of our wages or salaries to charity - just as Christian tithing is intended to and other religions similarly prescribe. But rarely do they say: when you've helped a person some, give 10% more of your time still. Or any free time you have each week, or sleep - give 10% of that to someone who needs it more.
Let’s consider why is it that money is regarded so differently to time in this case. It seems the case that being altruistic with your money is seen as moral in a way that being altruistic with your time is not. Here is a guess: because the prevailing view in the West for some millenia now has been that money is an evil – a corrupting influence. Rich people are rarely seen as good people until they give their money away (like Gates. Gates was an evil industrialist for most of his business life. Until he started giving away all his money. Now, in the eyes of many, he's made up for some of his evil richness.) Of course this is just another Christian hang up. 1 Timothy 6: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” And of course Jesus in Matthew 19:24 “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Money isn’t good on this view. It’s a path to evil. So, it’s perfectly logical given those biblical premises that the conclusion follows as a matter of rigorous deduction: “give it away”. To give away your money must a great virtue it is thought. One of the highest moral goods. For money is an evil liable to corrupt. So you can be altruistic with it. Be generous with your time (for it is yours – you own it and have moral claim to it) but be altruistic with your money (for you’ve probably, somewhere in your history – inherited some by ill-gotten means. It was a sinful acquisition. You were born with some wealth – undeserved. So the only way to make penance is to give it up and approach the greater purity that is closer to poverty).
Altruism doesn’t expect anything in return. Indeed to expect anything in return is itself a moral failing (on the altruistic view). Yet the exact opposite is true. Reciprocity, sometimes maligned, is actually an important means by which progress is made. People cooperate and find solutions faster when working together on the occasions they want to. So this anti-reciprocity (and, really on careful examination – anti-cooperation) sentiment is another reason altruism is a kind of moral failing. With generosity we actually participate in reciprocity: we get as we give. But with altruism – nothing is ever expected in return. Indeed that would be to pollute altruism. The genuine altruist would reject all thankyous – even if the recipient wanted to pay back the altruist – the altruist should never accept. Because then they’d get payment for services rendered. They'd turn into a capitalist! Especially if the reward was very great. But the generous benefactor (to be contrasted with the altruist)? Well if one day the recipient arrived at the door with payment and interest? They’d take the gift and reinvest and the cycle of generosity and wealth creation could continue.
Morality should not be regarded primarily as a focus on others. The focus should remain on finding solutions to problems. To answer: what we should do? The question is not “What should we do to help others?” it is “What should we do?”. It simply is the case that making progress as fast as possible cannot involve altruism as any kind of deep principle but rather the deep rule is more like its antithesis. Because when people focus on themselves and the problems they are genuinely passionate about they make progress faster. And that’s our situation: to solve problems as fast as possible. And as a consequence, somewhere down the road, other people get helped as a by-product and so much faster. Bill Gates never set out to solve problems in medicine and chemistry, physics, engineering and pollution and a thousand other things. He aimed to write software. That’s it. And people bought it. And he became very wealthy because so very many people found what he created useful and valuable. And many of his buyers went on to solve important problems using Microsoft machines in medicine, science, engineering and everything else and as a consequence countless lives were saved and improved. All because Gates (being self interested) aimed for progress in one area on problems he cared about and created wealth. And that wealth bootstrapped more wealth creation and problem solving across the world. If we aim to solve problems and create wealth as great industrialists do and have done then problems get solved so much faster. And more people get helped. And that’s so much better than other methods that help solve fewer problems and help far fewer people.
We have to make progress as fast as possible. It’s the best thing for everyone. Giving wealth away - taking it from where progress is happening fastest and gifting it to where it’s not hurts more people than it ever helps.
So if you think morality is about helping the most people as fast as possible, altruism is not that. It’s the opposite and so by a utilitarian standard is actually evil. This is the moral blindspot and evil kernel at the heart of calls for “redistribution”. It steals from children of the future to help some people today. It says: those who produce wealth have always done so by some corrupt means and though they make some progress, that virtue cannot make up for the sin of wealth creation by ill-gotten means. Of course all the arguments that the wealth was ill-gotten and not heroically created through discovering the knowledge that solves the problems people are willing to pay for is ignored.
So if altruism is about helping other people as the EA people claim...then EA isn’t maximally altruistic in the long run. But creating wealth would be.
If we put aside altruism and utilitarianism as our moral compass then we can simply consider solving moral problems directly and not merely mitigate some of their effects. But moral problems require that solutions are found quickly so suffering can be alleviated for the everyone. And this means: fast progress. The creation of knowledge. To do that we need time and because “time is money” we need wealth. And we need to go faster. That needs improvements to technology. Better technology. And we need research - scientific and other kinds. All of this requires more wealth. Wealth has to be created: it’s not a finite amount to be split up and distributed more fairly. It is a thing people create and then solve problems with to the extent they know how. We must continually create more wealth to discover more knowledge and make progress fast enough so the rate of solution finding always outpaces the rate of problem encountering. If things slow and stagnate we risk it all. We risk everyone.