Evils Of Effective Altruism

I have been a Utilitarianist my entire life. While I didn’t have a name for it, I evaluated every action based on its eventual effect on the suffering and happiness of conscious beings.

Being born in an Islamic country, I was aware that my views were not shared by many. However, I always wondered why 1.

I instinctively became a feminist in an all-boys school, even in one of the most patriarchal countries in the world. Additionally, I ended up becoming a Vegan without any social proximity to anyone with that identity.

I became familiar with live and dead proponents of this branch of Prescriptive Ethics while exploring Ethics during my early 20s. Among them, I found agreement with some, such as Peter Singer, who advocated for Animal Rights and provided valuable insights into maintaining a consistent utilitarianistic view.

Peter Singer introduced the concept of Effective Altruism in recent times. In essence, it asserts that when being altruistic, your intentions are irrelevant. What truly matters is the improvement in the world following your actions. For example, a donation to charity that builds a church in your neighborhood is less ethically valuable than a donation that funds vaccinating children, even if the latter was done as a PR stunt.

However, as Molly White have so well demonstrated it 2, Billionaires and Millionares in Silicon Valley have bastardized this idea, to the point that they only do the PR stunt, if we are lucky.

In his book, The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer provides an example of one of his students who joined Wall Street to earn a significant amount of money, which they could then use for effectively altruistic purposes.

The example provided was meant to demonstrate the seemingly counterintuitive reasoning behind being effective in altruistic endeavors.

Those with significant interests in maintaining the status quo found parts of this example to be extremely convenient. In particular, the notion that “hoarding money can be ethical!” appeared to be their primary focus, while other aspects of the idea were largely overlooked.

This kind of bastardization of Utilitarian Ethics has been done before, most prominently by Joseph Stalin, to justify purges and famine. Specifically he used the term “Greater Good”. Which I believe at least has the tone of Utilitarianism.

In this case, we can argue that Joseph Stalin did not actually adhere to any utilitarianistic ethic principles, as his actions did not bring about much utility as a consequence of his actions. However, consequences are hard to predict, and judgments can only be made in hindsight. Due to the practical vagueness, anyone can find rationalization for any action. So, if this prescriptive ethics is so permissible that does not help anyone, is it really an acceptable theory?

In this case, Deontology fares much better, as it advocates specific actions. For instance, “lying is bad.” This is really helpful, as it allows you to simply avoid lying and be considered good. There is a quote used by Immanuel Kant 3 in his book Project for a Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay:

Fiat justitia, pereat mundus

This quote, “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus,” literally means “Let justice be done, let the world perish.” In a deontological absolute world, people would not lie, even if one little lie could save the world from burning.

This example highlights an extreme case of adhering to deontology, but it also showcases the simplicity and straightforwardness of the concept.

However, even though rules of deontology are simple to know and hard to adhere to, there is a rich history of religious figures justifying their endless lies and actions in the name of deontological rules.

In the city where I reside, the Morality Police imprison individuals, administer corporal punishments, and even sanction death sentences, all justified by the Deontological rules of Islam. Additionally, there is the concept of Expedient Lies, where one lies for a specific purpose, if it helps the religion.

Oh we landed on the same place after all!

In our Effective Altruism case, I see a parallel. Justifying the accumulation of wealth without using it to significantly improve the world, under the guise of Effective Altruism, is akin to actively contributing to the preishment of world while not engaging in any acts of moral value, in the name of Deontology.

The intentional misuse of philosophies to justify horrendous actions is not a new phenomenon, nor is it exclusive to utilitarianism. Any moral perspective can be manipulated to rationalize any behavior.

But there’s another problem in this situation. A prescriptive theory should provide guidance. It should assist us in making decisions in our everyday lives. If it’s permissive, allowing anything to happen, is it still a good normative theory?

Here, I remain undecided. One argument for utilitarianism is that uncertainty does not usually hinder us. There is evidence suggesting that food X may cause cancer, and some evidence refuting it. We might not have a definitive answer at present. The current uncertainty in biology does not compel us to abandon the field entirely and gravitate towards the more straightforward and certain Jewish food regimen. But predicting the future is far from simple. As uncertainty grows, so does the challenge of adhering to utilitarianism.

This is often evident in more intricate situations. Where there is a likelihood of the interests of future beings conflicting with the social interests of presently living individuals.

In certain more evident instances, like slavery, animal cruelty, and sexism, utilitarianists have typically been ahead of their deontologist contemporaries.

For me, I think I will stick with utilitarianism. I believe that, in general, utilitarianism has been more clear than some other theories. And I don’t think individuals who abuse this theory are any more prevalent than those who have misused deontology.

You may have observed that I have not discussed another significant branch of prescriptive ethical theories, Virtue Ethics. Although I can appreciate the importance of incorporating virtues into one’s actions, I don’t see it providing any guidance on what is good and what is bad.

  1. I have recently familiarized myself with the idea that there could be distinct Moral Instincts or Moral Senses influencing people’s diverse choices in Prescriptive Ethics. I might be situated at the far end of the spectrum in this context. If you want to know more about this, look into “Moral foundations theory”. ↩︎

  2. A very interesting and thoughtful post on her blog Citation Needed titled: Effective Obfuscation ↩︎

  3. He used it as a demonstrative example, but he did not originate it. ↩︎

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