Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Effective Altrusim

I have been looking into the movement known as “Effective Altruism” recently, particularly in the light of Peter Singer’s presentation at TED.

To a large extent, this is substantially consistent with my interests since high school. I wanted to make the world a better place. However, I had a question that needed answering, "What is 'better'?"

In the Civil War, many Confederate soldiers made a significant "contribution to charity" - sacrificing years of labor, their health, even their lives in defense of something that they felt had real value. Yet, what they defended, in fact, had little value.

The same can be said about the Kamikaze Pilot in World War II, and the suicide bombers. These are - at least in the minds of those who performed them - acts of charity.

We can apply this analysis to a number of political causes that people support. For example . . . abortion. Is the time and money donated to protecting a woman's wife to choose, or the right of the conceptus' to life, a "good thing"?

Is it the case that those who are fighting for handgun regulation making the world a better place? Or does that honor go to those who are fighting against that regulation? Capital punishment? Homosexuality? The balance between invasions of privacy versus security? Euthanasia? Protecting the environment?

Look at any political campaign . . . or all political campaigns. Billions of dollars and countless labor-hours are donated - charitably contributed - to advancing a political agenda. Those who do so think they are doing good. Yet, they are countered by people "charitably" donating billions of dollars and countless labor-hours on the other side.

How effective is this altruism?

In each of these areas, we have people spending countless labor hours and dollars on one side, versus those who spend countless labor hours and dollars on the other side. People on both sides think that they are making a valuable contribution - that they are being charitable. Yet, clearly, some of them are wrong.

From the very start I did not believe that I had the wisdom to be able to say with arrogant certainty that the side I selected was the right side, and those who disagreed with me are either co-conspirators with the forces of evil or manipulated dupes. Perhaps they were on the right side, and I was the manipulated dupe.

How can we know?

Here, then, is the first question of effective altruism.

How do you know when you are being altruistic?

Under the topic of "effective altruism", there is a lot of talk as to which causes are more effective than others. Indeed, the whole focus of the movement is to identify a cause as "effective" or "ineffective". Some causes, it is said within the movement, are 1000 times more effective than others.

Actually, I would argue that the difference is greater than that. Some causes are infinitely more effective than others, because some of the causes that people are contributing to are causes that do no good and positive harm.

So far, the "Effective Altriusm" movement seems to be substantially ignoring the question, "When am I doing good?"

In much of what I read, they make the assumption that "lives saved" is a good thing - and that no life is intrinsically more valuable than any other. Yet, what is the value of saving the life of a boy who grows up to be a lieutenant in the service of a war lord who spends that life going around raping, stealing, and killing from rival war bands and any innocent civilian seen as vulnerable? Are you doing good to save the life that will be spent devoted to beheading anybody who "insults" their god or violently attacking any woman who seeks an eduction? Does it do good to save a life that will be spent promoting ignorance and superstition and actually fighting the sound scientific understanding that provide the intellectual foundation for our ability to treat injuries, cure disease, and understand the workings of the environment in which we live?

While it is the case that all lives have the same intrinsic value (that, actually, being no intrinsic value since intrinsic value does not exist), it is not the case and never will be the case that all lives have equal extrinsic value. Saving a life is not enough. Directing those saved lives so that they are spent in the service of that which is actually good rather than that which is evil is an essential part of making one's altruism truly effective.

A part of the extrinsic value of a life is the resources consumed - increasing competition and scarcity. In places already suffering from shortages of food and clean water, is it the case that another 1000 lives added is such a good thing? Perhaps the best charity is not to be understood in terms of "lives saved" but "births foregone".

How can we know?

Even where we can know, how do we direct those lives being saved to good ends rather than evil? Effective altruism can't be limited to just knowing, "X is good", but - to truly count as effective - has to direct human activity towards that which is good. So, "How can we direct the lives saved to that which is good rather than that which is evil?"

If one wishes to talk about "effective altruism", these are questions not to be ignored.

When is a person doing good? How do we know? How do we direct "lives saved" to the doing of good rather than the doing of evil?


Michael said...

Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics
-- by Stefan Molyneux

You might be interested in this.

@blamer said...

To me, Singer's talk is suggesting that part of being ethically responsible is to do better than our instinctual obedience to the reasonable excuses for inaction offered up by our inner monologue, for donating less than we can afford to.

It seems reasonable to instead adopt the above principle offered by respected bio-ethicists, Singer.

I can accept his conclusion without being convinced to let go of the numerous objections I find I have to debatable elements within his argument (1) geographical
distance "not" morally relevant? (2) imperatives to divert "selfish" purchases to charity? (3) only follow your heart after you temper it by using your head? (4) that for B&M Gates each life is equal so it "ought" to be for all TED attendees? (5) it's ethical to obey what "utilitarians" demand you do with your 40,000$ donation? Etc.