Or how flawed thinking can make $10 billion disappear
You’re one of my very favorite writers, and I feel like I learn a lot from your column. I don’t know how you’re able to read so much, listen to so much, and write so much; your productivity is astounding, and you do it all with unique insights.
Today’s column is the first time I’ve felt you were unfair, and not just a little.
My son works for an Effective Altruist (EA) organization founded by a multi-billionaire to research how he can spend his billions of charitable dollars to do the most good. My son lives and breathes EA, and I have never heard him talk—not once--about "maximizing pleasure." He’s currently in Ethiopia leading a delegation of South Korean parliamentarians, showing them vaccination facilities and other cost-effective ways to save lives in a country that needs support; the hope is that the parliamentarians will lobby their government to increase funding for such projects. EAs tend to focus on countries where the most good can be done at the least cost, so developing countries are at the top of their list.
It’s true that many EAs are consequentialists, but not in the name of having a good time. They deal with dicey equations like how much sacrifice today is justifiable to achieve a better tomorrow. Similarly, they’ll make the difficult suggestion that resources spent to do good on the local level in this country would be better spent in another country where the dollars—and the good that can be done—go much further. That part of EA can make a lot of people uncomfortable, and understandably so, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
Aspiring EAs have traditionally had two primary career choices: working within EA to identify and promote charitable causes that give the most bang for the buck (i.e., lives saved or substantially improved per dollar spent), or “earning to give”—following the path that maximizes the amount of money they can make and thereby eventually donate. Samuel Bankman-Fried gave the EA movement a big black eye by twisting “earn to give” to allow ripping off investors and shareholders. Effective Altruists would not support any such unethical activities, and they’ve dialed down the whole “earn to give” side of the equation as a result of what he’s done. Samuel Bankman-Fried may have started as—or claimed to be—an Effective Altruist, but in no way does he represent the movement. The day his criminal activities were revealed was absolutely brutal for Effective Altruists; not only did he damage the movement in the public eye, but billions of dollars that were expected to go to charitable good vanished. To be very clear: The EA movement would have endorsed his plan to make as much money as possible to donate to worthy causes (if he ever really meant that), but they would never have endorsed the way he went about it. He can call himself an Effective Altruist, but I challenge you to find an Effective Altruist who would want anything to do with him.
I’m curious where you came up with the idea that Effective Altruism is about maximizing pleasure. Is it in writing somewhere? If not, I think you’re being grossly unfair, and I honestly don’t understand why; it doesn’t seem at all consistent with all the well-researched and unerringly fair columns you’ve posted in the past. The whole device about EAs supporting the idea of Granny being sold to sex traffickers to maximize human pleasure in the long run seems—and I hate to say this to someone as deep and thoughtful as you—completely disingenuous and terribly misleading. I challenge you to find a single Effective Altruist who would support it.
And, yes, my progeny is an Effective Altruist, and I’m very proud of him. He lives his life to achieve the most benefit for mankind (and animals as well—animal welfare is a major EA concern); he puts me to shame. "Maximizing pleasure" is part of the equation only insofar as it makes him feel good to have a positive influence on the world.
My son is based in the Bay Area, and I would love for you to get to know him to see what kind of “hate monger” he is. I’m sure he’d welcome the opportunity to talk with you about it.
Brilliantly fair. “By their fruits shall ye know them.” Every philosophical, ideological, or religious system that fails to curb human arrogance leads terribly astray, I think. We can hardly stop ourselves, but we must try. This piece is an excellent instance of “honest brokerage.” Thank you.
First: I am a HUGE fan. Second: this is the one and only time I’ve read something of yours and thought, “this is a terrible piece of writing.” Just to be clear, I’m not saying that because I think your conclusion is faulty. In fact, I have no idea whether you’re right or wrong because I have no training in philosophy, aside from a political theory class I took when I got my JD at Berkeley.
What I am saying is that, as a piece of analysis/persuasion, this is a failure. You start by making some very strong claims about “Ethical Altruism,” e.g., it could make you sell your granny to sex traffickers. But you never walk the reader through specific tenets of the philosophy and how they’ve been applied to do terrible things in the world. You make a remarkably general proposition about EA, then you blame it for a litany of horrible behavior.
Where is the causation analysis? Many people go to law school (or business school) and later do terrible things. Did they do them because they went to law school? Maybe, maybe not. I’m completely open to the possibility that EA is a force for awful behavior in the mold of Sam Bankman-Fried. But your piece does absolutely nothing to persuade me that EA is, in fact, the cause. It’s entirely possible that an advocate could argue (maybe fairly, maybe not), that what Bankman-Fried did was a perversion of the philosophy, not an application of it, in the same way some people pervert religion for terrible ends.
Bottom line, this feels more like a personal vendetta than an argument, and for me, that’s a serious disappointment coming from you, because you are normally so careful and methodical in the way your marshal facts and arguments.
EA isn't all that fancy. It's just the latest philosophy for gangsters. From Robin Hood to Robespierre to Thomas Gambino, gangsters have balanced their present-day destruction against future charity, which always coincidentally comes back to the gangster as profit
The young Raskolnikov, in his misguided fervor, believed himself to be an extraordinary being, above the moral constraints of ordinary men. But he soon found that the human soul cannot easily escape the weight of guilt and conscience. It is alarming to see that, in this modern age, there are still ideologies that can blind individuals to the true essence of humanity, leading them to make choices devoid of genuine compassion and understanding. We must always remember that philosophy, when detached from the heart, can become a dangerous tool.
I guess as a professional analytic philosopher, I am bound to be put off by this. And of course I am. But tell me I did not just read an argument from “Some analytic philosophers are utilitarians and some utilitarians justify bad things” to “analytic philosophy is a bad way of doing philosophy”. (Incidentally most philosophers reject utilitarianism but of course I wouldn’t want to let some facts stand in the way of this ridiculous post.)
I did a D.Phil. at Oxford in the 1970s and knew some of the leading analytic philosophers and read them all. Your rendition is so wide of the mark that it’s unrecognizable. I suggest that you drink some brandy, hug your favorite teddy bear, and hit the sack. Maybe you’ll be intelligible in the morning. Whew.
Wonderfully written article. It’s good to know that a life worth leading is one based on timeless values of honesty, keeping one’s word and mutual respect. Maybe i should dust off my copy of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics for its insight into friendship. I’m curious as to your criticism of Michael Lewis. Another writer whom I respect Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Lewis a fraud
"You just better hope that, if you’re ever a grandparent, your progeny aren’t Effective Altruists"
That line made me laugh. I have a one year old grandson. No Bentham for him!
I never understood the math behind EA; the uncertainty of the far out future is so great, that you have to discount any far future benefit to such an extent that it becomes de minimus compared to doing something kind and helpful to someone now. Plus as you point out, that's why we're here.
Wonderful essay, thank you. Love is a practice and the golden rule still rules.
At the end of my sophomore year in college I disengaged from pursuing a mathematics degree, loving math but unable to see it as the future. I directed back to the liberal arts, with the idea of adding a philosophy minor; the first year was great, and we studied the classics, many of which offered life lessons and generated some deep thinking about same. But my senior year I ran into Wittgenstein and a host of the contemporary thinkers that seemed to fixate on a sterile thinking that had little bearing on what I had come for (probably the Greek traditions)--something that would impact my every day. Reading Ted's piece it would seem that philosophy may be just for philosophers, with little for those of us engaged with the moral and ethical decisions necessary for a best life.
"It imposed a practicum that took anything vital and life-giving, and turned it into a patient etherized on a table."
This is a great sentence, which can be used on so much of Twentieth and the current centuries.
Just look at modern mainstream economics. It used to be called political economy until the middle of the last century, the term political was dropped along, then any economic theories such as communism were removed, and it is now stuffed with mathematical formulae used to justify anything using money or profit; it is what Neoliberalism, which is more pseudo liberalism, than not, uses to justify the current iteration of laissez-fairefree, free market, financialized capitalism stripped of realism or morality, but very profitable for the elites.
However, doctrinaire Communism has the same problem of being reduced to a detailed excuse to treat people as things, supposedly for the greater good, but often used as an aid to not thinking things through. This is interesting because Marxian analysis, socialism, and communism were all reactions to the laissez-fairefree, free market, industrial capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.
It seems the method is more important than the goals long or short. It is fine to advocate an ideology or theory, but not to the destruction of the whatever the purpose or goal is. The ends should never be used to justify the costs especially if it is done without thinking of what they might be.
Thanks Ted. SBF provided a big red flag to anyone paying attention when he claimed that Bayesian priors ruled out Shakespeare as the author of canonical works. After all, how could a literary genius have been working in those olde times?
In the same vein, how likely is it that a cryptocurrency evangelist would prove to be a charlatan? Oh.
Maximizing pleasure is a really bad idea,
pleasure is fleeting and superficial,
its a waste and it eats and doesn't gives but a fleeting feeling
Real Happiness doesn't bases itself on fleeting temporal things, or shouldn't
Suffering is what we should reduce, but most of it gets reduced from accepting life.
We accept life and then we do the right thing within our capabilities.
We make good habits to do the proper things, that benefit the most
We don't succumb to pleasure,
nor obsess with physical things or with anything else,
We keep balance and things good enough
We keep our physical things good enough,
our mental health good enough,
and enjoy being as we naturally are,
just regulating within what's reasonable
We don't sell the earth, our communities and our morals for
pleasures and money that won't feed us nor fill us
We can't be filled except for our role for others
We don't come to take, as we will take nothing with us
We come to give, and if we only give pleasure,
we will give a moment as fleeting as ourselves
Hello Ted: An interesting piece, and one I will have to re-read to fully understand and evaluate. But upon finishing the article a favorite observation - by a French philosopher (the French, who bring their own tortured contribution to the history of philosophy) - occurred to me: "Upon the highest throne in the world, the human being still sits on his ass." That's Montaigne, bless him. Thanks again Ted for the essay. Cheers.
When Einstein gave lectures at U.S. universities, the recurring question that students asked him most was:
- Do you believe in God?
And he always answered:
- I believe in the God of Spinoza.
Baruch de Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy, along with Descartes.
(Spinoza) : God would say:
What I want you to do is go out into the world and enjoy your life. I want you to sing, have fun and enjoy everything I've made for you.
Stop going into those dark, cold temples that you built yourself and saying they are my house. My house is in the mountains, in the woods, rivers, lakes, beaches. That's where I live and there I express my love for you.
Stop blaming me for your miserable life; I never told you there was anything wrong with you or that you were a sinner, or that your sexuality was a bad thing. Sex is a gift I have given you and with which you can express your love, your ecstasy, your joy. So don't blame me for everything they made you believe.
Stop reading alleged sacred scriptures that have nothing to do with me. If you can't read me in a sunrise, in a landscape, in the look of your friends, in your son's eyes... ➤ you will find me in no book!
Stop asking me "will you tell me how to do my job?" Stop being so scared of me. I do not judge you or criticize you, nor get angry, or bothered. I am pure love.
Stop asking for forgiveness, there's nothing to forgive. If I made you... I filled you with passions, limitations, pleasures, feelings, needs, inconsistencies... free will. How can I blame you if you respond to something I put in you? How can I punish you for being the way you are, if I'm the one who made you? Do you think I could create a place to burn all my children who behave badly for the rest of eternity? What kind of god would do that?
Respect your peers and don't do what you don't want for yourself. All I ask is that you pay attention in your life, that alertness is your guide.
My beloved, this life is not a test, not a step on the way, not a rehearsal, nor a prelude to paradise. This life is the only thing here and now and it is all you need.
I have set you absolutely free, no prizes or punishments, no sins or virtues, no one carries a marker, no one keeps a record.
You are absolutely free to create in your life. Heaven or hell.
➤ I can't tell you if there's anything after this life but I can give you a tip. Live as if there is not. As if this is your only chance to enjoy, to love, to exist.
So, if there's nothing after, then you will have enjoyed the opportunity I gave you. And if there is, rest assured that I won't ask if you behaved right or wrong, I'll ask. Did you like it? Did you have fun? What did you enjoy the most? What did you learn?...
Stop believing in me; believing is assuming, guessing, imagining. I don't want you to believe in me, I want you to believe in you. I want you to feel me in you when you kiss your beloved, when you tuck in your little girl, when you caress your dog, when you bathe in the sea.
Stop praising me, what kind of egomaniac God do you think I am?
I'm bored being praised. I'm tired of being thanked. Feeling grateful? Prove it by taking care of yourself, your health, your relationships, the world. Express your joy! That's the way to praise me.
Stop complicating things and repeating as a parakeet what you've been taught about me.
What do you need more miracles for? So many explanations?
The only thing for sure is that you are here, that you are alive, that this world is full of wonders.
See Religious and philosophical views of Albert Einstein- Wikipedia
Also his book The World as I See it.