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The cold logic of doing good

Ineffective altruism.

This weekend Melbourne is hosting a conference on effective altruism. The aim of effective altruism (EA) is to do “as much good as possible per dollar spent”. Its premise is that much giving is wasted because it goes to causes where the benefits per dollar are low when, if only the donors knew, there are causes whose benefits per dollar are high.

In his 2013 TED talk that launched the movement the Australian ethicist Peter Singer said that we need to use our intelligence to understand that there is no justification to give to causes close to home when there are better causes far away.

So EA calls on us to use both our hearts, so that we are moved to give more, and our heads, so that we can work out where best to give. It is our reason, Singer said, that distinguishes EA from other forms of altruism and that is why “many of the most significant people in effective altruism [come from] philosophy or economics or maths”.

It sounds impressive. These people have PhDs in the disciplines requiring the highest level of analytical intelligence, but are they clever enough to understand the limits of reason? Do they have an inner alarm bell that goes off when the chain of logical deductions produces a result that in most people causes revulsion?

Singer’s personal commitment to encouraging more and better giving is truly admirable, but just as his purist approach to bioethics led him to argue that, because they are not self-aware, human babies “are not persons” and therefore “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee,” his purist approach to giving has also landed him in hot water.

To illustrate the force of EA’s altruistic calculus he told his TED audience that “if you do the sums” then “you can provide one guide dog for one blind American or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness [in developing countries]”. It’s clear, he said, which is the better thing to do.

It makes one wonder whether he would be willing to cough up for a guide dog for his blind son. “Sorry, Billy, there are blind people in Bangladesh more deserving”.

The economics of effective altruism

A number of objections to EA have been put, but it seems to me that the essential danger of effective altruism lies in its assumption about the kind of society that would be peopled by effective altruists.

To be an effective altruist one must override the urge to give when one’s heart is opened up and instead engage in a process of data gathering and computation to decide whether the planned donation could be better spent elsewhere.

If effective altruists adopt this kind of utilitarian calculus as the basis for daily life (for it would be irrational to confine it to acts of charity) then good luck to them. The problem is that they believe everyone should behave in the same hyper-rational way; in other words, they believe society should be remade in their own image.

If the reader is thinking that it sounds suspiciously like the kind of society the Institute for Public Affairs has been working away at for decades, and which many of us have been attempting to resist, then that is no accident.

Singer’s philosophy of utilitarianism is the same philosophical and practical basis for neoliberal or “free market” economics, the ideology that attempts to “apply the logic of individual [economic] decisionmaking to questions concerning morality” (from Mankiw’s textbook).

Some believe that the greatest threat posed by neoliberalism is not so much its commitment to freeing markets but its determination to apply free market principles to domains of life where they have no place, such as schooling, environmental protection and family relationships. It’s the worldview captured by the old saying that economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The mathematics of love

In an apt formulation (though one liable to cause offense), French critics of neoliberal economics refer to it as “autistic economics” because of its unworldliness, deficit in social engagement and repetitive behaviours.

It’s a way of thinking taken to its absurd but perfectly logical conclusion by the ur-Chicago economist Gary Becker in an analysis of the economics of the marriage market. In an article published in one of the profession’s most prestigious journals, he defined marriage as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of different endowments.

In other words, people marry in order to more efficiently produce “household commodities”, including “the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status”. Like effective altruism, the marriage decision is based on quantifiable costs and benefits.

Becker went on to analyse the effect of “love and caring” on the nature of the “equilibrium in the marriage market”, where love is defined as “a non-marketable household commodity”. After pages of differential calculus, Becker reached a triumphant conclusion: since love produces more efficient marriages, “love and caring between two persons increase their chances of being married to each other”.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was so taken by the implacable logic of Becker’s work that in 1992 it awarded him the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics.

I suspect that, for most people, following the rules of effective altruism would be like being married to Gary Becker, a highly efficient arrangement between contracting parties, but one deprived of all human warmth and compassion.

Addendum at 2.20 pm Friday 22 July

The interesting debate among commentators below prompts me to make the following point of clarification.

Although I am not a fan of their work, Jonathon Haidt and Steven Pinker have recently expressed an essential truth.

“Many ethical convictions are underpinned by strongly felt intuitions that some action is inherently good or bad. Sometimes those intuitions can be justified by philosophical reflection and analysis. But sometimes they can be debunked and shown to be indefensible gut reactions, without moral warrant.” (NYRB, April 7, 2016)

There is a third kind of reaction to a situation in which reasoning clashes with a strong intuition and that is not to engage in moral reasoning but to use analytical reason as a bulldozer to crush and dismiss the gut reaction. This, it seems to me, is what effective altruism does.

Dean Taylor notes that Peter Singer “frequently acknowledges his own hypocrisy, and that the results of his work often clash with his feelings / intuitions / morality.” But setting it aside as “hypocrisy”, a personal weakness, is an avoidance device. Instead of asking whether the clash of reason with gut feeling means that the reasoning has to be changed to somehow accommodate the intuition, the (emotional!) commitment to logical deduction at all costs is used to simply override the facts.

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