Home / Opinion / Columns /  Effective altruism is a useful way to go about giving back to society

Whenever professionals and corporate executives tell me that they are considering volunteer work or a career switch in order to “give back" to society, I advise them to continue in their current careers and donate money to promising non-profit organizations instead. This is often not what they want to hear, but is based on sound economic reasoning. If you have a comparative advantage in developing software and making money, it is better that you do that than social work. Everyone is better off if you earn more money and give away a portion of that to someone who is better at, say, administering deworming tablets than at building apps.

This idea was first propounded by David Ricardo two centuries ago. Over the past decade, it became the basis of a new moral philosophy, called effective altruism. Promoted by William MacAskill and a vibrant online community of tech industry rationalists, the philosophy has spawned a growing movement and a cult of passionate, influential and wealthy do-gooders. It so happened that one of the most prominent cheerleaders and financial supporters of Effective Altruism (EA) was a certain Sam Bankman-Fried.

With the dramatic collapse of Bankman-Fried’s dubious FTX empire, the knives are out for EA. There is no doubt that the EA community must reflect on its moral trajectory even if Bankman-Fried and his clique are an aberration. But it would be altogether wrong to use his wrongdoing to discredit the principle.

The consequentialist calculus behind MacAskill’s philosophy might appear contrived, reductionist and plastic, but it is certainly a rational way to decide how to do the most for society given the resources we have. It is better than using prevalent fads and fashions in determining what causes one should support. In a previous column, I have criticized Indian Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) allocations for adding tens of crores of rupees, a rounding error, to the causes for which the government allocates tens of thousands of crores. CSR funds would be better spent on important causes that a democratic government cannot support.

In contrast, the EA community does well to prioritize causes by selecting for importance, tractability, and neglectedness. Applying this framework allows us to discover that deworming children and supplying mosquito nets in many low-income countries can be very effective ways of improving lives on a large scale. To the extent that the EA community directs private philanthropy towards causes that governmental and international establishments do not or cannot support, it is a good thing.

Unfortunately, the EA community began to lose its way when it became besotten with a weak but seductive cause called long-termism. This is the idea that we must act in ways that benefits future generations; not only a few hundred years down the road, but those who will live thousands and millions of years from now.

There is little doubt that we must care for our descendents, but the claim that future people have the same moral worth as current people is tenuous. Future people not identical to current people. Time matters.

The 8 billion humans on the planet today are real, the 100 billion who might live a millennium later are not. There is only a chance that they will be real, but as much as MacAskill and others argue that our actions are critical in determining their existence and well-being, it is conceit to accept this logic completely. It is impossible to predict the determinants of the condition of future people. Non-human factors are unknown unknowns. In fact, it is anthropocentric conceit that underlies the presumption that humans matter in the universe’s scheme of things. We don’t.

Long-termism is an indulgence of rich world intellectuals, no matter how genuinely altruistic they are. To accept that, at the margin, we should sacrifice the interests of a billion poor, living, breathing people so as to make things better for those who will live even 10,000 years hence is to justify horrible treatment of the weakest members of human society. The error of MacAskill’s approach is that it conflates long-termism and effective altruism. They might overlap, but they are two different ideas.

Instead, there is a lot of good effective altruism can do by focusing on foreseeable sustainability. Pandemic prevention, governance of artificial intelligence, limiting cyber warfare, managing climate change and reducing the risks of large-scale military conflict are hardly near-term issues. Addressing them will benefit both the billions of real people today as well as generations to come. If effective altruism can inspire our best minds and the deepest pockets to focus on innovative ways of addressing such challenges, it would do more good than playing around with long-termist fantasies.

At this stage in India’s development, effective altruism offers a thoughtful framework for corporate and individual social responsibility. We need more ideas, fresh thinking, innovative approaches and new money to enter the social sector. If our wealth generators are inspired to give a fraction of their earnings to well-considered altruistic causes, India as a whole will be better off.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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