Systemic change, effective altruism and philanthropy

Keep your coins. I want change.The topics of effective altruism and social (in)justice have weighed heavy on my mind for several years. I’ve even touched on the latter occasionally on TheEGG, but usually in specific domains closer to my expertise, such as in my post on the ethics of big data. Recently, I started reading more thoroughly about effective altruism. I had known about the movement[1] for some time, but had conflicting feelings towards it. My mind is still in disarray on the topic, but I thought I would share an analytic linkdex of some texts that have caught my attention. This is motivated by a hope to get some guidance from you, dear reader. Below are three videos, two articles, two book reviews and one paper alongside my summaries and comments. The methods range from philosophy to comedy and from critical theory to social psychology. I reach no conclusions.

Why and How of Effective Altruism

by Peter Singer at TED

If I am going to talk about effective altruism, especially critically, then I should first provide a charitable introduction. One of the clearest ones comes from Peter Singer — a prominent advocate of effective altruism — in his classic TED talk. If you are you going to engage with anything in this post then you should watch this talk. The rest of the post will effectively be elaboration on or responses to the content therein:

Singer opens with the tragic story of Wang Yue, a two-year-old girl run over by two trucks in Foshan. She lay bleeding on the road as over 18 people passed by her without offering assistance over the course of 7 minutes. Although eventually helped by a garbage collector, she died from her injuries after eight days in hospital. Would you have stopped to help? Everybody in the TED audience raised their hand to signify that they would have helped. I would like to imagine that I would have helped, too.

But how is a child in immediate distress in front of us different from the countless children in immediate distress thousands of miles away? Or “on the wrong side of the tracks” in our own cities? The death of little Yue Yue is a morbid realization of Singer’s famous intuition pump: You would ruin a $3000 suit in order to help a child that is drowning in a shallow river. Why do you not donate $3000 to save many children that you can’t see?

This thought that “every life has equal value” is the foundation for effective altruism, and the guiding principle for its wealthiest exemplars: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal is to use rational thought and empirical evidence to guide you towards the best use of the resources you have — which are usually time and/or money — towards improving the world. Singer stresses that not only billionaires, but everybody, can contribute to this goal. And that this relies on using both the head and the heart.

If babies were randomly allocated to families would racism end?

by Howard Rachlin and Marvin Frankel at Aeon

For this article and the next video, let us look at Singer’s intuition pump more closely and play with the knobs. Suppose the child was your own. Would your concern for them be the same as another? Howard Rachlin and Marvin Frankel built this article around the intuition that it would not. They attribute this preference for your own child, in part, to genetic chauvinism. Borrowing an idea from Plato’s Republic, they suggest a way to harness and/or overcome this effect through social mixing. They ask us to consider a world where all children are assigned to random parents at birth. Your genetic child could be raised any other household in your country, and your reared child could carry the genes of any other adult in your country.

On the one hand, the authors use our emotional aversion to social mixing as an argument for the central role of genetic chauvinism in our psychology.[2] On the other hand, they consider it as a way to implement the original position behind the veil of ignorance.[3] If you don’t know where your genetic child will live then you will be interested in making sure that all children have opportunities like access to a good education. If you don’t know who will birth the child you will rear then you will be interested in making sure that all mothers have adequate care and resources. And since your children might not look like you, you will have to abandon racial prejudices. At least that is their utopian way to make us realize that “every life has equal value”.[4]

Homeless guy at Port Authority bus terminal

by Louis CK from Louie: Season 1, Episode 3: “Dr. Ben/Nick”

What happens if we turn the knob in the other direction? Part of the force from the story of Wang Ye comes from the shock and uniqueness of the situation. A common critique of Singer is to say that we would not be nearly as outraged or proactive if we encountered drowning or injured kids every day. This can be a hard critique to swallow because it is easy to imagine that we would always value a child’s life.

Louis CK allows us to explore this critique in a setting which is more familiar than either Singer’s or the hypothetical response. In his typical cringe manner, he asks us to reflect on how a typical big city dweller responds to the homeless:

The humor in the above skit, at least for me, comes from the tension between the perspective and descriptive of altruism. The prescriptive part of Singer’s thought experiment is hard to disagree with. I ought to treat people far away the same as I treat those near me. I ought to actively care about the well-being of the homeless man as I do that of others. Yet most of us won’t help the homeless person or give to charity. Often we will rationalize not helping with arguments about its ineffectiveness or counter-productive nature. Arguments that might (or might not) be right, but that most of us haven’t taken the time to actually investigate. Understanding the psychology of the descriptive part — why do we (say we will) save the drowning child, but don’t give to charity — that the Singer’s intuition pump relies on can be enlightening. For this, Louis CK is a great source.

Of course, it isn’t the only routine that can make us inactive to suffering. A sudden shock can be just as paralyzing, that’s why we might stand idle after a man that has fallen on the subway tracks. Both directions raise a question as to what extent the sea of helpful hands raised in Singers’ audience would translate into helping hands in an actual tragic situation. After all, it is much easier to think oneself moral than to consistently act morally.

Against Empathy

by Paul Bloom in Boston Review

From the previous section we see that we can turn off empathy when we shouldn’t, and at other times it (and our other emotions) can prevent us from taking action when we should. Based on considerations like this, Paul Bloom argues that empathy is not a good guide for moral decision making. It is easy to manipulate and can lead us to parochial behavior like helping the child we see and not the child we don’t. But it also gives meaning, purpose, and motivation. As such, we should approach empathy critically and realize that sometimes it is to be sought and praised but not always.

In a commentary on Bloom’s article, Singer stresses — through a series of individual examples — that effective altruists rely more on reason than empathy. Or at least, they favor cognitive empathy over emotional empathy. A distinction that I explored in my own reflections on Bloom’s essay. This is not to suggest that an effective altruist is an emotionless utility calculator. Often the most prominent effective altruists are driven by an intense emotion but an emotion that is directed at humanity as a whole rather than any particular individual.

The Beauty and the Costs of Extreme Altruism

by Samuel Moyn at The Nation

Singer’s thought experiment inspired the title and his movement provided some of the content for Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning. MacFarquhar’s book alternates between telling the lives of a few extreme altruist — “Only actual lives, convey fully and in a visceral way the beauty and cost of a certain kind of moral existence” — and chapters reflecting on possible objections to the single-minded focus of these extreme altruists. She remains unsure about if the balance between altruism and everyday commitments struck by these modern-day saints is good or bad. She chronicles not only their sacrifices for the greater good, but also why — in the words of Katherine Whitehorn — “you can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.” Why do such moral exemplars often leave those of us that aren’t exemplary with discomfort? If not living up to their example is wrong, do we want to be right?

In his review of MacFarquhar’s book, Samuel Moyn highlights this tensions over effective altruism. Most importantly, Moyen stressing a critique of effective altruism that MacFarquhar short-changed: a lack of support for systemic change and a prioritization of individual acts of charity over institutional reform. Of course, effective altruists have heard this critique before and purport to love systemic change, but others still view it as their primary blindspot.

Against Philanthropy

Alain de Botton at The School of Life

What about Singer’s “most effective altruists in history”: Bill & Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet? He compares these modern day philanthropists favorably to titans of the past like Carnegie and Rockefeller. Such philanthropists and giants of industry receive a lot of praise and respect across the internet. But should we praise philanthropy? Alain de Botton doesn’t think so:

Unfortunately, de Botton provides a straw-man example of a philanthropist. A fat-cat that blatantly exploited workers and the environment and then contributed back just to the upper echelons of society — through the founding of galleries and colleges — for the sake of his own prestige. Neither Gates nor Buffet (nor Musk, Page, Brin, Zuckerberg, etc.) seem to fall into this category, they seem to have created products that have genuinely helped people (or at least didn’t explicitly hurt people) and are using their money to reach a large audience, effectively. Of course, one can hunt for more controversial examples like Peter Thiel, the Koch brothers or the Walton family, for whom acclaim is much less universal. But a bigger question might be: is it just a lack of historical distance that doesn’t frame the modern capitalist in a much brighter light than those of the past? How will we feel about it after education is completely privatized as the “next emerging market to disrupt” or when limited liability companies become the standard over 501c(3)s for holding “charitable funds”?

Our considerations of philanthropy also don’t need to be restricted to the very rich. How much of the concerns would also carry over to efforts like earning-to-give, where an individual engages in a socially non-beneficial but high-paying job and then donates a fraction of that income to charity?

Stories Capitalists Tell

by Geoff Bergen for New Socialist

In her recent book, Nicole Aschoff examines four of The New Prophets of Capital: Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill (and Melinda) Gates. It is a short book, with just 6 chapters: an intro on the importance of storytelling and a conclusion flanking the four case studies. In his review, Geoff Bergen provides nice summaries of each chapter, but Cathy O’Neil provides the most concise version:

So when Sandberg tells us to lean in, she’s telling us to conform to the way things are, not to threaten it in any way. When Oprah tells us that we have it in ourselves to live fantabulous lives, she’s giving us personal responsibility to be happy and fulfilled, and structural inequality is not acknowledged or recognized. When John Mackey or Bill Gates sees a problem, they set up a “free market solution” to that problem, even though, by definition, poor people don’t have money to pay for what they need.

In the last case-study, Aschoff focuses on Gates as a philantrocapitalist: a person that doesn’t just want to donate to charity but wants to use capitalism to solve global issues. With the goals ranging from raising the efficiency of charities by having them compete to be ranked as highly effective and thus eligible for the effective altruists’ dollar to creating markets where none (or ineffecient ones) existed) before to promote prosocial interventions. Aschoff considers the Gates’ push for markets in vaccines and education, in particular.

Morals and Markets

by Armin Falk and Nora Szech in Science

But are markets the appropriate mechanism for confronting moral questions? It was already well known that material primes or labels — such as assigning a cost in money or utils to something — reduce prosocial behavior in favor of selfishness and competition (Kay et al., 2004; Liberman et al., 2004), but in 2013 Armin Frank and Nora Szech showed that the trade and price-setting of markets takes us even further in eroding moral value. They ran a series of experiments where participants were faced with the choice of trading the life of a mouse for some Euros. Each participant was assigned to one of three conditions at random:

  1. In the individual decision condition, they could either not trade and thus ensure their mouse was not killed or trade to receive 10 Euros and have their mouse killed.
  2. In the bilateral market condition, a buyer was endowed with 20 Euros and a seller with a mouse. The two would then discuss to negotiate a price. If a trade was made then the seller would receive the price (and the buyer would get to keep the 20 Euros minus the price), but the mouse would be killed. If a trade was not made then the mouse would not be killed but both the seller and the buyer would receive no money. This makes the set-up similar to an ultimatum game, except this version allows negotiation. Finally,
  3. the multilateral marker condition was the same as the bilateral except in a group of seven buyers and nine sellers.

As you can guess from the publication venue, the results were significant.[5] In the individual decision condition, only about 46% of the participants were willing to trade (and thus kill their mouse) for the 10 Euros. In the bilateral and multilateral markets, over 72% of participants were willing to trade (and thus kill their mouse) for 10 Euro or less, with an average price of 5.1 Euros. To achieve similar rates of mouse-killing in the individual decision condition, the authors would have had to offer around 50 Euros.

Hopefully it is easy to see how results like this could be seen — at least by those in communities where being called a neoliberal is a grave insult — as a negative when considering market solutions to global problems. It also raises questions about the merits of promoting good moral behavior through a meta-ethical theory that stress quantification of goodness by money (donated to efficient charities) that was earned by (efficient) participation in a global market economy.

Notes and References

  1. It is often hard to disentangle the general philosophy behind effective altruism from the particular implementation of the movement and the people that tend to vocally support it. In its most general form, effective altruism just becomes “doing good well” which any ethical theory will claim as its goal. Thus, we have to be more specific by focusing on some of the methods they tend to use like efficient multinational charities and earn-to-give. However, in this post I will try to avoid discussing other, more tangential, aspects usually advocated by vocal supporters of effective altruism like the common tech utopianism and the rationality fetish.
  2. Personally, I don’t think that the aversion to social mixing is a particularly strong evidence for genetic chauvinism. I think that for many, the issue is the authoritarian nature of social mixing and the suggested implementation of the intervention. I learn about this article (and the Moral Markets one) from episode 90 of the Very Bad Wizards and I think that Tamler Sommers’ strong opposition to the article comes from its authoritarian nature as opposed to genetic chauvenism. That being said, ethnocentrism and nepotism are real problems and you can look for evolutionary explanations for it. However, it also seems clear — from cases like nationalism — that we are equally happy to use non-genetic markers for in-group favouritism.
  3. It is important to note that Rawls’ theory of justice was developed as a response to utilitarianism — a meta-ethical theory that most effective altruists identify themselves with. This is an important reminder that in practical terms, very different meta-ethical theories often arrive at similar suggestions for interventions, and that some central tenets of effective altruism like “every life has equal value” actually find a more comfortable home in deontological ethics.
  4. A pessimist, especially one that argues against the gene-centric view of evolution, can suggest that genetic information is just one of the many heritable channels. Non-genetic transmission to reared children (like family prestige, reputation, and wealth) seem to be equally important in our society. This seems especially highlighted by traditions like the Japanese adoption of adult men to continue family businesses. From that perspective, although biological-trait-based prejudices might be reduced, they could easily be replaced by a strengthening of existing class-based prejudices. Even for biological-traits, Rachlin and Frankel seem to be overly optimistic in their expected reduction of bigotry. Parents have always been having children of either sex at random, and yet sexism easily persisted. Having daughters didn’t force generations of men to magically abandon prejudices against women.
  5. The type of research and venue should also make us reflect on the reproducibility of the result. I am not familiar with this field, but Bartling, Weber, & Yao (2015) seem to reproduce the same sort of effect and even show variance across cultures in the extent that markets erode social responsibility. These authors focus on the difference between Switzerland and China, but it would be interesting to see such experiments repeated across a larger anthropological cross-section and, in particular, in hunter-gatherer groups like the Hadza.

Aschoff, N. (2015). The New Prophets of Capital. Verso Books.

Bartling, B., Weber, R. A., & Yao, L. (2015). Do markets erode social responsibility? Quarterly Journal of Economics: 130(1): 219-266.

Falk, A., & Szech, N. (2013). Morals and Markets. Science, 340 (6133), 707-711 DOI: 10.1126/science.1231566

Kay, A. C., Wheeler, S. C., Bargh, J. A., & Ross, L. (2004). Material priming: The influence of mundane physical objects on situational construal and competitive behavioral choice. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 95(1): 83-96.

MacFarquhar, L. (2015). Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. Penguin.

Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2006). The psychological consequences of money. Science, 314(5802): 1154-1156.


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

8 Responses to Systemic change, effective altruism and philanthropy

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Markets and militaries are two of the oldest ways that societies have always had for choosing their courses. They always revert to viral forms of feedback howl whenever they gain the upper hand over civilized life. Their failures are the main reasons why more enlightened souls had to invent more balanced forms of governance based on representative democracy and the consent of the governed.

  2. Boris Borcic says:

    Thanks for this, Artem — a couple typos I noticed btw, “Brim” for “Brin” and “favouratism” for “favouritism”. Might have a more substantial comment after taking time to watch video(s) and ponder:)

  3. Jon Awbrey says:

    I shared your post to several communities on Facebook and one of the members of the Systems Sciences group passed along a link to this opinion piece by Peter Buffett.

    The Charitable-Industrial Complex

    • That is a very interesting article. Thank you for sharing it. It does highlight some of the tensions I have with the effective altruism through charity approach. If one believes neoliberal and neocolonial doctrines to be some of the biggest systemic ills of society, it seems difficult to see how adding more of those things will act to reduce those ills. Of course, there are also counter-arguments, and it would be interesting to read some philosophical reflections on the topic.

      As to your first comment:

      Markets and militaries are two of the oldest ways that societies have always had for choosing their courses.

      This might be true under a general/vague enough definition of “markets” and “militaries”, but I think it is a dangerous comment. Capitalism and selfishness have been naturalized in our social psyche to an extent that — many argue — is not reflective of the past. Their modern forms, and the particular ills associated with them, are a particular invention and a development in our history. Suitably defined, it is not at all clear that they are necessary or unavoidable. At least it is not obvious.

      The division of society into ” enlightened” and (presumably) “unenlightened” souls also needs some justification. I personally prefer participatory rather than representative schemes. In fact, that is another one of my tensions with the effective altruism movement: acting through a representative instead of through your person, especially when that representative is taken to be some corporate-like entity. And developing interventions from the outside and then acting on them based on consent (often implied through lack of opposition), instead of more free-form grassroots development.

  4. Jon Awbrey says:

    In the midst of distractions that “militate against” a systematic reply at the moment, but I have been following the impact this new breed of Broad, Gates, Koch, Walton “philanthropy” on public education for a decade now. A good sample of reports from the field and informed commentary can be found on Diane Ravitch’s blog, so let me simply direct your attention there for now. Especially timely are the discussions surrounding the recent change-of-heart editorial by the L.A. Times.

  5. Pingback: Cataloging a year of blogging: complexity in evolution, general models, and philosophy | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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