Have a heart – altruism is more than a matter of logic

Posted on 14 Dec 2022

Sam Bankman-Fried_Bitcoin
The former CEO of the failed cryptocurrency exchange FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried,
was also the public face of the effective altruism movement.

Every now and again the news presents us with a situation that seems to have combined every possible hot take from ethics, finance, philosophy, technology, and social media and tossed them into a blender with crushed ice and mint. Here's a recent example.

Sam Bankman-Fried was both a big name in crypto (to the haunting tune of $45 billion) and a leader in the philanthropic movement known as “effective altruism”.

Effective altruism begins from the uncontroversial proposition that many ways of doing good are ineffective, and it is better to find ways of doing good that actually work. This sounds simple, but that’s just the start of it.

A creditable 80% of Australians donate to charities and not-for-profits. Of those who do, a large number just give to the charities nearest them – their schools, their church, or their illness (which is perfectly fine, but not necessarily sufficient). Other donors give to relieve the suffering of the world – to famine relief, or flood victims, or earthquake appeals. Still others give to charities that address underlying causes – climate change, or habitat loss.

Denis CIC19
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

The effective altruism movement includes a faction that insists on a rigorous judgement of every transaction against first principles. These principles include:

  • You should give your money only to the causes that would benefit the most people possible.
  • Your giving should not be affected by your own personal biases, such as wanting to give to people of the same skin colour, or living in your country, or living in the same millennium as you.
  • As only 8,000,000,000 of us are alive now, while a thousand or a million or whatever times that will live in the future unless prevented, the largest number of people will benefit from ensuring that life on this planet continues, and our first responsibility is to work to remove any existential threats to humanity out there.
  • A very small risk, multiplied by the almost infinite number of potential future humans at risk, is mathematically more significant than anything (other than total extinction) that could possibly happen to the comparative handful of people alive now.
  • The greatest threat to the survival of human life is that artificial intelligence will develop to the point that the various robots, androids, or disembodied cloud minds out there will decide that humans are a drag on progress and do away with us, and so all philanthropy everywhere should thus be devoted to avoiding this possibility.

There are, of course, a number of theoretical objections that could be made to this logic, but few of these could be as telling as the single word “crypto” back there in the introduction.

FTX, Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange, has popped like a soap bubble, leaving him with nothing but a few millions in pocket change and some beautiful memories.

Few people will lose sleep at the thought that a tech mogul has become less inflatedly wealthy; few things, indeed, could contribute more to human happiness in the here-and-now (cf Elon Musk). There are, however, lessons to be learned (apart from the obvious “Crypto is the new asbestos, devaluing everything it touches”).

Among other things, the implosion represents a clear demonstration that our vision of the future is unavoidably clouded. None of the moral philosophers who became associated with Bankman-Fried were able to foresee that this was a terrible career move. None of the think tanks that were promised million- or billion-dollar grants anticipated having to sell their photocopiers to make payroll. The Future Fund wasn’t.

The philosophers lost the plot. Giving is a social act, and its meaning relies not primarily on logic but on the feelings we have for each other – our families, and our communities, and our surroundings. Meanings are multi-layered, and arise from all parts of our being – our ethics, and our hopes, and our fears. You couldn’t hand the job of donations over to a robot; it wouldn’t know where to begin.

None of this, though, means that we should embrace ways of doing good that are ineffective. Once we’ve worked out where we want to act, then we should certainly concentrate on how to get what we want most efficiently and with the greatest bang for the buck. Outcomes matter, and it’s worth putting our minds to work on how best to get from here to there. My own company, Our Community, is working on exactly that. It’s just that human beings are not bred to value only one thing.

We are faced with a large number of compelling reasons to give to different causes of different kinds, and we can’t rely on any simple rule to say what should come first. Luckily, we don’t have to. While most Australians give, it’s also true they don’t give very much. The median donation is some $200. More than 80% of households could afford to double that.

Flood relief is good. Fending off asteroid impacts may pay off one day. Fine. Give to both. Present and future generations will both owe you.

If you want to give, go to www.givenow.com.au.

This commentary was first published in Australian Community Media titles around the country. Look for more Our Community comment in your local edition.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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