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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:"Effective Altruism": A Contradiction in Terms

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The Economist recently carried an article on "effective altruism" [sic], an explicitly utilitarian fad. (If you wonder why I describe it so dismissively, keep reading.) I was thinking about commenting on it -- until I realized that Ayn Rand had covered the topic quite thoroughly in 1946:

sacrifice.jpg
The phrase "human sacrifice" is redundant. (Image via Pixabay)
"The greatest good for the greatest number" is one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity.

This slogan has no concrete, specific meaning. There is no way to interpret it benevolently, but a great many ways in which it can be used to justify the most vicious actions.

What is the definition of "the good" in this slogan? None, except: whatever is good for the greatest number. Who, in any particular issue, decides what is good for the greatest number? Why, the greatest number.

If you consider this moral, you would have to approve of the following examples, which are exact applications of this slogan in practice: fifty-one percent of humanity enslaving the other forty-nine; nine hungry cannibals eating the tenth one; a lynching mob murdering a man whom they consider dangerous to the community.

There were seventy million Germans in Germany and six hundred thousand Jews. The greatest number (the Germans) supported the Nazi government which told them that their greatest good would be served by exterminating the smaller number (the Jews) and grabbing their property. This was the horror achieved in practice by a vicious slogan accepted in theory.

But, you might say, the majority in all these examples did not achieve any real good for itself either? No. It didn't. Because "the good" is not determined by counting numbers and is not achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. [bold added]
So much for "utility-maximising automatons" -- and no wonder "Effective altruism can be a hard sell, even [!] for the rationally minded."

There is one aspect of this movement that merits further comment: If one wishes to give money to a cause -- and there are many valid, selfish reasons to do so; altruism does not own charity -- one obviously wants more bang for the buck. Counting lives saved by one donation is a poor metric (even if one grants improving large numbers of lives as an imperfect metric, albeit better than the one proposed by utilitarianism). Anyone with an ounce of sense can see this by considering whether it would be better (on such grounds) to save a thousand indigents from malaria vs., say, educating a Jonas Salk (whose research could save magnitudes more) or an Aristotle (who would make countless great men and even civilizations possible, by improving their minds). Even then, quantifying the impact of a donation might be difficult, to say the least.

"Effective altruists" should spend less time quantifying their results and more time considering what those results should be. It's ridiculous to ask, "How well am I doing?" when one doesn't really know what one is supposed to do, or why.

-- CAV

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