The case for a less-effective altruism

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The case for a less-effective altruism
The idea that getting rich is good (or even obligatory) so long as you’re giving enough of it away, can become a justification for embracing a soul-corroding competitiveness, Ross Douthat writes. (Alain Pilon/The New York Times)

by Ross Douthat

NEW YORK, NY.- Last weekend, I took my family to Harkness Memorial State Park, a spread of green lawns and gardens that occupies a point on the Connecticut shore just southwest of New London. We visited a great many state parks during the worst COVID months, wandering and climbing and killing time outdoors, but this was our first visit to Harkness, and we timed it well: It was one of those November late afternoons where the landscape still has just enough of fall for the setting sun to sharpen all the colors, and the varied monuments of the park — a carriage house, an Italianate garden, a Renaissance Revival mansion, a former windmill — assumed a kind of hyperreality against the stark backdrop of the grass and sky and sea.

The park is named for Edward and Mary Harkness, early-20th-century heirs to one branch of the Standard Oil fortune, to whom the mansion — “Eolia,” the house of the winds — and all its outbuildings once belonged. In 1918, the first-ever Forbes list of America’s great fortunes pegged Edward as America’s sixth-richest man. Unburdened by the need to earn money, he spent much of his life giving it away, donating the equivalent of about $2 billion in contemporary dollars. He predeceased his wife, and on Mary’s passing, their house and grounds were left to the state of Connecticut. The portion of the estate around the beach, now known as Camp Harkness, was left specifically for the use of people with disabilities (Mary had often hosted children with polio), for whom it operates as a park and campground to this day.

By coincidence, I was walking the Harkness grounds while reading about the fall of a very different sort of big-money philanthropist, Sam Bankman-Fried, whose career as a cryptocurrency wunderkind reached a terminus when it turned out that the caricature of what he was doing — playing Robin Hood using proceeds from an overleveraged Ponzi scheme — was quite possibly just an accurate description.

Part of Bankman-Fried’s fame lay in his proselytizing for a particular theory of philanthropic moralism — effective altruism, or EA, an ideology with special appeal in Silicon Valley that’s reshaped the landscape of getting and giving in the past several years. On Twitter, I joked that now that EA was “over,” it was time to develop an opinion on its merits. But actually, I have several conflicting opinions on the project. As you might expect from a movement that starts with an almost childishly simple-sounding mission statement — “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible,” to quote the EA big-thinker William MacAskill, “and taking action on that basis” — its true nature shifts and morphs a bit depending on how you squint at it, which ideas or elements you emphasize, what aspects you admire or fear.

The most positive read on the movement is that it’s an attempt to recover and reboot, via secular means and with technocratic backing, some fairly traditional ideas about charity and intergenerational obligation. Tithing, for instance: While EA is associated with more radical ideas about how much people should give away, the movement’s fundamental “ask” is the ancient 10%. Similarly, the heart of “longtermism,” the much-discussed offshoot of EA, is the belief that future humans will be numerous, that a more numerous humanity is good and that we have serious moral obligations to all our myriad descendants. These are all variations on traditional ideas about the relationship between the present and posterity, and all useful rebukes to the solipsism and anti-human pessimism that haunts the developed world today.

To these variations on older ideas, the EA movement aspires to add a more data-driven approach to charity, based on actual results rather than sentimental impulses. In other words, it’s the wisdom of the ancients joined to the evidence-based analysis of the moderns, potentially the best of all possible philanthropic worlds.

A more ambiguous and skeptical reading would acknowledge the movement’s admirable goals but also stress its temptations for the people most likely to become involved. It’s clearly an ethic that’s particularly attractive to elites — those dealing with their own substantial wealth or in a position to manage and direct large budgets. Yes, there’s a trickle-down effect where the middle-class person giving away $5,000 a year can benefit from the movement’s work by, say, picking a charity from the GiveWell list. But as a philosophy, EA is for meritocrats and hyper-achievers — and you can see how it might tend to exacerbate that class’s preexisting temptations.

At a personal level, the earn-to-give ethic, the idea that getting rich is good (or even obligatory) so long as you’re giving enough of it away, can become a justification for embracing a soul-corroding competitiveness while telling yourself you’re just doing it for the greater good. The global perspective implied by EA analysis can create a Mrs. Jellyby temptation, where “telescopic philanthropy” aimed at distant populations is easier than taking on obligations to your actual neighbors and communities. (Picture effective altruists sitting around in a San Francisco skyscraper calculating how to relieve suffering halfway around the world while the city decays beneath them.) The broader project is inevitably shadowed by the hubris of technocracy: You may think your evidence-based analysis enables you to come up with just the right policy mix to ward off humanity’s greatest long-term threats, but if you didn’t short Bankman-Fried’s company six months ago, how confident should we be in your view of the 22nd century’s stakes?

Then finally, a purely negative reading would argue that EA is corrupted at root by its connection to a utilitarianism that, whatever protestations it may make, will always end up justifying wicked means for the sake of noble-seeming ends. In this reading, we shouldn’t trust the effective altruists for the same reason we shouldn’t trust the would-be humanitarians of dystopian fiction — the World State’s Controllers in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the N.I.C.E. bureaucrats in C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength.” Anyone who comes to you bearing a too-neat calculation of moral worth and obligation, an exacting plan for the maximized utility of humanity writ large, will inevitably slide into treating some actual human beings as expendable — marks and suckers if they’re lucky, candidates for euthanasia if they’re not.

If you want to be persuaded of the positive interpretation, or at least pulled back from the negative one, I recommend reading Scott Alexander’s recent essay defending effective altruism. Or pick up MacAskill’s recent longtermist manifesto, “What We Owe the Future,” which works very hard — and sincerely, I hope — to ground the movement’s utilitarian inclinations within a constraining framework of thou-shalt-nots.

Obviously, the career of Bankman-Fried is now grist for the darker interpretations of EA’s underpinnings and trajectory. But contemplating all this while wandering Harkness State Park led me to a slightly different set of thoughts — about more ineffective reasons for philanthropy, and about contingency or providence rather than pure calculation as a force for altruistic good.

I’m not equipped to assess the entirety of the Harkness family’s philanthropic endeavors, but clearly, they included a strong emphasis on causes that wouldn’t pass muster with the most utilitarian versions of effective altruism. Edward Harkness’ three great passions, according to the Philanthropy Roundtable, were “fine arts, health care and top educational institutions.” The second one did seem to lead him into EA-approved territory, via research into “the causes of hypertension, the treatment and prevention of pneumonia, and the causes of tooth decay.” The first and third, though, were aesthetically driven and intellectually elitist. Like any good Northeasterner of means, Harkness gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and similar institutions, and he was particularly involved in making gifts to elite universities and prep schools — shaping the college and house systems that took hold at Yale and Harvard, and influencing the pedagogy of Phillips Exeter Academy with a multimillion-dollar gift “that capped class size at 12 students, all of whom were to share a common table with their instructor.”

No doubt an especially zealous analyst could trace the benefits of Harkness’ medical donations in positive “utiles” for people treated for disease over the past century. But the most visible monuments to his philanthropy are beautiful buildings, libraries, dormitories and the like, in cities and college towns across the Northeast — some connected to art for art’s sake, others connected to his interest in the proper formation of educated elites.

Was this money wasted, relative to an “effectiveness” ideal? It’s certainly possible there was an imbalance, and Harkness should have spent more on the poor and less on the Ivy League’s residential college system. But a world where rich people are all utility maximizers who don’t particularly care about beauty, art and the institutions of high culture — as, I fear, many Silicon Valley virtualists do not — seems like a world that would be much poorer in its own way than our own.

I don’t want to make the issue here as simple as saying that we need more ineffective altruism. There’s value in wise stewardship and careful cost-benefit analysis, certainly. But there’s also value in money spent on goods that can’t be quantified, and even in passion projects pursued to the brink of folly and beyond. There’s a reason everyone loves Taylor Swift’s song about a different member of the Harkness clan — Rebekah, who married into the family fortune and lavished much of her late husband’s wealth on ballet patronage, becoming a famous eccentric, not exactly a utility-maximizing donor.

Finally, there’s also the way in which the altruistic opportunities a rich person ends up with might be not the ones they carefully plan for or expect. A certain sadness hangs over Harkness State Park: The estate passed to the state of Connecticut in part, one presumes, because Edward and Mary had no living children, which lends various features of the property a special poignancy, from the game rooms in the carriage house to the carefully tended pet cemetery in the flower garden.

But that personal poignancy is part of the park’s interest and appeal. If the Harknesses had deliberately built the park for the public, with purely altruistic ends in mind — if it were more like Rocky Neck State Park, a little farther westward, which has a nifty pavilion built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s — the result would have still been beautiful, but also a little bit less remarkable to visit. It’s precisely the fact that someone once loved this particular landscape as an owner that makes the gift they made feel striking; that a millionaire’s private beach is now a place for kids with disabilities to play. And its beauties gain interest for having been shaped and sculpted in the first place to a particular set of tastes — both where all those efforts are lovingly preserved and where nature and time (the ivy snaking up the carriage house walls, the crumbling edges of the proud facades) are working against such preservation.

Partiality, in other words — toward a particular place, a particular community, a particular house — has to have a place in the would-be altruist’s decisions. And with it, a certain humility as well, because in the end we all give away everything we own — to our heirs, to the future and God’s providence. It’s good to have metrics for measuring how your donations improve health and save lives. But it’s also good to see wealth poured out into vessels of great beauty. And sometimes it’s good to see wealth’s lovely relics, standing empty beside a long green sweep where kids can run and parents wander after, reminding us that every human habitation is a house of winds.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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