Uncle Yarv #6: effective altruism

"Think of all those viruses that will never be born."

Charles from Lubumbashi writes:

I find utilitarianism and effective altruism of the Peter Singer (infanticide) / Toby Ord (The Precipice) variety persistently persuasive (simultaneously agreeing with basically all your opinions). Geoffrey Miller I believe is also similarly persuaded by both these thinkers and also your thought. You’ve spoken/written on these two topics a few times here and there.

But a thorough commentary/debunking of these two (this one?) memeplex would go a long way I think, because these opinions are very popular with the most impressive young cosmopolitan armigers, as opposed to the other memeplex (you know the one) which is more popular with the less impressive/more peripheral aristocrats. This question isn’t exactly self help but I feel like it would nonetheless help my self to hear your extended take on these memeplexes and the brains they inhabit. 

Thank you, Charles, for stretching the boundaries of “self-help” back to our usual highbrow intellectual fare.

Utilitarianism and “effective altruism,” which are both very flawed ways to think, are even more flawed when you put them together. But somehow they are exactly right for attracting bright young ladies. And it is undeniable that they have a certain foolish consistency. Then again, so does Hitler. But they are not so into Hitler, the ladies… let me help you help yourself with some simple, unrefined “street” philosophical self-defense techniques for the next time you feel targeted by these types of females.


The implicit assumption of utilitarianism is that the purpose of life is to maximize net pleasure. Utilitarianism is inherently hedonistic. Even GDP, a utilitarian concept, is adjusted “hedonically.”

Utilitarianism is always vulnerable to the old reductio ad absurdum. The absurdum here is basically: fentanyl. Utilitarianism, taken seriously, suggests a switch to a new “fentanyl economy” with unprecedented productive powers, in which unprecedented quantities of pure pleasure can be produced with unprecedented efficiency.

Utilitarianism pretends to be a universal theory which abides no exceptions. Yet if we admit this one exception—hardly an exceptional exception—we see that the theory is not universal, which is sufficient to refute it. Once you start looking around for other features of the 20th-century economy which are not as absurd as the fentanyl economy, but are nonetheless absurd—do you find them? Wake up and smell the coffee.

Effective altruism

EA is a remarkably 20th-century concept: it has the typical 20th-century fantasy of inventing a superhuman humanity. This is also a typical American fantasy: Philly means “the city of effective altruism.” This dream of universal philia is anything but new, but selling old wine in new bottles is another 20th-century thing.

The problem with “effective altruism” is not that it is not good, but that it does not work. Brotherly love is an emotion, not an idea.

Somewhere out there, there are EA people who have gone past dogs, pigs and mice, committed to the uncute, unfuzzy reptilia, and finally learned to feel true philia for insects. Covid can only be next—is vaccination ethical? Think of all those viruses that will never be born…

Of course, no one actually feels brotherly love for a virus or a bug. What they are doing is to simulate brotherly love for a bug, or at least a pig. In the century of narcissism it is de rigueur for everyone to take everyone else’s simulations at face value. Utilitarianism is vulnerable to a reductio ad absurdum; effective altruism is a reductio ad absurdum.

The problem with effective altruism is that real sympathy, philia, is a real emotion. When the real emotion is displaced by a narcissistic abstraction, problems arise. I forget who said that no one’s heart was colder than that of a true humanitarian.

Effective altruism is the extreme end of what Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy.” Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House is obsessed with orphans in Africa—Dickens is satirizing the Niger Expedition of 1841, the West’s first major step into what would later become the present aid-industrial complex—and neglects her family and everyone around her. EA has wrecked her capacity for genuine sympathy, like porn destroying the capacity for sex. The abstraction has driven out the emotion.

But if Mrs. Jellyby is good for the orphans in Africa, isn’t the abstraction still good?

That’s the problem—she isn’t. Because her sympathy is fundamentally narcissistic, it doesn’t work. The Niger Expedition was a disaster. So is the aid-industrial complex. And why doesn’t it work? Because no one actually cares if it works.

Simulated emotions are bad, kids. Just be you. When you’re just you—you’ll discover that you love your family more than your neighbors, your neighbors more than random fellow citizens, random fellow citizens more than random humans, random humans more than random dogs, and random dogs more than random lizards.

Can you change this? Maybe a little… but using your forebrain to tell your emotions what to feel is usually a recipe for failure. Or to put it differently: it is superhuman. Effective altruism is a political movement which is not effective until it persuades large numbers of people to become superhuman. What could go wrong?

What could go wrong is that you get not mass superhumanity, but mass simulation. Which is sending you straight down the path to the 20th century’s mass insanities.

And you would think the most interesting intellectual question for rational, effective altruists is not even staving off the AI-pocalypse, but looking around for the elephant in the room—the fact that the concept of “effective” altruism implies the existence of an ineffective altruism.

Why is there all this ineffective altruism around? Surely its creators intended it to be effective? So why, if we do create new, effective institutions of altruism, will they not become ineffective (or even counterproductive) in the same way? Put that in your pipe and smoke it, lady.