J. wrote: Should a Stoic prokopton be an effective altruist? Effective altruism is a utilitarian-inspired movement which advocates that well-off people from rich countries ought to make significant altruistic efforts, through their time and/or money, and that their efforts ought to be directed in whatever way they expect to have the most beneficial marginal impact on the world. Stoics are clearly not utilitarians, but can it ever be virtuous to choose a less effective cause over a more effective one? Can it ever be virtuous for a well-off person in a rich country to not put substantial efforts towards altruism (i.e. donating at least 10% of one’s income as advocated by Giving What We Can’s pledge)? From a virtue ethics perspective, are eight hours volunteering at a local soup kitchen equally meritorious to eight hours spend earning money at a high wage to then donate 100% to the same soup kitchen, even when the latter is certain to have more consequential benefits to others? If so, what are some conditions under which Stoic virtue would depart from a more consequentialist effective altruism stance?
This is an excellent, and difficult question. But I broadly think the answer is no, there is no ethical obligation for a Stoic to be an effective altruist. To begin with, as you note, Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics, not a utilitarian philosophy. Even more to the point, its entire framework is fundamentally incompatible with modern ethical approaches, not just utilitarianism, but Kantian-style deontology as well. As I pointed out in a previous post, modern ethics attempts to be universal, seeking a point of view from nowhere, as Thomas Nagel famously put it. Virtue ethics, by contrast, is focused on individual character development, its fundamental question — how should we live our lives? — being much broader than the specific issue of whether a particular behavior is right or wrong.
Moreover, there seems to be a certain degree of inconsistency in the effective altruism approach, which would probably not go unnoticed when scrutinized from the point of view of one of the three Stoic fields, logic. As you mentioned, organizations such as Giving What We Can usually suggest about 10% of one’s income, and so does famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. But, very obviously, we can give much, much more than 10%, or 20%, or even 50%, and still survive. (I’m not talking about a simple sliding scale where the ultra-rich give more, which EA supporters already acknowledge. I’m talking about the fact that all of us could give away almost our entire wealth, if we really wanted to.) Where, then, is the stopping point? I suspect the answer is that even supporters of effective altruism concede that one’s life cannot be reduced to just being a source of resources to improve other people’s predicaments. There must be room for pursuing one’s own goals as well, which by definition takes away from charitable activities. But then any particular percentage becomes an entirely arbitrary cutoff point, the underlying principle being not to give what we can, but what we feel comfortable with. Which is certainly something no Stoic would object to.
Similar reasoning applies to the other component of effective altruism that you mention: the choice of one’s career. Sure, in narrow utilitarian terms it would be far better to choose a highly lucrative job that we may hate and then give away money to help others, rather than volunteer at the local soup kitchen.
But the Stoic is concerned with her own character first and foremost, and writing a check that doesn’t really hurt our material conditions to benefit anonymous human beings on the other side of the planet is very different from giving up the only resource that cannot be replenished (time) in favor of our our neighbors, people with whom we actually interact in the streets.
Yes, justice is one of the Stoic virtues, so there is a Stoic imperative to care about other people. But setting aside that material wellbeing (anyone’s material wellbeing) is only a preferred indifferent, it would seem to me that the focus ought to be on changing the structural conditions that allow for an advanced technological civilization such as ours, with plenty of resources to feed everyone in the world, to still experience massive poverty and even starvation. Simply giving money away not only does not address those structural problems, it arguably reinforces them by failing to question them and taking them for granted. Unless one attempts to change society one is in fact complicit in reinforcing its inherent injustice, and giving money away is a stop-gap measure that can be indulged in by those of us who are privileged by that very unjust system. It heals our conscience, but ultimately does little to really change things.
It is of curse true that the ancient Stoics did not themselves address social injustice. There were occasional exceptions, like Marcus passing legislation that improved the conditions of women and slaves, and Seneca saying this about slavery:
“They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. … Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (XLVII. On Master and Slave, 1, 10)
But generally speaking when the Stoics took arms against tyranny, as in the case of Cato the Younger against Julius Caesar, they did not have anything like the modern concept of social justice in mind.
Then again, neither did pretty much anyone else at the time. It’s not like Christian or Buddhist texts brim with calls for upending the social status quo, so it is rather hide to raise that criticism against the Stoics in particular, a classic example of ethical presentism.
However, we are modern Stoics, and our goal is to apply the broad principles of Stoicism — which we feel are just as relevant today as two millennia ago — to modern life, filtering them through modern ideas about justice and human welfare.
None of the above implies that effective altruism isn’t a morally worthy and valiant effort to address the world’s problems. But I don’t see a Stoic imperative to follow it, and I honestly don’t think the movement will have more than an ephemeral impact, because of the twin problems of being difficult to sustain for most human beings as well as of failing to address the structural problems lurking just below the surface.
If anything, a modern Stoic should take a look at the way the world works and put her efforts into doing her best to change things at a deeper level. While charity can certainly be a part of this, as a stop-gap measure, working on one’s own character, leading others by example to work on their own ethical mindfulness, supporting political causes and individuals who want to change things (including running for office oneself), talking about injustice as loudly as possible, and minimizing her own complicity in the current system, are all components of a virtuous approach.
This, of course, may result in a bit less pleasurable life for ourselves, in agreement with Marcus:
“I see no virtue that is opposed to justice; but I see a virtue that is opposed to love of pleasure, and that is temperance.” (Meditations, VIII.39)
The emperor-philosopher also said this, which seems awfully pertinent to the matter at hand:
“Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.” (Meditations, IX.1)
Stoicism, if practiced well, can be just as demanding, perhaps more so, than effective altruism, precisely because it responds to what it perceives as an imperative imposed by the nature of things on the way human beings ought to act. That is one way of interpreting the maxim that we should live according to nature.
Categories: Stoic advice