Stoic advice: effective altruism

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

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.


36 thoughts on “Stoic advice: effective altruism

  1. Benjamin Todd

    Hi Massimo,

    And if your reply is that I shouldn’t be concerned about my family more than about someone I don’t know on the other side of the planet, on the ground that they are all human beings, then you are surreptitiously importing utilitarian values into what is now no longer a value free discussion.

    I’m just claiming you should put some value on helping people in general, and if you do this, it has important implications. You can both think you ought to help people in general and have special obligations to your friends and family. Going back to the pond argument, it wouldn’t imply you should risk your child’s life in order to save a stranger. But it might imply you should sacrifice a family safari holiday to save the life of a stranger.

    But EA seems to come built in with a particular concept of “effective,” which I don’t buy. Effectiveness isn’t just a matter of numbers, but of values and priorities, and the latter can’t just be determined by crunching statistics.

    There’s two points here – the first is that EA makes assumptions about what’s valuable. That’s true, we think that if you can significantly improve the welfare of others without sacrificing something of comparable value, then it’s a good thing to do. But this is a pretty weak claim philosophically. Quoting Rawls:

    “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy.”

    The second point is about methodology – that EAs think working out what’s effective is “just a matter of numbers”. It’s true that EAs think you should use numbers to work out what’s most effective, which makes it different from most attempts to do good, but no-one claims you should do so exclusively.

    You can rarely accurately quantify the welfare impact of different actions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a rational and strategic approach to doing good. More on this here:

    Likewise, there’s going to be disagreement about the answers, since they involve difficult judgement calls. EA is not claiming there’s a single answer. Rather, it’s an intellectual project that seeks, using evidence and reason, to improve our understanding of the best way to help others.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Massimo Post author


    Again, I’m well aware of how EA works. Again, I interviewed you about it on my podcast. But you keep oscillating between claims that nobody here is denying (we should do our best to help others if it doesn’t cost us much) and claims of objective number crunching when there is no such thing. All number crunching presupposes certain priorities and values. Yes, knowing, insofar as it is possible, how effective your particular charitable donations are likely to be is a good thing. But “effectiveness” depends on how one measures it, which in turn depends on one’s values and assumptions. There simply is no way to do this by just doing science. The philosophical analysis is inevitable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Benjamin Todd

    Hey Massimo,

    But you keep oscillating between claims that nobody here is denying (we should do our best to help others if it doesn’t cost us much) and claims of objective number crunching when there is no such thing.

    I’m trying to say there’s an interesting middle ground between the two, which is what EA is about. I just denied that EA is about “objective number crunching”. It’s about using evidence and reason.

    But “effectiveness” depends on how one measures it, which in turn depends on one’s values and assumptions. There simply is no way to do this by just doing science. The philosophical analysis is inevitable.

    I completely agree. Like I said just above, EA does make value assumptions, but they’re weak ones, which I think most ethical positions should be able to accept.

    And yes philosophical analysis is definitely needed. That’s why a large fraction of the movement’s founders are philosophers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo Post author


    Okay, but at this point I simply don’t know what differentiates EA from a commonsensical approach based on: (i) I’m going to try to do good if it doesn’t hurt me too much; and (ii) I’m going to inform myself as to the best bang for my charitable buck. That seems exceedingly weak for the fanfare of entire movement. And it does not seem to me to be what visible supporters like Singer are saying.


  5. Zeke Sherman

    Okay, but at this point I simply don’t know what differentiates EA from a commonsensical approach based on: (i) I’m going to try to do good if it doesn’t hurt me too much; and (ii) I’m going to inform myself as to the best bang for my charitable buck. That seems exceedingly weak for the fanfare of entire movement.

    It’s very different for four reasons. First, Effective Altruism involves cause-neutrality, meaning we compare across entire causes based on how effective they are rather than making naive or parochial assumptions about what to support.

    Second, even if there isn’t a universally accepted value function, we use more rigor and more explicit valuation than others do, so that both our thinking and our disagreements are more transparent and better formalized. And we generally agree that what matters is actually improving the lives of sentient beings as much as possible.

    Third, we rely on more rigorous ideas of decision theory, causal logic, and statistics than are necessarily implied by getting the “best bang for my charitable buck”. No, there isn’t one universally agreed upon system by which to do this. But again, the point is that we do it rigorously and properly, and there are concepts we commonly follow (like counterfactual analysis and adjustment for the optimizer’s curse) which other people rarely acknowledge, so our judgements are systematically better in certain ways.

    Fourth, we emphasize individual action in many domains, such as career and personal projects, instead of simply looking at donations.

    It’s like the difference between being a random dude who thinks about philosophy sometimes, and being a professional who publishes in a philosophy journal.

    And it does not seem to me to be what visible supporters like Singer are saying.

    Maybe that’s because you don’t have to agree with the moral demands of every visible supporter in order to be in the movement. The movement is comprised of people who have specific, clear ideas on how to conduct altruism, not a groupthink for people who are already in agreement with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author


    As I said above, I’ve interviewed Ben and have done research work on EA, so I do undertasand the basic idea. My major problem with the approach is that I see a tendency to sweep philosophical assumptions under the carpet, as well as that I sense a bit too much confidence in the realizability of your estimates and statistics. As I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, it is very difficult to figure out the medium and long-term impact of complex actions, such as humanitarian efforts, and we have a number of examples of unintended consequences springing from the actions of well known and well functioning charities.

    My caution comes from my experience both as a philosopher (about the issue of values, especially hidden ones) and as a scientist (who does have expertise in statistical analyses, and hence knows how delicate the whole operation can be).

    That said, again, I have no objection to the two fundamental principles, as I understand them: (i) we ought to help out if it doesn’t cost us much (but whom? How much is “much”?); and (ii) we ought to do it in as informed a fashion as possible (but according to what criteria of efficiency and reliability?).


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