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Effective Altruism: Get Rich to Help the Poor?

Last month, Yvon Chouinard gave ownership of his company, Patagonia, to a trust dedicated to fighting climate change (MSN). We might not be able to have the same impact as a man with a $3 billion company at his disposal. But if we’re serious about social good, shouldn’t that be the goal? A philosophical movement called effective altruism suggests rationally investing our time and resources to improve the greatest number of lives. Effective altruists contend that we might do the most good by becoming wealthy so that we, like Chouinard, can give money at transformative scales (TED). The thought that the rational do-gooder must get rich first has an obvious appeal — particularly for people already facing familial and financial pressure to secure a lucrative career. But if there’s an ethical obligation to get rich and donate money to certain causes, are protesting or building community really less virtuous than career advancement? There are good reasons to doubt the claims of effective altruism and the adoration of billionaire philanthropy in general. 

“Often, it is ethically preferably [sic] to pursue philanthropy through a higher paid and morally controversial career,” writes William MacAskill, a leading figure in the effective altruism movement. That “thousands of brilliant young people going into ‘ethical’ careers, every year, squandering the opportunity they had to do huge amounts of good in the world, each allowing thousands to die” is, he claims, a “moral catastrophe” (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice). 

TAKE ACTION

• Share resources to help your community think beyond charity and recognize what we’ve won from past struggles.

• Support grassroots resistance to abolish the root causes of inequality in your community and internationally, like militarismstate power, and exploitation.

• Support initiatives to build power among oppressed and marginalized people and undermine institutions that hoard wealth and resources.  

MacAskill recommends the example of Oskar Schindler, who manufactured armaments for the Nazis but used his position to shelter Jewish workers. Schindler was already a Nazi industrialist when he had a change of heart about the Holocaust. Seeking out a lucrative job with a morally dubious employer is more like if Schindler decided to become a Nazi weapons manufacturer as an act of Jewish solidarity because he would subsequently be able to protect his workers. Few people would be able to protect as many of their Jewish workers in wartime Germany as munitions manufacturers. Choosing to become a leading Nazi weapons producer, even if it were for the express purpose of protecting such workers, would still not be justifiable, since it would be taking active steps to arm a war machine that would put many more Jewish civilians in danger. 

If your objective is to make and donate as much money as possible under contemporary racial capitalism, the right career move is likely connected to extractive industry, the military-industrial complex, for-profit healthcare, mass surveillance, or finance capital (which profits by wagering on all of the above) (Statista). The wealth accumulated by high-paid U.S. workers depends on an international and domestic economy of sweatshops (NACLALabor NotesNike Steals) and war (WiredGizmodoNewsweek). (MacAskill, incidentally, is also pro-sweatshops (The Guardian).) The economy that allows some U.S. workers to gain fabulous wealth is the reason why so many people around the world need charity. Many effective altruists have identified hostile super-intelligent artificial intelligence as one of the largest threats to humanity, donating altruistically to nonprofits working to prevent its emergence — from salaries often gained from working in the tech industry at the very companies that are developing potentially-hazardous AI (Vox). 

Effective altruism is now popular among “Silicon Valley programmers, hedge funders and even tech billionaires” like Elon Musk, who corresponds directly with MacAskill (NYTimes). In other words: the administrators of massive income inequality (NYTimes) and surveillance capitalism (The Conversation), working in an industry that’s heating the planet (Computer World), have adopted a moral philosophy that says that they are both more morally righteous and more rational than the less-affluent people whose exploitation made them rich. 

The University of Oxford’s Amia Srinivasan puts it well: 

“MacAskill does not address the deep sources of global misery – international trade and finance, debt, nationalism, imperialism, racial and gender-based subordination, war, environmental degradation, corruption, exploitation of labour – or the forces that ensure its reproduction. Effective altruism doesn’t try to understand how power works, except to better align itself with it. In this sense it leaves everything just as it is. This is no doubt comforting to those who enjoy the status quo – and may in part account for the movement’s success” (LRB).

When environmental activist Mikaela Loach was invited to speak by the Gates Foundation, she took the opportunity to denounce the foundation’s brand of “billionaire philanthrocapitalism”—and donate their speaker’s fee to Mexico’s Indigenous Land Defenders. “I think billionaires shouldn’t exist,” said Loach. “I think the climate crisis was caused by capitalism, and inequality and oppression are not an accident… Who holds the power in this room? Who holds the power in the world? Who’s deciding what solutions are being chosen? Like, whose name is on the foundation?” (Twitter/@mikaelaloach)

This doesn’t mean that wealthy people shouldn’t be encouraged to give to charity or that taking a vow of personal poverty would be more useful in creating structural change. But that’s what has truly proven effective in improving lives: coming together to fight the exploitative institutions that hoard wealth and resources, dispersing some of it to well-compensated employees. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Effective altruists think that working morally questionable jobs to donate more money to the right causes might be the way to do the most good. 

• Institutions that provide such jobs are the source of many of the issues that charities try to address. 

• Truly addressing human suffering means dismantling inequitable institutions, not rising through their ranks.

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