Effective Altruism

For me, one of the joys of organising the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group is the discovery of new ideas and different ways of approaching problems. Even with a background in philosophy I’m constantly being introduced to a new way of thinking, something which I think vital to human development. The October meeting of the group discussed ‘Effective Altruism’ – an approach which I only heard of for the first time when one of the members of the group suggested it as a topic. This is how we try and run the group. Ideas are suggested by group members, and a consensus agreed at the end of each meeting for discussion at the next.

‘Effective Altruism’ is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. It encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions in order to act in a way that brings about the greatest positive impact based upon the values they already hold. A person committed to supporting disaster relief, for example, would not necessarily respond to an emotionally charged television appeal, preferring to rationally research how their money could be used to help prevent disasters in the first place.

This movement, which has almost developed into a cult status amongst certain of its advocates, has close affinities with utilitarianism, the approach to ethics that aims to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” and for which the end is more important than the means. And it shares with utilitarianism a number of problems concerning the calculus of ‘the greatest good’. Just how you quantify any good such that it can be compared to other goods is very difficult, and needs to make a lot of assumptions regarding values held. And this calculus becomes next to impossible when you start taking future generations, non-human animals, non-animals, and any number of unintended consequences into account.

But perhaps more importantly, Effective Altruism’s emphasis on the application of reason rather than emotion has led Giles Fraser to argue that its cold hearted efficiency leads it to deny love as the base of morality, and for the philosopher John Gray to suggest that its appeal to treat strangers more favourably than your own family creates feelings of guilt amongst those who succumb to their emotions and with it “a rationalist version of original sin”. For my part, whilst I think a degree of rationality needs to be applied to any ethical decision (I certainly would not advocate simply responding emotionally to all situations) I do not think that we either should or could eradicate emotion from such decisions. This would be to deny emotion, and particularly empathy, as the foundation from which ethics grows and develops.

But what do you think? How important is your use of reason when making an ethical decision? To what extent should that decision be informed or motivated by emotion? Please reply if you feel the desire to discuss, and if you want more details about the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group simply visit the Philosophy in Pubs website (philosophyinpubs.co.uk) and find ‘The George, Bridport’ under ‘venues’.

Towards a new common sense

The social, economic and political changes necessary to restrict the rise of mean global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels are fundamental and extensive. Yet despite the seriousness of failing to achieve this target the issue is not being addressed with anywhere near the urgency required. There are two significant reasons for this failure.

The first is the neo-liberal hegemony maintained and continuously propagated by our political and business leaders. Whilst the majority of these leaders pay lip service to the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, and talk about the need to move towards a carbon neutral economy, any change must still support continuous economic growth and not hinder what they regard as the power of ‘the market’ to find solutions to all our problems. Whilst this attitude is fundamentally flawed, it is the prevailing hegemony. It is supported even by those who suffer from its effects; it forms our current common sense.

The second is that for these changes to come about in the time scales required they will require mass emotional support. And at the moment there is no such support. Whilst many people agree with the assessment of climate scientists, because the current climate situation remains largely theoretical people understand but do not directly feel the need for change; they are not suffering and are not angry. As Kate Crehan argues in Gransci’s Common Sense: “…while reasoned argument is certainly crucial, it cannot on its own create persuasive political narratives. Effective political movements need more than this: they need passion.”

Whilst politicians and ‘experts’ can develop narratives that explain this need for change, and provide counter-narratives to the hegemonic narrative propagated by those who want the neo-liberal status-quo to remain, this can only be on the back of a mass movement that feels the need for change. And here we fall foul of Anthony Giddens’ Paradox: that because “the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life” most people are not motivated to act, but by the time these dangers are visible and felt, it will be too late. By the time people feel angry about what’s happening, have developed a real passion for change, it will be too late to do anything about it.

However, people are angry! They are angry that their lives are not improving, that they struggle to get decent houses to live in, that their children are not getting the education they deserve, that they can’t see a doctor when they want to, that they are working harder and longer in jobs that are becoming more and more insecure, and that their wages have not increased for many years; whilst at the same time they look on in awe at the growing wealth of the top 10%. It is from this passion that the energy and drive for social, economic and political change can arise. That is why this passion is so contested.

Politicians and people with power on the right of the political spectrum have succeeded in providing a common sense narrative that explains this anger and frustration, one that blames the EU and / or immigration, that blames ‘big government’ or the ‘nanny state’. Rather than acknowledge this anger as resulting from the failure of our current socio-economic system to deliver the promised rewards to anyone other than the top 10%, such a narrative is designed to actually maintain the current neo-liberal political hegemony. And as such, it will do next to nothing to combat climate change.

The left has always had an alternative narrative, one that blames the Capitalist system and the associated rise in inequality for these feelings of anger. Whilst their counter narrative directly challenges the existing hegemony (at least in part), it is narrow and incomplete. It looks back to a time of social democracy and strong economic growth rather than forwards to a post-growth social-economic system. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in Inventing the Future: “…even if we could go back to social democracy, we should not. We can do better, and that social democratic adherence to jobs and growth means it will always err on the side of capitalism and at the expense of the people. Rather than modelling our future on a nostalgic past, we should aim to create a future for ourselves.”

Srnicek and Williams are part of an emerging element within the Left, one that appears to be gaining the ear of the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. This element is starting to adopt a forward looking approach rather than the traditional backwards looking one, an approach that is radically different from the ‘labour’ focus on jobs and economic growth. Srnicek and Williams, for example, argue for the full adoption of automation, the gradual reduction of the working week, the provision of a Universal Basic Income, and the diminishment of the work ethic.

They also talk about the need to de-carbonise the economy, but admit “that issues of climate change and ecological sustainability are not dealt with in anywhere near enough depth” in their text. And this admission is symptomatic of the Left in general – it does not take climate change anywhere near seriously enough. Whilst it is capable of supplying a new common sense, one that both explains the anger and frustration felt by 90% of the population and one that creates a forward looking alternative vision to replace the neo-liberal hegemony, one capable of being vitalised with a genuine passion, it is nevertheless a vision that fails to incorporate a social world respectful of its place within the natural world, a social world capable of functioning within the means and limits set by the planet. Such an omission is not only short-sighted it is ethically unacceptable.

And to make matters worse, I think it very unlikely that The Green Party is able to provide an alternative common sense narrative, one likely to be adopted by a mass movement of people demanding change – at least not before it becomes too late to bring the necessary changes about. Our best option, therefore, is to work with the emerging element within the left that is exploring post-growth and post-capitalism, an element that should be very receptive to Green political and economic theory, and to help develop a common sense narrative that both explains the anger and frustration felt by a growing number of people and works to bring about the fundamental changes necessary to mitigate the worse effects of climate change. Ultimately, the causes and remedies for both are the same. Even if The Green Party had the time to develop an alternative common sense, one that was adopted instead of that emerging from the Left, it doesn’t seem the most efficient way of achieving the desired outcome. Time is too short. Co-operation and collaboration are required.

Three words that speak volumes

Theresa May has attempted to woo Labour voters by describing her government as providing “a decent, moderate and patriotic programme” that is worthy of their support. These three words speak volumes. They capture exactly why any Labour voter, in fact why any voter with any concern for the future of human wellbeing at all, should NOT support her programme.

The least offensive of these three words is ‘decent’, and I suspect that many people would raise an eyebrow as to why I or anyone could object to it. After all, what is so wrong with being polite and respectable? Well, in itself, nothing, except that even these rather benign attitudes suggest a certain acceptance of the status quo, of doing things in a socially acceptable manner. It is these connotations of ‘decent’ that I object to; the implication that a ‘decent’ person is a person with an ability or desire to conform to social convention, to play by the rules, to not ‘rock the boat’. It is a word that is very British, very conservative, and very backward looking. The problems faced by humanity require the exact opposite attitude; they require people to be provocative, radical and forward looking.

The word ‘moderate’ has similar problems, and is, I suspect, a word that we will hear uttered often by many Conservatives in the coming months. Oliver Letwin, my local (Conservative) MP writes a weekly column in our local paper. A couple of weeks ago he wrote suggesting that the solutions to the complicated and messy problems that dominate our world should be moderate ones, ones located midway between extreme solutions in a similar manner to the ‘golden mean’ of Aristotelian virtue ethics. I have responded to say that for Aristotle virtues were not an end in themselves, but a means to an ultimate end, the greatest good, which he considered to be human flourishing. Life, for Aristotle, was a constant reflection upon the extent to which the exercise of these virtues moved a person towards such flourishing. And whilst no action or decision could be regarded as good or bad in itself, if it prevented someone moving in that direction it was to be avoided.

If we consider human life as a collective enterprise, as Aristotle did, then our flourishing could be regarded as an enterprise that meets the needs of everyone whilst living within the means and limits set by our planet. Our current obsession with economic grown and endless consumerism will clearly exceed these means and limits, and should, therefore, be jettisoned. The resulting adjustments to our lifestyles may well be seen by some (if not many) people as extreme, but they will be absolutely necessary for human flourishing. It is the light of such an analysis that both ‘decency’ and ‘moderation’ fail as guiding attitudes for a political programme.

May’s use of the word ‘patriotic’ extends these problems in other directions. My dictionary describes a patriot as “a person who vigorously supports his (sic) country and its way of life” and patriotism as “devotion to one’s own country and concern for its defence”. Our ‘way of life’ needs to be the subject of a radical reassessment rather than receive our vigorous support, so I will say no more on that aspect for now. What I will add, however, relates to the implication that we need to be devoted to our country and concerned with its defence. Such an attitude may have had a value in the past, when our way of life was threatened by the aggressive nature of other nations and that its defence required passion, sacrifice and solidarity. But not any longer.

Now I don’t want to shock anyone, but times have changed. The threats to our way of life come not from the threatened invasion by the massed troops of Johnny Foreigner, but from run-away climate change, world economic crises, global migration resulting from poverty or war, international terrorism, cyber security, and pandemics. These all pose existential threats to large numbers of humans, if not us all, and are all beyond the power of any national government to deal with. These threats will only be resolved through global cooperation, though the recognition of our global inter-dependence, not through a selfish devotion to our own country. Any concern for the defence of our country must be transformed into a concern for the flourishing of human life across the world.

Those three words uttered by May are words that are hopelessly out-of-date in the 21st century. They are conservative words, words that look back to a time that, for good or bad, will never, can never return. They need to be eradicated from any political programme and replaced by words that inspire us to look forwards to the future and outwards to the whole of humanity, words like radical, progressive and humanitarian.