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The Good Delusion: Has Effective Altruism Broken Bad?


Linda Kinstler

1843 Magazine, May 15, 2022

“Though it may not be a cult, effective altruism is a kind of church – one that has become increasingly centralised and controlled over time.”


In June 2017, Stern, a liberal German magazine, published an article, “Why your banker can save more lives than your doctor”, introducing readers to a social movement called effective altruism. The piece was about a 22-year-old called Carla Zoe Cremer who had grown up in a left-wing family on a farm near Marburg in the west of Germany, where she had taken care of sick horses.

The story told of an “old Zoe” and a new one. The old Zoe sold fair-trade coffee and donated the profit to charity. She ran an anti-drug programme at school and believed that small donations and acts of generosity could change lives. The new Zoe was directing her efforts to activities that were, in her view, more effective ways of helping.

Cremer discovered effective altruism through a friend who was at Oxford University. He told her about a community of practical ethicists who claimed to combine “empathy with evidence” in order to “build a better world”. Using mathematics, these effective altruists, or eas as many called themselves, sought to reduce complex ethical choices to a series of cost-benefit equations. Cremer found this philosophy compelling. “It really suited my character at the time to try to think about effectiveness and rigour in everyday life,” she told me. She began attending ea get-togethers in Munich and eventually became a public face of the movement in Germany.

Following the guidance of Peter Singer, a philosopher who has inspired many effective altruists, Cremer pledged to donate 10% of her annual income to good causes for the rest of her life, which would make a greater difference than selling coffee beans. As she considered her next job, she was directed towards the movement’s careers arm, 80,000 Hours – a reference to the amount of time that the average person spends at work during their life.

Around the same time, a maths and computer-science undergraduate at the University of British Columbia called Ben Chugg was also discovering effective altruism. He enjoyed volunteering and was passionate about alleviating global poverty. When he graduated in 2018 he wanted to pursue a career that would be both ethically and intellectually fulfilling. He came across 80,000 Hours and appreciated that effective altruism offered clear principles to evaluate both the impact of his volunteering efforts and what to do with his life. He began reading the works of Singer and William MacAskill, a young Oxford philosopher credited with co-founding effective altruism. Chugg decided to apply to Oxford – the movement’s “epicentre”, as he called it – to do a masters degree in maths. …SOURCE

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