How Not to do Charity
Silicon Valley’s “longtermism” is a flawed and hubristic enterprise.
The cinematic collapse of cryptocurrency firm FTX, and the riches-to-rags story of its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, has set off an overdue discussion about the influential approach to charity he championed: effective altruism (EA). As people acclimatized to the shock that Bankman-Fried’s accounting practices were badly flawed and possibly fraudulent, the question naturally follows: is EA just as much of a scam? If so, where does it go wrong?
EA is a hard-headed approach to quantifying the impact of charitable giving. It aims to take charity out of the wooly-headed world of emotions by demanding that donation decisions be guided by data, just like other business decisions. A cottage industry of philanthropic analysis arose around this idea: proponents of EA identified a handful of global health initiatives—from fighting intestinal parasites to preventing malaria—as some of the most effective interventions for the here and now. It was a welcome corrective to less efficient approaches to charitable giving.
But somewhere down the line, EA got weird. Figures like Bankman-Fried turned away from here-and-now giving and embraced “longtermism,” a school of thought that demands that we take the moral claims of people who’ve not yet been born just as seriously as we take those of people alive today. Longtermism invites donors to decide, in the first person, what the world really needs—and not just what it really needs now, but what it will really need thousands of years from now. It’s easy to see why this particularly abstract, elitist form of philanthropy should be so attractive to the kinds of brainy overachievers that amass large fortunes.
But while the impulse to give is laudable, longtermism is a massive ego trip.
Taken to extremes, it leads to obviously absurd conclusions—or at least to conclusions that strike us non-billionaires as not very charitable. Much longtermist energy is spent debating the relative merits of rendering Mars habitable as a hedge against ecological collapse on Earth, or preventing nanotechnology from spinning out of control and wiping out the species. It’s not that these are uninteresting or unimportant conversations; they’re just a long way from altruism as normal people understand it.
What ties these discussions together is a kind of cognitive hubris: an unbounded faith in the philanthropist’s ability to see far off threats before anyone else, calculate the odds that they will come to pass, and act today to avert far-future occurrences. It’s no wonder longtermism took off in Silicon Valley, a place where big fortunes accrue to people comfortable with this kind of probabilistic mindset, and where social status flows reliably to those who marry their skills with charitable endeavors.
But human foresight is limited, because, well, the future hasn’t happened yet. Professional economists cannot accurately forecast the swings in the business cycle they spend all their time studying, in the same way that geologists, after hundreds of years trying, still can’t predict earthquakes. Virtually every day I open the newspaper and read about five things that have just happened that no one foresaw.
Even when probabilities can be estimated, figuring out how to respond is a fraught exercise strewn with possibilities for error. I personally struggle to figure out if I should take an umbrella with me when the forecast says the chance of rain is 30%. The arrogance involved in imagining that you can know today what the world will need a thousand years from now and what we should do about it isn’t just distasteful: it’s monstrous.
There is an alternative. It would be much more socially useful if financial and tech elites had a moment of humility, of realizing that they’re no better able to foresee the deep future than anyone else. What if, instead of obsessing over unknowables, they contented themselves with giving humbly?
As a virtue, humility doesn’t feel “of this time.” And yet, like charity, the call to humility is encoded in the doctrine of every major spiritual tradition. For Christians, humility encapsulates the core doctrine that no human being has more or less dignity than any other human being, that no one’s suffering is second in status to anyone else’s. It’s an idea that comes down to us, in secular guise, in the doctrine of universal human rights.
What would a humble billionaire actually look like? They’re not two terms you often see together: the traits you need to become very wealthy—to say nothing of the treatment you are continually afforded by others when you control great wealth—aren’t exactly consonant with humility. And yet only an altruism that accepts the fundamental equality of human dignity can honor our common bonds as humans. I’m talking about direct philanthropy—funneling your money directly into the pockets of today’s poorest people through a third-party charity.
Direct philanthropy is genuinely radical because it flattens the cognitive and moral hierarchy between giver and receiver. In today’s world money is power, and giving money to the very poorest people shifts power directly from you to them. Did that smallholder farmer in Mozambique ever build a billion-dollar company? Maybe not. But a pile of studies show that transferring money directly to her can measurably relieve her poverty now, by putting your money at the service of her priorities.
For very financially successful people, the illusion that it was merit alone—whether through hard work, foresight, or business acumen—that made them rich is a powerful, alluring premise. It’s just a short skip and a jump from thinking you know how to run a company better than anyone else to thinking you know what to do for the planet’s future better than anyone else. Whether that company trades crypto or makes electric cars and space rockets is immaterial in the end.
But for charity to be truly charitable, it must never be about the giver. To lose ourselves in disquisitions about the far future is to lose the human core of philanthropy: the imperative to connect meaningfully with those less fortunate than ourselves, and to use our privilege to bring hope to hopeless lives.
Fortunately, in 2022 it is possible to give humbly—that is, in a way that doesn’t imply we know others’ needs better than they do, or that we can foresee the future more accurately than they can. Charities like GiveDirectly specialize in this sort of direct philanthropy, and their model has been adopted by big multilateral aid agencies like the World Food Programme.
It takes humility to accept that luck and chance play a leading role in all of our lives. It takes a more thorough humility to accept that a very poor person in a very poor country can probably decide the best use of your next $300 more constructively than you can. If you truly believe in other people, and you want altruism to be about them and not about you, there’s no other way to give.
Francisco Toro, a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty, is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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