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Stop the robot apocalypse: On "effective altruism" and capitalism


At the London Review of Books, Amia Srinivasan reviews Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference by William MacAskill, the leader of a new generation of moral philosophers known as “effective altruists.” Srinivasan suggests that like many a philanthropist, MacAskill believes that capitalism is the solution to global inequality, rather than the root cause. Here’s an excerpt:

Doing Good Better is a feel-good guide to getting good done. It doesn’t dwell much on the horrors of global inequality, and sidesteps any diagnosis of its causes. The word ‘oppression’ appears just once. This is surely by design, at least in part. According to MacAskill’s moral worldview, it is the consequences of one’s actions that really matter, and that’s as true of writing a book as it is of donating to charity. His patter is calculated for maximal effect: if the book weren’t so cheery, MacAskill couldn’t expect to inspire as much do-gooding, and by his own lights that would be a moral failure. (I’m not saying it doesn’t work. Halfway through reading the book I set up a regular donation to GiveDirectly, one of the charities MacAskill endorses for its proven efficacy. It gives unconditional direct cash transfers to poor households in Uganda and Kenya.)

But the book’s snappy style isn’t just a strategic choice. MacAskill is evidently comfortable with ways of talking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism: the will to quantify, the essential comparability of all goods and all evils, the obsession with productivity and efficiency, the conviction that there is a happy convergence between self-interest and morality, the seeming confidence that there is no crisis whose solution is beyond the ingenuity of man. He repeatedly talks about philanthropy as a deal too good to pass up: ‘It’s like a 99 per cent off sale, or buy one, get 99 free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.’ There is a seemingly unanswerable logic, at once natural and magical, simple and totalising, to both global capitalism and effective altruism. That he speaks in the proprietary language of the illness – global inequality – whose symptoms he proposes to mop up is an irony on which he doesn’t comment. Perhaps he senses that his potential followers – privileged, ambitious millennials – don’t want to hear about the iniquities of the system that has shaped their worldview. Or perhaps he thinks there’s no irony here at all: capitalism, as always, produces the means of its own correction, and effective altruism is just the latest instance.

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