MacAskill’s Effective Altruism Has Grave Undertones

How peering into the future blinds us to the morality of today.


Ben Seymour / Unsplash

Here is Oxford University, MacAskill’s current home due to his employment at the University’s Global Priorities Institute.

In the expanse of time, our lifetimes are milliseconds, and thus our range of perspective is extremely limited. We will likely not see the collapse of our nation, and we do not remember its beginning. We are, however, quite convinced of the present. We are dazzled by the achievements of modern science, often regarding our time period to be the peak of human achievement or development as noted in Fukuyama’s infamous book, The End of History. This lens is myopic and arrogant, indicative of a focus on the short term, and it disregards the depth and scale of human history. We forget the “big picture” and ignore the infinite future, whose length may extend beyond the time that humans have existed thus far. Proponents of long-termism and effective altruism argue that the future should be our primary concern, but what implications does this philosophical school have for our individual lives and identities?

William MacAskill is the spokesperson for a philosophical set of ideals that, while not new, have experienced a surge in popularity and had a global effect. In an age that is consistently focused on the world’s gray areas, he hopes to be a concise and clear proverbial beacon through the fog of our modern world. 

Ironically, it seems as if he and his followers of the ever-expanding effective altruism movement, are disgusted by many of the ideological groups which often spew ideals of absolute morality and naturally express only anguish when faced with the brazen cruelty of our practical world. 

This is likely due to the fact that despair is far more common than action in the face of the massive amount of suffering which plagues our world. For example, modern Marxism frustrated MacAskill as he found it to be lacking in its willingness to confront the outside world.

Throughout his own ideological transformation, MacAskill examined varied sources to garner inspiration and fuel his activism, hoping not only to find his own voice but also to uncover a platform from which to begin changing the world for the better. Unfortunately for him, his journey was not an easy one.

Despite his recognition of the existence of extreme cruelty in the distribution of wealth and quality of life across the globe, MacAskill represents a beacon of refreshing, if not troubling, optimism in global affairs and humanitarian efforts. 

Despite his extensive education in philosophy, MacAskill, in the tradition of his mentor and inspiration, Peter Singer, seems to scoff at the complex and seemingly contradictory sets of values in which his peers revel. In his eyes, the only use of time that he deems truly morally worthy is that which attempts to salvage as many human lives as possible.

Effective altruism, the philosophy with which he (while admittedly reluctantly) aligns, however, has little regard for the concepts of free will and democratic practice which many of us hold dear. In the eyes of many effective altruists, the creation of paradise justifies any means necessary to achieve it, even if it means removing the choices of those who they claim to assist.

In this way, MacAskill and his followers are not entirely as fresh and unique as The New Yorker and other publications might portray them. MacAskill is a self-proclaimed man of action, and men of action are not new to history. In the face of a new movement, it is our responsibility as members of society to ask: are there any ends that justify boundless means? 

For many of us, the answer is simple from a purely hypothetical standpoint. However, in a world in which our institutions and ideals fail to protect us, it’s difficult to keep our axioms and principles in sight. 

The trouble with effective altruism is as follows: If we presume ourselves to be all-knowing and collectively capable of the creation of a pseudo-utopian mission for the alleviation of suffering, where do we draw the limits for our actions?

In the age of big data, it’s hard not to see ourselves as capable of determining the future with relative accuracy, and this realization is implicit in very troubling consequences. In MacAskill’s own words on a podcast on The Ezra Klein Show, “future people count — that is, their interests matter morally, and we should take their interests seriously in just the same way we take the interests of people alive today seriously...” While this statement seems perfectly reasonable at first glance, it has nightmarish consequences for the way we live today.

The data age has led us to abandon the epistemological guidelines which have dictated our behavior for millennia and laid down the foundation for the basis of our conception of morality. For centuries, the ability to see the future has been perceived as a work of miraculous and divine power; now, it is simply rooted in statistical analysis. This opens a dangerous door for moral philosophers and activists, as the belief that we have the capacity to change and mold the future morally brings about the temptation to act on this urge. 

If future generations count morally in essentially the same way current people do, how do individuals begin to tackle the problem of how they see themselves within the world and their responsibilities to those around them relative to the collective? While the idea that we should protect future generations from a lifetime of suffering and despair is certainly agreeable, MacAskill’s plan of action is dependent upon weighing those interests against our interests today. This implies that anything done solely for the benefit of the present population is done at the potential detriment to the distant future, which MacAskill admits involves time spans of “tens of thousands of years.”

Moral actions as our world defines them are almost always tangled in the idea of resisting the pull of one’s simple self-interest for those around them. While the motivations behind this code of conduct are based on logic and the interest of a collective, the behavior of individuals often coincides with them based solely on empathy developed by their tangible relationships with other human beings today. 

Without the idea that morality can relate to their individual lives, people are uncomfortable wrestling with the abstract concept of their responsibility to a collective duty to people that they have never met, and some of whom have not been born yet. It is the connections we form with other human beings which inform our understanding of morality, and this formation of a guiding moral light is in many ways significantly more effective than a dedication to an altruistic set of guidelines. 

Despite the fact that effective altruism is often reported as being popular with the youth, students at Bronx Science seem to have some qualms about the philosophy’s assumptions. “My major issue with effective altruism is the way that it describes a predicted future like a certainty, and acts accordingly,” said Griffin Weiss ’24. This issue with the fundamental assumption of the philosophy helps us to recognize one of its fatal flaws, the idea that MacAskill’s optimism looks a lot like hubris. 

If we are permitted to, as he does, weigh the moral effects of future actions, the impact of MacAskill’s existence and the philanthropy which accompanies it will be overwhelmingly positive, yet we should not let his axioms enter our daily lives and the way in which we view the world. 

In essence, MacAskill’s adoration for “the big picture” boils down to a rejection of the application of morality in our individual lives. In this same vein, effective altruism abandons the beauty of the mundane for the spectacular magnitude of the abstract. 

The age of data has led us to abandon the epistemological guidelines which have dictated our behavior for millennia and laid down the foundation for the basis of our conception of morality.   

While William MacAskill, as an individual, is undoubtedly noble, and the ideology he espouses will likely improve the world we live in today, the applications of effective altruism to the personal lives of individuals throughout the western world breeds a philosophy of directionless guilt and abstraction. In essence, what practitioners of this ideology would describe as the solution between truth and hope is but a distraction from the fears consequential to our place in the world. It’s a dedication to a constantly changing and unattainable vision of morality that serves as an escape from the burdens of what is realized and concrete around us.

Despite the call of MacAskill and his followers, most troubled and conscientious residents of developed nations enjoying a comfortable and high standard of living will not, and thus should not aspire to be overcome with an all-encompassing desire to exert this vision on the world. Instead, this fiery and inspired desire for change should be replaced by facing the moral duties and challenges that the philosophy inherently intends to evade.

The origin of modern effective altruism can best be understood as a reaction to the information age. We are constantly exposed to knowledge of more suffering than we have ever been before via television and the internet. Thus, we construct a mission to alleviate it entirely to soothe the natural pain and anguish which comes alongside our understanding. 

However, if we are forced to confront ourselves with the suffering of all seven of our continents and burden ourselves with a grand mission for utopia, where is the room for individuality, contentment, and self-actualization in the developed world?

In essence, what practitioners of this ideology would describe as the solution between truth and hope is but a distraction from the fears consequential to our place in the world. It’s a dedication to a constantly changing and unattainable vision of morality that serves as an escape from the burdens of what is realized and concrete around us.