The drama surrounding Sam Altman’s ouster from (and return to) OpenAI will surely be the fodder for a future Oscar-winning film. This drama has cast the spotlight upon the philosophy that launched OpenAI and inspires its board members – effective altruism.
According to the Center for Effective Altruism, “Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” Effective altruism is a fundamentally utilitarian outlook, with a special emphasis on the idea that because all lives are equally valuable, our humanitarianism must be scientifically calculated to maximize impact.
Effective altruists have been the promoters of caution and ethical consideration in the AI world. At first glance, this may make them the “good guys” from a Christian perspective, as Christians of all people should care about the moral dimensions of technology, knowing that the dangers of grasping recklessly for new technological heights go back to Babel. Indeed, some have sought to pairChristianity with the effective altruism movement.
Nonetheless, Christians ought to reject much of the effective altruism movement. Its aims are opposed to Christianity for at least four reasons.
- The Bible recognizes different spheres of responsibility
Speaking about children worldwide dying of preventable diseases, Peter Singer, a leading effective altruist, has said, “Does it really matter that they’re far away? I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference.” In one sense, he’s right. The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows the need to love strangers and foreigners. However, the Bible also presents commands that give us priorities of whom we must love and serve – for example, our household (1 Timothy 5:8), the household of faith (Galatians 6:10), and the city in which God has placed us (Jeremiah 29:7 ). By contrast, effective altruism simply places the greatest moral priority wherever the greatest impact can be made.
- The Bible expresses care for the mind and soul, not just the body
In trying to get the most out of each charitable dollar, effective altruists have pinpointed some fine causes, such as the Against Malaria Foundation. But they focus on charitable work which can be statistically proven to be effective, to the neglect of work whose effect cannot so easily be measured. Intellectual and spiritual formation does not take precedence for effective altruists, and yet the Bible is full of imperatives to guard the heart and soul and renew the mind. Indeed, these lie at the heart of what it means to be human and to help other humans. Forgetting this has led many effective altruists to prioritize animal welfare. One organization that has benefitted from this focus is the Sentience Institute, which demands an expansion of the “societal moral circle” to encompass all sentient beings. As Christians, we must not forget the uniqueness of the image of God.
- The Bible rejects the premise of existential risk
Another leading effective altruist, William MacAskill, founded an organization called 80,000 Hours, dedicated to the admirable goal of helping young people make the most of their careers. They “focus most on helping people tackle issues that threaten the future of civilization” and claim that “our first priority should be to survive.” Their list of existential risks includes artificial intelligence, engineered pandemics, nuclear war, and climate change. Scripture; however, is unconcerned with the possibility that we will ultimately destroy ourselves. As the apostle Peter reminds us, “By the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment.” We should think wisely about the power of technology, but it is God who will bring this world to an end.
- The Bible values sincerity
Effective altruism implicitly affirms that if the impact of giving matters most, then the motives matter little. Unsurprisingly, the effective altruism movement has become a hotbed of hypocrisy. Sam Bankman-Fried, the FTX founder who has been convicted of multiple felonies, was a proponent of effective altruism. An exposé by Time demonstrated the prevalence of polyamory and sexual harassment in the effective altruism movement. Effective altruism has been especially popular in the Bay Area among tech leaders who present sleek and shiny visions of the future. While they virtue-signal about sending money overseas, San Francisco itself has devolved around them into horrifying levels of poverty, homelessness, and drug use. What a far cry from Paul’s commendation of earnest giving.
Why does all of this matter? In short, effective altruism is a philosophy that is shaping the world. It permeates the upper echelons of an emerging industry and influences the flow of millions upon millions of dollars. May God give us grace to spend wisely what He entrusts to us, not to pat ourselves on the back as we assess its utility, but rather so that we might hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”