The trouble with EA

Effective Altruism has had a moment. SBF pretended to be into it for a while in order to pull the wool over investor’s eyes, then dropped it once it became obvious that he is neither effective nor altruistic.

The utilitarian movement tends to attract weirdos. They cannot help but find wordlord justifications for the most atrocious acts, perhaps enjoying the intellectual challenge of arguing that black is white.

People who attempt a utilitarian approach to any given situation – that is, determining the greatest good for the greatest number – will inevitably calculate that the greatest good is achieved by doing exactly what they wanted to do anyway. It is sometimes used deliberately for this purpose, and sometimes unconsciously.

This is not a problem unique to utilitarians. Those who use a theological basis for ethics tend to interpret the Bible in such a way as to back up their own inclinations. Rights theorists will find rights for all the things they like but not for the things they don’t like.

That is how we are.

However, today I’m sticking the boot into utilitarians.

Even if you’re not one, we all need to make these calculations from time to time. Sometimes the right path is not clear and we need to weigh up what would happen in either case. Utilitarianism is useful for decisions about policy and so forth, though probably not in isolation

I will not attempt to deboonk utilitarianism in a meta-ethical sense. Identifying the underlying criteria that make any action right or wrong is above my pay scale. In any case, my readers already know everything there is to know about that – ask them!

What would I like to do?

Before you start weighing up the consequences of a morally fraught decision, acknowledge what you’d like to do if all things were equal. That is the path you will be biased towards. Then make sure you consider all relevant arguments that go the other way.

For example, say there’s a proposed new road near your house and there’s debate about whether it should go ahead. You’re pondering the rights and wrongs of it.

Do you want the road?

Either way, fairly consider arguments that go the other way. Write out the best steelman case you can for the thing you don’t like. It will help you to see both sides.

Real life cases

Utilitarianism is most famous for its contrived ethical conundrums given to first-year philosophy students, like the trolley dilemma.

Common to all these thought experiments is that they would never happen in real life, or at least not in such a neat and unambiguous way.

If you’re going to use hypothetical cases in order to make a point, it should be realistic. In fact, it should be real so that there can be no argument about whether it is realistic or not.

For example, instead of the trolley problem, you might use the example of Stalin’s WWII strategy, which sacrificed huge numbers of men with a massive feint in order to save the nation. Worth it? Justified?

The advantage of such real-life situations is that they are ambiguous and complicated. Some details are unclear or arguable.

The thought experiments, in contrast, are too sterile to be taken seriously, with unrealistic premises like ‘this decision will have no other consequences outside of the set parameters, such as prosecution of the person who redirects (or fails to redirect) the trolley, or a disgusted boycott of the trolley company which results in more car travel, car crashes and road deaths.’

Real life is a fog of war and the consequences are never clear-cut. Thought experiments are interesting, but they are like testing a new passenger plane only in a wind tunnel before approving it to fly.

Respect the trad, and/or try New Zealand

One reason that new, trendy policies have taken us down increasingly bizarre slippery slopes is that they were untested.

No matter how good you reckon your idea to fix society is (and you do have them), the consequences are unclear. No matter how well-intentioned, any big change has downstream effects that can be hard to predict.

For example, few who supported decriminalizing homosexuality thought it would logically lead to many children taking puberty blockers or irreversible sex change surgery without their parents’ consent.

Traditions survive because they are tried and tested.

That doesn’t mean that every tradition is good. Sometimes they survive beyond their usefulness, through inertia. In other cases they ‘work’ in the sense that they unite a society and help it survive, but are otherwise evil. Human sacrifice, for example. Killing twins. Murdering widows.

There’s no action so evil that it was never a tradition at some point, somewhere.

However, most traditions are there for a reason, as with Chesterton’s Fence. Any brand-spanking new utilitarian idea that goes strongly against a longstanding tradition should be treated very skeptically.

If tried at all, it should be in a ‘testing ground’ to see what happens. That’s what New Zealand is there for. If only we’d let them question the gender binary there first and observed the results.


Humans are messy and life is messy. It’s very hard for us to rationally and fairly think through the consequences of our actions, thus utilitarianism risks acting as a sophistry to justify any aberrant thing that anyone wants to do.

However, it is necessary for many decisions. Neither the Bible nor the Bill of Rights contain a step-by-step guide for foreign relations or transport policy, nor can these be extrapolated from them. They are usually best for setting boundaries and guidelines: Try to maintain peace. Don’t steal people’s land to build roads. That sort of thing.

I reckon the biggest reason utilitarianism goes astray is that the people who think they’re clever enough to remake society for the greater good, tend to be too arrogant to see the error of their ways, even after it’s all gone pear-shaped. They usually lack accountability.

Maybe one day someone will have a great new idea at your workplace or social club. Ask them: if we must try this idea, how will we assess its efficacy? Will you take full, personal responsibility for the consequences? And will you implement it yourself?

It’s a good way to nip bad ideas in the bud.



  1. jewamongyou · January 4

    Since you brought up “the real world,” it’s worth noting that in the real world, the vast majority of people are incapable of being objective.

    What this means is that the few of us who CAN be objective end up getting the shaft far too often. This has happened to me many times, both online and in real life. I make an effort to see things from the other person’s point of view, but he makes no such effort on my behalf. The result? Life is biased against me.

    That’s not usually a big deal. It’s more serious when we apply this principle to politics. For example, conservatives taking leftist sensibilities into consideration, even as lefties never consider reciprocating. The result? A society that drifts ever more to the left.

    In a dog-eat-dog world, sometimes we must be dogs, or be forever subservient.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · January 4

      Probably being unreasonable is an adaptation, which is why we’re so good at it. The search for truth is noble but it won’t get you anything.


  2. Kentucky Headhunter · January 5

    New government healthcare facility being built next to my mother-in-law’s house. Every reason in the world to build it downtown where there are plenty of buildings nearly vacant as well as plenty of open space and the relevant population has much easier access, but a very few rich and powerful people will benefit from it being built in a suburb and won’t have to deal with the traffic or noise.


  3. Corporate Clarke · January 5

    I’m deboooooooonking. Great as always.


  4. freemattpodcast · January 5

    The trolley dilemma was best solved by the person that looped the tracks around to the other side.

    I have also told people that you should do things on a local level and not support the kind of assholes you may never meet.


  5. overgrownhobbit · January 5

    Sneaky WordPress. I thought you had linked to that moronic Princess Gertrude story and wondered what had happened to you.

    Good to know you haven’t been taken over NY the pod people.


  6. Eric · January 5

    Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay .


  7. Kentucky Gent · January 5

    One time back in my undergrad days I was hanging out with a friend of mine and his other friend.

    Somehow we got to talking about morality (probably my fault) and the other friend said “there’s no such thing as a purely altruistic act.”

    I argued that there has been one purely altruistic act in history, which he was unable to argue with. But I could only come up with one, and no one else came up with any others either.

    So now I learn there is an org calling itself “Effective Altruism”? Right away alarm bells go off, and would have gone off even if SBF was never involved with it. The one thing I can be sure of right away is they aren’t altruistic!


  8. ray · 30 Days Ago

    ‘The search for truth is noble but it won’t get you anything.’
    Aside from an endless existence of glory and content near God, no, cleaving to the truth will get you nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ray · 30 Days Ago

    Just finished reading a post on the same topic of Trolley Experiment etc. at Wilder, Wealthy, and Wise blog.


  10. mblanc46 · 29 Days Ago

    Any movement of the Left is almost certainly a hustle, intellectual or otherwise.


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