Effective Altruism and Religion: Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue
Dominic Roser and Stefan Riedener
The following is a modified version of the introduction to Effective Altruism and Religion: Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue, an open-access volume published and available at the Nomos eLibrary here.
1. Effective Altruism and Religion: An Intriguing Encounter
The effective altruism (EA) movement matters. In the past decade, its adherents have put forth an ever increasing number of challenging ideas about how to improve the world as much as possible. They have set about redefining our understanding of the most ethical life for individuals and the most urgent priorities for humanity. But EA is not just new fodder for academic debates or a further addition to a long line of ideologies offering intellectual entertainment. After only a few years of existence, and despite comprising only a couple of thousand people, it has also already left a significant real-world footprint. One reason for this is that a number of highly influential actors have been influenced by its ideas. Bill Gates called William MacAskill, one of the movement’s co-founders, “a data nerd after my own heart”. Sam Bankman-Fried — believed to be the richest person under thirty — became wealthy precisely in order to promote effective altruist aims. And institutions like the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the UK Prime Minister’s Office have been influenced by the advice of Toby Ord, another co-founder of the movement. Another reason for EA’s real-world effect is the simple fact that its distinguishing feature is a radical focus on impact; even those of its adherents who are not global players have had remarkable leverage. The movement started out with a focus on channeling money towards poverty eradication, but it soon broadened into a more general project of improving the world as smartly and impartially as possible. And it did not fail to live up to its aim of “using evidence and reason to find the most promising causes to work on, and taking action […] to do the most good.”
The EA movement clearly has a secular character. When leaders of the movement state its core project, or articulate reasons for pursuing it, they rarely ever put forward explicitly religious claims. In a recent survey, 86% of the members of the EA community described themselves as non-religious, agnostic, or outright atheist. Indeed Peter Singer, the movement’s father figure, has historically been met with profound opposition from religious quarters (this opposition primarily concerns Singer’s views in bioethics, not his stance about global poverty).
At the same time, the world of charity — or more generally, of people for whom improving the world is a core part of their identity — has long been heavily populated by religious actors. Sometimes their religious background is quite explicit. On other occasions it serves less visibly as the underlying motivation of individuals or the historical root of organizations. But it has often been, and still is, important for many. So with the rise of EA, a distinctively secular movement entered a territory that has long been, and still is, importantly shaped by religion. And this overlap has in some sense become even stronger when many effective altruists have become committed to “longtermism”: the idea that what matters most, today, is setting a good trajectory for the very long-term future. Themes like the end of humanity, or a future radical utopia in particular, have not always received intense attention outside of religious circles.
From the perspective of traditional, and often religiously influenced charitable initiatives, EA can thus feel like the new kid on the block. But that kid has come of age rapidly, both intellectually and practically, and must now be taken seriously indeed. The movement calls for examination and discussion. First and foremost, there’s a question about what people of different religions can learn from EA. EA is intellectually and sociologically rooted in very different soil than the charitable efforts of many people of faith. But many of its insights on questions of efficiency are independent from specific conceptions of the good: they should be relevant for a broad array of worldviews. It would thus seem natural that EA’s fresh take has lessons to offer. At the same time, there’s a question whether people of different religions should repudiate some EA stances as unimportant — or even as outright wrong and dangerous.
But religious perspectives on EA go far beyond the simple questions of what people of faith should accept or reject from the movement. They comprise a whole array of fascinating issues. In particular, there’s the opposite question as well. Can EA learn some important lessons from religion? Can religious traditions offer interpretations of, or justifications for, doing good that EA has so far ignored? Have religions produced conceptual resources, or practical experience, that EA could helpfully adopt? Or should the adoption of EA in religious communities be seen as dangerous from EA’s perspective? Finally, may EA in some sense be seen as a quasi-religious movement itself, considering how comprehensively life-orienting it is for some of its adherents?
At a practical level, the intersection between EA and religion is already a lively sphere: there has been an active community of Christian effective altruists for a number of years now, a Facebook group for Buddhists in EA, as well as an effective altruist initiative for Jews. Astonishingly, however, hardly anything has been published discussing these wide-ranging questions at a theoretical level. Aside from a small number of broader discussions about utilitarianism, Peter Singer, and religion the body of academic work on EA and faith appears to consist of no more than a handful of articles. This, it seems to us, is not enough.
2. The Structure and Content of the Book
This book works toward filling this lacuna and getting the ball of discussion rolling. It consists of three sections. The book opens with three contributions that provide an assessment of EA from a specific religion’s perspective: Calvin Baker discusses Buddhism and EA, David Manheim considers an Orthodox Jewish perspective, and Dominic Roser elaborates on EA and Christianity. The middle section of four chapters then discusses EA in general but with a narrower perspective than a whole religion: Mara-Daria Cojocaru focuses on the type of love at stake, Jakub Synowiec writes about who counts as a neighbor, Stefan Höschele uses the lens of Relational Models Theory to compare EA and Christianity, and Kathryn Muyskens focuses on asceticism and activism. The book closes with three chapters that each look at a specific theme in EA from a religious perspective: Stefan Riedener examines existential risks from a Thomist perspective, Robert MacSwain explores the question of moral ambition and sainthood, and Markus Huppenbauer discusses donations.
Let us give a slightly more detailed summary of the chapters in this book. Baker begins his examination of Buddhism and EA by noting similarities between the two outlooks: they are akin to each other when it comes to such central commitments as impartially promoting the welfare of all sentient beings. He goes on to argue, however, that Buddhism would significantly diverge from EA on how to most effectively help others: it involves a radically different conception of ourselves and our place in reality – in particular, an idea of the ultimate good as quitting the cycle of rebirth. Nonetheless, Baker suggests that there can be a productive dialogue between EA and Buddhism, and he ends with a couple of constructive insights to this effect.
Manheim situates a number of EA tenets within the context of ancient and contemporary Orthodox Jewish debates: the moral obligation to help, consequentialist reasoning about altruism, cause prioritization, and the use of reason and evidence to understand effectiveness. He suggests that Orthodox Judaism, with its unyielding emphasis on the Halacha norms, is not compatible with the complete framework of EA. Still, EA is not irrelevant to it. In particular, Halacha is engaged with complex questions about charitable giving, and thus the insights of EA matter. They may not guide or change Halacha, but they can inform it.
Roser characterizes EA in terms of seven core commitments, and examines whether Christians can share these commitments. His verdict is very positive. The core EA commitments are not only compatible with Christianity, but novel and useful tools for living out Christian faith. He argues that Christians ought to take up many of EA’s insights. However, Roser also mentions a tension between the EA mindset and Christian faith: while EA is concerned with taking control and actively shaping the world in accordance with our values, Christianity in many ways encourages us to renounce control and place ourselves trustingly in God’s hands.
Cojocaru focuses on the “heart” in EA, or the concept of “love” that is central to it and to many religions. Building on Iris Murdoch, she distinguishes two spheres of morality: a public and a private one. In the former, agents operate on simple, uncontroversial ideas of the good, and utilitarian norms seem relevant. In the latter, however, much more complex conceptions of the good become pertinent, and those will only be detectable through carefully examining the particulars of another person or a relationship. Different kinds of love operate in these different spheres. EA, Cojocaru claims, often ignores that humans need partial relations and perspectives in order to learn what is good.
Synowiec starts from the Christian imperative to love our neighbors. Along with other authors in this volume, he brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan and focuses on its core question: “who is my neighbor?” In standard interpretations of EA, the relevant neighbors would be all beings with interests — regardless of species, geographical distance, or temporal distance. Can Christianity share this understanding? Synowiec proposes a biblical interpretation according to which “neighbors” are persons that we can personally affect. He argues that, given the characteristics of our times, this includes all contemporary people. Animals are not exactly neighbors, but we have sufficient knowledge and power to treat them as such. Far future people are not neighbors either — and indeed, we have neither the knowledge nor the power to treat them as if they were.
Höschele discusses EA and Christian ethics through the framework of Relational Models Theory. According to this theory, there are four “elementary forms” of human sociality: four models of human interaction, governed by different norms. So Höschele asks which kinds of models, or human interaction, EA and Christian morality envision. He concludes that EA and New Testament ethics largely agree on the key element that characterizes moral actions: the kind of love that values the other as much as the self. Still, effective altruists and Christians can learn from each other, challenge each other on blind spots, and together steer philanthropy to appropriate levels of reflection and action.
Muyskens suggests that EA needs a kind of asceticism. She argues that charitable donation is not enough to stop systemic inequality or structural violence. Indeed, a focus on “charity” may even contribute to such injustice. And the cost-benefit analysis and randomized controlled trials favored by the movement can produce distinctly biased perceptions of harms. Therefore, the traditional focus of EA on charity has problematic aspects. As a remedy, she argues, EA needs an ascetic type of action tackling systemic injustice which addresses the roots of the problem more directly.
Riedener examines EA’s focus on reducing the risk of human extinction, and asks whether such a focus can be justified within a Thomist moral framework. He argues that it can: Thomas’s idea of the human end, his emphasis on the virtue of humility, and his conception of the place of humanity in the cosmos imply that anthropogenic extinction would be a tremendous moral disaster — a cosmologically important prideful failure to fulfill our God-given role. And this, Riedener suggests, is not only relevant for Christians: similar thoughts can also emerge in non-religious worldviews, such as those based on the import of human dignity.
MacSwain discusses the relationship between EA, supererogation and sainthood. He begins with a discussion of supererogation in Singer, Urmson and Wolf — suggesting that according to Singer, effective altruists are not saints because their actions are often not supererogatory. He then argues for a reconsideration of Robert Merrihew Adams’s notion of “real saints” as people who follow their own vocations. This suggests that some, but not all effective altruists are saints — just like some, but not all, non-EA people are saints.
Finally, Huppenbauer explores charitable giving. He looks at the motives for which people donate, endorses the moral obligation to give, and examines questions about when, how, and how much we should donate. He then considers two challenges to the present culture of donating: EA and a movement advocating social investment instead of donation. Concerning the former, he articulates a worry: if improving the world is such a dominant concern as it is for many effective altruists, and if there is no understanding of a good life outside of morality, people threaten to become “morality machines,” and thus miss the meaning of life.
If there is anything like a common thread through these essays, then perhaps it is this: the relation between religions and EA is not without tensions, contradictions and differences. But in spite of this, or perhaps precisely because of it, a deepened dialogue will be mutually beneficial. Beyond this shared thread, we find that the essays also manifest a beautiful diversity. They are written from different backgrounds in religion, theology or philosophy, ask different questions and come to different conclusions. Thus they illustrate the richness of our topic. And they still only cover a small part of the questions that emerge at the intersection between religion and EA. In particular, the majority of them still focus on Christianity. It is our firm hope that this collection is the beginning of a much larger story — the story of a more extensive and more serious engagement of religious people of all kinds with EA’s ideas and practices. ♦
Dominic Roser is Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Ethics and Human Rights of the University of Fribourg. His research focuses on ethical issues arising in environmental and economic policy.
Stefan Riedener is Senior Teaching and Research Assistant at the University of Zurich’s Center for Ethics. His current research focuses on moral emotions and the ethics of partiality.
Roser, Dominic and Stefan Riedener. “Effective Altruism and Religion: Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue,” Canopy Forum, September 30, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/09/30/effective-altruism-and-religion-synergies-tensions-dialogue.