So, Mark Zuckerburg announced his plan to donate 99% of his Facebook stock to “further the mission of advancing human potential and promoting equality by means of philanthropic, public advocacy, and other activities for the public good.” (Facebook’s Security and Exchange Commission filing) Why donate the stock, not in cash? Because it is incredibly tax efficient – the donor, Mr Zuckerburg, gets a charitable contribution deduction, and he would never be taxed for the gain he would have experienced on selling the stock. Besides, since it is his tax-qualified charity that sells the stock, he does not have to pay tax.
The point I would like to make, however, is not whether his plan is claver scheme of tax avoidance. I don’t really care even if it’s the case. In this global capitalist society, aren’t most of us selfish money-grubber anyway? As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt claim in Empire, the left’s new bible of the 21st century, the structure of global capitalism is such that its logic dictates not only economic policies but every aspect of human life, that is, what we can think, do and essentially be as ones living under this seemingly irreversible capitalist condition.
The point is that Mr Zuckerburg’s plan is a reminder of the perturbing trend in philosophy, namely the increasing popularity of so-called effective altruism.
As I understand it, philosophy is the body of knowledge that discusses everything but leaves everything as it is in a prosaic sense. Changing things is not the primary objective of philosophers. Philosophy does not really change anything. Then, what is the point of it? You might wonder. Etymology tells us that philosophy (philosophia in Greek) literary means ‘love of wisdom’. And I think this – yearning to know the fundamentals of our being – is what philosophy is all about. So, the point of philosophy is to determine what appropriate questions to be asked about our existence, mind, knowledge, reality, values, and reasons, and to provide us with pictures of the world, or orders of things, that “give things their look and men their outlook on themselves” (Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art); but not necessarily to offer us a practical guide to navigate ourselves in the day-to-day struggle of living, or to prescribe us some solutions of, say, inequality, contestation, injustice, misery, guilt etc.
A new generation of moral philosophers is determined to respond to the criticism of ineffectuality. The goal of effective altruism is not only to theorise the world, but to use philosophical propositions to make the world a better place. How? Encouraging people to hand over 10% of their future incomes for philanthropic purposes. To be sure, to make an appeal to people’s moral and ethical conscience is what all charities do. What makes effective altruism different, and perhaps persuasive and attractive , is the thinking behind it. Effective altruism introduces a kind of utilitarian understanding of good, and combines it with a means to quantify the amount of good we are creating, and to maximise the effect of our donation.
Here, the central index is what they call ‘quality-adjusted life-years’ (Qaly), which allows us to measure quantitatively a multitude of human sufferings. For example, a year of an Aids patient without any antiretrovirals is worth 0.5 Qaly; if he/she gets medical treatment, then, the Qaly is improved to 0.9; if you are blind, a year of your life is worth 0.4 Qaly; and, a year of a healthy person is worth 1.0 Qaly. If we are to calculate whether it would be better to improve the life of the Aids patient, or to cure the blind person, we should also take into account the increase in both life expectancy and life quality that would be brought into by intervention. Antiretrovirals would give a 30 year-old Aids patient a 40% improvement in life quality over 5 years period, and his/her life expectancy would be 5 years longer at 90% with antiretrovirals. So, the Qaly will be (0.4*5)+(0.9*5)=6.5. On the other hand, if we cure a 20-year old blind person, his/her quality of life would jump from 40% to 100% for 50 years (assuming that he/she lives to be 70 years old), which results in 30 Qaly. So, obviously, it is much better to cure the blind than to give the Aids patient antiretrovirals.
Surely, effective altruism and its logic behind allow us to compare things otherwise incomparable. Qaly emancipates us from the sentimental and the emotional that hinder us from making rational and logical decisions, and gives us a kind of universal currency for human sufferings. It gives us some sort of justification to our lucrative, high paying careers, which often have bad social effects (think, for example, the finance sector). You don’t have to quit your banking job in order to be a morally and ethically competent person. No wonder why effective altruism is becoming increasingly popular among CEOs, who want to believe that what they do has overwhelming humanitarian significance, but who want to be free from the specificity of other people’s lives. Well, who doesn’t?
Efficiency and productivity of philanthropic works are the beautiful children of the happy couple – self-interest and morality – who loves more than anything quantification and comparability. That’s what the advocates of effective altruism repeatedly tell us. However, the language is somewhat all too familiar: capitalism. The cost-effective philanthropy does not address the fundamental structure of global inequality, the problematic of the concentration of wealth that affects not only the structure of global economy, but the distribution of power in international political life, whereby power is understood not only in terms of military capability, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of an agent’s capacity to influence agenda-setting. The advocates of effective altruism are obviously comfortable with ways of thinking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism. Perhaps, they don’t even see the irony here: after all, capitalism has the means of its own correction.
What I think is more problematic is the fact that effective altruism by design does not dwell much on, or even completely ignores, things that make us human; emotions, attachments, sensibilities, royalties etc.; the fundamental of our being. Effective altruism tells you that you shouldn’t waste your time listening to your mother whinging about the annoying neighbour. Nor should you spend time comforting your friend whose relationship with her partner goes on the rocks. Oh, and the time you spend consoling your husband who sets himself against his boss at work? It is a complete waste. Just don’t do that. Instead, you should invest your time in earning more, so that you can do more good, in fact, you can do the most good you can. But our personal experience is embedded in the complex structure of social life, comprised of affinities, commitments, and understandings of others. So much so that when thinking about morality and ethics, we cannot – and ought not – disassociate ourselves from these arbitrary moments of human interaction.
Essentially, effective altruism is feel good philosophy of the privileged in the global capitalist society. It is not a game changer, nor the last social movement we need. It play the same old game, perhaps more efficiently and effectively, by disguising egoism and self-interests as philanthropic interventions.
I don’t know whether Mr Zuckerburg would make donations based on quantification and comparison of human condition. But probably he is at least aware of this trend in philosophy. Effective altruism is particularly popular in Silicon Valley: Tesla CEO, Skype developer, Pay Pal founder are among those who support financially the research based on effective altruism. Of course, it is his call how to organise his philanthropic intervention. But, at the same time, it is worrisome, that effective altruism and social movements based on its logic are so profoundly individualistic. Community, class, state, or any form of the collective, is no longer the proper object of theories of morality. And yet, if morality is what regulates our attitudes toward and interactions with others, then, what would be the consequence of these individualistic ‘social’ movements?