A philosopher's apology and why it failed
Professor Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
I’m delighted to tell you that this week’s Ruffian features a guest post by Henry Oliver. For those of you who don’t know him, Henry is a brilliant writer on literature, history, and ideas. He’s the author of a Substack called The Common Reader and is at work on a book about “late bloomers”. After you’ve read Henry’s fascinating piece, join me below deck for the usual feast of brain food.
Earlier this month, an email containing racist statements, written by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, was published. Bostrom is a key figure in the Effective Altruism movement and the response to his apology highlights some of the flaws and limitations of the philosophy behind the movement. Many people have been appalled and angry. But many others within Effective Altruism lack the common sense to see that Bostrom’s apology wasn’t good enough. The movement is so distracted by its moral theory it has lost sight of reality. This myopic focus on philosophical beliefs is the foundation of what went wrong with Bostrom’s apology.
Bostrom’s email expressed racist opinions about intelligence research, and used a racial slur, for which he issued an apology. But after repudiating his earlier assertion that some racial groups are less intelligent than others, Bostrom said this:
Are there any genetic contributors to differences between groups in cognitive abilities? It is not my area of expertise, and I don’t have any particular interest in the question. I would leave to others, who have more relevant knowledge, to debate whether or not in addition to environmental factors, epigenetic or genetic factors play any role.
He then spent more space discussing those issues than he had spent apologising. This has been, understandable, badly received. The Center for Effective Altruism “unequivocally condemned” Bostrom. Habiba Islam, from the Effective Altruism organisation 80,000 hours, called the apology cowardly. Peter Wildeford wrote, “Bostrom’s apology was garbage.” Many other EA or EA sympathetic people have been equally offended.
This hasn’t caused Bostrom to change his stance. He added this paragraph to the front page of his website, text that wasn’t there a few days earlier.
Hunkering down to focus on completing a book project (not quite announcement-ready yet). Though sometimes I have the impression that the world is a conspiracy to distract us from what’s important — alternatively by whispering to us about tempting opportunities, at other times by buzzing menacingly around our ears like a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitos.
The “swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitos” has been taken to refer to the people who have been upset by his apology. Hardly a phrase calculated to improve the situation. Bostrom has made a classic politician’s error: his apology wasn’t really an apology and he then blamed his critics for focussing on the issue as if it wasn’t important that a leading philosopher said those things.
This is now causing a split among the Effective Altruism community. One user, called Lillly, on the EA Forum wrote that many EAs defending Bostrom simply cannot see the broader implications. Her experience in the EA community is that “people who believe there are innate links between race and IQ may also believe there are innate links between sex and IQ.” She writes that she herself has been underrated among EAs and this sort of sexism may cause her to leave the movement. While many in the EA movement are aware that this episode raises concerns about its future, you don’t need to go too far on Twitter or the Effective Altruism Forum to find people defending Bostrom. Under the CEA statement condemning Bostrom, many people were debating the idea that “all people count equally.”
What the people talking about rationality or free debate have missed is basic common sense. By doubling down on their philosophical beliefs, they have forgotten the context of the wider world. As Rohit Krishnan said on the EA forum, “For anything more than turning money into malaria nets, you need people to trust you. And that includes trusting your intentions and your character.” What Bostrom or anyone else thinks about the current state of research into these questions is irrelevant when you are apologising for making racist remarks.
The reason this has gone so wrong is because of Effective Altruism’s intense focus on philosophy, primarily the philosophy of utilitarianism. Inspired by thinkers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfit, EAs believe that all lives are equally valuable and that we should and could do much more to save and improve lives in far away places (and in the future). “Doing the most good you can do” is one of Effective Altruism’s guiding principles. Many EAs follow the advice of organisations such as 80,000 Hours, which advises you how you can make career choices to do the most good you can do, either by working on the most urgent problems, or by earning lots of money that you give away. This is rooted in the original Utilitarian proposition that we should maximise the happiness of as many people as possible.
This is all to the good. EA really is doing vast amounts of good in the world. Lots of money has been directed towards things like the provision of malaria nets and the majority of individual EAs are highly altruistic. They have prompted excellent causes like GiveDirect and improved many thousands and thousands of lives around the world. But there is a myopia to such a narrow, intense focus on moral theory. There is a sense in which many in Effective Altruism believe they have found a Universal Morality, a way of thinking that can explain all cases.
Utilitarians typically debate questions like whether rules or consequences are more important, whether we should maximise hedonic pleasure or focus on having people fulfil their dreams and aspirations. They may not all be searching for a Universal Morality, but they are much too far down the road of looking for one theory to rule them all, one theory to bind them. In their pursuit of “doing the most good they can”, EAs have become diverted from common sense and done a good deal of harm, too. As one perceptive member of the EA Forum said,
When your whole movement is founded on the idea of utility maximizing, trust is already impaired because you forever feel that you’re only going to be backed for as long as you’re perceived useful: virtues such as loyalty and friendship are not really important in the mainstream EA ethical framework. It’s already discomfiting enough to feel that EAs might slit your throat in exchange for the lives of a million chickens, but when they appear to metaphorically be quite prepared to slit each other's throats for much less, it’s even worse!
It's not just Effective Altruism. We live in a time of ethical concern. Sometimes it feels like everything is a moral question. In the culture wars the pervading framework is of right or wrong, moral or immoral. Effective Altruism is an example of a moral movement that has gained far more interest than you might have expected for something that started as a niche philosophical sect in Oxford. Partly because of this new appetite for overarching moral theories.
This is a parallel to the culture wars. Whether you are woke or a Fox news devotee, we increasingly belong to sects that have monolith explanations of the world. Where an EA will frequently express their morals as a mathematical calculation, political cultural warriors will use a shibboleth to test your correctness. We are living in a time of philosophical sects. As a result, common sense has become underrated. You see a similar mindset in politics. “Look!” politicians shriek about each other, “That minister broke a rule!” As if a group of people who set their own rules can be properly regulated by those rules with no regard to common sense. We are everywhere looking for touchstones and nowhere finding solutions to the complicated mess that is life. What Effective Altruism shares with these other ethical movements is a myopia, a false belief that you can solve the equation of moral problems without recourse to things like empathy and intuition. That is why so many EAs have “rationally"” defended Bostrom’s defence of his email. They cannot see the wood for the trees.
Like so many other philosophically myopic movements, Effective Altruism may now have reached a point where most ordinary people cannot now join or endorse them. Ironically for a group of utilitarians, they have lost sight of how best to maximise their impact from here on out.
Seven years ago, the philosopher John Gray criticised the Effective Altruism movement like this:
Living ethically may require careful reasoning; but the purpose of such reasoning is not normally to establish what will do the most good. Rather, it is to balance the claims of a variety of goods... what reason is there to accept Singer’s view that a rational human being will aim to do the most good? After all, none of the canonical utilitarian thinkers has ever been able to explain why anyone should devote their lives to maximizing value in the world.
That many in Effective Altruism have forgotten that we have to “balance the claims of a variety of goods” is nowhere more evident in the response to Bostorm’s apology. EAs could learn this lesson from one of the great Utilitarians, John Stuart Mill. Mill’s work is a somewhat neglected corner of Utilitarianism that needs to be revived. In 1983, John Gray wrote a superb book called Mill on liberty: a defence in which he created a new name for Mill’s theory: indirect utilitarianism. Mill did not have, as the EAs do, a touchstone of “doing the most good” to guide his life. Rather, he lived in a state of enquiry and development, investing in three areas of life: morality (what is right), prudence (what is expedient), and aesthetic (what is noble or beautiful). The last two of those criteria often seem to be missing in Effective Altruism.
Indirect utilitarianism states that not everything is a moral question. You will not maximise happiness, Mill says, by maximising utility, but by attaching yourself to projects, people, and activities. Utility is a guiding principle for society, not a way of assessing everything we do in our lives. Get something to do, someone to love, something to enjoy, and you will become happy. Utility is not the one-and-only moral decider.
Mill is often caricatured as a rational calculating machine, but in fact he was a passionate, emotional person, one who read poetry and fiction, composed music, and wrote most of works in deep collaboration with his wife. He married logic and intuition, frequently noting his deficiency in the latter. His letters and his autobiography are full of references to the fact that he was a specialist in rational thought, which was only one rather narrow part of life. It is hard to imagine him reacting to the Bostrom scandal as many in the Effective Altruism community have done. Not least because he stood out in the nineteenth century for his progressive views on racial and gender equality.
Many excessively moral systems lack rationality; some have too much. Effective Altruism, like Rationalism, relies too much on logic—what Mill would call ratiocination—as sufficient to resolve moral problems. This can sometimes be as limiting as those movements that rely entirely on emotion and conformity. In his System of Logic Mill wrote that moral thinking was a marriage of science and art. A judge, for example, must rely on ratiocination, because the rules of the law are unchanging and so the judge works by formula. But for other areas of life, Mill said, this would be the wrong approach. Following the rules too rigidly would make you like those doctors who would rather their “patients should die by rule rather than recover contrary to it.” There is something of that at work in Effective Altruism right now, as there has been in other overly moralised movements.
Mill believed scientific reasoning could provide answers about how to solve our problems, but that these answers would be theorems. It was art that would tell us if the theorem could actually work. Life is full of messy contingencies. We must deal with human nature as it is. Theory cannot be divorced from practice. It is an error, says Mill, to decide a “line of conduct” from “supposed universal… maxims.” That is an error EAs are more often committing. In his belief in the value of the particular, the local, the contingent, Mill resembles George Eliot, who wrote in her essay The Natural History of German Life that social science would never be accepted by people until they could see it in context. Theory wouldn’t change minds, she said; it had to be expressed through a story. To learn moral lessons, we must be surprised into seeing life in ways we had not imagined.
“The thing for mankind to know is,” says Eliot, “not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the labourer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him.” Grand unifying ideas like those that informed Effective Altruism, or other moral movements, whether they be recent like arguments about woke and anti-woke, or older like protestant groups who fervently believed in creeds long vanished now, often start out with strong successes. But over time they must adapt their stringent principles to messy reality or lose influence. Ideas are logical: the world is not. Or, in Mill’s words: “Art consists of the truths of science in the most convenient order for practice.” You need both.
This was one of Mill’s most significant contributions to Utilitarianism. In his critique of Jeremy Bentham he wrote, “human nature and human life are wide subjects” and he considered that Bentham had “failed in drawing light from other minds.” This meant there was an “incompleteness” to Bentham’s mind “as a universal representative of human nature.” When assessing philosophers, Mill wanted not just to look at their theories but to ask, “what is his theory of human life?” Being “wholly empirical” was Bentham’s major limitation in this regard. Mill thought he ought to have learned more from poets, dramatists, and historians. Being all reason and not enough imagination remains a limiting factor in Effective Altruism today—utilitarianism’s latest manifestation.
In 2009 the economist Tyler Cowen, who is sympathetic to some Effective Altruism thinking, while not being an EA himself, wrote a review in the journal Biography in which he exhorted over-theoretical economists to read and write more biographies. “Surely the economist should at some point be required to explain something in the life of an actual human being.” He was channelling the ideas of Mill and Eliot and his advice applies equally well to Effective Altruism today. Imagine if Nick Bostrom had taken that as his guiding principle when thinking about his apology. Rather than continue to debate rational, utilitarian principles, many people in the Effective Altruism community today should be trying to explain what these ideas would mean—if genuinely taken seriously—in the lives of people like Lilly.
The EA movement needs to refresh itself with reference to Mill’s broader view of the world, rather than allow itself to go any further down the road towards sectarian philosophical thinking. And our politics more generally would benefit from realising that most questions are practical not moral. To morally improve ourselves and society, we need to become less philosophical.
This piece is free to read so please do share. And sign up to Henry’s Substack.
In case you missed it: there was a midweek edition of The Ruffian, on what AI means for education. It went out with a shocking number of typos, for which I apologise (I think I was hungover when I finished it, I’m not saying that excuses it, I’m just saying). They got fixed on the web pretty quickly thanks to readers pointing them out and I would advise reading The Ruffian online anyway. It looks nicer there, you get serifs. Just click into the email on the headline. ICYMI2: last Saturday’s Ruffian was about White Lotus, Aftersun and Tár (some great comments on this one, please add more).
After the jump: a link party, with (further) thoughts on Effective Altruism; an AI classroom policy; the secret of happiness (yes!); tips for evaluating character; some excellent writing advice; a verdict on The Banshees of Inisherin, and what it’s like to play yourself in a Hollywood movie. Plus, an analysis of a transcendently beautiful pop song which made me love it even more.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial