Skip to main content

For many of us, the past few years have been like a series of terrifying mass psychology experiments.

The election of Donald Trump plus the "Stop the Steal" pretense of his re-election exposed our collective susceptibility to cults of personality. 

In public and online, the flash fire rise in hate speech and the corrosion of social norms showed how rapidly we devolve when the guardrails are off. And COVID-19 not only pulled the rug out from under our happy delusion of control, it displayed the wildly various ways we justify our response, and our rage when we feel challenged and vulnerable.

So you would think we might finally acknowledge that humans are only infrequently rational.

But for good and ill, we are always yearning and social—thus our great attraction to the latest trendy scams. In times of yore it was tulips; more recently it's been crypto-currency.

And as the new class of nouveau riche technocrats have secured money, power, and cachet they've also popularized the charity scam of effective altruism (EA)—a new twist on the creepy claim that greed is, or can be, good.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

EA proclaims it's more effective to make scads of money and give some of it away than to save lives as a doctor among the poor and dying—supposedly there's always someone else ready to be that doctor if you choose instead to generously channel your altruism into hedge funds. It's more effective to contribute to a carbon offset fund than to personally reduce your carbon footprint.

EA pretends to accountability but is only the latest example of how to lie with statistics.

Should you engage in masturbatory fantasy and pour money into your nerd hero dream of stopping the future robot apocalypse, that's ever so much more effective than anything you could do to help today's inhabitants of Planet Earth—because any effort to prevent catastrophe in the distant future will presumably affect billions upon billions more human lives, spread beyond the planet.

As Amia Srinivasan notes in her superb 2015 takedown of EA, EA is "profoundly individualistic" and reliant on the status quo. EA's calculations assume that humans won't change.

But humans have to change if we are going to survive life on Earth. And perhaps the best thing we have going for us is that we are inherently social creatures, responsive to others. For my money, the most effective philanthropy seeks to use our social instincts for good, seeking to ignite a chain reaction of positive social change.

And that positive change might even include a move away from individual philanthropy and toward a government that fully embraces public welfare. Here's a radical thought: Anything truly worth doing is worthy of public support via public agencies and tax dollars.

Common Dreams