It makes more sense on Platters

Yesterday in the NYT Ross Douthat makes the case for ineffective altruism. Prompted by the recent demise of, what a new follow on Twitter amusingly called the bushied hair young man, Douthat compares the utilitarian goals of the EA folks to other philanthropists in his region of the US.

Now that it seems the bushied hair young man had less than honest intentions in aligning himself with the EA movement and used their goodwill as a cover for his very selfish motives in the creation of his crypto space, it’s easy to see where some would question who the objectives of these do-givers.

Part of Bankman-Fried’s fame lay in his proselytizing for a particular theory of philanthropic moralism — effective altruism, or E.A., an ideology with special appeal in Silicon Valley that’s reshaped the landscape of getting and giving in the past several years.

People who came into a bunch of money through technology are given a seemingly analytical means of redistributing some of their good fortunes to those in need of malaria nets and clean water. And these are worthwhile philanthropic activities. But cynicism can creep in.

The global perspective implied by E.A. analysis can create a Mrs. Jellyby temptation, where “telescopic philanthropy” aimed at distant populations is easier than taking on obligations to your actual neighbors and communities. (Picture effective altruists sitting around in a San Francisco skyscraper calculating how to relieve suffering halfway around the world while the city decays beneath them.) 

Douthat talks a lot about the value of the various types of donations he uses in his article. The Harkness family were heirs to a great fortune which they distributed to three main causes in the early twentieth century. They supported the fine arts, health care, and educational institutions. Certainly, all these fields provide public goods where positive outcomes can be measured over generations.

No doubt an especially zealous analyst could trace the benefits of Harkness’s medical donations in positive “utiles” for people treated for disease over the past century. But the most visible monuments to his philanthropy are beautiful buildings, libraries, dormitories and the like, in cities and college towns across the Northeast — some connected to art for art’s sake, others connected to his interest in the proper formation of educated elites.

But then one family member is thought to be eccentric to have directed most of her good fortune to the ballet. How inefficient of her! Or was it? If this woman had devoted her life to ballet, had seen how devotion to a fine art builds confidence in young dancers, and witnessed the benefits of a community of performers, it makes perfect sense that she would direct resources to this tight-knit group. Perhaps she did not have talent or time, why wouldn’t she make use of the fact that she had money?

And perhaps it does make sense that the youthful somewhat transient super-rich from Silicon Valley would prefer to support causes in exotic destinations than the homeless they drive past on the way to work. If they acknowledge the raggedy guy on the corner, then they may feel they have to donate their time and do something for him or her. Perhaps they should join the city council. But they don’t have time for that. They don’t even have time to have their own family. So sending greenbacks across the globe is a better fit for their resources.

Who’s to say why the Harkens selected their passions. But there is probably a story there that created a need they wished to fill. If you divvy out each of these philanthropic pursuits to occur in a platter of social activity the demand and calculation of value do make sense. The resource transfer is useful to a greater public. Except for bushied hair guy. He was internalizing it all for himself.