Charity by numbers

Failed “Crypto King” Sam Bankman-Fried has been arrested and is scheduled to be extradited from the Bahamas to the US to face charges of fraud. After recovering from the initial shock over how his multi-billion dollar company lost most of its value overnight, commentary has focused on how “effective altruism” and the philosophy of William MacAskill shaped the worldview of SBF. 

The idea behind Effective Altruism, as summarized in an article by philosophy professor Arif Ahmed, is that “there are more and less effective ways to ‘do good’; so if you are going to do good then you should do it as effectively as possible”. So, calculating which medical intervention schemes save the most lives for the least amount of money should inform your charitable giving. Considering which occupations give the most bang-for-buck when it comes to saving the world will rule some careers “in” and others “out”.

But as you may notice, if you read the very long interview from the New Yorker with William MacAskill, there are problems with doing charity by numbers. Is improving many people’s quality of life a more valuable goal than preventing a handful of deaths? Is working to ward off potential terrible futures a good use of time and money? By which metrics?

Reading about how MacAskill wrestles with his privilege, checking everything against his desire to do the most good, brought to mind Oscar Schindler, breaking down under the knowledge that he could have done more to save people from Nazi camps. There’s no bottom in that hole – you can never do enough. 

It is a glorious gift of God’s mercy that despite the Fall, humans still have the desire to lift others up, to show compassion and use their means to do good. There is much to admire about these altruists, who view their time and resources as a commodity to steward carefully. But when human reason or judgement is the sole arbiter of what is good, one man may serve the world by bringing his own food to restaurants and another man may steal another’s money to fund some of the worst instincts of liberal lawmakers.

In the cases of MacAskill and Bankman-Fried, the humanitarian vision of history as mankind’s march to a world without suffering shows itself to be a beautiful lie. It is an illusion that doesn’t account for the sinfulness of human hearts or our utter dependence on our Creator for life and breath.

Jesus reminded us that we will always have the poor with us yet Saint Paul exhorted the Galatians to “not grow weary while doing good”. It seems a paradox, an unsolvable problem. Yet living in the light of the awful truth – that this decaying world is temporary, subjected to futility, yet redeemed by Jesus – is a lighter burden than buying into a beautiful lie. More than that, the prize is not a legacy or plaudits from men but treasure laid up in heaven as we work not just for our neighbor, but unto God. 

Leave a Reply