Vox recently interviewed Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist at Yale University studying how humans perceive different moral agents. I suspect that Dr. Crockett’s findings are, to Philanthropy Daily readers, unsurprising.
In short, Crockett has found that if we are seeking a spouse or a friend, most of us are significantly more attracted to a “deontologist” than a “consequentialist.” If you’re a Philanthropy Daily reader, you likely know that “consequentialism,” or utilitarianism, is the moral philosophy informing “effective altruism.” And, if you’re a Philanthropy Daily reader, you are likely familiar with the criticism that effective altruists advocate a neutered and loveless approach to philanthropy.
It is no wonder, then, that in choosing a spouse—someone to love and to cherish—most people would naturally choose against effective altruists. As Vox author Sigal Samuel writes, we admire the consequentialist—but we are loathe to bind ourselves to him.
Aside from the erroneous binary reduction of moral options—that is, presenting deontologist versus consequentialist moral theories as representing a complete set—this is an interesting interview for several reasons. For one thing, to those of us who take our moral and philosophical bearings from what pertains to real human life—as opposed to casuistic, ivory-tower ruminations with little bearing in reality—the results of this study are telling. Normal people see something off-putting in the effective altruist.
This is not an ad hominem attack, and that is largely why the study is so helpful. Crockett’s research reveals that there is something off, something that doesn’t conduce to human relationships in the effective altruist’s approach to morality and decision-making. Why is that?
The effective altruists are playing at an inhuman game. “It’s love that keeps the world alive,” as Wendell Berry writes—not maximizing pleasure.
Fascinating, then, that Crockett advocates for effective altruists emphasizing the personal satisfaction they get from their giving. While this is not exactly contradictory with effective altruism, it is fairly inconsistent with the principles of the movement. A donor’s personal satisfaction has, in point of fact, nothing to do with the import of the donation. And yet for some reason, humans insist on the significance of the donor’s warm-and-fuzzy feeling.
“It’s love that keeps the world alive,” and so it’s when we can see the donor’s love—his affective response to his gift and his beneficiary—that we can truly see the import of the gift.
Pity those who put anonymous, universal social good above real flesh-and-blood relations. This is a recipe for loneliness, and loneliness a recipe for unhappiness.