The Reluctant Prophet of Effective Altruism

The Reluctant Prophet of Effective Altruism


The philosopher William MacAskill credits his personal transfiguration to an undergraduate seminar at Cambridge. Before this shift, MacAskill liked to drink too many pints of beer and frolic about in the nude, climbing pitched roofs by night for the life-affirming flush; he was the saxophonist in a campus funk band that played the May Balls, and was known as a hopeless romantic. But at eighteen, when he was first exposed to “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” a 1972 essay by the radical utilitarian Peter Singer, MacAskill felt a slight click as he was shunted onto a track of rigorous and uncompromising moralism. Singer, prompted by widespread and eradicable hunger in what’s now Bangladesh, proposed a simple thought experiment: if you stroll by a child drowning in a shallow pond, presumably you don’t worry too much about soiling your clothes before you wade in to help; given the irrelevance of the child’s location—in an actual pond nearby or in a metaphorical pond six thousand miles away—devoting resources to superfluous goods is tantamount to allowing a child to drown for the sake of a dry cleaner’s bill. For about four decades, Singer’s essay was assigned predominantly as a philosophical exercise: his moral theory was so onerous that it had to rest on a shaky foundation, and bright students were instructed to identify the flaws that might absolve us of its demands. MacAskill, however, could find nothing wrong with it.

By the time MacAskill was a graduate student in philosophy, at Oxford, Singer’s insight had become the organizing principle of his life. When he met friends at the pub, he ordered only a glass of water, which he then refilled with a can of two-per-cent lager he’d bought on the corner; for dinner, he ate bread he’d baked at home. The balance of his earnings was reserved for others. He tried not to be too showy or evangelical, but neither was he diffident about his rationale. It was a period in his life both darkly lonesome and ethically ablaze. As he put it to me recently, “I was very annoying.”

In an effort to shape a new social equilibrium in which his commitments might not be immediately written off as mere affectation, he helped to found a moral crusade called “effective altruism.” The movement, known as E.A. to its practitioners, who themselves are known as E.A.s, takes as its premise that people ought to do good in the most clear-sighted, ambitious, and unsentimental way possible. Among other back-of-the-envelope estimates, E.A.s believe that a life in the developing world can be saved for about four thousand dollars. Effective altruists have lashed themselves to the mast of a certain kind of logical rigor, refusing to look away when it leads them to counterintuitive, bewildering, or even seemingly repugnant conclusions. For a time, the movement recommended that inspirited young people should, rather than work for charities, get jobs in finance and donate their income. More recently, E.A.s have turned to fretting about existential risks that might curtail humanity’s future, full stop.

Effective altruism, which used to be a loose, Internet-enabled affiliation of the like-minded, is now a broadly influential faction, especially in Silicon Valley, and controls philanthropic resources on the order of thirty billion dollars. Though MacAskill is only one of the movement’s principal leaders, his conspicuous integrity and easygoing charisma have made him a natural candidate for head boy. The movement’s transitions—from obscurity to power; from the needs of the contemporary global poor to those of our distant descendants—have not been altogether smooth. MacAskill, as the movement’s de-facto conscience, has felt increasing pressure to provide instruction and succor. At one point, almost all of his friends were E.A.s, but he now tries to draw a line between public and private. He told me, “There was a point where E.A. affairs were no longer social things—people would come up to me and want to talk about their moral priorities, and I’d be, like, ‘Man, it’s 10 p.m. and we’re at a party!’ ”

On a Saturday afternoon in Oxford, this past March, MacAskill sent me a text message about an hour before we’d planned to meet: “I presume not, given jetlag, but might you want to go for a sunset swim? It’d be very very cold!” I was out for a run beside the Thames, and replied, in an exacting mode I hoped he’d appreciate—MacAskill has a way of making those around him greedy for his approval—that I was about eight-tenths of a mile from his house, and would be at his door in approximately five minutes and thirty seconds. “Oh wow impressive!” he replied. “Let’s do it!”

MacAskill limits his personal budget to about twenty-six thousand pounds a year, and gives everything else away. He lives with two roommates in a stolid row house in an area of south Oxford bereft, he warned me, of even a good coffee shop. He greeted me at his door, praising my “bias for action,” then led me down a low and dark hallway and through a laundry room arrayed with buckets that catch a perpetual bathroom leak upstairs. MacAskill is tall and sturdily built, with an untidy mop of dark-blond hair that had grown during the pandemic to messianic lengths. In an effort to unwild himself for reëntry, he had recently reduced it to a dimension better suited to polite society.

MacAskill allowed, somewhat sheepishly, that lockdown had been a welcome reprieve from the strictures of his previous life. He and some friends had rented a home in the Buckinghamshire countryside; he’d meditated, acted as the house exercise coach, and taken in the sunset. He had spent his time in a wolf-emblazoned jumper writing a book called “What We Owe the Future,” which comes out this month. Now the world was opening up, and he was being called back to serve as the movement’s shepherd. He spoke as if the life he was poised to return to were not quite his own—as if he weren’t a person with desires but a tabulating machine through which the profusion of dire global need was assessed, ranked, and processed.

“Any of you boys interested in fresh gossip for your diaries?”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

He was doing his best to retain a grasp on spontaneity, and we set off on the short walk to the lake. Upon our arrival, MacAskill vaulted over a locked gate that led to a small floating dock, where he placed a Bluetooth speaker that played a down-tempo house remix of the 1974 pop hit “Magic.” The water temperature, according to a bath-toy thermometer, was about fifty degrees. He put on a pair of orange sunglasses with tinted lenses, which enhanced the sunset’s glow, and stripped off his shirt, revealing a long abdominal scar, the result of a fall through a skylight as a teen-ager. He reassured me, “If all you do is just get in and get out, that’s great.” I quickly discharged my duty and then flung myself, fingers blue, back onto the dock. MacAskill did a powerful breaststroke out into the middle of the lake, where he floated, freezing, alone and near-invisible in the polarized Creamsicle sunset. Then he slowly swam back to resume his obligations.

MacAskill, who was born in 1987 as William Crouch, grew up in Glasgow and attended a vaunted private school. He excelled at almost everything but was the first to make fun of himself for singing off-key, juggling poorly, and falling out of treehouses. Though his mother grew up in conditions of rural Welsh privation, his family had little political color—as a child, he was given to understand that all newspapers were right-leaning tabloids. From an early age, however, he demonstrated a precocious moral zeal. At fifteen, when he learned how many people were dying of AIDS, he set out to become a successful novelist and give away half of his earnings. He volunteered for a disabled-Scout group and worked at a care home for the elderly, which his parents found baffling. In his milieu, the brightest graduates were expected to study medicine in Edinburgh, but MacAskill, as class dux, or valedictorian, won a place to read philosophy at Cambridge. Robbie Kerr, MacAskill’s closest schoolmate, told me, “The Glasgow attitude was best summed up by a school friend’s parent, who looked at Will and said, ‘Philosophy. What a waste. That boy could have cured cancer.’ ”

MacAskill found Cambridge intellectually and socially satisfying: he discussed meta-ethics on shirtless walks, and spent vacations at friends’ homes in the South of France. But he also remembers feeling adrift, “searching for meaning.” “There weren’t a lot of opportunities for moral activism,” he told me. He spent a summer volunteering at a rehabilitation center in Ethiopia and, after graduation, another as a “chugger,” a street canvasser paid to convert pedestrians to charitable causes. “We used to say it only cost twenty pence to save a life from polio, and a lot of other stuff that was just wrong,” he said, shaking his head. Nevertheless, he continued, “it was two months of just sitting with extreme poverty, and I felt like other people just didn’t get it.” In graduate school, “I started giving three per cent, and then five per cent, of my income,” he said. This wasn’t much—he was then living on a university stipend. “I think it’s O.K. to tell you this: I supplemented my income with nude modelling for life-drawing classes.” The postures left him free to philosophize. Later, he moved on to bachelorette parties, where he could make twice the money “for way easier poses.”

He told me, “I was in the game for being convinced of a cause, and did a bunch of stuff that was more characteristically far-lefty. I went to a climate-justice protest, and a pro-Palestinian protest, and a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party.” None passed muster, for reasons of efficacy or intellectual coherence. “I realized the climate protest was against cap-and-trade, which I was for. The Socialist Workers Party was just eight people with long hair in a basement talking about the glory of the Russian Revolution.” He surveyed working philosophers and found that none felt like they’d done anything of real consequence. George Marshall, a friend from Cambridge, told me, “He was at dinner in Oxford—some sort of practical-ethics conference—and he was just deeply shocked that almost none of the attendees were vegetarians, because he thought that was the most basic application of ethical ideas.”

When MacAskill was twenty-two, his adviser suggested that he meet an Australian philosopher named Toby Ord. In activist circles, MacAskill had found, “there was this focus on the problems—climate is so bad!—along with intense feelings of angst, and a lack of real views on what one could actually do. But Toby was planning to give money in relatively large amounts to focussed places, and trying to get others to do the same—I felt, ‘Oh, this is taking action.’ ” At the time, Ord was earning fifteen thousand pounds a year and was prepared to give away a quarter of it. “He’d only had two half-pints in his time at Oxford,” MacAskill said. “It was really hardcore.” Unlike, say, someone who donates to cystic-fibrosis research because a friend suffers from the disease—to take a personal example of my own—Ord thought it was important that he make his allocations impartially. There was no point in giving to anyone in the developed world; the difference you could make elsewhere was at least two orders of magnitude greater. Ord’s ideal beneficiary was the Fred Hollows Foundation, which treats blindness in poor countries for as little as twenty-five dollars a person.

MacAskill immediately signed on to give away as much as he could in perpetuity: “I was on board with the idea of binding my future self—I had a lot of youthful energy, and I was worried I’d become more conservative over time.” He recalled the pleasure of proving that his new mentor’s donations were suboptimal. “My first big win was convincing him about deworming charities.” It may seem impossible to compare the eradication of blindness with the elimination of intestinal parasites, but health economists had developed rough methods. MacAskill estimated that the relief of intestinal parasites, when measured in “quality-adjusted life years,” or QALYs, would be a hundred times more cost-effective than a sight-saving eye operation. Ord reallocated.

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