Widgets Magazine


Ethical snake oil

Sometimes, I feel guilty for being at Stanford. Sometimes, everything here seems a little too perfect. The grass is too green; the shrubs are too coifed. The libraries have too many books, and there are too many great courses and great professors. Stanford is an institution of abundant resources. Resources that might do more good if spent providing loans to farmers abroad, supporting soup kitchens in the city or raising funds for someone’s crucial medical operation. I often wonder if we’re really making the most of the wealth we encounter here.

Stanford justifies the comforts it provides with the significance of its accomplishments. Each week, Stanford churns out fascinating new academic research, and over the past few decades, it has been responsible for supporting some of this century’s most significant innovations, from recombinant DNA and bioplastics to Google and Netflix. However, just because these innovations further our technological capabilities does not mean they are inherently “good.”

Much to the disappointment of Silicon Valley’s messianic enthusiasm about creating products that improve how we live and socialize, the fruits of technological advance also create industry ripples that eliminate jobs and impose serious financial discomfort on many families. As Om Malik wrote in the New Yorker recently, “If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well meaning your focus on delighting travelers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.”

Strangely, in this morally obscure environment, a trendy wave of ethics is sweeping over, eager to resolve our dilemmas and absolve us all of self-reproach.

“Effective altruists don’t see a lot of point in feeling guilty,” writes Peter Singer in the Boston Review. “They prefer to focus on the good they are doing. Some of them are content to know they are doing something significant to make the world a better place.”

Peter Singer is a professor of philosophy at Princeton University. He is also the intellectual champion of effective altruism, a new wave of ethics trying to rebrand ethical deliberation into a palatable and straightforward logical process. Followers of the movement are encouraged to maximize the amount of good they do with the resources at their disposal. They are encouraged to donate to efficient charities that help the greatest number of people for every dollar donated. Affiliated organizations like GiveWell rank charities according to their effectiveness and even advise the donations of individuals like Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

But maximizing the “good” isn’t the only reason effective altruists don’t see the point in feeling guilt. As Singer himself insists, feelings like compassion or sympathy are just distracting impulses that get in the way of truly valuable ethical contributions. Wipe away those tears: “Ethics” isn’t about understanding others in need or reconciling contrasting sets of values — “ethics” is merely cost-benefit analysis.

Singer writes about how earning top dollar on Wall Street and redistributing the profits to charity is a noble pursuit in life. So what if investment bankers frequently skirt regulations, cut unfair deals and operate in environments of greed? This is small potatoes compared to the laudable success of saving hundreds of lives per year by purchasing malaria nets for communities at risk. In fact, the higher paying job you can land, the better. Don’t discriminate by industry.

Effective altruism offers a sweet deal. Delegate the problem of your moral obfuscation to them, and you’ll receive a check with quantitative proof of your moral uprightness and a stamp guaranteeing absolution.

In a place like Silicon Valley, where the competitive pace of development seldom allows room for reflection, where every new success by the engineering department at Stanford forebodes a contraction in the workforce, Singer’s philosophy serves as a great comfort. It permits individuals to put thoughts of ethics on autopilot and to recede comfortably into willful ignorance on the impact of their actions as long as they donate to GiveWell’s top five charities at the end of the month.

But if someone’s ability to deworm hundreds of children depends on the same occupation that puts thousands of journalists out of work, can the actions of that individual still be considered ethical?

Analyzing how and where you give is extremely important. Many more lives have been saved thanks to effective altruism’s awareness campaign promoting effectiveness and transparency in giving. However, the movement’s strictly “logical” approach to ethics is also myopic. It releases individuals from the burden of evaluating their actions holistically.

If you feel uncomfortable, you’re not alone. However, instead of exposing your moral vulnerability to snake oil panderers promising ethical clarity, take on the challenge of examining — perhaps even questioning the impact of your participation in a community like Stanford.

Embrace the moral load. Ethical clarity never comes easy.


Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.