Once, a certain merchant was traveling upon a deserted road with his donkey and a cart full of pots. Suddenly, the donkey stumbled on a rock and one of the pots fell off the cart and broke into sharp shards.

The merchant said to himself, "These shards are sharp, and someone may be harmed if they pass by. However, I am in a hurry, and this road is rarely traveled, so I will not concern myself with the pot shards." And he continued on his journey.

After a year had passed, a traveler was journeying on that same road and stepped on the sharp shard left by the merchant. The wound was severe, and the traveler could not continue on his journey. And because the road was deserted, he died there.

Amen amen, I say to you, just as surely as if the merchant had killed that traveler with his own hands, he is responsible for his death. And on the day of judgment, he will be held accountable for his actions.

This is the type of parable you might expect Jesus to tell if he wanted to exhort us towards impartiality – to help people no matter how distant from you they might be.


A common question raised in the context of EA and Christianity is: “To what extent is effective altruism consistent with Christianity?”

I think the EA approach to doing good is quite consistent with Christianity[1]. But it is not a natural extension of Christianity.

In particular, impartiality – core to Effective Altruism – is not core to Christianity. Jesus does not give us any “Parable of the Pot Shards”. His teachings emphasize showing compassion and doing good, but always in the context of helping a person who is directly in front of you.

As Christians I think we should be comfortable with this. God gave us reason and we can use the tools of philosophy to find moral truths. I don’t think there is anything inconsistent between Christ’s teachings and impartiality[2].

But EAs should not think that people in the western world have some latent core belief in impartiality, or that EA is a natural extension of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

This is important because it means that you cannot convince Christians (or those raised in a Christian moral environment) to become EAs on their own existing moral terms. It requires convincing them to buy into a non-intuitive idea – impartiality – that is not core to Christian ethics.


X-post from my blog

Parable written with the help of  ChatGPT

Thanks to JD for discussion that inspired this post

  1. ^

    For examples of emphasis on a few EA-centric traits:

    Effectiveness: Jesus gives us the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. And in 1 Corinthians Paul talks about wanting to “win as many possible” for Christ (9:19) and taking advantage of “a wide door for effective work” (16:9).

    Widening our moral circle: See how Jesus treats – rhetorically and in personal relationships – outcasts like Samaritans, adulteresses, and tax collectors.

    And most obviously general exhortations towards charity and good works infuse the gospels

  2. ^

    And it makes sense that He didn't teach the kind of impartiality that EA does. Jesus lived long ago. Until very recently, it has not been feasible to help people who are not in your immediate community

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The Parable of the Good Samaritan seems to lean towards impartiality. Although the injured man was laying in front of the Samaritan (geographic proximity), the Samaritan was considered a foreigner / enemy (no proximity of relationship).

It's the geographic proximity that I get hung up on though. He is right in front of the Samaritan. I can't think of any parables that involve someone showing mercy to a person who is not right in front of them.

Every time Jesus performs a miracle, it is for someone right in front of him.

I am strongly in favor of more impartiality, but think most Christians find it a stretch to say that the Good Samaritan parable is meant to imply we should care for future people and people on the other side of the world who they will never meet.

Is there a typo in the first sentence - should it say impartiality rather than partiality?

Yes! A rather important typo! I’ve now fixed

You can’t really demonstrate a religion doesn’t support (temporal/geographic) impartiality simply because it doesn’t have a specific type of parable, especially when it does have other parables/teachings that could plausibly qualify for the broader point (as others here have pointed out). I do not recall learning anything approaching Longtermism in Sunday School, but I certainly was taught to interpret “thy neighbors” as far broader than my literal neighbors, and that we are all brothers and sisters under Christ.

Ultimately, I can’t confidently say what my thoughts are on the ultimate conclusion (e.g., whether on balance Christianity pushes people towards globalism and Longtermism), but I certainly don’t find the arguments in this post compelling.

I quite agree with this, particularly since there is a straightforward explanation why Christian scripture would not have focused on people far away in time and space: there were fewer technological possibilities for affecting people far away than there are today. [Edit: I now realize this point appears in footnote 2]

I do find it noteworthy that on the one occasion where Jesus was asked whom to count as a neighbour, he deliberately expands the circle and asks listeners to think about whom they can be a neighbour to.

It's a good point about the moral circle expansion.

Maybe I can flip it and ask you: To the extent that Christians do not behave impartially towards people in other countries or people who won't be born for hundreds of years, do you think they are failing to follow the teachings of Christ?

Hm, hard question.

Personally, I would think:

-- If we don't radically expand our concern and love relative to the status quo, we are not following the teachings of Christ

-- It's hard to see the specific kind and strength of impartiality that utilitarianism recommends in the Bible (but this doesn't mean, as I said in the first point, that the status quo is OK)

Thanks for the pushback!

I am not trying to argue that Christianity does not support impartiality - there are certainly plausible readings of Jesus's teachings (like that of the Good Samaritan) as plausibly supporting impartiality.

I'm more trying to argue that Jesus's teaching does not necessarily push you to that conclusion.

Jesus is very explicit about the importance of things like:

  • helping those in need - the widow, the orphan
  • being faithful to the Father
  • being humble and meek
  • not seeking salvation in this world

And the church has emphasized those teachings in the 2000 years since.

I everyone who studies Christianity comes away saying those traits are core to Christianity - even if not all Christians practice them.

But very few Christians arrive at the conclusion that we should try to help people on the other side of the world or who are not alive yet with just as much effort as we try to help the people in our immediate community. So I think it's fair to say that the idea of impartiality is not core to the Christian worldview and belief the way charity, faith, humility, are. It's not intuitive for most Christians the way those other traits are (again - even if they don't achieve).

If Jesus had told such a parable, maybe impartiality would be more intuitive to more Christians.

I'm curious - do you think that impartiality directly follows from Christian teaching? Maybe it follows directly than I am thinking, or I have a weird notion about what it means for something to be "consistent" with a religion vs. "following" from it.

I'm more trying to argue that Jesus's teaching does not necessarily push you to that conclusion.

I don't really think this is a fair standard, or at least it feels like a motte-and-bailey when compared to the post title ("Impartiality is not baked into to Christianity"). I don't think that Jesus' teaching "necessarily" pushes self-identifying Christians to believe almost anything.

You write that  

Jesus is very explicit about the importance of things like:
being humble and meek

But in fact there are plenty of megachurches and preachers that seemingly extract and teach contrary lessons (e.g., Pastor Dollar). There are also many pagan/spiritualist versions of Christianity that embrace very different teachings. 

You ask

do you think that impartiality directly follows from Christian teaching?

My short answer is "broadly yes, even if not strongly in all dimensions of impartiality," as I previewed in my original comment: I think people are inherently (including through socialization) prone to care more about their geographic and ethnic neighbors, but I do not think Christianity strongly reinforces this. In fact, I think the Bible clearly promotes the opposite principle: impartiality, as most broadly summarized in the Golden Rule. Whether Christians are inclined to interpret this to apply to future generations and very distant neighbors is a separate question.

I haven't put a ton of thought into it, but the notion that "the last shall be first and the first shall be last" and many of the passages in the Gospel that emphasize helping those in worse situations suggests impartiality. Then, as now, putting equal weight to the interests of all tends to result in directing resources to the worst off, as this is often most cost effective.

Further, the notion that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven jives well with the demandingness of Effective Altruism. The dollars you earn are almost always better directed to an effective charity than to your personal consumption. I think we often try to sell a more palatable "10% is fine" message, to appeal to more people, but probably EAs and Christians who take the reasoning seriously should require much more of themselves than Christian and EAs tend to ask.

You may be right, but a few more data points to consider.

  1. Paul thought his collections for the saints in Jerusalem was a very important part of his ministry. He exhorted the Gentile churches to send money to Jerusalem in almost all of his letters.
  2. Christ's commandment in John 15 is "Love one another as I have loved you." The rest of the Johannine literature, I think, suggests this is a special duty to love other Christians (a new form of partiality).

Geographic proximity may not be important, but there may also be a special duty to lay one's life down for other Christians.

Were in a little bit of a tangent but an interesting one I think. I've heard that idea before about special obligation towards christians, but I've never found it very compelling - less for strict theological reasons and more for emotional, philosophical, and commonsense morality reasons (my common sense may differ from others' of course).

I'm much more moved by the story of the Good Samaritan or Jesus' instruction to care for the least of these than Paul's exhortations.

But I also don't put that much stock in what Paul says relative to other Christians (https://www.modelsandmorality.com/blog/st-paul-was-just-some-guy-so-hes-not-always-right).

I think it's important to keep the diversity of Christian belief in mind -- it's an exaggeration to say there are about 2.4 billion Christianities because there are about 2.4 billion Christians, but there's a kernel of truth there. 

The New Testament writers chose to communicate more in parable, narrative, and epistle than in tightly-reasoned philosophical treatise. They wrote in ways that would be legible to a first-century audience, and tended to focus on issues that would be salient to that audience. Extracting the precise moral lessons from the text is, to some extent, a task left for the reader and the believing interpretative community (i.e., the church). 

As far back as I can remember, I've always thought the Golden Rule extended to all living people, and I've never had any reason to change my view on that. So I would answer on my own reading and belief that a significant degree of impartiality is clearly implied by New Testament moral teachings. But that's simply a data point. Some Christians will think that; others probably won't.

Perhaps the most that can be safely said is that the Christian tradition provides ample resources with which one can arrive at a fairly strong position of impartiality (at least among living human beings), even if certain aspects of impartiality aren't really a focus of either the New Testament text or many elements of the Christian tradition.

John 17:20–24

[20] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. [22] The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. [24] Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (ESV)

I think this famous passage in John 17, the whole chapter a long prayer by Jesus the night before he is betrayed and the events leading to his crucifixion, has a number of moments that speak of the connections between humans over the unending generations. Even though this is from 2,000 years ago, when he prays in verse 20, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word" as a young reader in a study group I remember we all noticed this meant Jesus was praying for us, we were the future people who would believe because others sent this story down through the generations. If we could feel that way after 2,000 years, why should it ever end? It implies all future humans. 

I included the whole passage because of how he keeps bunching everyone together saying we are all one. This also speaks of impartiality. All humans are one with God just as God and Jesus are one with each other. The moral circle never stops expanding.

Then also, the final he asks that we be with him to see his glory, given by God before the foundation of the world...So now he reverses and rather than speaking for all time forward, he goes back to all time already past...in this way it is all encompassing. Ancient people may not have had opportunity to help others far away, and thus to even think about it, but like many other moral issues, he sets a way of thinking that we can easily apply to the specifics as our thinking evolves over all time. 

There are innumerable new moral challenges as humans populations expand over time, many never mentioned in the New Testament, but timeless principles like this help us negotiate the new. So none of these things are specifically baked in, but the universal for all humans for all times principles are definitely baked in like fine pottery.  

I feel the need to mention, I am a universalist believing all humans are saved (within Christian beliefs) and then expanding out to all religions a Universalist believing all religions are equally from God, on the days I believe in God, there are many other days in which I don't believe in God. I like the conflict. 

It's a very interesting topic you are bringing up. Recognizing how many interpretations of the scripture there can be and that my thoughts on this are not very organized, I want to bring up two points:

- Re impartiality. As other people mentioned already, Samaritan was perceived as 'other', 'foreigner', or 'an enemy'. But also in other parts of the scripture, when Jesus is asked about his mother and brothers waiting for him, he replies that his brothers and mother are 'here' [referring to his extended group of disciples]. Similarly, his actions are not constrained by his family but often are directed towards more 'foreign'' and 'enemy/immoral' parts of society.
-Re geographic proximity, which I think is a bit more valuable point here: Jesus's disciples receive instructions to go around the world, often in comparatively remote regions of it in relation to Judea and borders of the Roman Empire, and to preach Christianity. Preaching Christianity is perceived as a good thing that leads to salvation as per Bible, and persuading others in Jesus's teaching is perceived as a good thing to do. So, by specifically going to remote parts of the world to 'do good', you can make an argument that the scripture shows care for geographically remote people.

I do agree it would be a bit of a stretch to include longterm and care for temporarily remote people. 

Does the title have a typo? "baked in" maybe?

Fixed - thanks!

I strongly agree, and this is especially clear when it comes to the EA focus on animal welfare and digital minds.

I feel it is important to note.

If by helping everyone, you raise standards as a whole, then it will inevitably help the people in front of you.

By ending cancer, the people in front of you will never have to worry about dying from the countless different variants of cancer.

By improving the worlds economy, the people in front of you will be less likely to suffer poverty and will be able to attain things they might not have otherwise. Sure, those might be exclusively material desires, but they don't have to be.

By improving technology, you can grant people and knowledge and freedom, that in turn allows them to help others.

This is the meaning of Good. By helping one, you help many, and in turn others follow. Good leads to more Good. Evil leads to more Evil.

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