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. 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.
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.
Parable written with the help of ChatGPT
Thanks to JD for discussion that inspired this post
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
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