In ‘The Strange Shortage of Moral Optimizers’, I noted that it’s difficult to criticize Effective Altruism in a thoroughgoing way, since the foundational idea of beneficentrism (roughly: utilitarianism minus all the controversial bits) seems so indisputable. That leaves plenty of room for superficial/empirical/internal critiques of the form “The EA movement as it actually exists isn’t fully living up to its admittedly excellent values/potential; here’s how it could do better…” But is there space for a more fundamental, philosophical critique of EA’s core values?
In this post, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate and try to set out what I think is the most philosophically pressing critique of EA’s beneficentrism, drawing on the classic critique of utilitarianism as a “philosophy for swine” (developed, in its most sophisticated form, in Andrew Huddleston’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s perfectionism).
The idea, in a nutshell, is that we go wrong in thinking that anything resembling happiness (or the avoidance of suffering) is what ultimately matters for a good life. We are lazy creatures, drawn to creature comforts. But that isn’t what’s truly good for us. What truly gives our lives dignity and meaning is to contribute, whether directly or indirectly, to cultural excellence. Better to be a Socrates—or his servant—dissatisfied, than to be a pig satisfied. (Unless Socrates eats the pig. Then you’re good either way.)
The upshot: I’ll argue that there’s some (limited) overlap between the practical recommendations of Effective Altruism (EA) and Nietzschean perfectionism, or what we might call Effective Aesthetics (EÆ). To the extent that you give Nietzschean perfectionism some credence, this may motivate (i) prioritizing global talent scouting over mere health interventions alone, (ii) giving less priority to purely suffering-focused causes, such as animal welfare, (iii) wariness towards traditional EA rhetoric that’s very dismissive of funding for art museums and opera houses, and (iv) greater support for longtermism, but with a strong emphasis on futures that continue to build human capacities and excellences, and concern to avoid hedonistic traps like “wireheading”.
The Meaningful Life
In the final chapter of Practical Ethics, Peter Singer addresses the question: ‘Why Act Morally?’ One answer he’s drawn towards invokes the common wisdom that our lives are more meaningful insofar as we contribute to something larger than ourselves. Universal altruism—in a world as full of unmet needs as ours is—provides us with a suitably monumental goal to meet this deep human need of our own. To illustrate this motivation, Singer asked Henry Spira (an accomplished twentieth-century animal- and civil rights activist), as his death from cancer drew near, “what had driven him to spend his life working for others.” Spira answered:
I guess basically one wants to feel that one’s life has amounted to more than just consuming products and producing garbage. I think that one likes to look back and say that one’s done the best one can to make this a better place for others… [W]hat greater motivation can there be than doing whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering?
This sounds compelling! But it’s in this context that the Nietzschean challenge looms large, as advancing human civilization is also monumental—sometimes literally!—and arguably feels “deeper” than merely promoting comfort. (It may also prove more legible than chasing the drab shadows of distant strangers in accordance with traditional welfarism.) We appreciate the enduring magnificence of the Great Pyramids, while the suffering of the slaves who built them is lost to history. Contributing to a lasting achievement like the Pyramids may accordingly be considered more meaningful than simply switching out one transient sensation for another.
In his paper, "Consecration to Culture": Nietzsche on Slavery and Human Dignity, Andrew Huddleston offers a fascinating interpretation of Nietzsche that bears some striking affinities with the “Effectiveness” aspect of EA, while at least being more welcoming than the traditional elitist reading of Nietzsche to the “mass of mankind”.
Key to this interpretation is Huddleston’s observation that our objective "best interests" may come apart from both what we want and from what we believe to be in our interests. This is most clearly the case for matters of instrumental value, like “eating adequate nutrients.” But there’s at least conceptual room to hold that we may be similarly mistaken about what is intrinsically good for us, or constitutive of human flourishing. “Accomplishing an exalted goal” is, for Nietzsche, something in our objective best interests, whether we realize and want this or not.
Now combine this with two distinctively Nietzschean normative claims:
(1) Humans do not have innate worth; we must earn it through great accomplishments. This is, for Nietzsche, more important than mere pleasure, comfort, or “well-being” in the traditional sense.
(2) Nietzsche accordingly views conventional morality (and altruism) as detrimental to genuine human flourishing (encouraging attention to trivial pleasures, turning us into worthless couch potatoes).
The result (p.141):
[W]hatever we, with our contemporary liberal sensibilities, may regard as the best life for a person, it is the better Nietzschean life—provided one cannot be a great Nietzschean composer or philosopher—to be a slave building the pyramids, a medieval serf laboring on Chartres cathedral, or a peon sweeping Beethoven’s floor than to be a comfortable, “free” person in the culturally decadent modern West.
One’s life attains true meaning, for Nietzsche, just insofar as it contributes to cultural greatness. But this doesn’t exclude the masses, because—like effective altruists!—Nietzsche doesn't exclusively value direct contributors (the charity worker, or the artist, who produces the good in question), but also allows indirect causal contributions (from donors, or service workers) to count as important. So despite something like talent or excellence being the ultimate intrinsic value for Nietzsche, even those of us totally lacking in talent ourselves may nonetheless partake vicariously in its promotion, e.g. by contributing to the material conditions that allow other, more talented, individuals to realize their potential.
In short: contrary to the common stereotype of ‘elitism’, Huddleston’s Nietzsche would valorize many strenuously laboring servants over the idle rich. His perfectionism is not an ethic of comfort, but it features a kind of formal egalitarianism insofar as it condemns rich and poor alike for falling into cultural decadence (if we fail to strive for what’s objectively valuable).
Perfectionism and Population Ethics
In ‘Overpopulation and the Quality of Life’, Derek Parfit suggested that perfectionism may defang his Repugnant Conclusion:
[That the ‘repugnant’ world Z is better than the utopia of world A] is hard to believe because in Z two things are true: people’s lives are barely worth living, and most of the good things in life are lost.
Suppose that only the first of these was true. Suppose that, in Z, all of the best things in life remain. People’s lives are barely worth living because these best things are so thinly spread. The people in Z do each, once in their lives, have or engage in one of the best experiences or activities. But all the rest is muzak and potatoes. If this is what Z involves, it is still hard to believe that Z would be better than a world [A] of ten billion people, each of whose lives is very well worth living. But, if Z retains all of the best things in life, this belief is less repugnant.
Perfectionism also suggests another means of escape from the Repugnant Conclusion.
Consider: many of us implicitly reject totalism within a life. Like Zeke Emanuel, we would rather die in good condition at 75 than have a long end-of-life decline (even if the additional years would all be positive, considered in themselves; adding mediocre parts can make a whole worse). We care about the shape of our life; we care about its narrative structure; these are aesthetic properties that naturally lend themselves to holistic (rather than aggregative atomistic) evaluation.
If we avoid half-pie atomism and come to care in a similar way about human civilization, considered as a whole (rather than just as an aggregate of individuals), the associated aesthetic perspective can similarly motivate rejecting totalism at the population level. For example, there is no longer such pressure to accept the principle of mere addition: adding below-average lives to an otherwise flourishing population (e.g. moving from world A to A+) may well be thought to detract from the value of humanity as a collective. (Nietzscheans may further question the egalitarian move from A+ to B, as excellences—in stark contrast to mere well-being—might be thought to have increasing marginal value, and so benefit from concentration rather than diffusion across a population.)
So not only is totalist perfectionism less susceptible to ‘repugnance’ than totalist welfarism, but perfectionism may also be better positioned (than welfarism) to motivate alternative (non-totalist) population ethical theories such as variable value theories, that are in many respects more intuitive.
(It’s still not perfect by any means—I certainly don’t think we can confidently reject totalism on this basis—but I do think this positive view has a lot more going for it than the purely “negative” views that critics of utilitarian population ethics otherwise sometimes turn to.)
Practical Upshots of Effective Æsthetics
Whether you care primarily about welfare traditionally construed (as EAs would have it), or about human flourishing in a more perfectionist sense (as Nietzsche-inspired EÆs may instead propose), it’s going to be important that humanity not go extinct any time soon. It’s also obviously better for fewer people to die in infancy, or to suffer from such material deprivation that they’re unable to live up to their potential.
But there are some striking practical differences between the two value systems.
(i) Nietzschean EÆs may see less value to global health interventions in isolation. What they’ll really want to see is a huge investment in global talent scouting to find the missing Beethovens and Einsteins who have the greatest (unmet) potential to contribute to human civilization. Fighting global poverty may be a necessary precursor to such an endeavor, but (the Nietzschean may think) is of little value if all you’re doing is making people comfortable, and not additionally nurturing their potential for excellence.
(ii) Non-human animal welfare (like averting pure suffering in general) is, by Nietzschean lights, an indulgence in neo-Christian morality that distracts us from what’s truly important. (To be clear, I think this is an appalling implication of the view! It would seem much more plausible to grant at least some weight to traditional well-being as a source of value. Still, animal welfare risks swamping human interests so thoroughly on traditional welfarist grounds that the compromise reached by granting some credence to Nietzschean perfectionism may help to lead us to an ultimate verdict—taking into account moral uncertainty—that is actually much more appealing than we’d get from either extreme view considered alone.)
(iii) EÆs will be much more receptive than EAs to traditional philanthropic support for the Arts (opera houses, etc.), at least wanting to ensure sufficient support to maintain our most valuable cultural institutions into the future. Beyond that point, EÆ goals may be best advanced on the margin by broader capacity-building to protect and improve the future, rather than simply over-investing in present-day cultural production. (Though one can imagine a “neartermist” branch of EÆ that disputes this, and prefers to go all-in on promoting immediate excellence.)
(iv) Finally, EÆs will be extremely concerned to ensure that the long-term future is shaped in the right way. They will worry that future technologies are likely to further exacerbate the gap between comfort and excellence. As a result, lazy hedonistic values could easily lead us to a superficially “happy” future that’s almost entirely lacking in what they regard as truly valuable.
To be clear: I think Nietzschean perfectionism is mistaken. Its dismissal of the disvalue of suffering, especially, seems both incredible and unjustified. I wouldn’t want anyone to come away from this post with the sense that maybe suffering doesn’t matter after all. That would be nuts!
That said, I do think the view contains some under-appreciated insights that are worth taking on board, at least under the remit of “moral uncertainty”. For those concerned about the Repugnant Conclusion, I think perfectionism at least offers a better alternative than bleak “negative” views that deny any positive value to our existence.
Moreover, I find the implicit critique of hedonism extremely compelling, and find that reflecting on Nietzschean perfectionism moves me more strongly towards some form of objective list theory of well-being. I think welfare objectivism is a view that EAs ought to take very seriously, and it especially ought to lead us to want to (i) rule out wireheading and other “cheap” hedonistic futures as involving unacceptable axiological risk, given how poorly such futures score on plausible non-hedonistic views; and (ii) positively seek out pluralistically valuable futures that score highly on both traditional welfarist and perfectionist grounds.
There are possible futures out there that would be fantastic both for humanity (considered as an aesthetic whole) and for the subjective happiness of the individual persons who make it up. Those are the futures we should strive to realize: ones where individuals are both happy and excellent. To paraphrase Spira: What greater motivation could there be?
I do think there is a there there in Nietzsche that threatens the EA enterprise at its core.
I'm not too worried about the Nietzschean critique of the utilitarian "shopkeeper" anglo-saxon mentality. You can easily imagine a more demanding standard whereby happiness is defined as fulfillment, and fulfillment involves higher feelings such as awe, transcendence, or the idea of the sublime.
Rather, what makes Nietzsche most dangerous for utilitarian ways of thinking is the insight that suffering may be necessary for fulfillment (an idea he shares, weirdly, with Christianity, even as he insists that his thought represents the polar opposite). Utilitarians have no good answer to this, should it turn out to be true.
My favoured rebuttal to this tends to involve refuting the premise.
- post-traumatic rationalizations are just that. Not having trauma in the first place > overcoming trauma > rationalizing trauma
- meaningful suffering is valuable because it is meaningful, not because it is suffering
- for every experience of awe derived from suffering, there probably exists an equal or superior experience that does not involve such suffering
- masochists do exist in the world but I question whether they are living their best lives. And even if they are, there is an argument to be made that "pleasure in suffering" is a net pleasure in utilitarian terms.
One way of conceptualizing this is to think of what you might want for your children. All things equal, you'd prefer them to have a meaningful life, not just a house, a dog and Netflix. But you'd also prefer for them not to suffer in that pursuit if they can avoid it.
Does this fully work? I'm not sure. Is it more inspiring than romantic systems for coping with pain and suffering? Probably.
I want to push back on the practical upshot (ii).
Getting rid of extreme suffering (and maybe eradicating suffering altogether) seems like a huge cultural achievement. I think it'd be hard to deny that, even for someone who treats any personal pursuit of trivial comforts as an ultimate distraction. For example, the eradication of smallpox is in the same reference class and is clearly on the list of the peak human achievements of the 20th century. It required worldwide cooperation and logistic, advances in medical science and technology, and probably much more.
Thanks, this is an excellent point!
Yes, this is a good point, but it points to a deeper one.
Much of the appeal of EA, in my view, is contingent on the circumstances we live in. These include, e.g., the fact that many people are rich enough to be able to live comfortable lives even after giving away sizeable amounts of money: if we were all subsistence farmers then EA just wouldn't appeal as a practical option. But the key circumstance for the purposes of your essay is the lack of plausible alternative ways of making a significant contributions to civilisation.
For whatever reason, the fact is that Western culture, right now, is not producing cultural achievements of lasting worth. If you were an intelligent, well-educated young person in 1650, 1750 or 1850 then there was a decent chance that you would be able to make a serious contribution to the accumulated cultural inheritance of mankind. But not now. You know, as I do, that no one has written a symphony of the standard that was common in the 18th, or a novel of the standard common in the 19th century, for a long time - and it's not going to happen anytime soon, no matter how many well-fed literate and educated billions there are.
If you are a serious-minded young person now, hoping to do something worthwhile with your life, you're not going to become a composer or a poet. So what's left? Something to do with reducing suffering seems pretty good. Scientific/medical/social/logistic advances are still happening, unlike cultural ones, so that seems like a good way to spend your life.
Now, of course, relieving suffering is a very good way to spend one's life! But things would look very different to you if it looked as if you might be able to spend your life instead building another Chartres Cathedral or writing Beethoven's symphonies or painting Raphaels.
Or let me put the point the other way: we don't look back and criticise Beethoven because he spent too much time composing and not enough time distributing malaria nets. That's because, utilitarianism (even "minus all the controversial bits") just doesn't seem like a sensible way of evaluating a civilisation in which Beethoven, Goethe, Byron, Blake, David, Goya, Rossini etc were all working at the same time. The fact that utilitarianism appears at all plausible now demonstrates the lack of new excellence on display or reasonably attainable. A philosophy for swine? Maybe. But what if we are swine?
I tried to make some of these points before here: https://furtheroralternatively.blogspot.com/2022/07/on-effective-altruism.html .
I don't agree about this novels point. There are many novels written in the last few decades that are absolutely as good or better than the great 19th century novels. They may not have the social status as "classics" in the same way but as art they are excellent. Just for an example look at the UK booker prize shortlists for the 80s 90s and 2000s. Some incredible work there.
Thanks for writing this.
Some quick comments:
(1) I'm glad you chose Andrew Huddlestone's reading of Nietzsche's perfectionism. I think it's better than most.
(2) Many people in the EA community believe that barely anyone takes Nietzsche seriously. This is wrong. For example...
(2a) The first words of Reasons & Persons are a quote from Nietzsche, and there are Nietzsche quotes at several key moments. Parfit thinks of Nietzsche as an epistemic peer, a moral philosopher on par with Kant. In On What Matters Book II, Parfit writes:
Parfit was in regular conversation with Bernard Williams for several decades. Williams shares many views with Nietzsche and Parfit was deeply troubled by their disagreement.
(2b) Nick Bostrom is a big fan. His recent paper, Basecamp for Mount Ethics (PDF, audio), sketches view of metaethics that Nietzsche would broadly endorse.
(3) Stephen West (Philosophise This!) has a fantastic 20 minute lecture on Nietzsche's vision of a meaningful life.
(4) Some great Nietzsche episodes on Philosophy Bites: Christopher Janaway, Aaron Ridley and Brian Leiter. All of these are available on The Valmy.
(5) My two favourite books on Nietzsche's metaethics, metaphilosophy and normative ethics are Nietzsche, Psychology & First Philosophy by Robert Pippin and Nietzsche's Values by John Richardson. You could also try Nietzsche's Morality by Brian Leiter or "Nietzsche: Perfectionist" by Thomas Hurka.
(6) Elsewhere, Andrew Huddlestone persuasively trashes Derek Parfit's attempt to read Nietzsche in a way that fits with Parfit's attempt to sketch a vision of normative convergence.
English-language novels are the best counter-example, I agree. A large part of that is the product of writers of Indian/sub-continental extraction. A Fine Balance, for example, is extremely good, Midnight's Children too (and of course there are many). I think I over-stated my case on that one - thank you. But, given the number of people involved nowadays - the whole literate population of India + the Commonwealth + the US, we surely have to accept that per capita output, even for novels, is way down on what it was.
Wow, I found this post really thought provoking.
Two thought experiments that made me realize I care more about grand aesthetics than I gave credit to:
I could still reconcile these views with total utilitarianism if I say that grandeur and excellence are important elements of total utility (or at least the total utility I care about). But I'm weary of this move since (1) you could always just redefine total utility to dismiss any critique of total utility and (2) it would make my definition of total utility different than many other people's definition of total utility, which seems OK with experience-machine-style / extreme comfort utility.
Also, a point on word choice: I'm weary of "cultural excellence" as the thing to be caring about under this critique. I'm worried "culture" invites critiques of specific-culture elitism (e.g., western elitism) and is too transient across the grand time-scales we might care about. I'm more drawn to "civilization excellence" or "enduring meaning" as phrases that capture something about the world I intrinsically care about beyond just total utility.
Glad you liked the post!
Utility = well-being = what's worth caring about for an individual's sake. It's an open normative question what this is. So you should feel totally free, conceptually, to include more than just hedonic states in your account of utility, if that's what you find all-things-considered most plausible! Hedonism is not a "definition" of utility, but just one candidate account (or theory) of what constitutes it.
See our chapter on 'Theories of Well-Being' at utilitarianism.net for more detail.
It can be a tricky taxonomic question whether putative objective values (like "excellence") are best understood as components of well-being, or as non-welfare values. One test is to ask: is it specifically for your child's sake that you prefer that they have the grander-but-slightly-less-happy life? Or is it just that you think this makes for an impersonally better world (potentially worth a very mild cost to your child)? The former option suggests that you see grandeur as a component of well-being; the latter would instead be a non-welfare value.
On the broader methodological question of when we should revise our theory of value vs rejecting the consequentialist idea that promoting value is foundational to ethics, see my old blog post: 'Anti-Consequentialism and Axiological Refinements'. The key idea:
Thank you for such a thoughtful response! This helps clear up some confusion and gives me more to think about. The perks of accessible discourse with an academic philosopher ;)
In my opinion, the philosophy that you have outlined should not be simply dismissed since it contains several important points. Many people in EA, including me, want to avoid the repugnant conclusion and do not think that wireheading is a valueable thing. Moreover, more holistic ethical theories may also lead to important insights. Sometimes an entity has emergent properties that are not shared by its parts.
I agree that it is hard to reconcile animal suffering with a Nietzschian world view. Whats even worse is that it may lead to opinions like "It does not matter if there is a global catastrophe as long as the elite survives".
It could be possible to develop a more balanced philosophy with help of moral uncertainty or if you simple state that avoiding suffering and excellence are both important values. Finally, you could point out that it is not plausible that humankind is able to flourish although many humans suffer. After all, you cannot be healthy if most of your organs are sick.
In a plausibly morally anti-realist universe, the conclusion of Nietzsche is quite dangerous, as there are no guarantees that moral realism actually is correct.
Hi! Could you expand on what conclusion you find dangerous?
This seems a reasonable path that one might choose to tread, but it doesn't seem to qualify as a universal truth binding upon all of us etc.
Bonding with something larger than ourselves does seem essential, contributing less so. All this contributing business seems built upon the assumption that people are what matter most. People are one thing we can bond with, not the only thing.
That which is larger than ourselves the most is the entire universe, and perhaps way beyond that too. What is it that we self absorbed tiny creatures think we are going to contribute to that? Humility might suggest we content ourselves with experiencing it.
A counter argument might be that what's in our best interest is to somehow transcend, however temporarily, the tiny prison cell of "me and my situation", "me and my situation", "me and my situation", or "I Me Mine" as George Harrison put it.
Jesus advised, "Die and be reborn". While I have no idea what he meant when he said those words, to me they mean, let go of abstractions like "me", and embrace the vast real world beyond the little symbols which point to it.
I wouldn't want to be flippant or dismissive about human suffering, addressing it is certainly a worthy project.
But from a more detached perspective suffering might be seen as a necessary part of a holistic system. As just one example...
There is currently no evidence that we will ever liberate ourselves from the nuclear threat through a process of reason alone. What is needed to make this threat real to us, real enough so that we will act, is suffering. Pain.
Our bodies are built around pain mechanisms which provide essential information regarding what to do and not do.
I truly don't know, but suffering may not matter that much. It depends on how one sees the big picture. If I live on Earth for a hundred years, and in heaven for a billion, then that would put my human suffering in a quite different context. (PS: I'm not religious, just philosophical.)