Elite Universities Gave Us Effective Altruism, the Dumbest Idea of the Century
A cocktail of elite arrogance and naivete across the Anglophone world, combined with the support of billionaires like Sam Bankman-Fried, produced effective altruism. The result has been reactionary, often racist intellectual defenses of inequality.
Academics are fond of giving lofty names to their research institutions. But the Future of Humanity Institute, a research body based at Oxford University, is grandiose even by the standards of an elite institution that takes it for granted that many of its graduates will go on to walk the halls of power.
The combination of a forward-looking outlook and a universalist perspective would suggest that the institute would at the very least be home to cosmopolitan and egalitarian ideas. For this reason, it came as a surprise to some when a racist email written by Nick Bostrom, a professor at the institute, resurfaced. In the email, sent in 1996 to a transhumanist mailing list of which Bostrom was a member, the future Oxford don writes that “blacks are more stupid than whites” and then later doubles down enthusiastically on this statement by telling the forum’s members, “I like that sentence and think it’s true.”
In the email, Bostrom cites as evidence for his assertions “scientific” views about IQ differences between racial groups. Predictably, he suggests that fear of being accused of bigotry prevents honest talk about these important issues: “For most people, however, the sentence seems to be synonymous with: ‘I hate those bloody n——!!!,’” he wrote.
Given this concern, he concludes there’s a need for caution in communicating the “facts” about relative mental inferiority in ways that don’t invite accusations of racism and therefore result in “personal damage.” He is adamant that he’s not racist, and he seems to sincerely believe this claim.
We might think that, given the incident took place decades ago, it is hardly relevant. This may have been the case were it not for the fact that, in an apology circulated by Bostrom earlier this month, he did little to challenge the central claims of his previous racist rant. “I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago,” Bostrom writes:
It does not accurately represent my views, then or now. The invocation of a racial slur was repulsive. I immediately apologized for writing it at the time, within 24 hours; and I apologize again unreservedly today. I recoil when I read it and reject it utterly.
The main problem, according to Bostrom, was the use of a racial slur and not, his statement suggests, his commitment to pseudoscientific ideas about racial difference.
Bostrom is an advocate of longtermism, a once-niche concept now in vogue thanks to a bestselling 2022 book, What We Owe the Future, by William MacAskill, a pioneer of the effective altruism (EA) movement. The gist of longtermism is that future people, however distant, have equal moral value to people alive today. Though seemingly innocuous, this view has drawn support from reactionary conservatives and tech gurus who flood Bostrom and MacAskill with millions in research grants.
What is it about effective altruism and offshoots like longtermism that make them so appealing to tech billionaires who flood MacAskill and his pals with grants, book endorsements, and invitations to California retreats?
The short answer is that effective altruism, for all the hype about being a novel, game-changing approach, is at heart a conservative movement, which attempts to present billionaires as a solution to global poverty rather than its cause. The effective altruism movement has parasitically latched onto the back of the billionaire class, providing the ultrarich with a moral justification of their position.
In a 2015 conference hosted by Google, organizers enthused that “effective altruism could be the last social movement we ever need.” A deeply implausible statement, of course, but one that has managed somehow to serve as a rallying cry for the idealistic rich.
Rooted in a worldview that stretches from philosopher Peter Singer to the grandaddy of consequentialism, Jeremy Bentham (“Bentham’s bulldog” is the title of one effective altruism fan’s Substack), proponents of effective altruism champion the belief that measurable effects in terms of lives saved is the only rational way to make decisions about philanthropic expenditures.
In many ways, their interest in measurement is not particularly objectionable, nor new. Gilded Age robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller drew upon Taylorist management principles to insist that their giving was more scientific than earlier philanthropists. In every age, we see apologetics for extreme, concentrated wealth, and while the charitable causes shift, the rationales tend to be pretty much the same: my extreme wealth is good — no matter how concentrated and disproportionate — because others will inevitably benefit from it — if not today, then certainly tomorrow.
“Earn to give” is the most recent instantiation of the supposedly rational justification of inequality. It’s the idea that people are morally beholden to maximize wealth however possible so they have more to give, leading in its most extreme interpretation to the insistence there may be no moral “good” after all in trying to save poor lives, because rich people are more “innovative” and thus more worthy.
“It now seems more plausible to me that saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country, other things being equal,” wrote Nick Beckstead in his 2013 Rutgers PhD, which he completed before joining the Future of Humanity Institute as a research fellow and then going on to work as CEO of the FTX Foundation before leaving in the wake of Sam Bankman-Fried’s recent disgrace.
Certainly, not everyone in the effective altruism movement agrees with Beckstead’s claim that saving rich lives is worthier than saving poor ones. It is, however, those like him with the most extremist, pro-rich takes on trickle-down policies who seem to get the plum jobs at effective altruism research centers. On EA forums, meanwhile, hoi polloi frustration is mounting. There is growing realization that a hierarchical movement spearheaded by a handful of mediagenic men and the billionaires they worship might not be the world’s saviors after all.
Many onetime enthusiasts who read books like MacAskill’s first one, Doing Good Better, and were inspired to “give what we can” are frustrated. They earnestly wanted to help poorer groups and feel cheated. They are right to feel that way. Given their sincerity, it feels almost cruel to break the news: no, you’re not the last social movement humanity will ever need. Indeed, many seem to have little knowledge of previous ones, a problem I encountered when I worked as a research fellow in Oxford and met EA leaders in the early days of the movement.
At first, I thought we shared a common cause. Before reaching Oxford, I’d been a journalist and activist, reporting on movements calling for reform to global trade policies that hindered poor nations from acquiring pharmaceuticals, domestic tax revenue, and the policy freedom they deserved. Many of the effective altruism proponents I met, meanwhile, spoke about ending global poverty but had never heard of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This ignorance seemed not to perturb but to embolden them to make grand claims about the “facts” of the global economy.
“The Moral Case for Sweatshop Goods,” a chapter in MacAskill’s first book, hails sweatshop labor as an unalloyed advantage, even a beneficent gift, to poor nations: “Among economists on both the left and the right, there is no question that sweatshops benefit those in poor nations.” The authorities he cites are Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs. His main empirical material appears to be drawn from Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times columns. “I’d love to get a job in a factory,” one Cambodian woman says to Kristof.
To be sure, you can find some economists across the spectrum to defend sweatshops. But you can also find reams of Global South scholarship on tax drain and the bullying of nations to accept draconian IMF loan conditions. MacAskill’s book entirely ignores any viewpoint that does not affirm his own conservative priors — perhaps because confronting alternative views might force a rethinking of his philosophical stance, which is predicated on exhorting the world’s 1 percent to engage in as much economic predation of poor groups as possible as long it generates private wealth to then disburse.
MacAskill’s strategic ignorance is not unusual; it is in fact hardwired into the history of the branch of Anglophone philosophy out of which effective altruism emerged. James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, published a history of India in 1817 that helped him to be upheld as a key global authority on the nation, later taking up senior positions in the East India Company. Incredibly, he purposely chose not to visit India while writing his three-volume history because he didn’t want to be biased by local norms. As the Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen put it, “Mill seemed to think that this non-visit made his history more objective.”
This sort of insipid, purposeful blindness tended to enrage later anti-utilitarian thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. It’s probably why Marx voiced sharp criticism of Bentham, who he called that “arch-philistine . . . that soberly pedantic and heavy-footed oracle of the ‘common sense’ of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.”
“Bentham is a purely English phenomenon,” Marx declares in Capital, Volume 1: “In no time and no country has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way.” According to Marx, a combination of arrogance and ignorance incubated in elite institutions was to blame for the worst excesses of British moral philosophy — the same holds true for effective altruism.
When Bostrom made his false, anti-scientific comments about IQ testing, I wasn’t surprised because I’d seen him and his pals up close. When Anders Sandberg, a researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute, offered a defense of his colleague shortly after the public became aware of the racist email, he made sure to leave Bostrom’s core claims untouched.
Sandberg instead implied there was nothing wrong with the original email, but rather that because of “newfound” historical awareness of the problem of racism, out of politeness Bostrom should avoid racial slurs. “The email has become significantly more offensive in the current cultural context: levels of offensiveness change as cultural attitudes change,” Sandberg tweeted on January 11. “This causes problems when old writings are interpreted by current standards.”
It is odd to imagine that Sandberg does not realize that racial slurs were offensive in 1996 too. Even if we grant this absurd claim, the main problem with Bostrom’s email is not his writing style but the worldview underlying it. This is a worldview that draws spurious connections between IQ and intelligence to back up racist assumptions about the world.
In 1996, the first “drafts” of the human genome were a few years away from being sequenced and published. In 2003, a global consortium made a thrilling announcement. As the Guardian reported, “Fifty years after the discovery of the structure of DNA [scientists] have sequenced the entire genetic code of a human being, to an accuracy of 99.999%.”
This sequencing was — and remains — bad news for racists everywhere. It found, as one recent research paper summarizes, that “humans populating the earth today are on average 99.9% identical at the DNA level, there is no genetic basis for race, and there is more genetic variation within a race than between them.”
The finding has settled a centuries-long debate over how biologically meaningful today’s racial categorizations are. The answer was clear: they aren’t, not at the level of genetic difference. And certainly not at the level of cognitive difference, something much more elusive and impossible to study precisely than genetic makeup.
Let’s get back to Bostrom: “Blacks are more stupid than whites.” To speak in this sweeping, grossly generalizing way was morally and scientifically suspect in 1996, but it’s especially shameful and debunkable now, when we know so much more about how useless it is to categorize people writ large into separate biological “races” in the ways that Bostrom does. I am not a racist, he insists; then don’t make racist claims.
Of course, Bostrom’s errors are not his alone. Similar pseudoscientific views are incentivized by a cluster of commercial, educational, and political factors that militate toward keeping early imperial racial classifications alive and well in the twenty-first century, even long after their biological basis, which never existed to begin with, has lost all credence.
Ancestry tests are a big culprit, emboldening white supremacists today to claim various levels of “purity” genetically based on their heritage and the regions ancestors hailed from. Early race science was rooted in categories developed in the eighteenth century, when the German natural scientist Johann Blumenbach and others suggested there are five races — Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow), Malayan (brown), Ethiopian (black), and American (red). Today’s ancestry tests don’t exactly replicate these categories, but in some ways, they’re almost as problematic when it comes to maintaining a mirage of racial separateness that belies constant migrations and intermingling throughout history.
As the academic Vivian Chou writes, “Ancestry test kits are the new ‘it’ item.” Proving relatedness to distant populations is a way for various groups to insist on their superiority even though we know, as Chou writes, that there is “so much ambiguity between the races, and so much variation within them, that two people of European descent may be more genetically similar to an Asian person than they are to each other.”
The finding of 99.9 percent shared DNA hasn’t halted white supremacists. Instead, they pounce on the 0.1 percent variation, cherry-picking “ideas that align with their preconceived notions of racial hierarchies,” Chou writes, while “ignoring the broader context of the field of human genetics.”
The latest trend is to insist that Neanderthal inheritance — the fact that many Europeans and their descendant have inherited some DNA from Neanderthals, while most African descendants did not — has conferred a sort of exceptional intelligence on white groups. As Chou puts it, “Some within the alt-right have claimed that Europeans and Asians have superior intelligence because they have inherited larger brains from their Neanderthal ancestors.”
Of course, it’s impossible to prove that this Neanderthal inheritance has any causal influence on personal intelligence today. The white supremacists base it on skull size, claiming the bigger brains of Neanderthals means they must have been cognitively superior to other groups. Right.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that alt-right supremacists have an interest in such cherry-picking. What’s Bostrom’s excuse?
He based his 1996 claim of racial cognitive difference on IQ testing, and today he appears to be standing by this, insisting the “science” of IQ is robust enough to claim unequivocally that there is some objective basis to his claim that “blacks are more stupid.”
IQ testing is, of course, as much a social construction as Blumenbach’s effort to sort humanity into five discrete races, and its objective flaws and misuse has tempered most scholars from making generalizations based on deeply subjective, uncertain science.
IQ scores are affected by a host of factors, including social-economic status, financial opportunities, learning resources, and psychosomatic anxieties. Test outcomes tend to shift dramatically at the group level over time as living standards rise. For example, a 1998 Brookings Institute report on black-white achievement gaps found that overall,
82 percent of those who took the Stanford-Binet test in 1978 scored above the 1932 average for individuals of the same age. The average black did about as well on the Stanford-Binet test in 1978 as the average white did in 1932.
If we leave aside basic questions such as whether it makes sense to compare the cognitive ability of people living in vastly different social worlds that required vastly different sets of skills, this finding and findings like it would seem to back up Bostrom’s assertion. Although some scholars cherry-pick data like this to defend Bostrom’s view, others reach the opposite conclusion, pointing out that shifts in IQ over time underscore just how environmentally shaped and malleable any cognitive tests really are.
When it comes to national-level IQ rankings, the United States tends to rank lower than Mongolia, to name just one country. So, are Americans stupider than Mongolians? Presumably, Bostrom must think so, given his propensity for making gross generalizations based on flawed IQ measures. And yet, oddly enough, that’s not the point he made — perhaps because maligning American intelligence writ large might piss off his white philanthropic donors. But “blacks,” on the other hand, he’s fine with disparaging.
In the 1990s, introducing the notion of “stereotype threat,” a study by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson found that, when asked to record their race before taking a test, and when told the test was a measure of mental ability, black undergraduates at Stanford did measurably worse than their white counterparts. When the same test was presented in a different way, as a nondiagnostic test of ability, the same undergraduates performed equivalently to their white classmates.
Twenty years on, such stereotype threat effects have been registered in a host of studies, across multiple groups. For example, as one recent study summarizes:
Research indicates that Caucasian men, a group that have a relatively positive social status, underperform when they believe that their mathematical performance will be compared to that of Asian men. White men also appear to perform worse than black men when motor tasks are related to “natural athletic ability.”
The conclusions of such research? Stereotypes have self-fulfilling consequences, shaping “the behavior of individuals in a way that endangers their performance and further reinforces the stereotype.”
Bostrom’s blanket claim about the intellectual inferiority of black people is therefore damaging and dangerous. We know this from studies of the empirical effects that stereotypical claims can have on lowered performances. What’s more, Bostrom knows this, or at least he should know it.
There is currently an investigation at Oxford into Bostrom’s conduct. “The University and Faculty of Philosophy is currently investigating the matter but condemns in the strongest terms possible the views this particular academic expressed in his communications,” the university told the Daily Beast in a statement.
Bostrom claimed in his 1996 email to esteem “uncompromisingly objective” ways of thinking. But to actively avoid scientific challenges to nineteenth-century racism involves doing the opposite. The “objectivity” he claims to idealize and embody might be a quaint mirage that gives him and his rich funders comfort, but it certainly isn’t the truth.