Émil Torres explores the relationship between long-termism/effective altruism and scientific racism.
longtermism, which emerged out of the effective altruism (EA) movement over the past few years, is eugenics on steroids. On the one hand, many of the same racist, xenophobic, classist and ableist attitudes that animated 20th-century eugenics are found all over the longtermist literature and community. On the other hand, there’s good reason to believe that if the longtermist program were actually implemented by powerful actors in high-income countries, the result would be more or less indistinguishable from what the eugenicists of old hoped to bring about. Societies would homogenize, liberty would be seriously undermined, global inequality would worsen and white supremacy — famously described by Charles Mills as the “unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today” — would become even more entrenched than it currently is.
I would have predicted the connection long ago. EA trips a whole bunch of red flags in my head.
- The incessant chatter about IQ. We don’t know what IQ is, other than a number generated by an IQ test, so making the concept central to your philosophy is a bit like building your reason for living on phrenology. Sure, you can actually measure the bumps on your skull and use scientific-looking tools like calipers and quantitatively calculate their dimensions, but does it mean anything about how your brain works? No, it does not. At the first mention of IQ, run away.
The lack of relevant qualifications. Look at the big guns of EA: Bostrom, MacAskill, Yudkowsky, Alexander, Hanson (I’ll even toss in Sam Harris, although he doesn’t seem to be deeply involved in EA). Do any of them have any background in genetics at all? They do not. Yet they go on and on about dygenesis and eugenesis and trends in populations that have to be countered, or they defend Charles Murray’s (also not a geneticist) racist interpretations of traits of whole populations. This problem goes all the way back to the founders of the eugenics movement, who weren’t geneticists at all, like Francis Galton, or immediately used the crudist, most primitive forms of Mendelism to justify bad science, like Davenport.
Transhumanism as a tool for improving humanity. I have some sympathy for the idea of modifying genes and bodies by individuals; that’s a fine idea, I wish we had greater capabilities for that. Where I have problems is when it’s seen as a method of social engineering. Underlying it all is a set of value judgments defining how we should regard diversity in our fellow human beings. If you’re arguing we ought to use gene therapy or drugs to eradicate obesity, or autism, or color-blindness, or whatever, you’ve already decided that a whole lot of existing attributes of the human population are dysgenic or undesirable, yet you don’t know what all the correlates of those traits might be. You’re also viewing those people through a lens that highlights everything about them that you personally consider bad.
The thing is, we’re all born with a range of traits that are basically random, within certain limits. Everything about you, all 20,000 genes, is a roll of the dice. A philosophy that does not insist that every combination deserves equal respect, equal justice, and equal compassion is an anti-human philosophy, because it denies a fundamental property of our biology.
Those are just the general red flags that can be thrown by a whole suite of common ideas. EA throws one that I would never have imagined anyone would take seriously, this bizarre idea that we ought to consider the happiness of hypothetical, imaginary human beings far more important than the happiness of real individuals in the here and now. I can’t even…this is crazy cultist bullshit. I do not understand how anyone can fall for it. Except…yeah, they’re using the universal excuses of the modern Enlightenment.
And no one should be surprised that all of this is wrapped up in the same language of “science,” “evidence,” “reason” and “rationality” that pervades the eugenics literature of the last century. Throughout history, white men in power have used “science,” “evidence,” “reason” and “rationality” as deadly bludgeons to beat down marginalized peoples. Effective altruism, according to the movement’s official website, “is the use of evidence and reason in search of the best ways of doing good.” But we’ve heard this story before: the 20th-century eugenicists were also interested in doing the most good. They wanted to improve the overall health of society, to eliminate disease and promote the best qualities of humanity, all for the greater social good. Indeed, many couched their aims in explicitly utilitarian terms, and utilitarianism is, according to Toby Ord, one of the three main inspirations behind EA. Yet scratch the surface, or take a look around the community with unbiased glasses, and suddenly the same prejudices show up everywhere.
“Science,” “evidence,” “reason” and “rationality” are supposed to be tools to help lead you to the truth, but it’s all too easy to decide you already possess the truth, and then they transform into tools for rationalization. That’s not a good thing. You can try to rationalize any damn fool nonsense, and that’s the antithesis of the scientific approach.