Doing good better: combining ‘effective altruism’ and Buddhist ethics

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Doing good better:
Combining ‘effective altruism’ and Buddhist ethics

In his weekly comment, EARS analyst Timo Pieters notices how ‘Effective altruism’ and Buddhist ethics are two remarkably similar approaches to doing as much good in the world as possible. Both share an impartial wish to increase the long-term well-being of all sentient creatures.

What is ‘effective altruism’?
The world is full of an uncountable number of problems. We tend to care about certain problems more than others, which is usually based on how a problem affects us emotionally. However, our emotional responses are not always proportionate to the actual scale and impact of the problem in question. As psychologist Paul Bloom has shown, we tend to feel more empathy towards one little girl stuck in a well than toward millions of people starving to death.[1] This is where ‘effective altruism’ (EA) comes in. It is a recent philosophical movement that is based on trying to do as much good in the world as possible, using reason and evidence as one’s guide.[2] This approach could lead to an enormous increase in impact, since some interventions are hundreds or even thousands of times more effective (in terms of improving welfare) than others.[3] [4]

How to maximise our impact
In looking for the most pressing problem to focus on, EA looks at three factors: (1) scale, (2) neglectedness, and (3) solvability.[5] In other words, a problem has to affect many people (and cause much suffering), it has to be relatively neglected (few resources and little work goes toward solving it), and making progress on it should be relatively easy. In this process, EA tries to maintain an impartial attitude towards everyone (including non-human animals), and to give equal weight to their welfare and interests.[6] Being impartial can be very difficult, especially when one tries to include people who are not even born yet. Still, EA tries to use a ‘longtermist’ approach, meaning that one takes into account the consequences of an intervention for (all) future generations.[7] While many of these principles come with a fair amount of ‘moral uncertainty’ (uncertainty about what is actually ‘good’), the EA community considers these our current best compass for finding the most effective way to benefit others.[8] [9]

Buddhist ethics: wisdom & compassion
While Buddhism is a much older tradition, and is considered to be a religion, its ethical principles are very similar to the ones we just described.[10] For example, the most popular form of Buddhism, the Mahayana (Universal Vehicle), regards ethical life as a union of wisdom (insight into the nature of reality) and compassion (altruism).[11] Part of this wisdom is the understanding that all phenomena are interdependent, because they are all causally interconnected.[12] Nothing exists on its own, separate from the web of causality. In Buddhism, ethical actions are therefore called ‘skilful’ (Sanskrit: kushala), because they skilfully interact with this web of causality to produce more well-being instead of more suffering.[13] The ‘compassion’ aspect is then about developing an altruistic motivation and acting on that basis in the world. One of the four aspects of this altruistic motivation is called ‘impartiality’ or ‘equanimity’, meaning that one equally wishes for all sentient beings to be happy, including strangers, non-human beings, and even one’s enemies.[14]

Another principle that is similar to EA is the consideration of the very long-term future. In Buddhist ethics, this is usually described in the language of ‘karma’, which can be misunderstood as fate or supernatural punishment. While karma theory comes with certain religious claims, its basic principle is that the consequences of one’s (intentional) actions continue infinitely into the future, and that we should therefore be careful about what our actions set in motion. For traditional Buddhists, this even means that those consequences could come back to cause suffering for oneself, in this life or future lives.[15]

External versus internal causes of suffering
While there are many similarities to be observed, there are also some fundamental differences. Firstly, the EA movement mostly focuses on physical, external causes of suffering, while Buddhism emphasises mental, internal causes.[16] For example, three of the main priorities for EA are (1) reducing extreme poverty, (2) reducing animal suffering in factory farming, and (3) decreasing existential risks (risks that could destroy all life or human civilisation on the planet).[17] These are all external threats to our well-being. However, for Buddhism, the root cause of our misery is a set of mental states that disturb our inner peace and distort our perception of reality. These so-called ‘mental afflictions’ include states like attachment, aversion, arrogance, and jealousy, with the root ones being ignorance and delusion.[18] While they can be triggered by external events, they ultimately arise from a mind that is not functioning properly. For Buddhism, the solution must therefore be internal, meaning that one needs to cultivate the mind itself.[19] We can also see how mental afflictions cause or facilitate most of the external problems in the world, such as extreme poverty (miserliness by the wealthy), factory farming (greed for animal products), and even existential risks like biological or nuclear warfare (hatred toward enemies).[20]

EA and Buddhist ethics: two complementary approaches

To summarise, we can say that both approaches to ethics share an impartial wish to increase the long-term well-being of all sentient creatures. The fact that they both emphasise different aspects of this well-being makes them wonderfully complementary, rather than being somehow contradictory. One might even say that ‘effective altruism’ addresses the most urgent problems that need to be taken care of first. Then, contemplative or psychological approaches like Buddhism can address the internal, mental causes of suffering that are left once our material conditions have been optimised. I would therefore call for an increased collaboration between the ‘effective altruism’ community and contemplative traditions like Buddhism, to see where they can enrich each other in a complementary way. Some of the EA areas where this collaboration could be most fruitful include in (1) global priorities research,[21] (2) promoting the principles of effective altruism around the world,[22] (3) preventing great power conflicts,[23] (4) improving individual reasoning and cognition,[24] and (5) promoting positive values,[25] such as ‘moral circle expansion’.[26] Let the dialogue begin.

This article was written by Timo Pieters and reflects his personal analysis and opinion, rather than those of EARS.

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[1] Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy : The Case for Rational Compassion. New York, NY: Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018.

[2] The EA movement emerged around 2010, and was spearheaded by philosophers like William MacAskill, Peter Singer, and Toby Ord. The history of the term ‘effective altruism’ – EA Forum.

[3] By effective I also mean ‘cost-effective’ (how much it costs to reduce a certain amount of suffering).

[4] Todd, Benjamin. 80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good. Oxford: Centre for Effective Altruism.p. 54.

[5] Introduction to Effective Altruism.

[6] A guide to using your career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems. Non-human animals are not treated as absolutely equal to humans, but their well-being is given a similar weight.

[7] A guide to using your career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems. Considering all future generations is nearly impossible, but it is still attempted to think hundreds of generations into the future.

[8] Part of the ‘moral uncertainty’ is that there are probably moral truths that we have not discovered yet, but which would be very significant for figuring out what is truly good to do. A guide to using your career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

[9] Another principle that drives the EA approach is to focus on the ‘expected value’ of an action. This is estimated by adding up all the good and bad potential consequences of that action, and then weighing that against the probability that those consequences will occur. A guide to using your career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems

[10] Buddhism is often simply called a religion, but I would say that ‘religion’ is a 19th century European category that does not correspond well to Asian traditions like Buddhism and Daoism.

[11] Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajna) and compassion (Sanskrit: karuna). A common analogy is that a good practitioner is like a bird who needs two wings in order to fly straight. Wallace, Alan. Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. p. 129.

[12] This interdependence especially applies to the self, which seems like an independent thing, but is actually a changing process. As the 8th-century master Shantideva said: “The already-passed and the not-yet-arisen minds are not the self, since they don’t exist (now). And well, if the (presently) arising mind were the self, when it perishes, there would, in fact, be no self! For example, when the trunk of a plantain tree is split into parts, nothing (is found); likewise, when searched for with discerning analysis, a self isn’t (found as) an absolute thing.” Perfection of Wisdom — Study Buddhism (chapter 9, verses 73 & 74).

[13] ‘Skilful’ is a common translation by Prof. Robert Thurman. Buddhist Ethics | Robert Thurman | Talks at Google.

[14] The four aspects are (1) loving-kindness (maitri), (2) compassion (karuna), (3) sympathetic joy (mudita), and (4) impartiality/equanimity (upeksha). Wallace, Alan. Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. p. 72-73.

[15] As it says in verse 14 of the Wheel of Sharp Weapons: “When we hear only language that is foul and abusive, this is the wheel of sharp weapons returning full circle upon us from wrongs we have done. Till now we have said many things without thinking; we have slandered and caused many friendships to end. Hereafter let’s censure all thoughtless remarks.” Wheel of Sharp Weapons – Poetic Rendering — Study Buddhism.

[16] EA also addresses internal causes of suffering, such as by (1) improving individual reasoning and cognition, (2) promoting positive values, or (3) reducing risks from malevolent actors. https://80000hours.org/key-ideas/#most-pressing-problems.

[17] Introduction to Effective Altruism.

[18] Wallace, Alan. Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. p. 71.

[19] This training usually consists of (1) ethical self-discipline (shila), (2) meditation (samadhi), and (3) wisdom or insight (prajna). The Three Trainings — Study Buddhism.

[20] I do not wish to claim that these particular afflictions are the only causes of these problems, but they are certainly some of the root causes.

[21] The main way Buddhism could contribute to global priorities research is by informing our philosophical understanding of well-being, and the causes of suffering.

[22] Otherwise known as community or movement building. Showcasing the philosophical similarities between Buddhism and EA could bring many Buddhists around the world into the EA movement.

[23] The study of Buddhism could enable greater civilisational dialogue between countries with Buddhist cultural roots and the rest of the world.

[24] Buddhist philosophy has many tools for this, because it is likewise designed to eliminate the deepest cognitive biases we as human beings have. In particular the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) and Valid Cognition (Pramana) traditions contain valuable resources.

[25] Some of the positive values that EA currently regards as important to spread include (1) cosmopolitanism, (2) concern for non-humans, (3) consequentialism, (4) liberalism, and (5) longtermism (What we owe the future | Will MacAskill). Buddhism has good arguments for all of these.

[26] These are some of the most pressing problems to work on, according to EA (80000 Hours: Most Pressing Problems).