Effective Altruists as Anarchist Subversives

Most Effective Altruists don’t look like anarchists. The latter have a (charmingly) grungy flavor, the aura of half-dazed rebels perennially stumbling their way out of Woodstock reunions. By contrast, Effective Altruists have the trappings of recent MIT and Tufts graduates, lanky tech nerds and philosophy majors with an incomprehensible infatuation with “Pi Day” and something called “preference utilitarianism.” But Effective Altruism, as a movement inviting us “to do the most good,” contains the seeds of something far more radical than its adherents may suggest. Done right, Effective Altruism can augment the anti-authoritarian coalition that we need to undermine the polygamous marriage of materialism, authoritarian government, and unbridled corporate power. 

Granted, Effective Altruism (henceforth “EA”) does not have its roots in Kropotkin or Goldman. EAs are more likely to take their inspiration from Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher who advises his followers to design their professional and personal lives with an eye to maximizing the amount of happiness that they produce in the world. To live morally, says Singer, those of us with money to spare should donate to charities that relieve suffering at the lowest cost possible. While this might sound like a relatively uncontroversial instruction, Singer goes further than most; as he sees it, even our seemingly benign purchase of a coffee this morning was probably morally wrong if the dollars expended to that end could have helped prevent the transmission of malaria in the Global South.

Although Singer’s position may strike us as extreme, his EA followers—often working within existing political and economic structures to address poverty—tend not to come off as fiery agitators. Non-EAs, as a consequence, tend not to view EAs as radicals (with “radicals” here denoting individuals intent on addressing the roots of social problems). But in fact, there is room to interpret EA, in both its actual and its ideal forms, as something quite radical indeed. Understood properly, EAs can be downright anarchistic in the best ways possible: supportive of stateless routes to justice (when the state is derelict in its duty to provide for the vulnerable); hostile to immoral laws; and averse to the perilous hoarding of wealth and the concomitant contempt for poor people that plague our society and world. Building on that radical foundation, EAs could very well become the subversives of authoritarians’ worst nightmares.

EA’s anarchistic patina is laid bare, in the first place, by EAs’ perception of the (American) state as a morally bankrupt institution. In EAs’ eyes, the state prioritizes dubious causes at the expense of meaningful ones. While the poor of the Global South beg for food to avoid going hungry in an era of climate change and pandemics, the United States lavishes assistance on well-heeled military dictators who would do just fine without our assistance. This an EA cannot abide.

In light of the state’s failure to allocate resources properly, the EA takes matters into her own hands, donating to GiveDirectly and other vetted charities in order to reduce the incidence of hunger, disease, and blindness throughout the world. In so doing, the EA functions in the spirit of radicals past who have rendered services that governments have shown themselves ill-equipped or unwilling to provide. When the EA gives people money for food, for example, she does right by the Black Panthers, the latter of whom, we will recall, started the Free Breakfast Program for children who might have gone hungry otherwise. Like that of the Black Panther, the EA’s activism stems from a well-founded sense that we should never allow government—so often captive to the forces of tribalism, bellicosity, and wealth—to be our sole source of relief in a world rife with suffering. 

Lacking non-anarchists’ knee-jerk reliance on and deference to the state as a vehicle of moral change, the diehard EA necessarily has an equivocal relationship with the law. On the one hand, the EA is prepared to obey those laws—tax laws, for example—that reliably redistribute goods from the comfortable to the needy. On the other hand, the EA is (or should be) prepared to violate laws that impede the promotion of happiness. That is why, as Peter Unger has argued, stealing from the rich to benefit the poor should not be completely off the table (even if “Robin Hooding” is often morally wrong). Refusing to pay taxes for a chaos-inducing war may make sense as well, assuming that any such refusal could actually help grind the war machine to a halt. 

But EA’s anarchist spirit may become clearest in contrast with the ethos of acquisition and poor-bashing that otherwise animates our society. While Donald Trump will unflinchingly admit to an adoring crowd that he does not want poor people occupying economic positions in his presidential cabinet, it is those very poor people from whom EAs take their cues as EAs make their way through the world. Thus, the EA is moved by the multi-million dollar mansions, Maseratis, private jets, and caviar platters of snazzy soirees and high-end magazines only insofar as these fixtures of wealthy living heighten the EA’s resolve to fight for redistribution. When she happens upon a Porsche, the EA thinks not of the owner’s glamour, but of the 3 million children who will die of preventable ailments this year if global elites fail to donate a modest fraction of their fortunes to life-saving social action organizations. 

So affected by the sufferings of the world, the EA donates a significant portion of her own income to charity. In the process, she relieves pressure on other people in the Global North to live as grandly as kings and queens would. By demonstrating that one can be happy while consuming modestly, in other words, the EA dilutes the potency of a culture that places a premium on getting rich and consuming extravagantly. Insofar as that subversion of a wealth-obsessed culture is an authentic anarchist project, EA is indeed moving the anarchist ball forward.

None of this is to say that EA, in its current form, will be quite radical enough for radicals’ taste. To the extent that EAs resignedly treat our neoliberal economic arrangement as an immovable backdrop against which our benevolent acts must forever take place, EAs are insufficiently committed to getting at the roots of the poverty problem. But no matter. With the right sort of prodding and cultivation, EA could very well become a radical force to be reckoned with. For that reason, we ought to give it a chance.

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