Are True Altruists Monsters?

“Unbridled altruism is a huge vice of mine,’ he explained. ‘I simply have to do good. I am a sensible dwarf, however, and know that I’m unable to do everyone good. Were I to attempt to be good to everyone, to the entire world and to all the creatures living in it, it would be a drop of fresh water in the salt sea. In other words, a wasted effort. Thus, I decided to do specific good; good which would not go to waste. I’m good to myself and my immediate circle.”

Zoltan Chivay

Altruism is a trait that we normally find to be highly attractive in others… to an extent. Even if you don’t know who this Zoltan person is, you probably already like him, and would welcome him as a friend. We see someone take good care of the pets, helping the local community, or volunteering at a soup kitchen and we think to ourselves; this is a good person, they would likely make a good friend (well not those exact words but you get my meaning). But as the recent effective altruism movement points out, these altruistic actions are almost never the most possible good that could be done using those resources. That is, for the same effort, we could usually find other things that would help others significantly more. Usually this is in very poor countries where many people suffer with debilitating problems that are for us, cheap to solve. In fact, experiments show that donations do not scale with how much good they are purported to do, and that actually people will think of you as a less good person if they know you put a lot of thought into how you can really help the most people with a given amount of money. I would argue this is because moral judgment is focused on learning about what sort of a person an individual is and is often separated from morality.

Imagine we have the greatest altruist that ever lived, his whole life is spent maximizing the healthy life years he adds to people, working constantly and giving everything away except for enough consumption to just keep his production ability up. He reads all the studies and only donates to the charity with the highest expected value per dollar, he values everyone in the world including himself totally equally. This person might already seem a bit strange to you, but let us think of the further implications.

Imagine his mother comes down with a condition that she cannot pay to treat, she will die without the $40,000 operation, an operation her dear child could afford. But he refuses, stating that she is a person, an old person with limited years left and that the same money is very likely to be able to save at least 10 children, since each person is of the same value it would be horrible to do such a thing as to save his own mother, he gives her his sympathies but nothing else.

How do you feel about this fellow? Would you want to be good friends with them? Would you want to be their partner, knowing he would treat you just as well as he would any stranger?

My guess is no.

But why?

This person probably saves hundreds or perhaps thousands of people over the course of his life, so even if you find him too alien to matter, those perfectly normal folk he will save do. In terms of benefit to the world there is no doubt this man is a moral giant, but at the same time, we might even see him as a bad person.

Imagine a different example; let us call it, the case of evil Bill Gates. In this world, Bill Gates still devotes himself to giving away his fortune in a reasonably efficient manner, saving millions of people over the course of his life, but unlike the real world, (well hopefully) Bill Gates he is also a secret serial killer who stalks and kills 2 people every year. What kind of person is Bill Gates? Overall is the world better or worse with him in it? I think the answers are somewhat inarguably, a bad one, and a better world.

Wait what?

Well just picture the world with him in it, all of those people not losing children, all those people living their lives, all the sorrow prevented in their deaths, and while it might be true the murder victims lose their life and that their families suffer greatly, this is playing out on an infinitesimally smaller scale than the reverse situation. Maybe you don’t think it would be moral to kill 20 innocents to prevent the Holocaust, but hopefully you can still agree it would have been better that only 20 died from the Nazi’s efforts, especially if you are not the one making the decision.

Nevertheless, we would still call him a monster if we found out. We wouldn’t want him near our loved ones either would we? If he is caught it is also clear that he should still be punished normally because having exceptions to murder laws for those with significant philanthropic endeavors would likely lead to an even worse world.

Imagine a pedophile who never acts on his horrible urges, and manages to go through life up to that point completely denying that part of himself. Given he did not choose his attraction, but suffers for it so as not to hurt others. It is much harder for him to live a moral life than for you or me. So does that in some way make him more commendable, more moral than someone born differently? If you answered yes, do you want him to babysit your children?

Our systems of judging others morality is fairly self-serving; someone being generous with those around them tells us that they would likely make a good partner or ally. Those ignoring people around them to benefit far off strangers might make the world overall a better place if you really think about it, but they would make for a rubbish ally. We use people’s actions as a way to get to know their utility equation, what they are likely to do in the future. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I guess it kinda depends on some normative views that go past the purview of this short(ish) essay. But undoubtedly many so-called moral paradoxes stem from the failure to separate the logic of morality of different world states and the intuition of moral judgments we have towards individuals.

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