Philanthropy | The small world of effective altruism

How can we help the world become a better place? The disciples of effective altruism approach this problem in a very particular way and they are talking about them, particularly in Silicon Valley and in the world of artificial intelligence (AI), where they form a small, very close circle power.

The OPEN AI case

Although the philosophy has existed for more or less 15 years, until last fall, effective altruism was a concept best known to those who were closely interested in it, many of whom were philosophers, economists and researchers. As well as part of the Silicon Valley community.

The dismissal of the president of Open AI in the fall put the spotlight on this ideology.

Little reminder.


Sam Altman was fired from Open AI… and returned six days later.

Sam Altman was abruptly shown the door by the Open AI board of directors on November 17, 2023. This led to a widely publicized crisis that ended with Altman’s return six days later , and the creation of a new council.

The dual mandate of Open AI, which is a non-profit organization (NPO) with a for-profit arm, has been pointed to as part of the unease within the group. Among the other factors of discord raised, differences of opinion on the security issues inherent to the development of AI, but also effective altruism, this planned and directed philanthropy.

In an article from Forbes published last November, we even put this philosophy, very popular in Silicon Valley, at the heart of the crisis, since members of the council were fervent defenders of it. Their values ​​and ways of seeing things were less consistent with those of Sam Altman.

But what the heck is effective altruism?

The basic idea: it is better to make truly effective actions, rather than letting yourself be carried away by less thoughtful empathetic impulses.

The movement has several sources and even more ramifications.


Peter Singer, professor in the philosophy department at Princeton University, United States

The Australian Peter Singer is recognized as one of its founders – he has published several works on the subject.

“Effective altruists are against the use of empathy, because if we opt for empathy, we would rather save one person than ten,” illustrates Keven Bisson, who is part of Effective Altruism Quebec.

According to this way of thinking, a cause that resonates with you should be left aside if your gift shines less.

Effective altruists want to maximize good using the best science.

Keven Bisson, who is part of Effective Altruism Quebec

This is what makes them choose global poverty over local poverty, for example.

The philosophy also puts forward the principle of “earning to give”.

According to this, your impact will be greater if you donate part of your salary to an organization that can hire five people in the field than if you do occasional volunteer work yourself. This is also what motivates effective altruists to make as much money as possible.

Among the models cited by Peter Singer are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, immense philanthropists.


Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft

Not all followers of this philosophy have such spectacular income. By devoting a reasonable percentage of their income, which allows them to always have a comfortable life, everyone can make a difference, argues Peter Singer, who teaches in the philosophy department at Princeton University in the United States. He is also the co-founder of Australia Animal, he has been vegetarian since 1971 (according to his LinkedIn profile) and he is committed to the fight against factory farming. The movement considers that if we want to do good, all living beings, including animals, must be beneficiaries.

Last fall, Peter Singer still surprised some of his loyal supporters by defending sexual relations between animals and humans. According to him, that would already be a better fate for the animal than being locked up on an industrial farm and ending up on a plate.

His disciples

Several prominent figures extol the benefits of this rational generosity.

One of them is Sam Bankman-Fried, the fallen king of cryptocurrency, convicted of fraud last fall. The founder of FTX has always loudly advocated the benefits of his effective altruism and his tendency towards frugality – to be able to be more generous.


Sam Bankman-Fried was convicted of fraud last fall.

However, he has become the example not to follow of the movement, since he now embodies its drift or how one can get rich at any cost, under the pretext that the gains will be given to others.

The environment is small, the same people constantly come across each other, notes Lyse Langlois, director of the International Observatory on the Societal Impacts of AI and Digital Technology (OBVIA) at Laval University. “It’s a tightly woven network. »

The ethicist can’t help but raise her eyebrows when she sees that some sit on the boards of directors of others’ foundations and vice versa. Or fund each other.

She recommends a certain vigilance when observing the benefits of effective altruism.


Lyse Langlois, director of OBVIA at Laval University

The movement has undergone a sort of institutionalization which is carried out by research centers and charitable associations which are established in large universities and are supported for the most part by the ultra-rich.

Lyse Langlois, director of OBVIA at Laval University

William MacAskill is certainly one of those names that comes up often, himself being the founder of some key organizations.

Regarding artificial intelligence, he maintains that its development should be more careful. He advocates long-termism, the importance of investing in the future, well beyond its existence, a principle at the heart of effective altruism – which resonates strongly in the world of artificial intelligence. The Scottish philosopher wants us to tackle neglected problems first and for which there is a solution. Causes linked to animal welfare are very present, the issue is a recurring theme among these philanthropists.

Note: the stars of this movement are not only effective in their altruism, their speech is formidable. They are excellent speakers.

A very rational movement

One would think that a world of programmers, mathematicians, and other rational personalities would have better things to do than indulge in philosophical discussions about the goodness and retribution of their assets.

And yet.

“It’s the rationalist aspect that appeals,” explains Keven Bisson, who is part of Effective Altruism Quebec. We try to quantify everything. »

According to him, rationalizing what would otherwise be intuitive calls for this type of personality and explains the movement’s popularity in Silicon Valley.

“They are the smartest people you will ever meet,” says Keven Bisson. They are extremely rigorous and look for concrete arguments. »

In addition to being geeks, the followers of this movement have other points in common: they are overwhelmingly white men, notes Lyse Langlois, director of OBVIA at Laval University. They made their fortune in finance and digital businesses. “Many reach the top while still young. »

“They are talented, ambitious people,” she says, “who often speak to their peers. They seek to produce a colossal quantity of good. »

Should we be wary of it?

“We have to look at the blind spots,” replies this ethics specialist, particularly in this network where everyone knows each other. Lyse Langlois also points out that their actions are defined according to their own conception of good – which is therefore not universal. According to her, it must also be seen as a way of buying a good conscience and building social capital. While reaping generous tax benefits.

If we look at the definition of altruism, we say that it is a disposition to care about others in a selfless way. Which seems paradoxical to me when we add the word efficiency to it.

Lyse Langlois, director of OBVIA at Laval University

The drift

The movement’s initial motivations are noble, says Jean-Marc Fontan, professor of sociology at UQAM and co-director of PhiLab, the Canadian partnership research network on philanthropy.

“It gives legitimacy and makes the philanthropic vision accessible,” he says.

However, effective altruists do not attack the root causes of problems, maintains the sociologist.

An example: we recommend buying mosquito nets to fight malaria, because we can save more people than if we help a homeless person in the neighborhood, explains Professor Fontan.


Jean-Marc Fontan, professor of sociology at UQAM and co-director of PhiLab

What they believe is that the resources you allocate to a homeless person will be wasted because they will not have an impact on a significant number of people who will be able to be active in society, become producers and change things in their environment.

Jean-Marc Fontan, professor of sociology at UQAM and co-director of PhiLab

“However,” counters Mr. Fontan, “if I send money to buy mosquito nets, it will allow 10 people to live better or survive, but it will not change the system in which they find themselves. »

According to the professor, this way of thinking lacks depth. “If the method is simple,” he said, “it becomes simplistic. »

In addition to the validity of the principles which are questioned by many observers, the missteps of several standard-bearers bring discredit to the entire movement.

“When you are in these environments free from critical views, from ethical evaluation, it can give rise to abuses of this nature,” says Jean-Marc Fontan, about the Bankman-Fried case.

“They are convinced people, ideologues,” says the sociologist. It becomes a religion, in a way. This is where rationality loses its ability to enlighten. »

Keven Bisson is also critical of some of the group’s stars. However, he is rather optimistic about the future of the movement. Moreover, Effective Altruism Quebec is a small group that is more interested in debates of ideas. There are mainly young people there, more philosophers than donors. According to its spokesperson, this internal crisis will break this cohesion which, yes, can lead to excesses.


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