The Nietzschean Challenge to Effective Altruism
What if excellence is more important than comfort?
In ‘The Strange Shortage of Moral Optimizers’, I noted that it’s difficult to criticize Effective Altruism in a thoroughgoing way, since the foundational idea of beneficentrism (roughly: utilitarianism minus all the controversial bits) seems so indisputable. That leaves plenty of room for superficial/empirical/internal critiques of the form “The EA movement as it actually exists isn’t fully living up to its admittedly excellent values/potential; here’s how it could do better…” But is there space for a more fundamental, philosophical critique of EA’s core values?
In this post, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate and try to set out what I think is the most philosophically pressing critique of EA’s beneficentrism, drawing on the classic critique of utilitarianism as a “philosophy for swine” (developed, in its most sophisticated form, in Andrew Huddleston’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s perfectionism). The idea, in a nutshell, is that we go wrong in thinking that anything resembling happiness (or the avoidance of suffering) is what ultimately matters for a good life. We are lazy creatures, drawn to creature comforts. But that isn’t what’s truly good for us. What truly gives our lives dignity and meaning is to contribute, whether directly or indirectly, to cultural excellence. Better to be a Socrates—or his servant—dissatisfied, than to be a pig satisfied. (Unless Socrates eats the pig. Then you’re good either way.)
The upshot: I’ll argue that there’s some (limited) overlap between the practical recommendations of Effective Altruism (EA) and Nietzschean perfectionism, or what we might call Effective Aesthetics (EÆ). To the extent that you give Nietzschean perfectionism some credence, this may motivate (i) prioritizing global talent scouting over mere health interventions alone, (ii) giving less priority to purely suffering-focused causes, such as animal welfare, (iii) wariness towards traditional EA rhetoric that’s very dismissive of funding for art museums and opera houses, and (iv) greater support for longtermism, but with a strong emphasis on futures that continue to build human capacities and excellences, and concern to avoid hedonistic traps like “wireheading”.
The Meaningful Life
In the final chapter of Practical Ethics, Peter Singer addresses the question: ‘Why Act Morally?’ One answer he’s drawn towards invokes the common wisdom that our lives are more meaningful insofar as we contribute to something larger than ourselves. Universal altruism—in a world as full of unmet needs as ours is—provides us with a suitably monumental goal to meet this deep human need of our own. To illustrate this motivation, Singer asked Henry Spira (an accomplished twentieth-century animal- and civil rights activist), as his death from cancer drew near, “what had driven him to spend his life working for others.” Spira answered:
I guess basically one wants to feel that one’s life has amounted to more than just consuming products and producing garbage. I think that one likes to look back and say that one’s done the best one can to make this a better place for others… [W]hat greater motivation can there be than doing whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering?
This sounds compelling! But it’s in this context that the Nietzschean challenge looms large, as advancing human civilization is also monumental—sometimes literally!—and arguably feels “deeper” than merely promoting comfort. (It may also prove more legible than chasing the drab shadows of distant strangers in accordance with traditional welfarism.) We appreciate the enduring magnificence of the Great Pyramids, while the suffering of the slaves who built them is lost to history. Contributing to a lasting achievement like the Pyramids may accordingly be considered more meaningful than simply switching out one transient sensation for another.
In his paper, "Consecration to Culture": Nietzsche on Slavery and Human Dignity, Andrew Huddleston offers a fascinating interpretation of Nietzsche that bears some striking affinities with the “Effectiveness” aspect of EA, while at least being more welcoming than the traditional elitist reading of Nietzsche to the “mass of mankind”.
Key to this interpretation is Huddleston’s observation that our objective "best interests" may come apart from both what we want and from what we believe to be in our interests. This is most clearly the case for matters of instrumental value, like “eating adequate nutrients.” But there’s at least conceptual room to hold that we may be similarly mistaken about what is intrinsically good for us, or constitutive of human flourishing. “Accomplishing an exalted goal” is, for Nietzsche, something in our objective best interests, whether we realize and want this or not.
Now combine this with two distinctively Nietzschean normative claims:
(1) Humans do not have innate worth; we must earn it through great accomplishments. This is, for Nietzsche, more important than mere pleasure, comfort, or “well-being” in the traditional sense.
(2) Nietzsche accordingly views conventional morality (and altruism) as detrimental to genuine human flourishing (encouraging attention to trivial pleasures, turning us into worthless couch potatoes).
The result (p.141):
[W]hatever we, with our contemporary liberal sensibilities, may regard as the best life for a person, it is the better Nietzschean life—provided one cannot be a great Nietzschean composer or philosopher—to be a slave building the pyramids, a medieval serf laboring on Chartres cathedral, or a peon sweeping Beethoven’s floor than to be a comfortable, “free” person in the culturally decadent modern West.
One’s life attains true meaning, for Nietzsche, just insofar as it contributes to cultural greatness. But this doesn’t exclude the masses, because—like effective altruists!—Nietzsche doesn't exclusively value direct contributors (the charity worker, or the artist, who produces the good in question), but also allows indirect causal contributions (from donors, or service workers) to count as important. So despite something like talent or excellence being the ultimate intrinsic value for Nietzsche, even those of us totally lacking in talent ourselves may nonetheless partake vicariously in its promotion, e.g. by contributing to the material conditions that allow other, more talented, individuals to realize their potential.
In short: contrary to the common stereotype of ‘elitism’, Huddleston’s Nietzsche would valorize many strenuously laboring servants over the idle rich. His perfectionism is not an ethic of comfort, but it features a kind of formal egalitarianism insofar as it condemns rich and poor alike for falling into cultural decadence (if we fail to strive for what’s objectively valuable).
Perfectionism and Population Ethics
[That the ‘repugnant’ world Z is better than the utopia of world A] is hard to believe because in Z two things are true: people’s lives are barely worth living, and most of the good things in life are lost.
Suppose that only the first of these was true. Suppose that, in Z, all of the best things in life remain. People’s lives are barely worth living because these best things are so thinly spread. The people in Z do each, once in their lives, have or engage in one of the best experiences or activities. But all the rest is muzak and potatoes. If this is what Z involves, it is still hard to believe that Z would be better than a world [A] of ten billion people, each of whose lives is very well worth living. But, if Z retains all of the best things in life, this belief is less repugnant.
Perfectionism also suggests another means of escape from the Repugnant Conclusion.
Consider: many of us implicitly reject totalism within a life. Like Zeke Emanuel, we would rather die in good condition at 75 than have a long end-of-life decline (even if the additional years would all be positive, considered in themselves; adding mediocre parts can make a whole worse). We care about the shape of our life; we care about its narrative structure; these are aesthetic properties that naturally lend themselves to holistic (rather than aggregative atomistic) evaluation.
If we avoid half-pie atomism and come to care in a similar way about human civilization, considered as a whole (rather than just as an aggregate of individuals), the associated aesthetic perspective can similarly motivate rejecting totalism at the population level. For example, there is no longer such pressure to accept the principle of mere addition: adding below-average lives to an otherwise flourishing population (e.g. moving from world A to A+) may well be thought to detract from the value of humanity as a collective. (Nietzscheans may further question the egalitarian move from A+ to B, as excellences—in stark contrast to mere well-being—might be thought to have increasing marginal value, and so benefit from concentration rather than diffusion across a population.)
So not only is totalist perfectionism less susceptible to ‘repugnance’ than totalist welfarism, but perfectionism may also be better positioned (than welfarism) to motivate alternative (non-totalist) population ethical theories such as variable value theories, that are in many respects more intuitive.
(It’s still not perfect by any means—I certainly don’t think we can confidently reject totalism on this basis—but I do think this positive view has a lot more going for it than the purely “negative” views that critics of utilitarian population ethics otherwise sometimes turn to.)
Practical Upshots of Effective Æsthetics
Whether you care primarily about welfare traditionally construed (as EAs would have it), or about human flourishing in a more perfectionist sense (as Nietzsche-inspired EÆs may instead propose), it’s going to be important that humanity not go extinct any time soon. It’s also obviously better for fewer people to die in infancy, or to suffer from such material deprivation that they’re unable to live up to their potential.
But there are some striking practical differences between the two value systems.
(i) Nietzschean EÆs may see less value to global health interventions in isolation. What they’ll really want to see is a huge investment in global talent scouting to find the missing Beethovens and Einsteins who have the greatest (unmet) potential to contribute to human civilization. Fighting global poverty may be a necessary precursor to such an endeavor, but (the Nietzschean may think) is of little value if all you’re doing is making people comfortable, and not additionally nurturing their potential for excellence.
(ii) Non-human animal welfare (like averting pure suffering in general) is, by Nietzschean lights, an indulgence in neo-Christian morality that distracts us from what’s truly important. (To be clear, I think this is an appalling implication of the view! It would seem much more plausible to grant at least some weight to traditional well-being as a source of value. Still, animal welfare risks swamping human interests so thoroughly on traditional welfarist grounds that the compromise reached by granting some credence to Nietzschean perfectionism may help to lead us to an ultimate verdict—taking into account moral uncertainty—that is actually much more appealing than we’d get from either extreme view considered alone.)
(iii) EÆs will be much more receptive than EAs to traditional philanthropic support for the Arts (opera houses, etc.), at least wanting to ensure sufficient support to maintain our most valuable cultural institutions into the future. Beyond that point, EÆ goals may be best advanced on the margin by broader capacity-building to protect and improve the future, rather than simply over-investing in present-day cultural production. (Though one can imagine a “neartermist” branch of EÆ that disputes this, and prefers to go all-in on promoting immediate excellence.)
(iv) Finally, EÆs will be extremely concerned to ensure that the long-term future is shaped in the right way. They will worry that future technologies are likely to further exacerbate the gap between comfort and excellence. As a result, lazy hedonistic values could easily lead us to a superficially “happy” future that’s almost entirely lacking in what they regard as truly valuable.
To be clear: I think Nietzschean perfectionism is mistaken. Its dismissal of the disvalue of suffering, especially, seems both incredible and unjustified. I wouldn’t want anyone to come away from this post with the sense that maybe suffering doesn’t matter after all. That would be nuts!
That said, I do think the view contains some under-appreciated insights that are worth taking on board, at least under the remit of “moral uncertainty”. For those concerned about the Repugnant Conclusion, I think perfectionism at least offers a better alternative than bleak “negative” views that deny any positive value to our existence.
Moreover, I find the implicit critique of hedonism extremely compelling, and find that reflecting on Nietzschean perfectionism moves me more strongly towards some form of objective list theory of well-being. I think welfare objectivism is a view that EAs ought to take very seriously, and it especially ought to lead us to want to (i) rule out wireheading and other “cheap” hedonistic futures as involving unacceptable axiological risk, given how poorly such futures score on plausible non-hedonistic views; and (ii) positively seek out pluralistically valuable futures that score highly on both traditional welfarist and perfectionist grounds.
There are possible futures out there that would be fantastic both for humanity (considered as an aesthetic whole) and for the subjective happiness of the individual persons who make it up. Those are the futures we should strive to realize: ones where individuals are both happy and excellent. To paraphrase Spira: What greater motivation could there be?