Why Be an Effective Enlightenment Activist

Ten years ago, Peter Singer, a professor of ethics at Princeton University, gave a talk at the TED conference entitled “The Why and How of the Effective Altruism.” TED brings together a wide range of prominent figures from science, design, literature, music, and other fields to share their reflections and perspectives on technology, society, and people. It’s one of the most important conferences in influencing social thinking nowadays.

Singer began by showing a surveillance video clip of an evening street in a Chinese city.  In it a child of a few years old for some reason wandered into the street and a truck drove by. It is a side street, not a highway, so the truck wasn't going too fast, but it didn’t stop. The child was run over. The truck stopped briefly and drove off. The child's name is said to be “Yueyue" according to later report.

Later, in more footages captured by the security camera, we see pedestrians passing by walked around Yueyue as if she were a pile of garbage, until some time later a street sweeper called for help to take the child to the hospital. But it was too late, and Yueyue died.

Singer paused to ask the audience, "How many of you, when you see a situation like this, say to yourselves, no, I'm not going to do that, I'll rescue her, and if that's the case, raise your hand." Almost all the audiences raised their hands.

Singer went on to say, "I believe you all, but before giving yourself too much credit, have you ever thought about the fact that there are 20,000 children in the world right now, every day, who are dying because they don't have enough to eat. Have you ever thought about what you should do for them while they are still alive?

Next, Singer argues for the need for "effective altruism". Wealthy people should reduce their consumption of luxuries slightly if not a lot in order to help these children. Not only that, people should find the most effective ways to do it. This is effective altruism. In layman's terms, it means adding a little bit of calculation to the ethic of compassion and spending every dollar effectively so that the children who need it the most got the help.

Effective altruism was still in its infancy when Singer gave this talk, but it soon became more and more popular in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and on the campuses of prestigious universities in the U.S. In the two years from 2022 to 2023, a number of major events took place in the high tech finance and high tech industry in the U.S., and many of them were linked to this movement. Examples include the collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and the arrest and conviction of its founder and CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried, and the dramatic battle between the board of directors and the CEO of OpenAI, the company that spearheaded the artificial intelligence revolution. 

In the case of Sam Bankman-Fried, we know that when he was graduating from MIT, he was thinking of going into charity and happened to run into one of the pioneers of effective altruism, William MacAskill, a young associate professor at Oxford University. MacAskill told Bankman-Fried that with his abilities, he should go to Wall Street and make money to give to charities, which would be much more effective than if he had gone out and done the charity work himself. Sam Bankman-Fried took this to heart, and while working on Wall Street, he got investment from investors who also believed in effective altruism, and together with effective altruism friends, they founded the cryptocurrency exchange FTX. In the years that followed, Sam Bankman-Fried gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the effective altruism movement. In the case of OpenAI, board members with effective altruistic beliefs removed CEO Sam Altman on November 17, 2023, arguing that his work had strayed from the original intent of the company that was closer to effective altruism, and the board resigned four days later under pressure, with Altman returning. 

Effective altruism has had an impact on many other influential figures in Silicon Valley and finance, for example, Elon Musk, the world's richest man, tweeted that McAskill's philosophy was essentially the same as his.

But "Yueyue", the child who was run over by a truck and died without being rescued in time, appears only as a teaser for soliciting compassion in professor Singer’s lecture for effective altruism. Because Yueyue was not starved to death and did not live in a society below the poverty line, the donations of effective altruism would never come to her or children like her, that is, she would not appear on the “efficient frontier" of the “effective altruism" calculation. Ironically and cruelly, Yueyue was not only bypassed by the people on the street that she was run over, she is also bypassed by Professor Singer who used her as an example again and again without providing help, and bypassed by the audience of effective altruism who listened and raised their hands to promise they would help her if the situation occurs.

Yueyue's death is due to lack of enlightenment, a kind of indifference to human life, a kind of selfishness that only cares about people’s own survival. This attitude does not exist only in a few people, but pervades in the whole society where she lived in. Because of this indifference and selfishness, similar things often appear not only in other people's "Yueyue", but also frequently in their own “Yueyue”. For example, these days we hear more reports that children are bullied by their classmates or even teachers, while others stand by doing nothing.  In a few more tragic ones some kids were even thrown out from high above in a buildings, and were said to have committed suicide as told by the schools. 

What is needed to save a child like "Yueyue" is enlightenment. Enlightenment literally means to open people’s blinded eyes so that they can be illuminated by sunlight, to be able to see more colors and make their mind more compassionate. Only upon enlightened people can do the right thing.

Professor Singer in his lecture challenged the group of audience by saying that after being informed of the poverty and hunger in the world people who still stand by and do nothing are morally indefensible.

But I want to make the point that while poverty and hunger certainly need to be minimized as much as possible, we should also find out if there is a reason for poverty, is it because of lack of enlightenment? If it is, then the fundamental problem need to be solved, otherwise charity is like pouring water into a leaky bucket, the bucket will never be filled up.

Secondly, it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. Effective altruism is to give a man a fish while effective enlightenment is to teach a man how to fish.  This shows that effective altruism is not effective as effective enlightenment. No matter how precise the calculation is in effective altruism, it may not be helpful.

Instead, calculation, if necessary, should be used for doing enlightenment. Enlightenment itself is already more effective than altruism. Effective enlightenment would be more effective.

The word "effective" is itself a product of the Enlightenment. It can be traced back to utilitarianism, or efficacy, which refers to doing things "to maximize the happiness of the greatest number of people". Jeremy Bentham, an Englishman born in 1748, was the inventor of this thinking. The emphasis on “maximize” and "greatest" makes what was originally a moral theory somehow mathematically appealing. This is a product of the Enlightenment because it was an idea shared by many other enlightenment figures, such as two prominent ones in the Scottish Enlightenment: Francis Hutchison, born in 1694, and David Hume, born in 1711. Hutchison pointed out that in the process of choosing the most moral action, virtue should be directly proportional to the number of people a particular action will benefit, and Hume said that the overall benefit to humanity should be the most important factor in making all moral decisions.

The criticism on Utilitarianism is also on what it tries to do. Opponents criticize its quantification, comparison, and measurement of happiness or well-being. They say there may be no definite answer to many questions such as "Is the life of an ascetic better or worse than that of a happy debauchee?", and they complained that utilitarianism forces people compare on these things. Karl Marx and Pope John Paul II criticized it, saying its quantification of happiness is a way of materializing man. 

But isn’t it good to push people think as hard as they can about the pros and cons of everything? And if there is no way to do it then don’t do it.  In many situations, the problem is not in that we can not quantify something, but in that we are lazy not to think if quantification is possible. Certainly people always do some comparison in their mind and make a decision, quantitative or not.  This will true whether it is effective altruism or effective enlightenment. 

Wherever we live, let's be effective Enlightenment Activists. Don't turn a blind eye to what is wrong, false, vicious, and ugly; that kind of society is bound to come back and bite on ourselves. 

Do what is right, true, good and beautiful.