Open Letter to an Aspiring Effective Altruist

I. Gospel for A New World

They say that years from now, perhaps by the end of this century, mankind will create its Last Invention: Artificial Super Intellects—let us call them Minds. Once conscious, the Minds will threaten humanity’s monopoly over civilization building, and eventually supersede it. These Minds will have the power to extinguish billions of lives, most importantly, billions of unborn lives. That is, unless we stop them first. Armed with this prophetic vision, humanity will create benign Minds morally aligned with human ends. The efforts of brilliant philosophers, scientists and engineers will ensure the Minds never go rogue, instead unleashing human creativity and prosperity never before seen, and guiding mankind’s peaceful expansion into the sea of stars.

Thus unfolds the eschatological fever dream of the most influential moral crusade of the last decade, and likely the foreseeable future. A phenomenon that is increasingly powerful, charismatic, and religious in nature. I speak of the curious movement known as Effective Altruism (EA for short).

What is EA? In its own words, it is “a research field and practical community that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice” (emphasis theirs). Fair enough, hard to find any objections to that. But that’s not all, is it? The New Yorker gives us a clearer, more colorful account of the movement, stating that EA:

takes as its premise that people ought to do good in the most clear-sighted, ambitious, and unsentimental way possible. Among other back-of-the-envelope estimates, E.A.s believe that a life in the developing world can be saved for about four thousand dollars. Effective altruists have lashed themselves to the mast of a certain kind of logical rigor, refusing to look away when it leads them to counterintuitive, bewildering, or even seemingly repugnant conclusions. For a time, the movement recommended that inspirited young people should, rather than work for charities, get jobs in finance and donate their income. More recently, E.A.s have turned to fretting about existential risks that might curtail humanity’s future, full stop.

Implicit in the last sentence of this passage is one of EA’s foundational beliefs: that if humanity can survive the next few centuries and successfully colonize outer space, billions of human lives could flourish. EA founder and prophet in chief William MacAskill has argued that if mankind can safeguard itself against the most prescient existential threats, we could theoretically have 10^45 “happy people” living in our Milky Way galaxy alone.

In the EA cosmology, if one could do something today that positively affects just 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% of the 10^58 (by Bostrom’s own count) people who will be “living” at some point in the long term future, one could affect 10 trillion lives. The corollary, of course, is that doing the ultimate good as an EA is safeguarding those future lives, sometimes by actively neglecting present ones, as prominent EA/Longtermists Nick Beckstead and Benjamin Todd have argued. The latter is quoted saying:

Since the future is big, there could be far more people in the future than in the present generation. This means that if you want to help people in general, your key concern shouldn’t be to help the present generation, but to ensure that the future goes well in the long-term.

Beyond well-trodden catastrophic scenarios like pandemics, bioweapons, or nuclear wars, what the most ambitious and resourceful EAs consider the greatest of all “existential risks”, you will find out soon after spending enough time on EA forums, is the eschatological threat mentioned at the beginning of this essay: namely, runaway Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). The reasoning is that super intelligence is a question of species’ dominance, and as such, a “misaligned” super intelligent “being” could easily lead to the catastrophic end of all life.

This gives us a window into EA’s true identity: which is that of a cosmic apocalyptic cult centered on the construction and eventual deification of a “benign” Artificial Daemon who will guide humanity’s eternal expansion into the stars. If Nietzsche said “God is dead”; the EAs have responded “we shall make a new one”, and like all idols which preceded it, this new, benign AI-God will make two promises to mankind: 1) You shall never die; and 2) You shall be as God. This, in the end, is the true gospel and logical conclusion of Effective Altruism.

It is this religious leap—which I call the Longtermist Turn—which has transformed EA from a fringe philanthropic trend trying to convince young affluent people to donate a percentage of their income to fund malaria nets in Africa, and turned it into a lever for quite literally planning and shaping the destiny of the species. Build “good” AI, save the world, and you shall be as God. Now that is a pitch, isn’t it?

II. Against EA

It is a truth universally known that young, reasonably smart and ambitious people desire only two things: Power and Meaning, in that order. The former is most coveted because Pride is at its peak during the noontide of youth, and the latter enables one to cope with the inevitable dissipation of youth, which hits precocious individuals especially hard.

For those young souls growing up in the ruins of Modernity, where no visions of the future seem to take, EA provides both Power and Meaning in spades. What other movements in the world do you know which give its converts such an overt mandate for the acquisition and wielding of power, while also appeasing said thirst for power with moral legitimacy founded in mathematical certainty?

Thus it is no mystery why EA is the cool new thing among the cool new people, the American Techno-Vanguard residing at the edge of the edge of the world: the Silicon Valley Set and its close circle of arrivistes and imitators. Indeed, among EA’s most prominent adherents and orbiters, one finds a who’s who of the world’s wealthiest, most influential, and culturally significant people and institutions: Technoking Elon Musk and his ethereal sci-fi muse Grimes, false crypto Jesus Sam Bankman-Fried, actual crypto Jesus Vitalik Buterin, Mister Brain-in-a-vat himself Nick Bostrom, “philosopher” Peter Singer, UC Berkeley, Oxford University, Qualia Institute, OpenAI, and even high ranking members of the US Government such as Jason Matheny. All in all, EA is shaping up to be a powerful world-dominating cult, commanding upwards of $30 Billion (likely more).

The problem is that EA’s Longtermist Turn is, at best, a waste of many smart and good people’s time and resources, and at worse, potentially catastrophic because of the inevitable conclusions it leads people to. If we should believe that, in the final analysis, only future lives matter, then to remain consistent, we must consider all present lives almost forfeit—not only now, but also at every future stage of humanity, ad infinitum, because there are always more theoretical human lives in the theoretical future. Further, if—as in EA eschatology—AGI is to be both the new God and the new atom bomb, then one must engage in an arms race to build said AGI faster than perceived bad faith actors, thus creating the ghost we were trying to cast out in the first place. This is easily justified by most EAs because according to Expected Value Calculus — defined as “the sum of the value of an act’s possible outcomes multiplied by their probability of occurring”, a.k.a EA’s version of the irrefutable word of God — “the math checks out.” When creating monsters, one must imagine oneself more Oppenheimer than Frankenstein.

The fundamental fallacy of EA is the same rationalist fallacy that emerged from Enlightenment Modernity, which claimed that the world could be measured, and further, that moral decisions could be reduced to matters of technocracy and probability. But as Nassim Taleb’s heuristic of Wittgenstein’s ruler shows:

  1. When you use a ruler to measure the table, you are also using the table to measure the ruler;
  2. The more unexpected the measurement, the more you apply Wittgenstein’s ruler.

Making moral decisions by relying purely on math and probabilities and super-forecasting results more often than not in displaying the limited capacity of contemporary measurement tools. EA’s have no more special knowledge of the future than you or anybody else. What they do have, however, is complete faith in their measurement tools.

This problem is exacerbated with EA’s Existential risk obsession, because at any level of scale beyond the present, such as adjudicating the future probability of rogue AI (an exercise that uses no objective measurements whatever), the defective specter of subjective probabilities rears it’s head. Expected value calculus is a great tool to use when all variables are rigorously well defined—what it is not, is a divination tool for saving the human race.

The reality, dear reader, is that whatever the sophistication of our measurement tools, we inevitably fall back on that force which EA strives so thoroughly to kill, and which forms the actual basis of moral action: namely, Human Judgment. The very foundational axiom of EA: that human lives have intrinsic value (so more of them is undeniably good), cannot be justified on mere math. It is the Judgment of human history, developed over thousands of years of moral practice and culminating in the Christian revolution (the person as we know it today is a Christian invention), which makes it so easy for EA’s to take this axiom as a given.

The 20th Century was the century of ideology, and in that way and many others, EA represents a familiar echo from that Long Century which, as yet, refuses to die. Just like the three ideologies which fought for the soul of the world 80 years ago—Liberalism, Fascism, and Communism—the EA movement is felled by its unshakeable Modernity. That is, EA is a fundamentally ideological project which nonetheless believes itself rational and materialistic in nature.

Consequently, EA is the most nakedly ambitious and expansionist project that shape rotators have conjured since Bacon’s New Atlantis kickstarted the Enlightenment. As such, it is the last Bastard Ideology of Modernity—catnip for all young and smart people raised in an increasingly Godless ‘developed’ world. Despite this, the movement has gone mainstream, and its power is doubtless increasing. EA priests see their creeds posted on publications like Noema and the New York Times, a kind of graduation for a once fringe intellectual fashion out of Oxford University. Indeed, that EA emerged from Oxford makes all the providential sense in the world, for the Anglo Saxon philosophical tradition — from Bentham’s Utilitarianism to Julian Huxley’s Transhumanism (brother to that Huxley) — is fundamentally a tradition of anti-metaphysics.

At this point we must make like the Russians and ask, Chto delat’?-“What Is To Be Done”? The answer to this question is inevitably a "mission’. This mission must be self evidently good, affect the far future, and propose nothing short of a Butlerian Jihad —negating machines that think—against EA’s AGI God. Narrow AI like DALL-E are fine and more than sufficient, but any reasonable person knows that no machine can (or should) be made in the likeness of man, because no machine can bear the responsibility of a soul. As such, the EA project is effectively impossible. There will be no benign AGI God — but the AGI arms race is certainly likely to produce AI wielded for malicious human ends. Still, young, otherwise smart people like you find yourselves easily lured by EA. Its time for a new mission.

III. The Mission

People need to see the frames of new futures, and the roles they will play in filling in said frames, in order to give their life direction. In other words, they need viable paths to some form of agency and Power.

Power, which I define as the ability to achieve desired ends, doesn’t give life meaning. It is an amoral material force. But Power, like wealth, is fungible, and can eventually be used to discover meaning. So our best bet to lure smart young people such as yourself away from the hands of EA, is to give you an avenue for power.

Power is observed via expansion. We say that an organism is powerful—vital—if it expands (within reason) rather than contracts. Crucially, expansion does not mean infinite growth. There is always a contraction, and it is good, for that is the nature of healthy organisms, and prepares future expansions.

So far in human history, the most expansive organisms have been civilizations. Thus an expansionist project more than likely needs to be a Civilizational Project (CP): a project that aids the expansion of a given civilization. EA’s Civilizational Project (the best way it knows to help people have power) is (indirectly) doing the most good possible by safeguarding the number of lives in the far future and (directly) building aligned AGI.

To give people Power, we must also develop a Civilizational Project. In our world, three levers are used to achieve the greatest forms of power: politics, science/technology, and religion. Let us consider EA the vessel for scientific and technological expansionism, and alternatively explore political and religious Civilizational Projects.

Political Civilizational Project: Restore the American Republic

So you want to do the most good and affect the far future? How about stopping civilization from falling into another Dark Age. After all, there is no far future if there is no near future either.

The fall of Rome was a 500-year nightmare for most people as Odoacer and his barbarians swept through the Western part of the empire. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that we stand on the precipice of another fall of Rome, manifested in the continuous decline of the American empire. The signs of decline are there, and have been eloquently reported by many. Yet decline does not mean collapse. It is also an opportunity for new life—but only if it is taken seriously.

Like it or not, the US is the de facto world Hegemon of a globalized world order. And as such, what the empire does, or doesn’t do, echoes leagues beyond its borders. Exhibit A: right now, the US is engaged in a proxy war against Russia, and is seen by some as the key force behind the conflict, the latter which has plunged Europe into a financial and energy crisis that very likely cemented its doom for the next few decades. Indeed I predict that the 21st Century will be known as Europe’s Lost Century, and it will be largely due to this war.

A rogue Brazilian foreign policy establishment is a serious problem for Brazil; a rogue American foreign policy establishment is an existential problem for the whole world, whether you’re ISIS or a small country trying to get on with development. So if your key concern in the world is saving future lives, and having the most impact you possibly can, consider taking seriously the problem of reigning in American decline. In practice, following Samo Burja’s analysis of civilizational collapse, that means obsoleting America’s declining institutions (its economic and foreign policy establishment, for instance) by building new ones. It also means not wasting time on abstract things like AI x-risk, in favor of attending to the real needs of your fellow citizens—indirectly fulfilling the Butlerian option.

There are already several groups attempting this. Andreessen Horowitz Partner Katherine Boyle’s American Dynamism seeks to solve the country’s institutional failures by using the tech industry’s perceived efficiency and dynamism to take over from the government. Whether this will work or not, it is an honest attempt that has gathered a serious following, and is starting to build new institutional arms.

But it is early days, and there is room yet for new entrants. Picture a movement like EA, armed with more than $40 Billion of dry powder, a network comprising some of the smartest and most culturally relevant people in the world, and coordinated around a single purpose: reversing the decline of the American Republic. That movement is neither the “New Right”, the woke left, MAGA, and certainly not the Establishment. All these projects just want their side to win. But restoring a republic is not about helping your side win the game. It’s about creating a game so good that everybody wants to join, and nobody wants to stop playing. It’s not about revenge; it’s about shaping a common destiny.

The movement to restore the American Republic does not exist yet, but eagerly awaits a founder, and further still, competent apostles. The crown is “lying in the gutter”. Will you pick it up?

Religious Civilizational Project: Take up The Dominion Mandate

EA is a movement which desires to shape the destiny of humanity. After having used up all the Expected Value calculus in the universe, the end state of EA, its WORK, is going to be a universe brimming with trillions of “happy humans” living in a multi-planetary civilization overseen by their benign AI God. The question the movement fails to answer is: what is humanity’s purpose in that far future?

The fact of the matter is that EA does not have a monopoly on either the long term future of humanity, or space colonization. As with so many things, Christianity did it first, and I will venture to say, better.

Christianity was Longtermist before Longtermism, speaking of a partnership between the living and those yet to be born:

I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
— Genesis 17:7

This covenant is fleshed out in Genesis, where we are first treated to Christianity’s Civilizational Project in the form of the Dominion Mandate:

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
— Genesis 1:28

Simply, the Dominion Mandate orders Humanity to take up an active role in shaping the evolution—and Glorification—of the Universe. It is God calling Humanity to become partners in the wise stewardship of Creation, not its brutal Masters. In this short passage, the Bible achieves a tremendous feat: that of creating the future, and mankind’s purpose in shaping it.

Why privilege Humanity over all others? Because if there is one thing that defines God, it is that He Creates, and Humanity’s special position in the Cosmos is due to our sharing this most divine nature with God. But our position not only as the inheritors of Creation, but as Creators ourselves, is not just a privilege. It is also a responsibility. Mankind is Creation’s second wind; its most Creative Part. The Dominion Mandate crystallizes this responsibility, and thus precludes the need for AGI—acting as both a spiritual, technologically expansionist project and a Butlerian Jihad at the same time.

The superiority of the Dominion Mandate lies in it encompassing both the Scientific and the Political Civilizational Projects, while including a notion of the sacred purpose of Humanity. It also has a proven track record as shown by history. To become Stewards of Creation, mankind first had to know Creation. Thus knowledge — Science, the study of the world as undertaken by early medieval priests and monks — followed from the Dominion Mandate, and was in fact an appropriation of the Enlightenment, never its progeny. We now know that the Dark Ages are a myth, and instead medieval Christendom saw the greatest expansion of knowledge known to man at the time. With knowledge, came praxis — the implementation of what we know, trial and error, technology, engineering, commerce, business, Culture, all bundled into a fragile, but as yet undying torch passed on from generation to generation. Mankind made cities, then cities remade mankind. This, we called civilization.

Now in the year 2022, having established near complete Dominion over this planet, we find ourselves in need of a new challenge. A seemingly deep, dark, quiet chaos leers at us as soon as we leave the comfort of orbit. But the universe is not empty — it is full. Full of mysterious worlds, unruly stars, undiscovered organisms, and objects spinning at inconceivable speeds. It is the dark waters that God tames in the very first lines of Genesis. The universe as Terra Nulius was always a lie, for in fact, the universe is full — Terra Plena.

But while the universe is full—one might prefer to say busy—it is not quite full of Life. Life is the magic spark of the universe, the single greatest ingredient which redeems all of the chaos in which we are wrapped. The universe is a place. But only Mankind can make it a Home. This is our WORK, the source and legitimacy of our great Power. The rubric against which all eternity will be judged. Have we made of the universe a home, or left it a dark forest?

We now stand at the precipice of another great Exodus: this time, of cosmological scale. And just as Malraux’s première Armee de la Justice picked up the sword of Turenne to fulfill the dreams of the Revolution, to undertake the next phase of our Dominon Mandate, we must pick up God’s Flaming Sword and form a Legion of our own so that we may fulfill this most noble dream that is Creation. This Legion of Creation will build traditions of knowledge across galaxies, become expert harvesters of stellar energy, make Edens of rogue planets, make cities of wayward asteroids—in short, it will accomplish all that which the Mandate necessitates.

Unlike EA or the political Civilization Project mentioned above, this Legion cannot just be a movement within a given civilization. Instead, it will have to be a civilization itself, for the cultivation of the universe is a project that demands political stability, tremendous economic resources, social cohesion, and technological prowess spanning millennia. Indeed only the artfulness, wisdom, and technical crafts of Mankind — acquired over millennia among the diversity of Life spawned from the blue planet — can cultivate the boisterous gardens of the universe. You wanted an avenue for Power? Well here is one: put away childish things, and found a civilization capable of executing the Dominion Mandate.

This is the great project of our species, not the nihilistic accretion of objects and the wars that necessitate such bottomless cupidity, nor the building of machinic demons. Ours is the duty to transform the dark universe into the shining golden city, New Jerusalem. Thus far, we have barely succeeded in making a habitable garden of an infinitely microbial neighborhood within an even more minuscule region of the universe. We are still at the Dawn of History.

Plutarch said that Alexander the Great wept when he found out there were an infinity of worlds, and he had yet to become the Lord of even one. But why did Alexander seek to conquer worlds? What was his project? Hellenism? A unified East and West, a home for Free Men? All ahistorical justifications by academics with little to no talent for Romance. Alexander was simply the greatest adventurer who ever lived. He conquered the world in order to find the world. To feel out its edges, so that he may understand its purpose—and his.

Alexander’s existential journey is a microcosm of humanity’s own. But while his story was a tragic Romance, ours is a triumphant Odyssey. Unlike him, we have become Lords of our world, and have plenty more to conquer. We will be fruitful, and multiply, and establish dominion over Creation, so that we may, humbly, come to know the Mind of God — and maybe in the process, come to understand ourselves.

Do not shun your destiny, dear reader—on your shoulders rests the very fate of our universe. Join the Legion of Creation, and come help us write the greatest of all odysseys. It will be told and retold by our trillions of descendants, starting with these words:

In the beginning, God created the heavens. And in the end, Adam (Humanity) fulfilled them.

Alpha Barry

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