Will Maskill Gave Up on Utilitarianism (and the rest of us are soon to follow)

I’m reading tea leaves here. Proceed with caution.

Firstly, some quotes:

“Of course, I’m miserable, I’m a utilitarian.”

“Mental health is important.”

“In Expected Value terms, it was a good life.”

“Leading a good life becomes more high stakes, the more possibility for good you have.”

“Getting a good night’s rest is also consequentialism.”

And have you read this “Definition of Effective Altruism” carefully? Look carefully at best and most influential writings of the past two years. What do you see?

The beauty of Effective Altruism is that it is humanity’s first serious attempt to smash utilitarianism against the rocky shores of reality to see what sticks and what works. EA originally was a project to see what works for a community that is trying to do good within a consequentialist framework.

Another way to say it is that EA is an empirical attempt at moral philosophy, a lived midrash, an attempt at a philosophical way of doing good. It is not entirely a theoretical imposition of a moral philosophy on life, though many come into it by that door. This is why the wonderful members within the movement and the disaffected post-EAs feel so comfortable openly critiquing and amending what they say and how they frame activities. As a community, we are working out what works for each of us in doing good well.

Here are some indicators that EA has, in practice, surpassed utilitarianism and has created the potential for a new moral theory:

  1. In any attempt to do good, not actual consequences, but Expected Value matters. While this view can certainly be accommodated within traditional theory, it is a modern twist.

  2. But how do we get people to perform acts that might not pan out? We celebrate, encourage, and offer social support to each other. This is the payoff for attempting good—community and belonging for the individual is frequently sufficient.

  3. Why? Because it is not merely the external consequences that matter, but the internal consequences of the type of person you become as a result.

  4. Your abstracted actions are not the only thing that matter, but your motivations are too. The motivation to seize the opportunity to do good (for many) overpowers the idea of a moral imperative, once you understand the opportunities available. Intrinsic motivation lasts and is important.

  5. Sometimes EA leaders encourage actions not for their direct positive consequences, but for their positive signals of internal disposition (consider large gwwc pledges and questions how to spend money internally).

Through a very expansive consequentialism, we are no longer dealing with traditional utilitarianism. And like a type-cast teenager, some members of the movement are having a crisis of faith, but no names are required here. We all feel it, I think. Yet, for all the hand wringing about the trajectory of the movement, a stable reworking of foundational principles is imminent.

Giving between 10% and 80,000 hours of your life to doing good is not the only goal of members in the movement, and that fact wags its spiky tail on the forum and in conversation incessantly. People are after some form of sound guidance about when to rest and when to work. “What good actions will be most harmonious to my circumstances now and in the future?”—Not “how can I do as much good as possible (as utilitarianism has been relegated to an ‘on-the-margin’ philosophy)?” At the forefront of EA practice the use of evidence and careful reasoning to try and improve the world remain top dog, but in the background, prudence with regard to the individual good and development of the practitioners keeps increasing in salience as the movement grows. Yet, both fall within a prudential framework of evidence and careful reasoning and can be managed.

Having read most of Will’s academic and internet output, I notice a shift coming around the time he wrote Moral Uncertainty. I will not detail right now the long history or my manners of exegesis. Such a task would be so tedious for me to write and likely for you to read and so highly debatable at each turn that only the already convinced would find the treatise useful and those who don’t wear the same glasses as me would just be confused. But here is the conclusion: Will seems to have seen that classical utilitarianism couldn’t be the foundation-stone for the life of the movement. Moral Uncertainty tried to bridge the gap on how to account for moral uncertainty. The book did not find a satisfactory formula for EA. But Will, to his credit, does not let the lack of grounding EA in a totalizing moral philosophy get in the way of doing good better. And so here we are.

As the notorious Yud once joked, “The rules say we must use consequentialism, but good people are deontologists, and virtue ethics is what actually works.” Call it what you want: broad-scope consequentialism or prudence-first virtue ethics, we have outgrown strict utilitarianism.