A Date with Some Effective Altruists at Stanford

Victoria Zerbst’s ex saved lives by cheating on her.


I first heard about Effective Altruism in Peter Singer’s TED talk. It sounded really smart. He strung together buzzwords to craft catchy phrases, like ‘combining empathy with evidence’, which has a real nice ring to it. He explained that we ought to make the world a better place by using evidence and reason to find out how to do so.

The Centre for Effective Altruism is based at the University of Oxford, run mostly by super rational white guys with PHDs in philosophy. They work on initiatives like Effective Animal Activism, which is all about weighing up the most effective ways of being kind to animals, and Give Well, a non-profit that rates the efficiency of different charity organisations.

I quickly devoured Peter Singer’s books for breakfast—necessary supplements to my new meat free and totally ethical diet. The obvious next step in fully realizing an Effective Altruist lifestyle was to start dating an equally serious Effective Altruist. So I found one of those too. Let’s call him “John”.

Things with John were going pretty effectively until he got into Stanford.

I soon found myself visiting John in Silicon Valley and one of the first things he did was take me to a Stanford Effective Altruism meeting. The topic of this two-hour meeting was population ethics, but first we had to go around the room addressing whether or not we were utilitarians. Utilitarianism holds that the morally right thing to do is the thing that maximizes utility. Being a utilitarian was clearly the right answer.

Other right answers included anything promoted by Eliezer Yudkowsky, a research fellow of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and blogger on utilitarian blog Less Wrong. He felt like the omnipresent, invisible cult leader at the head of our table. I did some research after the meeting and found some amazing Yudkowsky journalistic works, with names like  ‘Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism’, and ‘31 Laws of Fun’. He also has a philosophical fanfic-in-progess: ‘Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.’

I felt a little unsure about everything and the guy sitting next to me shared my position. We both agreed that the consequences of our actions were important, but we were hesitant to call ourselves utilitarians because we didn’t know how to measure utility.

Utility has various definitions that include economic well-being, lack of suffering, or just pleasure (if you’re a hedonist which no one was because of Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine). The leader of the week’s lesson plan said his utility function was a combination of lack of suffering, personal agency and a fun factor.

The fun factor was a new idea for me, and for John apparently. John’s Transhumanist best friend (also at the meeting) got him interested in polyamory.

Transhumanism or humanity+ or h+ for short, is an intellectual movement super keen on transforming the human condition into a super human experience with enhanced well-being, longer life and greater intelligence. It’s all about using technology and innovative thinking to make humans the best (effective?) humans they can be. Transhumanism has been accused of being elitist and suffering from ‘ivory tower syndrome’. Dan Brown even chose to characterise the latest villain in his Da Vinci Code books as a Transhumanist hell bent on fixing population density.

Transhumanism was all about having everything and then wanting more—making polyamory an easy leap. John began wanting a relationship+ to go with his human+ life, suggesting we use philosophical strategies to “polyhack” our “current bond”. He tried to convince me that if we used rationality as a weapon against jealously, we could totally date and fuck as many people as we wanted.

He decided to test this philosophical theory without telling me. An experiment also known as ‘cheating’. I received a phone call from him the day after informing me that he had ‘hooked up’ with a number of people at ‘Full Moon on the Quad’; an infamously debaucherous Stanford tradition.

When I was upset, he realized that he may have done something wrong so he told me he was going to fix everything, I just had to give him time. Two hours later he donated $400 to the Against Malaria Foundation in my name and sent me the receipt with an apologetic email.

According to John, each person has equal value, and the suffering of each person has equal value. If he could elevate the suffering of 16 African orphans, his hurting me wouldn’t be so bad.

He assured me that although I had a broken heart; his mistake was now saving lives. If the consequence of his cheating lead to the improvement of 16 lives, my momentary sadness would be worth it, apparently.  Why the Against Malaria Foundation? It was the top rated charity on Give Well at the time.

How could I not forgive him? His apology had such a fun factor! But still, his kind of Effective Altruist thinking probably works better at addressing population ethics than interpersonal relationships.

When John cheated on me I felt totally hurt, especially because he was someone who spouted lofty ideas about empathy and charity. My Effective Altruism boyfriend had failed me because he championed the big picture over my feelings. And that is kind of bullshit. But in the meantime why not marvel at the glorious by-products of sophisticated rational thought: veganism, group sex, and a break-up that cured 16 orphans of Malaria.