Effective Altruism Poland

We need more Catholic effective altruists!

Charlie, it seems like you are one of those Catholic professors who is very rooted in real life and not afraid to face the toughest dilemmas caused by the rapid development of science and technology. That's why I would love to hear your opinion on the new movement which emerged in recent years named effective altruism?
On the one hand, it is absolutely wonderful. Christians are called to be effective witnesses of Christ's love - to make sure that the hungry are fed, that the stranger is welcomed, and that those on the margins more generally are brought into the community. Any movement that helps us get better at that should be seriously engaged. However, I'm a bit worried that this movement is currently dominated by calculating utilitarians rather than those with a broader sense of the moral life. Many concerns and values that would be of concerns to virtue ethics, for instance, are left out of this movement because they are virtually impossible to calculate in this way. How are we to think about personal vocation? What about forming of genuine personal relationships with those in need? How are we to think about special duties we have to our family or local community? I do think effective altruism can coexist with these important values, but when the movement is dominated by utilitarians sometimes these values can be lost.

a photo of Charlie Camosy
Charlie Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. His webpage: http://tinyurl.com/q5jzcew.

You touched some of the topics effective altruists deal with, for example global poverty or suffering of animals. (Unfortunately your books on it are not yet available in Polish.) In your opinion, how important should such topics be in the daily life of a typical Catholic? Should Catholics donate money to charities working in developing countries? Should they stop eating meat from factory farms?
I love the Polish people - so let's make sure that my books get translated into Polish so I can come visit again to talk about them! While Christians have a special duty to their families and local communities, Thomas Aquinas famously said that this duty only trumps our duty to those outside out communities if "all things are equal." For most of us in the developed West, the goods on which we spend money for on our families and local communities cannot be meaningfully said to be "equal" with the concerns of the developing world. With that in mind, I think those of us with means have a very strong Christian duty to help those in absolute poverty overseas. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church claims that a failure to aid those who die of poverty is "indirect homicide." A different but related concern is how we eat. So much of what we spend on food is a needless luxury. Indeed, meat is some of the most expensive food in the world, which is why so many factory farms are being used in the developing world to make it artificially cheap. The animals which are "farmed" in these factories are tortured and killed in terrible conditions. I've written a book that Christians have a special duty to eat ethically, including avoiding the luxury of eating meat, especially from factory farms.

Another important focus area of effective altruism is the reduction of existential and global catastrophic risks. What's your opinion on this matter? Do you think that future people have rights? And if so, to what extent should we take them into account? Are you personally worried about the risk of human extinction at all?
Future people don't exist, except in our imagination, so they can't have any "rights" in any sense with which I am familiar. Indeed, I'm not so sure that "rights" is the best language even for expressing the value of people who actually exist. After all, the history of the concept comes from individual-centered consumerism. That said, Pope Benedict XVI called all Christians to something he called "intergenerational solidarity." The Polish Catholics were responsible for bringing the concept of solidarity to the world in the 1980s, and I hope they can once be an important vehicle for calling us to a new solidarity with future generations.

Catholicism tries to avoid choosing so called "lesser evil" - evil always remains evil. How about the reverse? Is there something like "greater good"? Should we strive to do as much good as possible or does the magnitude of good not really matter - i.e. good is always good and your intention to do good is what counts the most?
Catholic moral theology refuses to choose between virtue ethics and consequentialist ethics. Both are very, very important. As I tried to show above in explaining a Catholic view on views on poverty, both virtue and consequences matter. Catholicism is a both/and religion, and here is yet another place where we should refuse to choose between options that others believe are incompatible.

If you believe that effectiveness in doing good matters - could you give us some examples of Catholic organizations which are truly effective in your view?
Almost all Catholic international aid organizations, all things being equal, are more effective than their secular counterparts. That's because they are intimately connected with the local communities through the local churches. Catholic Relief Services, for instance, works with the local churches in a given country to listen to what the people need and want, and then provide that for them. Other aid organizations often take a more paternalistic point of view and decide for themselves what the local needs are. Caritas International is another wonderful organization with similar strengths. Both organizations also follow Catholic teaching, so you know that that they won't engage in the neocolonial practices of pushing Western, consumerist reproductive and abortion practices onto peoples that don't want them. With other aid organizations there is often a paternalist (and sometimes racist) assumption that dealing with poverty in a giving country means that there ought to be fewer people in that country.

Many people think that the 10 commandments are one of the most foundational and important doctrines of Christianity as a whole (although Protestants may view things differently). The 10 commandments mostly forbid certain acts, that is they are mostly negative duties. However Jesus said: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." So do we have further positive duties beyond those to our parents? (Commandment 4).
Christians are claimed by Christ who commands us to love. If we are honest in reading the New Testament, the things that Jesus says about family are ambiguous. At the very least, Jesus claims that love for one's family cannot be a distraction from the love that one has for the poor, the sick, and those on the margins. In fact, while Jesus doesn't talk about Hell very often, those who he thinks need to be worried about Hell are those who fail to show love to those on the margins - especially the poor.

What do you think about contemplative monasteries? Is it all right to just pray your whole life? How can you explain/justify it to those who do not believe in God?
I think they are absolutely wonderful. I wish more people would be sign of resistance to our consumerist culture - one which imagines that living "real life" means being a mere cog in a wheel, producing capital, and refusing the challenge the basic assumptions of Western consumerism. The lives of monks stand as a beautiful symbol of the fact that life is about far more than the "horizontal." Especially in a consumerist, scientistic Western culture, we need to be reminded of the reality of the "vertical": God, angels, miracles, and other realities than cannot be explained by the motion of molecules. Furthermore, many of the monks who spent lives in prayer, contemplation and writing were some of the greatest champions of the poor. For most of human history - and still throughout most of the world - most everyone understood the reality of both the vertical and horizontal. I'm not sure we need to explain it to those who don't believe. Like all first principles (even those held by atheists), they are held on the basic of faith and not rational argument.

I hope you believe - like we - that people with different worldviews can work together toward accomplishing something better, right?
Of course. The greatest Catholic theologian was Thomas Aquinas, and he put his thought in close conversation with a pagan philosopher named Aristotle who, among other things, believed in infanticide. Though they had very different views, Thomas Aquinas engaged in something I call "intellectual solidarity" with this thinker, and the result was greatest theological tradition in the Catholic Church. We should also be thinking and working with those who think differently than we do. The results could be just as spectacular.

Thank you very much for your time.