Members Only | January 24, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Nick Bostrom’s perfect congruence with bigotry
How effective altruism buttresses the suffering of the world.
Nick Bostrom is one of the most important present day philosophers of philanthropy and charitable giving. This month he apologized for a hideously racist email he wrote back in 1995.
In doing so, he inadvertently showed that racism and philanthropy can happily coexist. He also showed that philanthropy is often deployed to buttress racism, and vice versa.
Bostrom isn’t quite a household name. But he’s a central figure in the Effective Altruism movement, dedicated to rationalizing philanthropy.
Specifically, he’s known for his contributions to longtermism — a philosophical argument that future people are as valuable and morally important as present day people.
He argues that we need to balance the fate of future humans in our ethical choices and philanthropy.
That sounds sage enough.
However, in practice, longtermism is obsessed with developing artificial intelligence and with bringing about a future in which countless billions and trillions of digital “people” can flourish in computer simulations.
As I’ve discussed at the Editorial Board, this quasi-religious science-fiction fantasy has led Effective Altruism groups like OpenPhilanthropy to donate more money to AI research than to eradicating malaria.
“I like that sentence”
Bostrom’s feverish speculations about the upsides and downsides of future AI have been enthusiastically endorsed by numerous self-styled thought leaders.
Elon Musk blurbed Bostrom’s 2014 book Superintelligence: “Worth reading. … We need to be supercareful with AI”.
Nate Silver did as well, claiming the book was “very deep … every paragraph has, like, six ideas embedded within it.”
Bostrom’s latest has received fewer accolades.
In early January, he learned that philosopher Émile P. Torres had discovered an ugly, racist email Bostrom had written on the Extropians listserv, a futurist forum he participated in back in the mid-1990s.
Bostrom decided to get ahead of the potential scandal by releasing the email himself, along with an apology.
The old email argues for the virtue of blunt, offensive communication. It then quickly descends into deeply vile and ugly racist bilge.
As an example of blunt communication, Bostrom writes the sentence “Blacks are more stupid than whites.” He then says, “I like that sentence and think it is true.”
He says that in his view, people who read that sentence will think he is racist, even though he is just plainly stating his own beliefs based on his reading about IQ.
He worries that people will think he is essentially using the n-word. Then he actually uses the n-word to illustrate.
Bostrom in his apology says, “I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago.” Specifically, he says that “the invocation of a racial slur was repulsive.”
He’s right; the invocation was repulsive.
But so was the claim that Black people are less intelligent than white people. And there, Bostrom’s apology is much less straightforward.
The supposed morality
Rather than simply repudiating the racist idea that white people are smarter than Black people, Bostrom hedges.
He says he now believes “it is deeply unfair that unequal access to education, nutrients and basic healthcare leads to inequality in social outcomes, including sometimes disparities in skills and cognitive capacity.”
He also says that it’s possible that there is a biological element to cognitive differences, but that it is “not my area of expertise.”
Bostrom goes on to insist that he does not support eugenics, as it is “commonly understood.” But he can’t resist suggesting that eugenic enhancements to fetuses would be ethical and cool, and linking a bunch of his papers on the topic.
In summary, Bostrom now believes that screaming the n-word on a listserve is bad, and that discourse should be more civil.
Otherwise, he uses more civil discourse to soft pedal the fact that he still thinks that maybe Black people are not as intelligent as white people, and is in favor of eugenic ideas that have long been associated with racism.
As part of deflecting from his actual immoral ideas, Bostrom appeals to the supposed morality of his philanthropic giving.
Perfectly congruent with bigotry
He says that his concern with environmental and health inequities which affect Black people has led him to contribute to charities “fighting exactly this problem,” including “SCI Foundation, GiveDirectly, the Black Health Alliance, the Iodine Global Network, BasicNeeds and the Christian Blind Mission.”
These organizations do valuable work. But using one’s contributions as a way to deflect or neutralize charges of racism is less admirable.
Bostrom is saying, “I give to charities that help Black people” the same way he might say “I have Black friends.”
The main difference is that “I have Black friends” at least shows that one can imagine a relationship of equality with some Black person.
Touting one’s charitable giving, in contrast, presents you as a benefactor, and suggests that Black people should be grateful for your largesse.
Bostrom points to his philanthropy to show that he does not harbor prejudice. But philanthropy is often deeply antidemocratic, and congruent with the belief that wealthy (generally white) people are best suited to make decisions for everyone else.
Émile P. Torres says that in his research on the longtermism community, he spoke to one researcher who said, in Torres’ paraphrase, that “only once he came to realize that some races are inferior to others could he muster sympathy to donate to help the global poor.”
Philanthropy is often inextricably linked to a sense of superiority and condescension, which is perfectly congruent with bigotry.
Unequal and unfit
Along those lines, now Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, writing in 2012 about the new politics of wealth, explained that super-rich donors love to give to their own pet projects — museums, symphonies, AI research — but hate being taxed to help support government services.
She warns that philanthropy “must not replace or, worse yet, usurp, public policy as formulated and implemented by our society as a whole.”
Private giving can make society more hierarchical, less democratic and less egalitarian when money is directed at the behest of the wealthy rather than in accord with democratic priorities. The conviction that wealthy people know best means that donors don’t listen to those who need money, and therefore often fail to help them.
Anthony Kalulu, a Ugandan who has spent much of his life in deep poverty, notes that less than 1 percent of development and charitable assistance goes directly to grassroots organizations in the global south.
Kalulu says that 99 percent “of antipoverty funding stays in the hands of the global development sector, which means western agencies.” Virtually none of the money reaches his impoverished region of Uganda.
Part of the problem, Kalulu says, is that western media, and western donors, tend to view Africans and people in the global South as less “legit” and innately untrustworthy.
That chimes very uncomfortably with Bostrom’s assertion — in his original 1995 email, and in his 2023 explanation — that Black people may be less intelligent than white people.
Bostrom’s philosophy and his writing are at the core of important philanthropic communities and movements. Bostrom also, in the past and currently, holds racist ideas about Black people’s intelligence.
Bostrom’s ethical commitment to imaginary digital people living in a future simulation is closely tied to his view that certain people in the present are biologically unequal and unfit.
Effective Altruism is committed to contributing to the best, most effective charities — to using money in ways that will most powerfully help people.
But when philanthropy is focused on the preferences and the virtues of donors, without input from those affected by their donations, effectiveness, and for that matter virtue, is going to be badly skewed.
Racism is one of the most pernicious and intractable causes of suffering and inequality in the world. A philanthropy rooted in racist ideas will not alleviate injustice and poverty.
Nor, contra Bostrom, will racist ideas lead to utopia, no matter how you run your simulation.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.